In 2011, the Kinfolk crew recruited Julie Pointer, a quiet 28-year-old with steely eyes and a square jaw who did a graduate thesis, for a degree in applied craft and design, on mixed-media dinner parties. Pointer now orchestrates a key aspect of the nascent brand’s global campaign: organizing family-style dinners, honey harvests, nose-to-tail pig butchery workshops, and the like, around the world. She vets a “Kinfolk Ambassador” to guide each one, then sends them parcels filled with on-brand essentials: letterpress recipe cards, hand-stamped menus, and screen-printed posters.
“Instead of telling them exactly how we want to host the event, we show them,” Pointer explains. “It’s one thing to tell them not to use plastic containers. It’s another to send a beautifully packaged box with glass containers for making jam, or natural sponges and homemade cleaning spray. It becomes a sort of kit to model your workshop.” For between $50 and $80, Kinfolk fans dine communally under mason-jar installations and learn grassroots practices like preserving vegetables or throwing flower-picking potlucks.
The events are synchronized: when Pointer threw an instructional dinner on camp cooking and grilling, Kinfolk acolytes in 20 cities from Slovenia to New Zealand also experimented with hickory fire starters and haute s’mores. “Events are the core goal for us,” Williams says. “If we are going to be writing about this kind of stuff in the magazine, we can’t just talk about it, we have to actually do it.”
Considering such international proselytizing, it’s hard not to think of Kinfolk’s origins at a university run by the Mormon Church. The very notion of “kinfolk”—of community, bringing friends to break bread, of meditating on older ways—resonates with Mormon tradition as well as the broader vogue for all things artisanal. (It may be no coincidence that members of the church have become oddly prominent in design media in general: Google “Mormon mommy blogs” to meet a cadre of 20- and 30-something-year-old Mormon mothers who chronicle their crafty day-to-days.)
Kinfolk is definitely not a faith-based publication: the magazine covers coffee and alcohol, both traditionally off limits for Mormons. But even with religion stripped away, a certain missionary zeal remains. Take, for example, an article on gift-giving: “Learning to be a generous neighbor is a practice of tangibility, and simply changing your physical posture is a good place to begin.” Kinfolk preaches to its audience in a way that other indie publications do not.
“Maybe it influences us subconsciously,” Williams says. “But we aren’t pushing that sort of information on our readers at all.”
Where does a small-is-beautiful publication like Kinfolk go from here? How can it grow without resorting to advertising, either in traditional print or in the online ads now woven into the sites of Vice Magazine (Kinfolk’s millennial evil twin), the New Yorker, or Forbes?
Consumer demand does not seem to be a problem. Last fall, Kinfolk released a cookbook, The Kinfolk Table, now already in its fourth printing with more than 70,000 copies sold. This summer, the Kinfolk brand will extend to an online retail shop, selling carefully selected home goods and even a Kinfolk clothing line, manufactured in Japan, that promises “casual, comfort-oriented, subtly fashionable linens.” The company plans to open a physical flagship store in Japan this spring, with US outlets to follow.
On the other hand, Kinfolk seems to live most vividly in intangibles: dinners, events, and reader loyalty to the lifestyle the magazine has defined.
One evening last summer: Kinfolk holds a dinner at ADX, a Southeast Portland workshop where craftspeople and artists can rent space and borrow tools.
At long tables covered in butcher paper and lined with bouquets, each place setting has its own party favor: a linen bundle of scented fire starters secured by one long match, branded with the Kinfolk name. Chef Jason French prepares a campfire-themed menu from Ned Ludd, his Northeast Portland restaurant, while a local cocktail catering company, Merit Badge, mixes refreshments with names like “Pine Bramble” and “Smoke Fox.”
A middle-aged couple visiting from Paris tells me they jumped at the chance to attend while vacationing in Portland. Across the table, a tech-industry pair visiting from San Jose chimes in: “We just love dinner parties like this. They’re so ... Portland.” Soon the room is buzzing as diners dig into French’s harissa-spiced grilled lamb skewers, pausing occasionally to praise Kinfolk’s magnetic aesthetic.
But are these people ... kinfolk? They aren’t the Scandinavian beauties tiptoeing through tall grasses on the magazine’s pages, or the apron-clad youth coddling sourdough starters on its website. They may have boring full-time jobs and normal, dysfunctional families. They may throw flower-picking potlucks rarely—if ever. And yet they’ve come together around this little magazine from Portland that allows them to learn, commune, and live a certain considered life. Or, at least, imagine it.