Austin Press offers a rich assortment of hand crafted objects. It is a letterpress studio making everything in letterpress and hot foil, and ephemera – anything on paper. Austin Press also makes apothecary products: candles, perfumes and soaps with old world charm.
The company is located in the historic Pier 70 shipyard of San Francisco, in the Dogpatch neighborhood.
Keep an eye out for Austin Press’ open studios, taking place a few times every year, when you can snatch some limited-edition products, always made just for the occasion. Check out Austin Press’ website!
We got a chance to interview the company’s owner, Kim Austin, and her employee, Gwendolyn Ali Hernandez, in June 2017.
Kim, what’s your story?
I grew up in the Bay Area. When I was 22 years old, I moved to San Francisco and started graduate school at SF State. My first career started in fine arts– I exhibited in galleries all over the world, had shows and collectors, and did that until I was close to 40 years old. Most of my work was photographic work and vintage alternative photography, very hands-on, with no set rules…
I did that for many years and had a great time, but decided to do something different after I turned 40, and I wanted to find a wider audience, where more people that could enjoy my work. Fine art lives more in seclusion unless you do public art. I wanted it to be more expansive.
How did the company get started?
I kinda started my business right away. I first picked letterpress– a medium that was akin to fine arts and photography and text, but that could also be produced in larger numbers for less cost. It has a real tactile sensibility that attracted me, and it took a while but I figured it out!
Austin Press officially got started in 2004 right around Thanksgiving. I went right down, got a business license and got started! I bought a little press, learned online as much as I could, and learned how to work with my new audience.
I did my first gift show in the winter of 2004 with something like 12 cards. Letterpress was really big at the time and there were lots of small companies that were way ahead in the game, so I came to it from a very different perspective. I wasn’t following the mold. It took a while because people had expectations about letterpress: the kinds of colors you used, the imagery… and mine were definitely different.
I focused on letterpress for about 10 years. Most of my business is wholesale, with clients like lifestyle stores, florists, stationary, antiques, salons… a pretty wide range. And orders from all around the world! I am completely self-funded and have never had investors, and whenever I would get money, I would invest in new things and equipment.
After three years in business, the first break was starting selling to Anthropology. I got some big, solid orders that helped me grow my business. You never feel quite ready for something so big and complicated (online portals, shipping arrangements…), but you learn so much and you’re forced to rise to the occasion. Also, being paid for this order was – wow!… It allowed me to really start expanding. Each time I could do more, design new envelopes…
After a while, in 2014, I realized that people expected more new products and seasonal work. That year, we started offering candles right around the time Gwen joined me.
Gwen, what is your background, and how did you join Austin Press?
In 2014, I was 18 years old and took part in an after-school program called College Track that connected me with JUMA and SFMade for an internship. That’s how I met with Kim and started as an intern.
I had a great time, and I continued working part time here to support me while in College.
What is your role at Austin Press?
I am in charge of the perfumes: the mixtures, labels and packaging. I also help out where needed, and also give my opinion to Kim: I am now used to all the smells and know Kim’s style, while also keeping up with the new trends so I can help the products and the company evolve.
What excites and challenges you most here?
I am always excited to come work here. Kim is lovely, and it is very comfortable to talk to her. It is a different relationship that you would have with any other boss! You also get to learn many things, and see how everything is created and made from start to finish. I’ve always loved working here, and it has made a huge impact on my life.
One of the hardest things is… it’s stressful. Creating a new product takes a lot of time, and it’s stressful to not know how it is going to turn out, and whether it will sell or not – this is one of the hardest things.
Giving my opinion is also hard because I have to take into consideration if the public is going to like it– not just if I am going to like it.
Having Gwen join was an enriching experience for both of us, it’s been a joy having her here with me.
From time to time, we find a project that Gwen can just take over as her own, so she can learn it from scratch.
After Gwen joined, you started offering candles?
Yes. I had been asked on numerous occasions to expand to candles, so I started figuring it out, and wanted them to be different because there are so many candles out there! So… I found these monks living in the woods up in Northern California… (laughs) That’s true! I asked if they could work with me, they discussed it at length among themselves, and started making my candles for the first year. They made beeswax candles for churches at the time, but weren’t practiced in making candles in vessels like mine, and after a year I realized that if the business started to grow, it wound’t work anymore. It was a difficult period, I had to deliver the vessels myself as the monks live up a dirt road and delivery trucks don’t go there… it was kinda stressful!
I found a candle maker in Los Angeles who I worked with for a year and a half. At some point we had a huge order for J.Crew, the most stressful time in my life! I didn’t have full control over my products… but we got through it and fulfilled the order. It was incredible, but also made me realize I wanted to have more control over my products.
At that time, in late 2015, I moved to a bigger space where I could do my own products. I bought a wax melter, and started! We had been testing waxes and samples so we were somewhat ready. We can now meet our customer’s needs very quickly because we are doing it ourselves here.
Can you give us a few facts and numbers?
We are 2 people making 12 different perfumes, 20 different candles, many different cards…
Every month, we make around 2500 cards, 500 candles and 300 perfumes.
Our biggest order was 20,000 candles for J.Crew – that was insane! Lots and lots of pallets.
We’ve gotten some interesting fan mail over the years. At one point I had a man in jail writing to me– I still have his letters. His name was Jerry. Somehow he found out about Austin Press.
He had a wife and kids outside of jail, and their birthdays were coming up. He wrote to me and asked if I could send some cards, and his letters were really sweet. I sent him cards, wished him luck… and a couple of weeks later, I got another one! He wanted some more letterpress cards that I sent, and I got another letter… He told me “all the guys there love the stuff, can you send me some more?” (laughs)
So we did this for about a year and I had a feeling he was probably trading them with other inmates… That was a really interesting fan!
Who are your main clients?
We’ve sold to big stores like Anthropology, Pottery Barn, J.Crew and others, but we’re not currently doing projects with them.
We really, really love our ongoing longtime support from stores like Tail of the Yack in Oakland, Chateau Sonoma, and Catbird in Brooklyn, who have been with us since the very beginning.
What does the future hold for you?
We are getting ready to launch 4 new styles in our Sanctum series. We’ve spent the last year developing new fragrances and new packaging, and it is a series based on space– a space a person or an animal gravitates to to feel safe, inspired, or at peace. The products relate to a place and a character: a circus’ trailer, a monk’s library, a lady’s cabin. They are also about exposing yourself to new ways of living and creating your personal space.
We’ve been experimenting with fragrances and packaging and the large sanctum candles are very special, with recycled hand-blown glass and gold foil… We are looking forward to launching.
Right now my major is Liberal Arts with an emphasis in Italian, and I am fluent in Spanish. After having been translating my whole life for my parents, I realized that I want to try to be a translator and help other people.
I’ve always loved art and been involved with art, and working here gave me the opportunity to see how to create, make and sell something.
Why manufacture locally?
It is just a natural process. It would be against my nature not to manufacture here! It also gives you better control to make something locally, and creates very important relationships with local vendors and suppliers.
We’re so lucky to work with all our suppliers! They are really great people and we developed long-term relationships with them. For example, we’ve been working with our boxes’ supplier for more than 6 years. They have moved three times and at some point closed down, but I have been able to track down their key people and to continue to work with them despite all odds. At this point, they would do anything for me! (laughs)
Why did you join SFMade?
I had been hearing about SFMade for about 2 years, and it kept coming up. The more I heard about you, the more I wanted to be a part of it.
I also kept meeting people who were members, and hearing about all your different projects. It seemed like something I should be part of. Since then, I’ve also encouraged a few people to join!
-an interview by Janet & Pierre @ SFMade