Featured Studio â€“ National Forest Design
Last year we were lucky enough to get invited to join the West Coast Rippers demolition derby squad. Our friends Steve Harrington and Justin Kreitemeyer of National Forest Design decided that instead of doing another art show, they wanted to try something newâ€“ designing and sponsoring a demolition derby car as well as shirts, flags and stickers for a group of friends to cheer the team to victory. While the West Coast Rippers car didnâ€™t win the derby, the teamâ€™s supporters were definitely the biggest, loudest, and most fun group that night at the Irwindale speedway.
We met Steve and Justin while attending Art Center College of Design and everyone seemed to know that it was only a matter of time before these two blew up.
Four years into the game, National Forest has built and impressive client roster with projects like Nike Ole, The Urban Outfitters catalog, Element Skateboards, just to name a few. We caught up with these two recently to get their take on the world and how to go from being guys that doodle to paying your rent making art.
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Kellis Landrum: So you guys have been pretty successful as artists, and there are probably a lot of people who would like to be in your position. What made you guys decide that this was what you wanted to do with your lives?
Justin Kreitmeyer: I donâ€™t think I ever really thought of being anything else. My mom was an artist and Iâ€™d always grown up around art. So when it came time decide what I wanted to go to school for it was obvious that it was the thing I was best at.
The Art Center admissions person said that illustration was the department that I fit into the best. But once I was there I never really cared that I was supposed to be an illustrator. I always thought of (Art Center) as being an art and design school so I didnâ€™t want to be boxed in.
Steve Harrington: We didnâ€™t meet until we were half way through and we were cool with each other because we had a lot in common. When we first started school all of our classes were traditional life drawing and painting classes and we used to joke with each other about how we just came to draw naked girls!
Up until that point we thought we weâ€™re just going to do drawing and painting when we got out because thatâ€™s all we had been doing up to that point. We had both always been interested in graphic design but neither of us had really done anything with it before.
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KL: You two made the leap from being art students straight into being professional artists and starting your own studio. I think a lot of people would like to know how that happens.
SH: When we first graduated Justin flew out to New York with our book and he got us some editorial illustration work for Rolling Stone and Vibe and we were fairly successful out of the gate at getting projects. But we realized the reality of editorial work is that itâ€™s always about the article. Usually it doesnâ€™t matter if it involves your visual language or not. There are always requirements to be met and we realized we were sacrificing a lot of the things we liked about our work. We started asking ourselves whether or not this was the way we wanted to make art.
JK: I think a lot of people graduate school and go get a job, and ask me â€How do you do it and not have money?â€ But the reality was we were already broke. We didnâ€™t get jobs, make a bunch of money, buy a nice car, and then think about quitting that job to start our own thing. We just started where we were.
SH: When we started we split everything we made, even if it was only for $500. It was tough, but at the time it didnâ€™t matter because we had been broke in school so we could only go up from there. We didnâ€™t get jobs where we were handed healthcare and 401kâ€™s, so we decided to work towards that instead.
JK: Weâ€™ve always seen ourselves where we want to be a little bit more than where we are at the moment. When we got our first studio it was a much better place in my mind than in reality because I saw it the way I wanted it to be.
We ended up moving to a bigger studio before we got a chance to fix that one up, but now I just have even bigger plans for this one.
SH: Thatâ€™s always been a National Forest theme, your hand is always six months to a year behind your brain and youâ€™re always playing catch up. When we think about our studio, we think about it as something different than what people see on the outside. By the time stuff gets out into the world we finished it six months ago and now weâ€™re working on what people will see us as next year.
JK: We have a constant conversation running about where we are going now and what are we doing next. It keeps us exited because National Forest keeps growing into something bigger than just Steve and Justin individually.
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KL: The two of you are both classically trained illustrators, yet you end up getting a lot of design work that most graphic designers would kill for (Urban Outfitters, Burton, Element,)
JK: I think itâ€™s made us unique.
SH: A lot of times clients will call in our book for an illustration job but once they see we know how to handle type it opens the door to a lot of other things.
JK: When we get a call for work we like to think as big as we can. Sometimes weâ€™ll send them things that show great ideas regardless of whether or not we think they can afford it. Then all of a sudden a little illustration project starts turning into posters and ads and all sorts of things.
SH: It can work the other way around as well because sometimes people will see a (Urban Outfitters) catalog or a layout project weâ€™ve done and hire us for that, but once they see our illustration work they realize we can create images and we end up doing that as well.
KL: So who do you guys respect among your peers?
JK: I think anybody whoâ€™s able to make art and love what theyâ€™re doing without compromising theyâ€™re soul.
KL: Give me an example.
JK: Shepard Fairey has always been a huge supporter of our work. Heâ€™s always looked out for us, always given us big ups where ever he can.
Heâ€™s done a really good job of working on as big a scale as he wants.
Heâ€™s letting the market determine whether or not heâ€™s got the right idea rather than taking on huge clients with tons of money that he has to compromise with.
KL: Both you guys and Shepard are good examples of a phenomenon in our industry. You could go get high paying jobs in advertising or corporate America, but instead you own your own studios. Thirty years ago there were four or five big creative shops in LA that each had a hundred people working for them, now thereâ€™s a hundred small creative shops with four or five people apiece.
SH: Maybe even smaller than that. Weâ€™re only two people, but how many people do we really need?
JK: Now some projects are just about the person whoâ€™s doing it, like Geoff McFetridge with the Pepsi One thing. Nowadays itâ€™s all about being as small of a studio as possible.
KL: So you guys each have your own work and your own websites. How you decide where that ends and National Forest starts?
JK: Well if someone approaches me personally about a project I ask myself do I like this project or not? Do they want my style and my name on the project and do I want to put my name on this thing?
SH: With National Forest itâ€™s not a question of â€œdo I like itâ€ because itâ€™s not just about me. National Forest is its own entity and that entity is the sum of all the people involved in the project.
JK: It keeps up from having to do the same thing over and over.
SH: Yeah, people will come to us because they see some project weâ€™ve done before and weâ€™ll give them what they want, but on top of that weâ€™ll come up with new ideas that challenge us.
JK: Weâ€™re a lot more excited about that.
If you want to see more National Forest work or contact them about a project, you can visit National Forest Design.