I almost expected to find an assembly line layout, teeming with designers, assistants and interns, when I first approached the sprawling, 4,000 square-foot Quonset hut studio of Kong Screen Printing — an East Side design operation at the Cesar Chavez Art Loft, whose work seems to appear everywhere lately. But after walking through a surreal foreground of modern art installations from local artists like Casey Warr and Foster Talge, I enter a virtually silent, vacuous space.
“Hey! We’re back here!” I hear echo from somewhere in the warehouse’s unseen recesses. Despite their massive workspace and high profile clientele, Kong (a name partly inspired by the 1980s arcade game, Rampage) is only made up of two designers: Bruce Braden and Ryan Burkhart.
One of Kong’s most recognizable T-shirt designs — “Welcome to Austin: Please Don’t Move Here” subtitled with “I hear Dallas is great!” — was printed in March and quickly began selling out of stock, ultimately landing a place on the cover of Austin Monthly’s June 2012 issue.
“A lot of people have walked through our door because of that shirt,” Burkhart says. “Just people wanting to share their stories about Austin with us. It feels like we’re getting to know the city through them in a really neat way.”
The two designers, who met in 2011 through Austin’s Screen Printing Co-op (of which they are now board members), have distinctly different yet complementary backgrounds, with a combined experience of more than 25 years. Burkhart comes from a fine arts and academic background and thrives on the artistic versatility and overall adaptability of the medium (“It’s as flexible for printers as viscous paint is for painters,” Burkhart says). While Braden, who was trained in commercial textile printing with a specialty in poster prints, is spurred on by creating consistent, high-quality designs for Kong's continually expanding clientele.
It was inspiring to see the pleasantly simple image of two artists hard at work when I visited the Kong warehouse this fall, but their technique isn’t easy by any means. It’s an intensively laborious daily process.
Originally used as an Air Force base outside of Bastrop during WWII, the corrugated steel warehouse's storied atmosphere really lends itself to Kong’s unique design process — an art that is deeply rooted in history (screen printing's origins date back to 960 AD in China) but is currently enjoying a modern day revival, owing to committed devotees like Braden and Burkhart. The conscientious artists are passionate about preserving the medium’s hybrid of hand-drawn design and artistic finesse alongside modern day production quotas and industrial equipment.
So now, this East Austin Quonset hut is the base of an entirely different operation: Inside, Braden and Burkhart press hundreds of prints daily at their six-color manual hand press; mix custom colors (all eco-friendly, water based inks); sketch and brainstorm new designs; schedule new orders; and proof final products side-by-side with clients. A diverse range of projects, including everything from family reunions and fine art installations, everything happens under these soaring high ceilings and with only two sets of hardworking hands.
It was inspiring to see the pleasantly simple image of two artists hard at work when I visited the Kong warehouse this fall, but their technique isn’t easy by any means. It’s an intensively laborious daily process, in which the two designers meticulously combine multiple layers of colors and text, each printed precisely on top of each other to create the desired design. And despite their tiny workforce, they manage to customize every order, every step of the way. “Even when we get the kind of requests that don’t necessarily fit into our specialty, if it’s awesome, then absolutely — we’ll do it,” Braden says.
The duo does require some bulky, industrial-sized pieces of equipment, including a four-armed manual press, UV light and dryer and a custom-built dark room, but the warehouse still has an additional 2,000 square feet, which hosts an on-site gallery of local artwork, as well as another local business that designs and creates digital effect pedals. “There’s cool stuff in every city,” Braden says. “But in Austin, cool stuff finds you.”
Burkhart says that unlike Europe and Asia, screen printing generally tends to get a bad rap in the States for its commercial leanings and, with the exception of pop artists, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, is almost looked down on by the international art community.
And while Austin has a long history of passionate screen printers, from pioneers like Sam Coronado to recent proliferations like Kong, The Decoder Ring and Sanctuary Printshop, Burkhart says that unlike Europe and Asia, screen printing generally tends to get a bad rap in the States for its commercial leanings and, with the exception of pop artists, like Warhol and Lichtenstein, is almost looked down on by the international art community.
But Braden and Burkhart both attest to a national, and, more importantly, local, revival occuring for independent screen printers. “That’s what is so exciting and vibrant about doing what we’re doing right now,” Braden says.
Throughout my afternoon at the Kong studio, Braden and Burkhart reiterated their ultimate good fortune in finding a place here at the Art Loft, the Cesar Chavez creative arts complex created by Jim McCurry, a retired commercial real estate developer. By providing the infrastructure for local artists to collaborate and simply get their work done (an especially valuable commodity with today’s skyrocketing rental costs), McCurry has created a haven for businesses like Kong and other local powerhouses, like Helm Handmade. “[McCurry’s] way of giving to the arts is giving people like us a place to collaborate and just create,” Braden says.
Braden and Burkhart hope to preserve their unique connection to the local arts community by periodically opening their gigantic front doors to anyone interested in their work. Like during this weekend's East Austin Studio Tour, when the public is invited (November 17 - 18; 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.) to wander throughout the warehouse, admire the gallery of local artwork, mingle with fellow art lovers or just learn more about Kong’s printing process.
E.A.S.T. is one of Braden and Burkhart’s favorite times of the year (last year, 2,000 people visited the studio on the first weekend alone) and they’re even toying with the possibility of a beginner’s workshop in order to connect with more local creatives in the future.
“Just being a part of Austin’s arts community and meeting new, talented people is always the best part of the job,” Burkhart says. So, don’t worry, folks. For the designers who quickly capitalized on the rising “Please Don’t Move Here” movement, they’re pretty damn inviting.