When Mason McFee and Jessica Clark decided to name their new company Crummy House, referring to their own charmingly ancient one-bedroom rental in Austin, Texas, it was mostly out of admiration rather than denigration. Sure, the paint is cracked in places, the garage has an uneven dirt floor, and in the winter, the cold night air blows through with no regard for shuttered windows. And it was a bit of an inconvenience when, two months after they moved in, an old tree fell directly onto McFee’s car. But with two desks in the living room, a workshop in the garage, and the kitchen basically converted into a studio, the house has become a kind of creative haven for the couple — a getaway from McFee’s responsibilities as an art director at the ad agency Screamer, and Clark’s as a graphic design student at Austin’s Art Institute. They spend weekends making art there, side by side, and with Crummy House they’ll start their first true collaboration: a kind of arts promotion initiative in which they’ll make black-and-white zines showcasing the work of their artist and illustrator friends. Eventually they hope to end up with a grassroots agency on their hands.
Besides Crummy House and their day jobs, though, McFee and Clark’s personal work has little in common. Clark layers detailed pencil drawings with watercolors, photographs, and resin, the end product being either digital or digitally altered. “I can never be satisfied with one medium,” she says. “If I draw something, I put it on the computer, and if I make something on the computer I print it out and cover it with resin.” McFee — whose style falls somewhere between folk art and street art — prefers all things rough and handmade, painting not just on canvases but on chunks of driftwood, bottles, stones, and other found objects. He grew up doodling incessantly and emulating illustrators like Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarrey, and Where’s Waldo creator Martin Hanford, eventually moving on to appreciate folks like Barry McGee; Clark started with Lisa Frank’s computer-drawn fantasies and eventually came to identify with Mike Mills and minimalist Swiss designers.
Though they fuel one another’s creativity, when they’re at work in the kitchen or garage, even their process is fundamentally different. “My thought is, don’t even go into it with an idea,” says McFee. “I have a blank piece of paper, or a pile of wood, and I just make something out of it.” Says Clark, on the other hand: “I see what I’m making before I make it. I try so hard to let that go, but I need an element I can turn into something else, whereas he can sit on a desert island with nothing but a pen and pencil and have something beautiful come out of it. He’s more of a real artist, and I feel like while I can make art, I’m more of a designer. I see the Adobe screen in my head when I go to sleep.” The pair invited Sight Unseen over on a recent warm Austin evening to show us around their home studio, which isn’t as crummy as they make it out to be, and told us all about their working methods, their Texas upbringings, and how their creative time together is like a form of meditation.
The 28-year-old graphic designer Kostya Sasquatch makes thick, vector-like graphics on a PC, all cartoon colors and geometric shapes, odd logotypes that create iconographies for systems that seem to exist only in the designer’s mind. (He has a whole series called Donut Control.) They’re the kind of designs that could be from anywhere, but they might not have looked anything like they do if Sasquatch wasn’t from Moscow.
Someone like JP Williams has enjoyed plenty of validating moments in his 20-year career as a graphic designer: Getting to study under one of his design heros, Paul Rand, at Yale; winning more than 100 awards for projects like his kraft-paper tea packages for Takashimaya; discovering that his collection of baseball cards from 1909 was worth enough to buy his wife and business partner Allison an engagement ring. All well and good, however none of it really compared, he admits, to the feeling of being validated by Martha Stewart.
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."