Kristara Lynch Schnippert ’08 enjoys a good challenge.
Coated in well-worn chalkboard paint, the very walls of her high-ceiling Houston calligraphy studio invite creative risk.
Mementos of all the artistic challenges she’s willingly taken on dangle from metal wiring running the length of her entry hallway wall. Vibrant floral patterns surrounding delicate pink lettering invite the reader to so-and-so’s wedding. Bold, golden flourishes announce the birth of a new family member. A Christmas card stamped with the prestigious Cartier logo wishes recipients a happy holiday season.
Schnippert has rarely uttered the word “no” since starting her calligraphy business nearly six years ago, and that willingness has allowed her to make quite a name for herself. A quick review of past clients might leave anyone reeling — Jimmy Choo, Kendra Scott, David Yurman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Estée Lauder, Ray-Ban, West Elm, lululemon. The list goes on.
That fearlessness in the face of the unfamiliar has led Schnippert to work in all manner of mediums — chalkboards, gigantic room-size mirrors, perfume bottles and Stella Artois chalices.
“I really enjoy unconventional projects, like the challenge of writing on glassware. I like doing leather journals because they’re really smooth and buttery,” Schnippert said. “I think my willingness to say ‘yes,’ or at least ‘I’ll try,’ is part of what’s helped me grow as a business. I’ve known people who are too scared to say ‘yes’ because they’ve never done that type of project before. But I’m like ‘Oh, I’ve never done it before. I’ll figure it out.’”
The Turning Point
Kristara Calligraphy began in fits and starts.
The very first time Schnippert put nib to paper was in middle school when she took up the artistic trade as a hobby.
“I found a book at my grandma’s house and just fell in love with how beautiful it was,” she said. “But back then, there weren’t Instagram pages or YouTube videos to watch. There were no online resources or classes, so I figured things out through trial and error. Because I’m self-taught, I’ve made almost every kind of mistake I could possibly make and learned from each.”
Owning a business was not originally one of Schnippert’s life goals. After graduating from McKinney North High School, she moved from the big city to East Texas to attend SFA, where she studied mass communication and art.
“A lot of people don’t know exactly what they want to do in high school, but I always knew I wanted to be a copywriter and write ads,” she said.
The Monday after graduating from SFA, Schnippert began her first post-grad job at the Houston-based ad agency Rehak Creative Services. Her clients included huge corporations, like Halliburton and HP.
Aware of Schnippert’s calligraphy talents, however, friends and family began asking for various smaller projects — a wedding chalkboard here or addressed envelopes there. In true form, she continued to say “yes” and even began charging for certain projects. Finding the talent increasingly lucrative, she created her own website and branded her fledgling business simply “Kristara.”
Word-of-mouth dramatically picked up speed. On weekends and at night — really “any spare moment I had” — Schnippert created calligraphy-based projects for more and more clients.
“It just reached a point where I couldn’t do both jobs because I was getting so busy,” she said. “I was sending emails and answering calls at my ad job when I shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t fair to my clients at either job. That was the turning point.”
Schnippert’s talent is evident, but the impetus to take that giant leap all small business owners must take was more personal.
“The reason I even started my business in the first place, my biggest inspiration, was my mom,” Schnippert said. “She’s had her own embroidery and silkscreen business for as long as I can remember. When we were little, she would sew all our clothes, and she’s always been really crafty and creative.
“It was great when we were growing up. She worked a lot but also had flexibility to be there for us,” Schnippert said, clearing her throat before pausing for a moment. “I wanted to do that, too, for our kids.”
Turning Down Vogue
Kristara Calligraphy was established in August 2014 and received a permanent home in a downtown Houston arts district warehouse the following June.
Almost immediately after creating her business, Schnippert began teaching classes in her studio. The workshops are popular and often quickly sell out. To date, she has taught more than 1,750 people, not counting those in her online classes.
The space is wide and welcoming. Bright light tapers down from high-positioned windows. Most of the walls are painted white save for a brick outer wall and one gigantic back wall slathered in chalkboard paint. It’s rife with potential for creative adventure and has been used for complex murals, class instruction and a stylized “Axe ’em, Jacks” catchphrase.
When she's not teaching, Schnippert has been increasingly preoccupied with taking on new corporate and other clients. Her work with companies can range from on-site personalization of gifts, to in-store chalkboard displays (some the size of an entire wall), brand activation or hand painting the box for a luxury perfume line.
Schnippert’s brush with fame happened when creating place cards for an Omega watches event. Actor George Clooney serves as the company’s spokesperson. Regretfully, she didn’t meet him but did rewrite his name about 20 times until it was perfect.
“No” may not have been in Schnippert’s vocabulary when she began Kristara Calligraphy, but her business has been so successful she has had to be more selective, like when the Super Bowl came to town, and she was asked to simultaneously work multiple events.
“Vogue was having a party and asked if I could be on-site to do the place cards, and I had to tell them I already had another commitment. So I had to turn down Vogue,” she said with a slight grin.
Attention to Detail
Though Schnippert minored in art, she says those lessons are as integral to her job as her mass communication degree.
“I use stuff I learned at SFA every day — how to advertise and market myself, the use of correct grammar,” Schnippert said. “And since I did study art in college, too, I use it to help teach people. Layout, spacing and design are all big parts of calligraphy. In my watercolor classes, I even share a little basic color theory.”
The combination is part of what Schnippert says sets her apart.
“Grammar plays a larger role in calligraphy than many people realize,” Schnippert said. “My attention to detail makes me a little different than other calligraphers. You can be artistic and do calligraphy, but if you’re misspelling things, people aren’t going to hire you again. I work with a lot of luxury clients, and they expect a high level of professionalism. You can’t make little mistakes.”
Six months after Schnippert established Kristara Calligraphy, she was approached by Annie’s Paper Crafts to create an instructional calligraphy book. Her answer comes as no surprise, and later that year, “Creative Calligraphy” was published. Again using all aspects of her education, Schnippert wrote all of the book’s text and instruction.
Each year, Schnippert writes down personal and professional goals and most recently scratched out a plan to primarily focus on corporate events and studio classes.
“I love meeting creative-minded people, and I love how lettering can help people, from cancer patients to women overcoming depression, from businesses seeking a unique team-building activity to empty nesters trying to find a new hobby,” Schnippert said. “I love that my classes are a relaxing escape.”
She’s also been toying with the idea of writing a second book for children.
“For young kids, cursive has been scientifically proven to improve fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, thinking memory and visual recognition skills. So the earlier the exposure to a wide range of letters, the better.”
Despite an increasingly technological world, Schnippert said she’s been surprised to find just how desirable the art of lettering has become.
“Many people think of calligraphy and cursive as a dying art, but I disagree. It may sound counterintuitive, but technology is one of the key drivers of my business,” she said. “Texts and emails are so pervasive and impersonal that they actually make people crave and appreciate things created by hand. I don’t think handwriting will ever be lost.”