Building on Ambience

Ambient Inks and Knorth Studios upgrade their HQ

Eric Christenson, photos by Mariah Hamm

BIG THINKING AND BIG INKING. Ambient Inks – and its branding/design counterpart Knorth Studios – recently opened a new headquarters at 526 Water St., expanding production and adding a retail component.
BIG THINKING AND BIG INKING. Ambient Inks – and its branding/design counterpart Knorth Studios – recently opened a new headquarters at 526 Water St., expanding production and adding a retail component.

Just a few years ago, Ambient Inks was just two dudes – Aaron Brice and Tim Brunner – screen printing T-shirts by hand in the garage of their rented college house in Menomonie. And it was cramped.

“We had our manual press and the room was just big enough to fit it,” Brice said. “In the winter, we had to print in our basement because our garage wasn’t insulated. So we hauled the manual press back and forth on this narrow stairway. We somehow made it happen.”

“We definitely dented up the walls,” Brunner added.

And funnily enough, on a recent nostalgia trip back to that house, Brice noted that much of it still remains how they left it, for better or worse.

“There’s still ink on the ceiling, all over the floors. Our neon green tables we spray-painted are still there,” he said with a laugh. “The floor is still caked with ink.”

As the young company started picking up some big-name clients, printing merchandise for the likes of Bon Iver and S. Carey, it wasn’t too difficult to outgrow the space they had, so they picked up and moved into a legit production space in Banbury Place in Eau Claire. They added some staff and kept printing, bolstered by an ever-expanding client base.

And even then, as the company started printing merchandise for bands like Iron and Wine and Sylvan Esso, after a quick three and a half years, even their Banbury spot started to become stifling and confining as their production steadily raced ahead.
Now they are on their third move to a beautiful new spot at 526 Water St. in Eau Claire, a place they want to stay for the long haul. At 6,800 square feet, it’s triple the size of their Banbury location. Inside the new building is room for retail, movable walls to hang pieces for gallery-style art exhibitions, and the ability to host events (with custom live-printed gig posters and other tie-ins).

The printing still happens the behind the retail space and offices, with large windows through which you can gaze at the process. In general, there’s enough space that the team is finally able to start checking items off their ongoing list of things they’ve wanted to do but never had the space to pull off.

“Probably the most obvious advantage is that we have a lot more space,” Brice said. “We were able to add more equipment, new people to the team, and more services. We’re not so cramped. Also, we feel even closer to downtown than we were at Banbury. We have the exposure that we’ve always wanted.”

Ambient Inks’ sister company, Knorth Studios, a design company made up of old friends RT Vrieze and Chris Bartlett, now has a home within the new building. The two businesses function separately for the most part, but Knorth has a symbiotic relationship with Ambient. The companies share a workspace, resources, inspiration, clients, and they often collaborate on the same big projects in different ways. Knorth recently picked up some steam by doing branding and Web design for the Boston Calling Music Festival, an indie music fest in Boston which is headed up by Crashline Productions (the same folks whose expertise helped bring the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival into existence).

This has been an important year for Ambient and Knorth. Along with the fresh new building, you can’t ignore each company’s contributions to the Eaux Claires festival. Other than the Eaux Claires logo itself, all the festival’s merchandise, signage, and branding were designed by Knorth and printed by Ambient. The two companies came together to create custom posters for each of the festival’s headliners, designed by some of the nation’s best designers, and displayed them on their moving gallery wall. Ambient headed up the merch tent at the inaugural Eaux Claires, which never had less than a horde of people gathered around trying to buy stuff, and when they completely sold out on the fest’s opening day, they were printing all night on Water Street in order to stock up for the following day.

While the festival organization started heavily ramping up in the spring, Ambient was also busy moving into its new space. “We were working around boxes,” said Ambient’s business manager, Ashley Raymond. “It was boxes everywhere. And palettes. We were constantly digging in boxes looking for extra squeegees and stuff. We made it work because we had to.”

Ambient only shut down production for about a week while it moved.
Now, after a much-needed exhale in relief after the Eaux Claires festival madness, Ambient and Knorth are pivoting to other work, trying to form partnerships with different awesome bands, and garnering new clients. And meanwhile at their new headquarters they’re hard at work polishing up their retail space for new customers, and exploring cool event ideas, something they could never have dreamed of without their new building.

What was once two people in a basement is now a team of printers, managers, and assistants. What was once lime green spray-painted tables and a tiny manual press is now a full production facility and a new, enormous, lime green printing press.
“Considering we’re gonna be in here for another two and a half years, hopefully longer, there’s so much potential,” Raymond said. “We want to amp up retail, bring in live-printing events, get people off the streets, and keep the town busy.”

If they keep up their breakneck production rate and growth, perhaps even this swanky and spacious new building might one day seem too small again. But for now it seems like they’ve found the right place.

Learn more at ambientinks.com.

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