Industry Watch

Krista Stout, owner of KVS Letterpress

Labor of love

Why Krista Stout has kept her letterpress business slow, small, and inconvenient

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"I have no background in design or printing,” admits Krista Stout, owner of KVS Letterpress. “I had never even heard of letterpress printing until seven, eight years ago.”
But a card she received in the mail several years ago changed all that. It was made from a letterpress, which gave it a tactile appeal, in addition to the visual impact of handcrafted letterpress products. “It really made an impression on me,” Stout says, adding, “That’s a letterpress joke.”
She cut the brand name off the back of the card and started researching the art of letterpress. Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, invented letterpress printing in the mid-15th century by painting metal plates and pressing them into paper. The letterpress was credited with the birth of mass information sharing because it facilitated distribution of the written word. 
Letterpress went by the wayside in the 20th century due in part to the invention of offset printing, a faster, less labor-intensive form of producing printed material. Many letterpresses were sold for scrap, and the practice languished. 
Stout, who was born in a Minnesotan commune in the woods and had been living in a shack on 4,000 acres of land prior to settling in the Twin Cities in 1994, became determined to acquire a letterpress. She finally found a tabletop press, the kind “a young man would learn how to print on in high school back in the ’40s,” she says. The seller gifted her a can of black ink and several pieces of type, and she began experimenting.
Stout’s venture into letterpress printing was perfectly timed because, as luck would have it, a new appreciation for handmade, artisanal goods was emerging. “It makes it sound lame to call it a trend,” Stout says, “but people are really starting to notice these things, and pay attention to details, and care about who’s making it and how it’s made and where it came from.”
Stout opened up shop under the name paperedtogether on Etsy, the online marketplace for homemade goods that was then brand-new. Her whimsical cards, featuring vintage and nature-inspired elements, gained popularity quickly. “I was blown away,” Stout says. “I was selling a ton of stuff.”
Though Stout has never advertised, bloggers gave her plenty of exposure. Soon she was approached by brick-and-mortar shops and started selling wholesale worldwide, in addition to accepting Etsy orders and continuing to do custom work for local clients. “I was so enamored with the fact that it was working that I was doing everything, all the time, printing around the clock.”
Stout also did the design, the packaging, the shipping, and the website. The amount of work was overwhelming, and after a couple of years, Stout arrived at a crossroads: Should she become a bigger business, rent a shop, and hire employees? Or should she change what she was doing?
Ultimately, she decided to stay a one-woman operation and cut back on the quantity of work she accepted. Now, as KVS Letterpress, she sticks to custom work for select clients. “Keeping it small maintains a lot of integrity for me,” Stout says. “I need to see all of the work that’s being done and make sure that each print is as good as it can possibly be. I can’t imagine having somebody else printing.”
Stout now uses a 1,000-pound, treadle-operated Chandler & Price platen press circa 1908 to create album covers, birth announcements, business cards, calendars, invitations, and other keepsakes in her South Minneapolis backyard workshop. Sometimes her clients come to her with a design in mind; sometimes they collaborate. She mixes all her inks by hand, matching clients’ requests down to a particular leaf they’re trying to match. She orders custom plates of fonts, drawings, and digital images through snail mail. She prints one color, one sheet, at a time. 
“It’s not easy, it’s not quick, it’s not convenient,” she says. “But I like when things are hard and they take time.”
Emily Steffen, a photographer in Hudson, Wis., says Stout’s work is worth the wait. She’s depended on KVS Letterpress for years to create business cards, thank you cards, and other paper goods for her business. “The uniqueness reflects my brand more cohesively,” Steffen says. “As any boutique business that’s attracting a limited number of clients every year, you want to make sure their experience is as personal as it can be.” 
Steffen initially approached Stout with a few ideas for colors, images, and fonts, and Stout incorporated them into a design. Steffen has done three rounds of branding with Stout, and couldn’t be more pleased with the finished products. “Krista makes art pieces,” Steffen says. “When you give something that’s not mass-produced, it’s more special.”
Stout agrees. “It’s still miraculous that I’m printing these things on a 150-year-old printing press that come out in this clean, beautiful pile that I package up and put in a box,” she says.
Stout has enough business with repeat clients and word-of-mouth referrals to stay afloat, though she does pick up cleaning jobs for a financial safety net. As a single mother of three children, balance has proven more important than becoming a business mogul.  
“It’s really manageable for me. I like the fact that I can be close to home but far enough away that it feels like going to work,” Stout says. “It still feels like something I’m passionate about, as opposed to just being a job.”