James Victore Is a Nice Guy!
For some reason James Victore has garnered a reputation as being ‘the angry man of graphic design’ so it was with a little trepidation that I contacted him about the possibility of meeting and talking to him while I was recently in New York (I know, I’m a pussy!) Let me dispel the myth. As well as being one of the most talented designers plying his trade today, he’s one of the nicest and most generous individuals I have met on my travels. Maybe this ‘reputation’ comes from his unwillingness to compromise his ideals or the honesty with which he speaks about the profession. In discussing his ‘bad boy’ image with him, he seemed to take some pleasure from the perceived ‘rock-star attitude’ persona. So my apologies James if it’s burst anyone’s bubble and you find your doorstep inundated with design graduates now reassured that you won’t spit on their folios and make them cry. Following is a transcript of a brief interview I did with the great man – and he only says ‘fuck’ once.
Chris Bowden: With some of the most recognised design names in the world residing in the New York environs – how do you get yourself noticed and bring in clients?
James Victore: I’ve never really thought or concerned myself with that much, partially because one thing that I think goes on in the city is that there are a lot of graphic designers and they all do the same sort of work that looks alike to a certain extent. All I have to do is try not to be a graphic designer. I don’t consider myself an artist but I think a lot of designers would think that I lean more towards that side than to the graphic design side, so I really don’t worry about it that way. Because they ‘look like a duck and smell like a duck’, they probably get more of the ‘graphic design work’ than I do. It’s something that I shy away from but also something that I probably suffer from – not being the quintessential graphic designer.
CB: Is New York as a market so big that it can encapsulate all of these designers and still provide plenty of work?
JV: There’s nice work if you can get it. A lot of it seems to me to be too easy, big money work. Take work for land developers for example, there’s tonnes of work and I’m sure it pays extremely well, I just can’t figure out how to get it! If I did get it, it would probably be the kind of work I wouldn’t do too much to. I don’t think there is much I could do that would be that much different from anybody else. I would just get Shawn (designer in James’ studio) to do it and he would do an excellent job. There are a lot of designers in the city, there’s a lot of clients, but the thing I’ve found with those clients and with the city is that it’s actually all pretty conservative out there. They’re not really concerned with new or interesting, they’re just concerned with work.
CB: When I spoke with Paul Sahre, he thought a lot of the most interesting work was coming from the ‘young guns’ working out of their bedrooms.
JV: It’s true, but once they have bigger bedrooms and higher rents and mortgages, then their work will change, that’s what happens.
CB: A lot of your most recognised work tackles particular social and political issues, they obviously express a personal viewpoint , is it important for designers to express themselves in this way?
JV: No, it’s a personal calling. You either view it or you don’t. In general, I don’t think designers are particularly qualified to express those opinions. To a certain degree, I don’t think it is something that you can be asked to do. A lot of those things I did were self initiated – just something I thought of or felt and got it done. Either I went and spent my rent money doing it, or I found some client who was interested in my opinion and got them to distribute the stuff. It isn’t really in the designer’s job description to be socially active.
CB: At design school we were sort of pushed towards believing that you shouldn’t see too much of the individual designer in the work, that the work should be produced for the needs of the client.
JV: That’s hogwash. I spent a little bit of time in design school and I felt that we all went in with this empty shoe box and we were handed out these particular tools and these particular answers and as soon as we got out of school, we would be a success if we looked alike and acted alike. I thought that was the job. I think you could work in New York city and be very successful doing that, having no opinion, having no look, just melding to the client. It’s just not something that I can personally do. You’ve spoken to Paul (Sahre), Paul would probably err towards not having himself in the work, but he’s all over his stuff whether he knows it or not.
CB: I brought that up, he doesn’t see a particular style in his work.
JV: He must have been drunk!
CB: He did concede to having a certain ‘character’, I always see a subtle irony at play there.
JV: I think my work has too much character at times and looks too much like me. It’s hard for me to get away from that, it’s hard for me to remove myself unless I just did flush left, Helvetica on a white background all the time.
CB: Your work would never be mistaken for that of anyone else, unless they are directly copying you.
JV: I actually like the feeling and ideas in Paul’s work so much, that we’ve actually started working on the big book that says ‘Victore’ down the spine. Paul is designing it because I want that from him and I don’t want to see my own ‘handiwork’ in my own book. He can put the ‘aggressive’ in there but he can also put the ‘smart’.
CB: Do you get offered work that you just won’t do?
JV: No, I wish I got that! I don’t get it too often. I think that for better or for worse, 15 years ago I kind of professionally shot myself in the foot in doing this poster with a dead indian on it. I’ve said this before that because of that poster and subsequent work, I’ve gained a certain reputation. I would actually be happy to die with that reputation, rather than have the money from those ‘other’ jobs in my pocket. We get to take cabs, have nice wine, etc. I sleep really well. I would like a new this or a new that, but there are trade offs. There’s this great line about getting work and getting certain types of work. It’s from an E. E. Cummings poem: “There is some shit I will not eat.” We sometimes get a call from a big agency for work, so we give them an estimate. All they want is a price, they don’t can’t so much about the work as much as who is going to do it for what price. Then we never hear back from them. I don’t know what it is that keeps me from the big money stuff, but so be it. I also think that those are jobs that I really don’t want to do, but there are enough zeroes in them to make them interesting. What I’m trying to do instead of doing those jobs is a lot of other things. For instance, this school I’m doing with Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker, product designs I’m doing with surfboards and plates. I’m starting another program with the school that I teach at, The School of Visual Arts. We’re starting a retail store for them, I’ll be the director of that. Instead of going out on my knees and trying to get those clients with ‘that money’, I just figure out other ways of doing it. That way I can love the project, it can be my thing. I can still have an opinion, I can still have my attitude and just diversify.
CB: Can you tell me a little about your plates project.
JV: The plates are just a funny thing that came about a bunch of years ago. As a young designer I was a bit of a barfly and I would always have paint markers or sharpies with me. I would draw on the plates, glasses, wine bottles etc, when I had finished with them. In my heart, I’m a customiser, I just change everything. I draw on my equipment, I’ve got type on myself. I would use them to start conversations, or give them away as gifts. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who has a small gallery in Brooklyn asked me if I wanted to do a show of my work. He meant the posters but I really didn’t want to see them up anywhere, it’s not that interesting to me. I told him that I would think about it. Laura (James wife) and I took a vacation to Austin where she’s from and where we like to spend a lot of time. I went to a friends studio and on his wall was a tiny little plate with a funny little drawing on it. I saw it from across the room and my immediate reaction was ‘That’s fucking nice’. Then it dawned on me that I had actually done it for him when he had been in town previously. I went back to the gallery guy in Brooklyn and told him that I had an idea for a show, I draw on plates, I’ve done it forever. He said “great, how many do you have?” I said “none, I give them all away, but I know where I can find some blank plates”. I drew up some plates and did that show. When that show came down, it went up again at a big retailer called Design Within Reach. There are plates up now in a gallery called Future Perfect which is down in Brooklyn. I was just talking with a museum in the Netherlands to do a show there at some time. I haven’t been pushing it really hard or looking for a retailer to carry them, but it moves along at it’s own funny little pace. If I just dropped everything else and just concentrated on the plates, we could probably make an interesting go of it, but it’s not what I do. I’m involved in a lot of different projects, the plates are just one of them.
CB: Do you think designers self initiating projects and putting them out in the market is a good strategy for having more control over their work?
JV: I think there are so many people doing that these days, designers and illustrators – to me, the plate thing partially started when I was a kid. My mother showed me the work of Fornasetti and I really liked it. Then when I was about 28, for the first time I went to Paris and visited the Picasso museum. I first saw his plates there and from that the idea blew up in my head. The plates have been sort of a lark, but if they turned into something professional, that would be awesome, and a complete surprise to me!
CB: Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which have given you the most personal satisfaction?
JV: It would be today’s project. I’m not one who is easily satisfied. We have a project that we just finished today, the new Yohji Yamamoto fashion stuff and I really like what we came up with for that. We’ve also just finished this thing for a museum in Florida, it was a totally free job and it was just dragging me through the mud, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. When we did finally solve it, it was just awesome. I think it just comes from my personality. The ones that interest me the most are the ones that are just over the ‘stoop’. Like this wine job for Chris Ringland at the moment. I’m like, “My God, what am I going to do?” It has to be great, which is kind of scary, but we’ll see what happens.
CB: Is it for export to the US market?
JV: No, it’s a wine offering. He’s got his 2002 Shiraz coming out, he sends it out, I don’t know how many pieces, whether it’s 1,000, 5,000 or 500. I have to make that mailing. When we’ve done that, we’ll probably roll that over into some other labelling for his stuff. That will be interesting for me. Wine labels are such a cliche, how do I make something that’s not completely outside of the cliche, but something that is still interesting, still sexy and marvelous. Something where people will stare and think that they have to look at it.
CB: South Australia is known for it’s wine regions, and subsequently, some excellent wine labels from the likes of Tucker Design, Parallax and KS Design, you’ll often see them in the design annuals.
JV: I keep saying that I did design the easy way, I came to New York. If I was really good I could do it from Minnesota or Adelaide or wherever. I think there is always room for good.
CB: Any projects or clients that you haven’t worked on that you would like to?
JV: The answer is always the same for that. I like doing work that real human beings see. I don’t like doing work that just graphic designers see. If I do a book project, I want to do a book that gets out there. Even if I’m designing surfboards, there are probably like 3 people on the planet who are interested in my surfboards, but I want everyone to see them. I did this crazy ass job for Esquire magazine recently, it was a big full page with a big thing on the other page. The fact that a lot of people will see that interests me. These past couple of months have been crazy. The job I really want to do now is any job that is worth $100,000 and would take me 15 minutes just to do a little doodle! The Yohji Yamamoto stuff is kind of interesting. The problem is that they don’t advertise in magazines. To get a full spread in a fashion magazine would be wonderful. It doesn’t matter what it pays, I like to put stuff out there and make people go “Oh my God, that’s nuts!” Like Paul Sahre’s work, he can do something with Helvetica that makes people go, “What the hell? Nobody has the balls to do that!”
Thanks once again to James, Laura and Shawn for their generosity in giving up their time to talk to me and for taking me out to lunch as well. Hopefully we will see James out here in Australia some time soon (if you’re listening, get onto this AGDA!) As was mentioned in the interview, James, along with Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker are conducting a week long workshop this summer in New York. Applications have closed for this year, but he school will be conducted again next year, so start saving now. I’ll be sure to have the details up on the site as soon as they are available. In the meantime, you can look at the workshop site here. All images are from James’ website and you can browse some of these items for sale at his online shop, (US residents only, unfortunately!) James even finds time for a blog!