High-Tech Laser Cutter Helps Shape Tactile Craftworks

By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Out of every 1,000 Americans making artisan crafts, just one earns a living selling them.

Anna Warren and Sarah Kirkham are betting they can join that one-tenth of 1% minority.

Their odds are better than most. As fine-arts graduates and former employees of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s prop shop, they’re already seasoned pros at the creative transformation of this and that.

For 5 1/2 years, they stitched, dyed, molded and generally cobbled stuff together for Rep productions. Kirkham made puppets, luggage and stuffed animal look-alikes. Warren’s talents, among others, included a knack for sculpting polystyrene foam into fake food.

As they worked, they talked.

“One of the real benefits we had working at the Rep was this kind of unlimited amount of time to just sit and throw out ideas while we were getting other work done,” Kirkham said.

Chief among those ideas: Starting their own business.

“It’s something we dreamed about for a long time,” Kirkham said.

Eventually, they stopped dreaming and started doing. The first things they made were journals — Kirkham knows bookbinding — decorated with leather leaves sculpted by Warren.

They hit craft fairs and opened a “shop” on Etsy, a popular online marketplace for independent artisans. But this was a part-time endeavor, and a person can only do so much hand-tooled leather work in a day.

Then Kirkham and Warren tapped into an unexpected source of business inspiration, the Kohl’s Design It! Lab at Discovery World.

The lab had invited Rep staffers over to check out the facility and its array of material-shaping equipment, lab manager Justin Doll said.

Among the machines are 3-D printers, vacuum formers and heat sealers. But what really grabbed Kirkham and Warren were the laser cutters, which can carve wood, foam, plastic — or leather — using a concentrated beam of light.

They’d never seen a laser cutter before, but they instantly recognized the potential. They got excited, and staffers at the lab got excited because Kirkham and Warren were excited.

“I still remember their faces,” Doll said. “They were kind of just awe-struck.”

Before long, the two women were learning about laser cutting at the lab, using the machines and, in exchange, teaching workshops there.

“It was a great arrangement,” Kirkham, 29, said.

And from it sprung what promises to be their signature product line — leather-bound journals etched with historic city maps.

Using a laser cutter at Discovery World and leather from the Tandy shop in Hales Corners, they made finely detailed renderings of an 1897 map of Milwaukee and an 1890 Rand McNally map of Chicago, incorporating the curves of Lake Michigan into the structure of the books themselves.

They produced close to 100 in two sizes, and sold them at $50 and $75. The response was strong.

So they got serious. They formed a company, Tactile Craftworks LLC, in January. In April, they quit their jobs with the Rep. And in August, they launched a campaign on Kickstarter, the online crowdfunding tool where people pledge money for projects they like in exchange for usually modest gifts.

Kirkham and Warren were seeking $12,500 to buy their own laser cutter and cover other expenses so they could ramp up production of what they dubbed the “Atlas Series.”

Kickstarter is perhaps best known for financing arts efforts like an indie film or a band’s CD. But it also has proved to be effective in getting real businesses going.

Ethan Mollick, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, surveyed people who used Kickstarter to raise at least $5,000 for gaming, design and technology-related projects. Ninety percent of them, he found, turned into ongoing businesses.

Etsy, meanwhile, has made it much easier for artisans to sell what they make, said India Hart Wood of Hart Business Research LLC, a Colorado firm that has studied the craft economy. Hart Business Research has estimated that 50 million Americans make crafts, with 30,000 to 50,000 selling their work as their main income.

Kirkham and Warren not only met their Kickstarter goal but exceeded it, raising $14,867 in about a month. Roughly a third of that came from people who knew them only from their video and description on the Kickstarter website. One of them, a man from California, put up $500.

“That just blew us away,” Warren, 33, said.

Jenny Kowalski, a former Milwaukeean now living in Boston, saw the campaign on Kickstarter, then went to the Tactile Craftworks site and ordered a journal. She couldn’t be happier.

“I feel like I have to write really important things in it because it’s so beautiful,” she said.

The last few weeks have seen Kirkham and Warren setting up and learning about their new laser cutter, which is the size of an office copying machine and has been installed in a studio at Warren’s Riverwest home.

The women make other things, too, including wallets and leather-wrapped mugs and flasks. Some are laser-etched and some hand tooled. All reflect the outdoorsy aesthetic of people who enjoy canoeing (Warren) or visited seven national parks on their honeymoon (Kirkham).

“I would say our items are handsomely rustic and satisfying,” Warren said.

They plan to continue their handwork, but tilt more toward laser cutting, which will let them greatly increase production.

They will be making a few one-off journals for Kickstarter contributors, then seriously pursue the Atlas Series. Beyond Milwaukee and Chicago, they plan to do historic maps of Brooklyn, San Francisco and St. Louis. And they’re thinking about New Orleans; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle, too.

Then, who knows? It’s a big world.

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