If you’ve been to one of her fashion presentations or received one of her elaborate invitations in the mail, you might be surprised to hear graphic designer and art director Roanne Adams describe her business as “not the edgiest design firm.” This, after all, is a woman who’s so well known for her career-launching work for emerging fashion stars like Abigail Lorick and Timo Weiland that brands often come crawling to her for infusions of downtown cool. Yet if she’s managed to turn RoAndCo Studio into one of the most up-and-coming boutique firms in New York at the moment, it’s because her little-known clients like Rachael Ray and Zappos have just as much respect for her work as folks like TenOverSix do, which has a lot to do with Adams’s instinctive approach to design: Rather than competing to be the most avant-garde kid on the block, she prefers putting new twists on familiar ideas from the past, researching a brand’s history or creating narratives around those who don’t have one. Her inspirations, as enumerated in the pages of our book Paper View and brought to life here, run to the likes of Guy Bourdin and ’70s advertising icons. “I’ve always been more into Paul Rand and Herb Lubalin than any contemporary designers,” she says.
Which isn’t to say she’s some kind of design Luddite, of course. She’s just well balanced. As an undergrad at Parsons, she was “designing weird stuff — bizarre magazines and experimental books,” she says, and interning for Stella Bugbee at Honest. But her first job out of school was at Wolff Olins, where her pet project was rebranding the kids’ clothing giant Osh Kosh. “Being put in that environment was like using opposite side of my brain. Suddenly I had to appeal to the lowest common denominator and explain things to people who were all about driving numbers. It was nice to have an experience in a small firm that liked to poke fun at capitalism, then go to an environment where they embraced it.” That knowledge has actually come to define her work, in a way, since she set up her own studio in 2006: The fledgling fashion houses she built her roster with weren’t just getting logos and catalogs from her, but full-service creative direction, and by extension, business consulting. Adams still likes taking on new brands that let her wade elbow-deep into their debuts, though her goal is always to set them up “so they can kind of do it themselves at a certain point,” she says. “It’s like teaching them how to ride a bike.”
Even with her more established clients, though, she does tend to do a little bit of everything, creatively speaking. It’s that control-freak thing that more than a few designers share, the urge to script all the parts of a brand’s story rather than just the one that ends up on paper. Adams art-directs many of her clients’ lookbook shoots, and she’s known for her immersive fashion week presentation sets, starting with the decadently dystopian world she crafted for Lorick in 2008. “We once did a show for Rachel Antonoff on the Lower East Side where we called it a school play rehearsal, with a cardboard piano and the girls dressed up in tutus,” she says. “And for the spring ’11 Honor show, which was inspired by French New Wave and Wall Street in the ’80s, the space looked like a place where bad things happen. So it was about this Belle de Jour woman who’s seemingly perfect but has this bad side.” To create all this imagery and give it dimension takes a wellspring of such references — check out the slideshow at right to discover the ones Adams turns to most often these days, then follow this link to purchase a copy of Paper View, where you’ll find eight other such inspiration lists from folks like Sebastian Wrong of Established & Sons and Pin-Up’s Felix Burrichter.