You have to understand that running a business is more than sitting at a computer and designing something.
In the sunlit front of the house, a recently engaged couple reviews the details on their letterpressed invitations. In the industrial back of the house, aproned craftswomen turn pulp into paper. But, at first there was no “front” and “back”; there was just a house. A kitchen, to be exact. That’s where Christopher James discovered his love of paper.
He was working at the local art store to support himself through college in the early 90s when he took home a paper-making kit to try. “I found it was really exciting to take old junk mail newspaper, grind it up in a blender and make it into little sheets.” The graphic designers he knew were impressed by the textures and colors, and asked if Christopher were selling it. “I was poor, and I just wanted a burrito, so as long as they gave me enough lunch money they could take a sheet of paper,” he laughs. But soon, the stationary sets he made for a few local merchants attracted a rep who brought in work from across the Midwest. “I’d spend every waking evening and weekends down in my basement, and then work my day job during the day.”
As orders poured in, Christopher’s moved his miniature paper mill from his basement to a new dedicated fabrication space, with professional equipment and employees. He was now able to quit his job and work on the paper venture full time. Twenty-one years in, Christopher gets the greatest satisfaction not necessarily from volume but rather from detail and curation. “I’ve found that I have more fun – and it’s more creative – when we can work with a client or two at a time. We can hone what we do for them, as opposed to mass producing.” Porridge Papers has made everything from plantable postcards to bacon-scented paper — always from 100% recycled fibers. One look at his paper press, “The Big Squeeze,” and the antique wooden letterpress blocks, shows just how fun it can be. “I’ve turned what a lot of people would call a hobby into a full-fledged business,” he says.
Photos by Christina Clusiau
Christopher holds a piece of his own paper to describe what he does.
"I have my ups and downs," Christopher says, "but this is what I'm doing for the rest of my life."
Custom canvas bags.
Christopher James prints logos on a coaster for a client.
Customers discuss custom invitations with a designer in the shop.
Milton, the shop cat, bathes in the sun.
Details of a poster created by Porridge Paper.
Chris is from Lincoln, Nebraska, where Porridge Papers is based.
Antique wooden letterpress blocks.
Owner Christopher James runs operations from the retail space. The company uses its own paper to create custom-designed posters, invitations, coasters and just about anything its clients can think up.
The retail area of Porridge Paper displays the end product, with letterpress design to boot.
Every type of paper has its own unique texture.
Q & A
We sat down with Christopher (and his shop cat Milton) to ask him a few questions.
Describe the happiest moment in your business life.
When Porridge Papers turned 16 we threw ourselves a Sweet 16 party in all the glitz you see on MTV. Four-tier cake, swag bags, open bar, catered meal and we all dressed up in black tuxes, pink bow ties and the women wore formal dresses. Once the 200 plus people showed up it hit me that I made it! I am here to stay. 16 years of hard work paid off and I am only going up from here! We make paper by hand, when it comes down to it, so trying to mass produce can get very stressful at times.
What’s the end goal? Do you want the business to grow even more?
I always thought that. I was very small, 2 or 3 employees, and I looked at some of my competition and thought “I want to grow this to 30, 40, 50 people.” We did get an order once where we had to hire. There were about 18 of us in the building where we are now and it was a lot of fun. I loved it, but after that was over with I realized that I don’t want that because you have to keep that level of production going all the time. I found that I have more fun and it’s more creative when we can work with a client or two at a time and we can hone what we do for them one at a time as opposed to mass producing. We make paper by hand, when it comes down to it, so trying to mass produce can get very stressful at times. Because we do the paper making and the printing, It’s always been a couple of people that make paper, someone that helps out with printing, a couple of people in design. Kind of keep it at that. That’s about five people. That’s where I’m most happy.
What’s the biggest challenge today?
We’ll go from somebody wanting 100 of something to somebody wanting 10,000 of something. And what’s always been difficult has been trying to stay with that wave and keep people employed. Because what we do is specialized, not everybody needs what we have to offer, so it’s just getting it out there and letting people know what we do and keeping it going.
Do you have advice for other artists or budding small business owners?
Students come in to get a tour and ask about the creative process, you know they want to go and do that for a living. If you’re a designer, you can be a great designer, but to turn it into a business…You don’t have to enjoy the business part of it, but you have to get it. You have to understand running a business is more than sitting at a computer and designing something. You have to actually manage the business. I think a lot of young people, they get that idea of “I want to work for myself.” They see the glamor in “I designed this line of cards, isn’t it beautiful?” Well, now you have to go sell that and collect the sales tax. I tell them make sure you’re OK with the business end of it before you go into it, or else you won’t last.”