InteriorsStudio Tour

Studio Tour: Kate Koeppel

by Kelli Kehler

For Kate Koeppel, her business was born out of a slow-growing realization of self-worth and recognition of her own unique skill sets in graphic and product design. By the time she graduated from the California College of Arts with a master’s in design in 2011, she still had never worked an office job in her chosen specialty. It was something she felt self-conscious about, and she even felt like a failure. “I’d mostly always worked for myself — but that didn’t seem like valuable experience at the time,” Kate shares. Ruminating on the many hats she’d worn in her working life — solo artist, designer, freelancer — Kate took the leap into starting her own graphic design studio in 2011. “My design studio focuses on print and branding projects primarily for small, lady-run businesses with a focus on health, wellness and creative industries. In 2013 I began designing and manufacturing physical products, because I generally assume I can learn how to do anything (especially if I don’t already know how complicated it is going to be). Now about 70% of my work week is spent on the product side of my design studio.”

Her niche product line of minimal wooden items designed for audiophiles and music lovers became clear: record dividers and means to organize, protect and display vinyl records. Kate set up shop in the Bayview, San Francisco-based building of Pagoda Arts, a laser cutting production and prototyping studio owned by husband-and-wife team Alex Thompson and Adriana Castillo. Pagoda Arts handles all of Kate’s laser cutting, so moving from her home office and garage into a shared workspace with Pagoda was an efficiency-boosting no-brainer. But Kate’s rented space needed an overhaul; it was a covered patio space formerly used for storing machinery with a leaky roof and unfinished walls.

“I think during the remodeling process I really had to fight that urge in myself to curate a really perfect-looking studio space instead of a useful and practical one,” Kate reflects. “I’ve seen so many gorgeous studios with kitchens and lounge areas, crisp white walls and fantastic brass fixtures — but realistically my team and I are wearing work clothes, respirators, gloves and we’re covered in sanding dust on a daily basis — there isn’t time (or space) for lounging or hosting gorgeous events, this is a well-used woodworking space that doesn’t need to be pristine or picture perfect.”

Her vision came to life when Kate sought inspiration from unforgettable photos of faraway places and the very products she makes in-house. “Most of our products are made from a neutral light European wood, so when it came time to paint the studio we opted for a very bright pink combo to help bring some playful color into the space. I have never in my life been particularly drawn to the color pink, but I kept stumbling across beautiful photos on Instagram of pink buildings in India, New Orleans and Mexico, and couldn’t get them out of my head. Even though I still think I don’t like pink, I really love the bright pink walls in the studio and have zero regrets about the aggressiveness of that pink.”

The pink walls are ever more cheerful and productivity-boosting with the abundance of natural light flooding the workspace, a happy perk of Kate’s studio being located on the enclosed patio. “The roof over the main workspace is transparent fiberglass — which means we get a ton of great natural light to work in. I spend a few days a week stuck in my office in front of the computer, so days spent in the studio feel like I am outside. It is nice to trade the glowing computer screen for actual daylight. I am very happy to be getting that free vitamin D while I work, though on sunny days we need sunscreen in the studio.” From failure to finding her trade, Kate’s work and studio are both the stuff of inspiration. —Kelli

Photography by Elysa Weitala / @elysajean

Image above: Kate at work carrying boxes in her bright and light-filled studio space. She says, “I have a studio uniform that helps me quickly get out of the house and into the studio without wasting any time or energy in my morning routine. I wear danskos, Dickies overalls, a bandana and long sleeve shirt every day. I’m protected, comfortable and don’t have to think about what I want to wear.”


“Every laser-cut panel is sanded with an orbital sander ensuring a smooth, clean finish front and back,” Kate explains. “After sanding, all the panels are cleaned, inspected and then finally packaged. This process is the most time-consuming, but for me, every detail is important because we want all of our products to be durable and long lasting.”


Record divider panels being sanded. “Safety is important too — we wear gloves and respirators, plus we have a simple dust collection system to capture fine dust and keep it out of the air. We’ve all learned to be ambidextrous with the sander after thousands and thousands of panels!”


Engraved genre panels fresh from the laser-bed and headed into post-production sanding and clean-up.


“It took some time to find the right cardboard manufacturer to produce our custom boxes. I wanted to find a local California manufacturer to work with, and through my friend who is a letterpress printer I was connected with an Oakland-based maker. There are probably cheaper factories to work with, but I’d much rather invest in a local company where I actually can meet and get to know the makers. Supporting the local manufacturing system is the only way to help make sure we can keep manufacturing in San Francisco.”


A cheery and efficient space. Kate says, “The main workspace on a typical day packaging orders. We set up an assembly line to wrap products in paper, put them in boxes with some product cards and seal all the boxes with our branded tape machine at the end.”


“I’ll admit to being a bit obsessive about the details when it comes to packaging and presentation. I want every person who buys or receives our products to know that every step along the way in production was very thoughtful and done by hand.”


In the office that’s “packed together like a puzzle,” packaging and shipping essentials are organized to a tee.


Kate standing in her studio space within Pagoda Arts, located in San Francisco, CA’s Bayview neighborhood.


“The fiberglass roof allows us to have big, happy plants (like that tree in the background!) and lots of natural light to work in.”


“Gloves, extra tape rolls and tolls are kept on hand, with a bright metal coffee canister from one of my favorite coffee shops in Rome.”


“My favorite piece of equipment in the studio is our water activate tape dispenser,” Kate shares. “It makes such a satisfying mechanical sound measuring out tape… it’s like a slot machine!”


“This is one of our best selling products, a set of 6 panel A-Z record dividers. I design all the packaging and illustrations that go into our branding. Our products are a bit dry and serious, so I like to add some humor in here and there with stickers and illustrative elements because it’s hard to be too serious about everything.”


Kate’s record dividers in action. She shares, “My products reflect my desire to create well-made, durable products that help people connect with each other through music. Analog music is an amazing way to unplug and immerse yourself in a new sound or experience, and it is my hope that by creating products to help people organize their vinyl collections, we can help make it easier for our friends and customers to take a break from the screen, unplug and sit back and enjoy the experience of flipping through records, and immersing themselves in great music.”


“What I love most about my studio is the natural light!” –Kate Koeppel


Layout of Kate’s studio space she rents in the Pagoda Arts building.


Main workspace
Thrifted industrial workbench
DIY shelves
Lots of heavy-duty metal shelving by Guerilla Rack

Sherwin-Williams “Dishy Coral”
Sherwin-Williams “Radiant Pink”
Valspar “City Storm”

White shelving units – The Container store
Record Crates – Simple Wood Goods
Vornado VFAN Mini Classic Personal Vintage Air Circulator, Green (this cute fan is powerful and tiny!)
Goplus Steel Workbench Tool Storage Work Bench – Amazon

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  • What a fun shop tour! I like the combination of utility, efficiency and cheeriness. And kudos for sticking with local suppliers!