If you were to chart the degrees of separation among young American designers, you might do well to start with Alex Lin. Since 2007, Lin — a Yale School of Art grad and former designer at 2×4 — has created all of the branding and collateral for Brooklyn-based furniture designer Stephen Burks, who often does work for the sustainably minded home accessories company Artecnica, who recently launched a line of pendant lights by Rich Brilliant Willing, who produce their Excel light series with Roll & Hill, who shared an exhibition space at this spring’s Noho Design District event with Areaware, who commissioned a special 5-year anniversary piñata from Confetti System, who did the set design for United Bamboo’s Spring/Summer ’09 campaign. Confetti System also happen to share an 11th-floor Manhattan studio with Lin, who is the mild-mannered, super-talented graphic designer at the vortex of this Venn diagram–gone-haywire.
Lin has headed up his own shop for only two years, but in that time, he’s worked with every creative on this list and then some. (Did we forget to mention the American Design Club, The Future Perfect, and recent Sight Unseen subjects Iacoli & McAllister?) It’s a testament to Lin’s vast creative gifts that he’s been able to work almost exclusively by referral among a tight-knit group. But it’s an even greater testament to his creativity that the work he’s done for each of these clients doesn’t begin to reveal a singular style. “I like to work with designers because they have strong points of view, which pushes me to do things I wouldn’t normally do,” says Lin. “I think the goal is always to see the design I did, and then to be like, ‘Oh, did I do that?’”
With most projects, Lin, like a journalist, zeroes in on the most idiosyncratic thing about a client and builds a narrative around it. When he first began working for Burks, for example, an impromptu visit to the designer’s studio ended up informing the navigation for Burks’ Readymade Projects website. “He had this packed inspiration shelf. He put everything there — products, inspiration, his son’s inflatable toy — all in reverse chronological order, with the new stuff first. It sort of put everything in context,” he says. It also eventually became the way that visitors root around for projects on Burks’s site. The result of these sorts of symbiotic relationships is work that creates a new visual language for each client but also seems a logical and organic outgrowth of each specific practice.
It also means that clients have begun to entrust Lin with more than just printed ephemera or web design. After working for years with Artecnica, Lin was recently asked by the company’s creative director and founder Tahmineh Javanbahkt to be involved in its Design With Conscience program, which pairs designers with craftspeople and artisans. Javanbahkt introduced Lin to a Los Angeles–based organization called Homeboy Industries, which helps rehabilitate ex-gang members through jobs like silk-screening and embroidery. “The founder of Homeboy Industries is this Jesuit priest who gives speeches all over the country and comes up with these great quotes that really speak to what the organization does — ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job’ or ‘If you hang out around the barbershop, you’ll wind up with a haircut,’” Lin says. “We came up with a series of tote bags. Initially I thought I’d do the lettering for the quotes using a sign painter, but then we found some Homeboys who were really great at drawing and tattoos. So I sent them a PDF of some initial designs and had them basically interpret the lettering how they wanted. It was great because I had to figure out how each design decision could directly support the idea of helping Homebody Industries, to both raise awareness and to actually give them more jobs.”
Those bags will be released at the end of this month, and in the meantime Lin is creating more work for the American Design Club, a new e-commerce portal for Areaware, an exhibition catalog for Burks, and more. We recently took time out to get to know the prolific designer who’s on everyone’s speed dial.
Event that inspired you to be a designer: “In college at University of the Arts in Philly, I thought that I might be an illustrator or industrial designer. But then I took graphic design as a freshman. I clearly remember making a John Coltrane CD cover and loving the process of combining found imagery, typography, and color to create something new.”
Style movement you most identify with: “Modernism — mainly because it seems like every design move the modernists made was backed by some kind of logical reasoning. I feel the need to give a reason to all of my design decisions.”
Favorite design ritual: “Drinking coffee. The best is this place called Grumpy Coffee in Park Slope. It’s a morning ritual.”
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.
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.