Kate Koeppel on Music, Collectors, Collections, and Bringing Order and Purpose to Our Obsessions

The best products are often born from a desire to fulfill a personal need. Here Tracy Parker, DJ and owner of VAMP Vintage Art Music for the People, chats with Kate Koeppel of Koeppel Design about how her background in graphic design combined with her passion for music and collecting led to the creation of her line of Record Dividers, LP Blocks, and Record Totes – that make record hoarding look damn good.

TRACY PARKER – When and where did Koeppel Design begin?

KATE KOEPPEL – I started my graphic design practice after receiving my masters in design at CCA in 2011. Finishing grad school and immediately jumping into working for myself was terrifying! I’ve always worked for myself and it felt like the natural thing to do, even if I wasn’t sure how or if it was going to work out. In 2013 I made the first set of record dividers for my own vinyl collection, purely out of frustration. Soon after that, I started making more sets for friends, then strangers, and within a few months I’d opened a small web-shop thinking it might be something fun to do on the side… suddenly I had a huge opportunity to sell to Urban Outfitters, and everything grew from there. Here we are 6 years later, with a full product line and international audience and it is my full time job.

TRACY PARKER – We love the Koeppel Design products. Can you give us a little background on your interest in creating products for audiophiles and record collectors?

KATE KOEPPEL – I have always been interested in collections and collectors, as a collector myself who has had a variety of different kinds of collections in different phases in my life, (buttons, ephemera, vintage globes, and for the last 10+ years, records) I feel a connection with record collectors. I am really interested in the emotional reasons why people collect, but I also have a real desire to help people feel calm, and not overwhelmed by the things they collect. There can be a real obsessive desire to collect without end, so I find it to be a really interesting space, examining that relationship between our things, and our needs… I really believe order can bring purpose and beautiful utility to just about anything.

“Listening to records is a different experience entirely because it forces me to be present in the moment. The physical act of selecting a record, lifting the needle, and sticking around to flip the record makes it hard to be doing two or three other things at the same time, so it helps me unwind and de-stress by staying present and actually listening closely to the music.”

I think we love music because it makes us feel things, we collect music because we want to hold on to those feelings. There are certainly a ton of reasons why and how people collect, but I am really interested in that emotional space, and helping people feel good, and not overwhelmed. Also, interacting with and getting to know so many collectors over the last few years has really changed how I personally collect and buy things. Way more sparse and considered now, and I have let a few of my collections go completely! I also don’t want records to overtake our lives, so this work has really helped us set boundaries at home about how many records we keep. Some come in, some must go out.

TRACY PARKER – When did your interest in collecting records begin? Was there any particular moment in your life when you knew that records would become your preferred method for music listening?

KATE KOEPPEL – When I met my partner over 10 years ago, he had a large vinyl collection, but it was pretty new to me that someone would want to just hang out and listen to records all evening. I have always loved music and loved going to shows, but I think interacting with a physical collection made me want to engage more deeply with music. I spend a lot of time streaming music and podcasts during the week, but that tends to be really passive listening. Listening to records is a different experience entirely because it forces me to be present in the moment. The physical act of selecting a record, lifting the needle, and sticking around to flip the record makes it hard to be doing two or three other things at the same time, so it helps me unwind and de-stress by staying present and actually listening closely to the music. It doesn’t feel like I ever had a single moment where I shouted “This is what I want to do with my life!” but I look back and can see a nice forward movement towards this point.

TRACY PARKER – I find that a major part of “design” is born from problem solving or creating something that suits ones needs that may not be readily found in the marketplace. It seems that both of these reasons were an influence on your initial creation of Koeppel Design products. Would you share that ‘ah-ha’ moment with us when the idea was born to craft wooden record dividers? And as your product caught on and gained interest, how that lead to the addition of the LP Display Block and Record Tote?

KATE KOEPPEL – All of my products came out of that situation exactly! I was frustrated by situations at home with our vinyl collection, and I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling frustrated.

Record spines aren’t easy to read, and they are slippery little devils that can slide and fall over, and can easily pile up and get disorganized. I wanted a system or product that would make it easier for us to find records, but also make it easier for friends to get involved in our collection, and not feel intimidated if they weren’t familiar with records. I couldn’t find a product that wasn’t made of plastic or paper, and I wanted something durable that would fit with the aesthetic of our home. I think each product I’ve designed comes from a problem I’m trying to solve. I don’t want to make products that are just for looks, or will be tossed out in a few years, so I want everything to be really practical and problem-solving, but beautiful too.

TRACY PARKER – Something that I admire about your design studio is that it is made up of craftswomen. Was that a conscious decision? Have you been met with any challenges being a woman involved in the often, male dominated world of record collecting? I imagine this could also pertain to woodworking, as well. Did you have prior experience working with wood?

KATE KOEPPEL – Since starting my own business, my goal has been to bring attention to women working in different creative and professional industries. Women are paid less than men, and work in just as many diverse roles as men do. I absolutely think it is my responsibility to help change the cultural problem by talking about it all the time. The vinyl community and the music industry has a lot of loud male voices and opinions. I am interested in amplifying more young women’s voices and seeking out industry professionals who’ve come before me. Last year I designed product stickers made that say “Made by Women.” … and those stickers just delight me and make me smile when I see them on our packaging.

Maybe at a certain point it won’t feel needed, but right now it does.

“It used to confound our lumber deliveryman when a group of women stepped out of the studio to unload a thousand pounds of lumber, but now, he always lets me know when he has been delivering wood to other women.”

When I first started selling my products, some people would assume a man was making them, and it drove me nuts. I’d get emails addressed to Mr. Koeppel, and at events, men would go out of their way to talk to my husband hanging out in the background with a coffee, or ask me when the person in charge would be back. I did stew in my frustration for a while, but in the end it just forced me to be a bit more confident, talk about my work, introduce myself, and correct people when necessary. Most of the time, everyone just wants to talk about music, about the albums they love, the things they are excited about.

I have a lot of hand making skills that have taken years to cultivate, so the idea of learning woodworking wasn’t intimidating to me. It didn’t even occur to me that it was a pretty male-dominated space until I started spending a lot of time in lumberyards, asking questions, testing things out and learning. Men working there would approach me as a lady hobbyist, not as someone who knows what they want, and is about to invest several thousand dollars in regular, reoccurring lumber orders, so I certainly had to tough up and speak up. It used to confound our lumber deliveryman when a group of women stepped out of the studio to unload a thousand pounds of lumber, but now, he always lets me know when he has been delivering wood to other women. Baby steps with that guy, but we’re moving forward.

TRACY PARKER – Personally, I also love design, records and woodcraft, so your design studio speaks to me on all levels!

Are you finding a growing interest in your product as more stateside record pressing plants and small local record shops are opening, creating more availability for records to the general public? Are more folks catching the record-collecting bug?

KATE KOEPPEL – Yes, absolutely. For many of my clients, vinyl never died, and they never stopped collecting. I also have a ton of clients who tell me that they got rid of all their vinyl in the 90s, and now they are starting over, and are so excited to rebuild their collections again. Its pretty exciting to see younger folks getting into vinyl too- I know of some 10 year olds who already have some great collections starting!

I do try to keep up with vinyl-openings and related news, and overall I certainly am seeing a ton more coverage in the last two years. I am seeing more interest worldwide, not just the US. My business has grown about 20% each year since I started, and about 48% of my customers are women. I hope all of this interest helps remind people to enjoy music, and discover artists and music outside of what’s in the mainstream.

TRACY PARKER – What is currently on display in your personal LP Block?

KATE KOEPPEL – Right this second it is Curtis Harding, Face Your Fear (2017)

TRACY PARKER – If you were stranded on a desert island with a turntable & speakers and your Record Tote filled with your favorite 10-15 records from your personal collection, what would they be?

KATE KOEPPEL – Oh this is a hard one! I guess if I have time to plan for my future alone on a island, I would probably try to pick artists I don’t know very well. Part of me just wants to grab a stack of my favorites that can make me feel so many different emotions depending on the song. Sam Cooke, The Cure, Nina Simone, The Beatles, New Order… but if I have the rest of my life to only listen to a few albums… I would probably try to invest myself in music that I haven’t explored much while I have so many choices. I don’t know a ton about jazz, so I would probably gather up some blue note albums – we listen to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at home, and I recently read that he was really, really prolific, over 125 albums in his lifetime- I could definitely be excited about island life forever if I had some albums I wasn’t familiar with. I’d add some Jorge Ben Jor, Ella Fitzgerald, The Clash, oh and maybe some classical for my brain (and you can’t really get tired of classical, right?) like some Bach, Debussy, ? I know just enough about those composers to know I do not know or appreciate it enough. I’m not sure if I am going to have a great time on this island, or spend the rest of my life reconsidering my choices!

TRACY PARKER – Do you offer any other design services or does Koeppel Design fill your work schedule these days?

KATE KOEPPEL – I don’t have time in my calendar to take on a lot of graphic design work these days, I try to reserve a little space for smaller graphic design projects for clients that I’ve worked for in the past, or if I am really excited about a new project they have. I regularly get to work with labels and record shops to create custom products for their stores, and that can be a lot of fun- those are projects that can easily fold into production, and sometimes those are the most rewarding projects for me personally, because I get to design things that will live in public spaces for years and years to come.

View the Koeppel Design profile.

Tracy Parker is a fashion designer, DJ, and the owner of VAMP Vintage Art Music for the People in Downtown Oakland.

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