Kimberly Austin on Evoking Time and Place Through Hand-Crafted Ephemera

Located in the historic Pier 70 shipyard of San Francisco, Austin Press makes beautifully crafted ephemera, apothecary, and candles with old world charm. What started as an experiment with letterpress in 2004 has since emerged into an entire collection of work infused with Kimberly Austin’s vintage-inspired touch. Her products are carried by national stores like Anthropologie and indie boutiques across the country. We talked to Kimberly about how she evokes time and place into her aesthetic and what kinds of qualities she is looking for in the spaces she creates.

First off, why were you drawn to letterpress?

I started off as a fine artist, working with 19th century photographic processes. I always had a vintage aesthetic, and I was inspired by art that has a hands-on and hand-formulated approach. When I decided to take a different path, I chose letterpress because it is a historic printing process that would allow me to work with images, text, and fine materials. I had always admired letterpress, but I didn’t know much about it as a craft or technique. So I just taught myself.

Your studio is inside Pier 70, which is pretty gritty from the outside. But your place is very light and feels like a sanctuary. How did you set out to design it? What was the feeling you wanted to have there?

I work at least six days a week, so it’s a place where I spend a lot of my time. I feel like one’s personal space is important and allows us to be creative and productive. I want my workspace to be peaceful, so I can do whatever it is I need to do. But it also needs to be functional. I have a lot going on now: melting wax, printing ephemera, pouring perfume, packing orders. So my studio needs to be both pretty and functional. The tables are all custom, made to my height, from recycled supplies at Building Resources down the street. I love both modern and vintage artifacts, so I have an eclectic mix of furniture, and of course I have to have a red velvet curtain. Like the drapery separating a room in a renaissance painting.

“ While I love ornate details, I try to be disciplined and pare my designs down to their essence. ”

You are inspired by turn-of-the-century ephemera, how do you try to evoke that theme in your work?

When I’m working, I’m not thinking specifically about how my products fit certain styles or genres. I’m just naturally drawn to objects with history, texture, and craftsmanship. My work does come across as vintage-inspired, but I think it’s also decidedly minimal. Victorian designs can sometimes be over the top in details, and I’m all about “less is more”. While I love ornate details, I try to be disciplined and pare my designs down to their essence.

You elicit place in your designs. Your candles and scents often make us consider the spaces of other living things or specific personality types (Spider’s Web, Farmer’s Garden, Nomad’s Mountain for example). What’s behind that?

About every ten years or so I tend to switch my medium or add something new to my oeuvre. After ten years in letterpress I decided to branch out. I had a lot of requests to make candles, and even though I felt there were enough candles in the world, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know the first thing about wax or fragrance, and so I just started experimenting. The first candles were forest-themed, made with completely natural scents that you might experience walking through nature. In my next series I focused on virtues. I thought about the qualities in human nature that are admirable and desirable. When I started my third series, Sanctum, I wanted to invoke a person and a place, I guess combining the two previous projects. I tried to come up with a mix of interior and exterior environments, with both male and female characters. I imagined personal sanctuaries, where one feels peaceful, safe, and inspired. After I completed the “people” I set out to do the same with animals. These were a bit more challenging, as I write a story to go with each fragrance. Getting into the mindset of an animal is a mystery. But once again I thought about their “lifestyles”and spaces where they feel safe and content.

How do you correlate scents to those places?

I thought not only about the animal, but about where I’m placing them. Bee’s Hive has honey and dirt and airy scents. The Dolphin’s Fiord is the place where fresh water and ocean water meet and where there is beautiful lush vegetation around. I just think, what is it about this place and what kind of spaces do these animals like? Is it dirt? Is it trees? Is it a lady bug in a garden? Water? Fresh air? So there are different kinds of spaces and fragrances for each one, different kinds of natural environments outside that animals like. Except for the cat. The cat is inside.
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Thanks to eszter+david for the photos of Kim in this piece.
eszter+david are an Australian-born, San Francisco-based photographic team with David behind the camera and Eszter looking after all things production related from pre to post. Their photography encompasses many genres including hotel/resort, lifestyle and environmental portraiture and their assignments see them shooting around the globe. eszter+david thrive on working across a broad range of projects and subject matter to keep themselves inspired, see more of their work here.

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