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Kollath: Duluth-based artist brings quirky style to state catalog company

By Brian Clark
For WisBusiness.com

There are catalogs and then there are catalogs.

Those produced by the Belleville-based Duluth Trading Co. surely belong to the latter category, thanks in large part to the quirky cover art produced by long-time illustrator Rick Kollath.

“People get a log of catalogs in the mail and you only have a few seconds to make your sell, engage them and get them to look inside,” said Kollath, whose illustrations range from the iconic to nostalgic.

“If I’ve been able to do that with a little tongue-in-cheek humor and make people chuckle with a clever cover, well that’s good,” said Kollath, who grew up with a penchant for crayons and coloring, but never went to art school.

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Kollath, who lives in -- of all places -- Duluth, Minn, began as the only illustrator for the predecessor of the Duluth Trading Co., a firm called Portable Products. It was owned by Bob and Dave Fierek, inventors of the Bucket Boss, which was favored by construction workers for lugging around their tools and supplies.

In 1996, the company was sold to Fiskars and purchased five years later by Steve Schlect, who then owned a tool catalog called Gemplers. When Schlect bought the Duluth Trading Co., he expanded the firm’s offerings from mainly hardware storage gear to rugged men’s and women’s work clothes, functional and fashionable travel togs, gadgets and accessories such as leather briefcases.

It now operates out of a 140,000-square-foot warehouse in Belleville, about 20 miles south of Madison. The privately held firm does not disclose its finances, but the majority of its sales are from clothing purchased by tradesmen.

One of its latest offerings includes its cheeky, stink-proof Performance Underwear, tested by mountaineers and tradesmen. The tagline reads that it’s “so good, it’s a work of art” and features a knock off of painting by Michelangelo from the Sistene chapel in Rome. In it, God is reaching out to touch the outstretched finger of Adam, who is – but of course – wearing a pair of the Duluth undies.

Other covers have used Napoleon and George Washington wearing Duluth clothing or draped with company products. Baby boomer themes are also common.

“The trick is to be surprising,” said Kollath, an independent contractor who runs his own graphic design company and a Northwoods publishing firm. “We want people’s eyes to light up when they see the catalog.”

Looking back on his two decades of work on the catalogs, Kollath calls his first efforts “a joke by anyone’s standards.”

He said the first covers weren’t humorous.

“The first color one was a sailboat that featured a riggers bag for organizing tools, but there wasn’t anything amusing or clever about it,” he said.

“The strange ones started with a guy named Mike Vanderscheuren who came on board in about 1995,” he said. “He was all full of vim and vigor and had lots of wild and crazy ideas. We did one with hot sauce bottles. That was pretty non-standard.”

Kollath said Schlect liked the free-spirited catalog and bought the company when Fiskars wanted to get out of the mail order business.

The Duluth native said he figures he has done 90 percent of the catalog covers, though he can’t claim credit for all the ideas.

“In the old days, I illustrated all the products, laid the thing out, I ended up editing the copy and did just about everything,” he said. “It quickly grew beyond a one-person job and when Steve bought the business, he already had an art department so they took over the layout. But I've done hundreds of covers, easily.”

Eventually, the catalog got so big that Schlect hired several illustrators and Kollath was able to focus primarily on the covers.

Ironically, Kollath is probably the only person involved with the company who continues to have a Duluth connection. The company has been in Wisconsin for more than a dozen years.

“Other than me, it was never really in Duluth though the original owners once considered moving it to a barge here,” said Kollath, who comes to the Madison area few months to brainstorm with what he jokingly called his “cruel masters.”

“I’m not the most creative person in the world,” he said modestly. “But I work with some who are and they come up with the ideas. It’s great fun working with them.”

Kollath, who lived for a time near Mount Horeb, said he thinks having the name Duluth as part of the company gives it a rugged, blue-collar cachet.

“I’ve lived a number of places and I guess people in places like Chicago or Des Moines think this town is hard-scrabble, tough place, if they even know where it is,” he said.

For more information on the company and to see Kollath’s artwork, er, illustrations, go to www.duluthtrading.com

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