[Alyson Kuhn] When I was in Kansas City last August, two terrific (and totally different) letterpress shops were high on my agenda: Skylab and Hammerpress. Hammerpress is in an arty neighborhood and easy to find, but Skylab is in a more industri
al part of town, across the river. When we were finished with our tour of Hammerpress, Bob Atkins of Skylab offered to drive over and fetch us. How hospitable is that?!
What was your inspiration for the name Skylab?
I was inspired by the ideals behind the Skylab space project, not the vehicle itself. I love the idea that Skylab was to be America’s first spacelab. It was way ahead of its time, literally, as it would have served as our hookup for the Space Shuttle before the ISS [International Space Station] was even born. But the Shuttle wasn’t delivered on time, budgets were slashed, and NASA was forced to ditch this beautiful laboratory into the ocean. And Australia. Oops!
Anyway, I love the idea of “the lab,” where designers, artists and anyone interested in letterpress can find a home for their letterpress experiments. Skylab was born to serve this need, to reach out to these people. While we can do a bit of design and are artists by trade, we kind of see ourselves as engineers of our clients’ letterpress dreams. That’s why Skylab exists — not primarily as a design shop, but as a fully functioning letterpress workshop.
And what’s the origin of your love of “space stuff”?
My parents were Air Force. Growing up on an airbase kind of indoctrinated the democratic ideal that we humans can accomplish anything with enough cooperation. I grew up with multi-ethinc friends surrounded by jets and other things that go fast. I don’t recall the Apollo missions but certainly recall a few of the Skylab splashdowns. And then I moved to North Alabama, where the U.S. Space and Rocket Center certainly cemented my love of rockets and all things that break the bounds of Earth.
What did you do before starting Skylab?
First I designed ads for an alternative weekly newspaper in Albuquerque. Then I became the production manager for a lifestyle marketing firm in Chicago, creating national marketing materials for RJ Reynolds, our main client. While very briefly working at Segura Design/[T-26] Type Foundry, I met Bruno Rohner, who was just starting up his print shop, Rohner Letterpress. I went on to work with Bruno from 1997 to 2001.
Next, Ana [Reinert, Atkins’ wife] was offered a job at Hallmark, so we moved to Kansas City. I went back to school, earned a Masters in Education, and taught art in an urban charter school where 90% of the kids qualified for the public lunch program. I did that for two years, and it was physically and emotionally grueling. Then I subbed for a year in a more posh district. It was a cakewalk by comparison, but at the end of the day, teaching in the ’burbs wasn’t as emotionally rewarding.
So,you have Skylab’s fifth anniversary coming up?
That’s right. It’s all been good. Google is a good thing, as we do little to no advertising. It’s all word of mouth and repeat business. Our client mix is about 60/40, designers and businesses to walk-in clients.
It’s fortunate that Ana is willing to design my marketing materials. Definitely not a paid gig for her, but I trade her stuff for her Well Appointed Desk site. And the Lululemon project was another good thing! And, of course, working with fellow printer Ben Jones every day is a good thing.
What did Ben do before joining Skylab?
Ben’s a Kansas City Art Institute Printmaking graduate. He cut his letterpress chops at a small local print shop that did a lot of die-cutting, numbering, etc. Nothing glamorous, but steady trade work.
Bob Atkins loves to share samples, stories and tips with his clients. Later this month, Felt & Wire will publish Bob’s guest post about maximizing your budget, minimizing your disappointments … and other tall tales.