The short version
Kollath Graphic Design is a small illustration and graphic design business located in Duluth, Minnesota. Working in a small market means I’ve been able to work on every kind and size of project imaginable, although direct-mail catalogs have been my mainstay since starting out in the late 80s.
Random-yet-definitive personal history
I hitchhiked across most of the United States (and parts of Europe) in the 1970s. I once rode a freight train halfway across Montana. I’ve been a rock-climber and mountaineer since 1975, and I was struck by lightning while climbing in the Canadian Rockies (my most interesting and exciting experience). I wandered through the British Isles, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, Greece, Italy, and other parts of Europe as a student and a climbing bum, recently returning to Switzerland to climb (finally!) the Eiger North Face. I’ve paddled in 20-foot Lake Superior winter waves and I’ve kayaked from Grand Portage, MN, out to, around, and back from Isle Royale twice—a 110-mile trip that includes a serious 13-mile, open-water crossing over deep, cold water there and back again. I’m a middling cross-country skier, a crappy Telemark skier, and an abysmal ice-skater. Ball sports frighten me. My office is only a few miles from home, so I get to bike commute year-round, which is both exciting and a real pain in the winter. I speak German more or less fluently. I also can say a bunch of stuff in French but don’t understand a word they speak back. I live with my sweetie, Jane, a Web designer and coder, in a lovely and modest Arts & Crafts bungalow that has great views of Lake Superior, the best lake in the whole damn world.
It’s a great life.
Here’s far too much detail about my professional life
I started drawing in nursery school (as preschool was called back then). Paper and a pencil kept me quiet — an interesting bit of news the teacher passed on to my mom. Mom brought home rolls of butcher paper and stuck a suction-cup pencil sharpener to our piano bench: my first desk.
At 29, after studying philosophy, earning a German-teaching degree, and working in Austria for a year as a bargin-basement Fulbright awardee (my friends call it a “Halfbright” award), I accidentally became an illustrator and graphic designer for a high-tech, synthetic motorcycle clothing start-up called Aerostich Riderwear. Founder Andy Goldfine parlayed his own riding experience into a thriving mail and Web-direct business that still maintains a cult-like following among serious long-range touring riders, 32 years later.
After five years, itching to be my own boss and much prodding from Andy, I started Kollath Graphic Design. Andy became one of my first clients. I worked for Aerostich until it grew large enough to need an internal art and advertising department.
My first significant client other than Andy was what later became the Duluth Pack Store. They took a chance on me and I illustrated and designed their mail-order catalog and then advertising materials. The owner, Ed Zeills, and the managers and I made a fantastic team back then, and it lasted until a few years after Ed died when the business was sold (basically a hostile takeover) in 2001. We parted from the new management under a fair degree of acrimony. Two of the former managers went on to start Frost River—more about that in a bit.
A year after leaving Aerostich, I also began working with Bob Fierek, his brother Dave and another partner, who had started a tool-organization outfit named Portable Products. If you’ve ever heard of a Bucket Boss — think of a piece of fabric, fitted over a five gallon bucket and covered with pockets to create a brilliant tool carrier that probably exists in some form at every job site in the U.S. right now — Bob is the reason, because he forced it into existence. In love with the mail order business, Bob spun off a quirky catalog that became Duluth Trading Company. Because they liked what I did for the Duluth Pack Store and figured I’d be cheaper than photography, I became the catalog’s designer/illustrator. For its first ten years, I illustrated, designed (and sometimes edited) nearly every catalog by myself. It really was my baby.
I stayed on as a contract designer and illustrator after the original partners sold it to Fiskars in 1998, and then again after Fiskars sold it in 2001 to Steve Schlecht. Steve rescued Duluth Trading Company from almost certain oblivion, changed the focus to clothing for trade professionals and DIYers, and has grown it into an empire. Their stores have been sprouting up all over the Midwest; there’s even one here in Duluth, Minnesota.
Because I’ve worked for them for the past 25 years, my site is filled with their work. Now many people do the illustrations and I’m rather a bit-player in the great scheme of things. But still they keep me busy and I’m proud to have played my part.
Around 1998 I re-connected with writer Sparky Stensaas, whose first book I’d illustrated. He was thinking of self-publishing a guide to rock picking along Lake Superior’s North Shore — a Midwest tourism mecca with a dramatic geological history that created literally tons of interesting rock-hunting opportunities — and he was wondering how much I’d charge to illustrate and design it. I told him he couldn’t possibly afford me, so we should become partners. Kollath+Stensaas Publishing has now sold more than 70,000 copies of The Rock Picker’s Guide to Lake Superior’s North Shore. We’ve since put out another 15 field guides; most are photograph-driven; some are illustrated. (View a full list of Kollath+Stensaas guides.)
Two other clients bear mentioning: former managers from the Duluth Pack Store (one of which opened and ran the very first Duluth Pack Store in Duluth’s Canal Park, and the other one was the true creative and spiritual heart of the Pack Store), started Frost River. That business foundered but was rescued by Chris Benson in 2009. This current Frost River iteration cleaves closely to that original spirit and aesthetic. Some folks think Frost River is a knock-off of Duluth Pack, but having designed and illustrated for both businesses and seen the entire story play out, I can say Frost River is today much closer in every way to what the Pack Store was in its heyday.
Currently, one of my favorite clients is a homebrewing equipment company, located in Oakland, California, called William’s Brewing. Years ago an illustrator painted bears engaged in various beer-drinking activities for the covers. She moved on but the customers would periodically bug the owner, Bill Moore, to bring the bears back. He saw a cover I did for Duluth Trading based on one of the famous paintings of dogs playing poker called “Waterloo” by C. M. Coolidge. I think he figured if I could paint dogs, I should be able to paint bears. Many of my William’s Brewing Bear covers are in the covers section.
You actually read all that? Don’t you have work to do?