8 Things
James Victore, Graphic Designer

Not everyone knows this about James Victore, but he actually doesn’t use Sharpies anymore, his weapon of choice back when he first started scribbling dirty words and other provocative drawings across plates and hand-made posters. He packed them all up in storage a few years ago, opting instead for paint pens, and more recently, Japanese Sumi-e brushes. “Sharpies are a line I know,” the Brooklyn-based designer explains. “I’m doing a job right now for Bobbi Brown cosmetics, and using a Sumi-e brush with India ink precisely because I suck at it. It’s so much more interesting than being good at something — I like the idea of chance and mistakes. I can’t wait until I’m 80 and have that shaky old-man handwriting.” For Victore, a self-taught designer who dropped out of SVA in his first year and who seems to recoil further from computers each year their influence swells, un-learning can be its own kind of growth.

Other likely and unlikely signs of growth: his first monograph, and the increasing revelation of what he calls “my sentimental side.” When he recruited longtime collaborator Paul Sahre to design Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss?, which comes out from Abrams in September, “our mission statement was badass,” says Victore. It’s a label he’s cultivated for the last decade, feeding into it with provocative work — copulating flies in a condom ad, George W. Bush’s face turned into a pirate flag — and happily promoting himself as a guy who says “fuck” a lot. When Sight Unseen asked him to name his eight biggest creative influences for this story, among the early options he submitted were Evel Knievel and Johnny Cash flipping Nashville the bird. “My heroes have always been cowboys,” he says. But these days, he’s just as quick to revel in the wimpier aspects of his personal life. “What fills the walls of my studio are these cornball love notes I’ve written to my wife,” he says. Inspiration number seven is his 13-year-old son Luca, with whom he likes to draw on paper tablecloths when he’s out to eat. “My reading library is full of Deepak Chopra,” he laughs. “I don’t have little porcelain figurines or anything. But I’m also not that other guy, the big 8-foot-tall papier-mâché figurine of James Victore.”

That’s not to say he’s no longer prone to cursing about the oil spill and threatening to storm the beaches of Louisiana with a shotgun, or that he’s going to stop flaunting his daredevil persona anytime soon. His rebellion against design’s status quo is just as important to his work as the evolution of his signature child-like scrawl — moreso, in fact. To understand his work is to get to know both sides of his personality, a glimpse of which is presented in the slideshow here.

Who Died

In 2003, Victore told Armin Vit in an interview: "I can’t make a book now, I’m just now doing good work. There will be a book. And it will be killer." Seven years later, and he's made good on his promise — his first monograph, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss?, comes out from Harry N. Abrams in September.

Natural History_2

Nature imagery: "Nature is a regular dramatic personae in my visual vocabulary — chickens, bunnies, bugs, bones, even scatalogical references," Victore says. "It always finds its way into my work. Perhaps because I'm trying to find beautiful ways to say something ugly, or ugly ways to say something beautiful. The squirrel here is a piece of taxidermy we used in a series of SVA subway posters."


Grapus, Henryk Tomazewski, and Tomi Ungerer: (Pictured in Victore’s studio, left to right.) “As a poster designer, these are my three strongest influences. Tomaszewski made art for the street, Ungerer used his work to fight against the war in Vietnam, and the French design studio Grapus injected its work with social and political themes — not to mention humor and poetry. I was probably 23 when I bought my first poster, a Lucien Bernhardt. It cost $300, and I think I didn’t eat for three weeks. But I stopped collecting a few years ago because underneath all the beds and in all the flat files are posters. I did an exhibition at SVA 14 years ago with my collection of Tomazewski posters, 80 in total, which is crazy. Since then I sold a huge chunk to an archivist. I still have 10 or 15, but the rest are gone. It’s a shame to keep them in a box under your bed.”


Collage: “Possibly my favorite format to work in. Free association, helter skelter, 1+1=3, being open to illogical ideas. Of course Duchamp is an influence. And Hannah Hoch, the German Dadaist. I love that you don’t know if what she's done is ugly or beautiful. I just saw a Marc Jacobs documentary, and he’s totally a collageist, too — the way he takes scissors to this woman’s dress and shapes it, I don’t know why more designers don’t work that way.” Hanna Hoch, “Der Kleine P”


Collage: "Yohji Yamamoto does too, and he's amazing." Above, an illustration Victore did while serving as art director for Yohji Yamamoto Hommes. In his monograph he writes: “The French designer Pierre Bernard has been quoted as saying, 'In order for creative work to take place we must have a creative designer, a creative client, a creative printer and a creative audience.’ With Yohji, I had all of these — and I never felt more inadequate. Yohji is one of the most talented designers of any type working today.”

Bush Pirate2

Collage: One of Victore’s best-known posters turns the stars and stripes into a pirate flag by layering it with the former president's crudely photocopied visage. It’s brutally honest commentary tempered by a dose of humor — the designer’s signature. It's also one of nine works of his in MoMA's permanent collection.


Tommie Smith: “The world’s fastest man, on the podium at the ‘68 Mexico Olympics, head bowed in support of the black power movement, saying goodbye to his Wheaties contract. Fuck it. Not enough of us put our convictions on the line and stand for what we believe in. There truly are some things more important than money.”


Hot rods and motorcycles: “One of the simplest and most-beautiful machines ever made is a 1976 Bultaco Sherpa-T, a Spanish trials bike. It looks even better covered in mud. This one I keep in my studio; I don’t get it out enough but I can’t get rid of it. I’ve had it for 15 years.”


Hot rods and motorcycles: A hot rod at the famous Pomona Swap Meet. “I love custom-car culture in all its forms: low-riders, choppers, funny cars, or even the die-cast Hot Wheels I had when I was 5. Customization in general interests me. I customize everything: I paint surfboards, I bob my motorcycle, I paint on plates, I even draw on myself.”


Hot rods and motorcycles: The aforementioned surfboard, made by Mike Becker of Natures Shapes in Long Island and embellished by Victore. It was a limited-edition exclusive for Design Within Reach in 2008.


Tools: “I don’t collect anymore, but tools come close. I have a large assortment of tools that have only one purpose: a steering head wrench for a YZ400, plug pullers for a ZRX1100, and this one is a Silencer Plug for a 4-stroke dirt bike. It protects your tailpipe’s interior when you spray-wash your bike. I’m looking around the studio and there are also a lot of old postal telegraph clocks here. At one time I collected those, and posters, and bucksaws, these 8-foot-long lumberjack saws. My old studio was a barn and we had them hung up and down the wall. I always wanted to paint on them but I was afraid, they were too beautiful.”


Luca’s dice: “My biggest inspiration is my son, Luca, who’s 13. He’s a reckless spirit and a fount of creativity and free association. He was probably 8 when he made these, and at the time I was trying to teach him math. We had this game we used to play with different-sized dice. I guess he picked up on that and made his own game, but one die has spots while the other has letters and numbers, which is completely weird. He was sitting here in the studio working on his own, and he didn’t ask for help. He just started using the masking tape and cardboard, which I thought was really cool. That kind of stuff really frees me up to think no, it doesn’t have to be any certain way. As designers we’re always thinking our work has to be perfect, but I’m not afraid of putting things out there that will make people say, ‘Oh, a real person made that, a human being made that.’”


Girls: “One of the alternate titles for my book was Girls, Bunnies and America, these being prominent themes in my work. I’m a red-blooded American male. There’s no greater influence on my work — or impetus for me to do it — than women. Attracting them. Idolizing them. On my knees adoring them. This is what we were put on the planet to do since man crafted the first talisman of fertility, a muse. My wife is my muse.” Gustave Courbet, “The Origin of the World”

Victore Watch

Girls: A wristwatch Victore designed in the shape of a woman's legs.