Studio Visit: Heads of State
Heads of State is the Philly-based design partnership of Jason Kernevich and Dustin Summers. Founded in 2002, the recent art school graduates were looking to work on projects that were a bit more compelling than the standard fare offered at entry level design jobs. Starting with the local gig poster scene in Philadelphia they were able to hone their collaborative and visual style, and after a lucky break at their first Flatstock, they got a job making posters for a band called Wilco. In no time their work expanded to include editorial illustrations, book design, identities, and shortly after that the design awards began to rain down upon them.
Printeresting has had their eye on Jason and Dustin’s work for some time, and not just because they are handsome bearded men. Their unique design style is a kind of visual love affair with the history of print. Their bold graphic style is in conversation with prints of the early-to-mid twentieth century commercial printing, and simultaneously very contemporary. And often their work has a very visibly deliberate haptic signature of the handmade print. What’s not to love?
The occasion of this studio visit & conversation was their summer exhibition at Art in the Age celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War titled, An Imperfect Union. Art in the Age describes the show,
“..The Heads of State will transform Art in the Age into a Civil War battlefield, applying their signature graphic style to deconstruct and reinterpret images of battle scenes and war torn capitals, regimental flags, newspaper headlines and more.”
I would put the emphasis on deconstruction, the work is a delightful mash-up of graphic design from the 1860′s.
A screen printed poster from the exhibition.
For more many more images, studio shots, and experts from our conversation with Heads of State, follow the jump!
Heads of State also design the didactic displays for the exhibition. They were as cool as they were informative.
All the prints were simply titled, Civil War Deconstructions, with a number assigned to each print in the series.
The posters were all produced as limited edition screen prints by The Head Light Hotel press based in Rhode Island.
They also produced wall of images sampled from a single issue of the New York Times. The images from the newspaper were over-layed with their own graphics to provide a kind of visual parataxis.
The image below is a detail from the large image.
After spending some time admiring the exhibit, we headed back to the Heads of State studio in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia. They apologized for the mess, but as you can see from these photos.. it looks like it’s ready for a spread in Dwell Magazine.
Above is an image of one of their work spaces. Each project they are working on gets a dedicated clip board, with a description, deadline and the name of the point person. It’s a great system for visually-oriented people with too much to do.
Their space was also chock-a-block full of stuff to look at, collections, historical kistch, and vintage graphics.
Here is a clothesline of recent poster projects.
In addition to producing a host of work for their clients they still find time and energy to work on projects for the creative joy of it, and to teach. Both Dustin and Jason teach some illustration and design classes at their alma mater. One great example of their self-intiated projects would the Gatsby poster (below). For this poster, the designers created imagined business cards for a range of major and minor characters from the seminal American novel The Great Gatsby.
Diligently researching typographic styles from the 20′s, they created 36 business or calling cards on a grid. The poster was painstakingly printed at Studio on Fire letterpress shop in Minneapolis.
When I asked Dustin about their collaboration with print studios, he said that with their demanding design schedule they had less and less time to print the work themselves. He added, that working with these print studios offers them a chance to collaborate with someone who has an extreme level of expertise.
This lead our conversation onto the subject of collaboration and production in general. Although one of them may take the lead, Dustin and Jason both have their hands in every project they produce. This was a bit of a trial when they were a bi-costal operation (something we here at Printeresting can relate to, believe-you-me). Early in their partnership, before Heads of State was self-sustaining, Dustin headed to Seattle to for work, and their collaborative efforts felt the strain. It was a relief when they were able to consolidate in Philadelphia and work together again on daily basis.
When asked about their consistent reference to the hand-made print in their designs, Dustin said, they had a real belief in the importance and beauty of the hand-printed graphic, adding that almost everything they produce has some hand printed element, even if it’s final output is going to be entirely digital. Reaching in a drawer, he extracted and brandished a heavily used brayer, not unlike a nordic war hammer.
Travel Posters! Heads of State created a series posters that are a kind of homage to the art deco travel booster posters. The challenge was to create a minimal graphic image that could encapsulate the landmarks of a place. A straight forward task until to you to do it. For these posters they collaborated with DL Screen Printing in Seattle, who were able to embody the spare graphics impulse with minimal runs of overlapping color.
Dustin went on to say that it was no accident that many of their personal projects had a historical conceit. Heads of State are keenly interested in learning what they can from historic design and printing. They draw inspiration from the great american designers of the past, but also from the way the printing constraints of any given era informed graphic language employed, and it’s subsequent visual impact.
Looking at the history of visual culture to find an aesthetic vocabulary of the present is in itself not a new idea, but Heads of State are very good at it. In the past decade they have maintained an avant garde position with print design work that clearly draws inspiration from the history of print without falling into a nostalgic/retro trap.
The follow prints & posters are examples of projects for a local theater production, and two designs that they wanted to see in print. I imagine after winning a pile of design awards it would be easy to forget your roots in street posters and simple design problems, for that reason and their aesthetic qualities I found these prints quite delightful.
When I asked Dustin if he had any advice for a creative-type just starting out, he advised taking full advantage of the huge online design community, get a Tumblr site, a website, a Twitter account, and put your work out into the world. He said that young artists starting out now have access to a much larger peer group than any other generation prior. He added, ‘get your hands dirty once in a while and embrace the handmade print!’
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