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National Forest

Justin Krietemeyer and Steven Harrington of National Forest have been jamming out crazy-inspiring work for years. In a world where art all-too-often exists as residue of negative energy (insert corny emo song here), we couldn't help but take the time to chat with the overlords of optimism about collaboration, running their design shop and making work that consistently beams good vibes and high fives for all.

Chad Kouri: So, just to start off here, tell us a little bit about the shop, what your guys first gig was that you did together, what brought you guys together, and what keeps you guys together, just kind of like a general run-down.

Justin Krietemeyer: Steve and I met in college, studying illustration, but we both really knew that we had an interest in graphic design, and that’s kind of where we started working together, on student projects. We were both kind of crashing design classes, because we figured out a little loophole in the administration’s ability to keep track of students. So we were taking on these design classes, but they were kind of higher-level design classes and we hadn’t had the prerequisites, so we didn’t really know what was going on. We ended up leaning on each other to keep up to speed with the classes. That was our first back and forth working together. Late nights in the computer lab. And then when we finished school, we were both encouraged by some mentors of ours not to go get jobs, but to start a studio, and that’s what we intuitively did, and are still doing now.

CK: You guys both have this strong, individual styles with these similar color pallets and themes. Is that something that you developed together, or is that similarity what brought you guys to start working together?

Steven Harrington: While we were attending school at Pasadena art center, both Justin and I had very similar interests. So over time, as we developed our mark making abilities, I think that we naturally evolved towards a similar place. So yeah, Also, within the studio it’s not really a conscious decision for individuals to have a forte or specialty. It’s not like Justin’s the typographer, and I’m the illustrator, and our other designer’s are the layout maker, and the other freelancer is a motion specialist, you know? It’s more of just this one big brain that’s one big collaborative studio or space, where the aesthetic more or less follows a constant flow.

CK: So you guys have this design firm and creative consultancy. Do you get different clients for design than for creative consultancy, or is that a whole basket deal when a client comes in?

SH: It’s an entire basket with different ranges from project to project. I think that we try to look at every single project that comes through here more from the perspective of a consultant, because a lot of the projects that come through here, our clients are approaching us because they have no idea how to present a product, and a lot of times, too, that means that they don’t have an ideas as to what market to present that in, or as to what form that should take on. So a lot of the times, we’ll step in and offer up these unique, or hopefully somewhat refreshing solutions to not only visually create a campaign for that product or whatever that concept is, but to also help them find the right market or demographic.

JK: If we’re talking about the difference between when we’re designing and when we’re consulting - the design is somewhat a result of the consultation or  thinking that went into the solution. Sometimes people come to us in this collaborative sense, where they’ve done a lot of thinking and it’s at the point where it’s ready to be designed to match the thinking, and sometimes people come to us for the thinking initially, and then we’ll take that thinking and make the design from the thinking that they asked us to do. And lots of times, when clients ask us to collaborate with them, and they’re really excited about the result, or the style, or the look of what we tend to make, what they’re actually asking for is the thinking. They’re just not aware that that’s what they’re asking for. So whether they’re aware of it or not, really they’re either directly asking us for the thinking, or indirectly asking us for the thinking, because they really like the result. They just don’t know the steps that it took to get there.

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It’s not like Justin’s the typographer, and I’m the illustrator, and our other designer’s are the layout maker, and the other freelancer is a motion specialist, you know? It’s more like one big brain...

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CK: Along with this design and consultancy stuff, both of you guys have very deep portfolios of fine art and self-initiated work. Would you guys rather be doing one or the other, or do you really like that both of them are simultaneously happening? How do they influence each other

JK: I would like it if we were doing both of them one hundred percent of the time, and a few other things that we haven’t even gotten into doing because they take up so much time. So really it’s one hundred percent love doing the design work, and the client stuff because it’s exciting and the art stuff is exciting because we have this message of general positivity, or positive outlook, through color or beauty that we like to create. It would be great if we could spend one hundred percent of our time doing that, and then when client work comes along, be able to project the same positive messages, but using the budgets and the scope that clients can reach. Just because it’s a bigger scale project than what we’re creating on our own, and it’s nice to be able to use our clients as a tool to project that same positivity, and that same message. So, it would be nice to be doing it all all the time, but then physics kind of gets in the way.

SH: I think that, like Justin was saying, I’d like to be doing both of them simultaneously as well. I think that the artwork informs the design, and the design informs the artwork. Our personal artwork is always going to get us projects that are client-based design work isn’t going to get us and our design work is going to get us into substantial projects that our artwork is never going to get us. So for example, our artwork is never going to get us these really big, exciting projects where we’re able to art direct and travel all over the world, designing for catalogues, but our design work is never going to get us these art tours, and these big sculptural explorations and experimental projects. So it’s kind of important for us to be working on both one hundred percent of the time. If we were solely working on the design work, then it would just be a bunch of client-based work, you know? Our potential could only ever be what the art director can envision that’s hired out for projects, and if we’re working on artwork one hundred percent of the time, we’d probably go completely mad and cut our ears off and send it back to the studio in a box, because it’s just so involved. 

On that same point, I notice both of you guys doing projects in this style that started as self-initiated work and has recently criss-crossed with big corporate clients, for example, Steve, that back screen box thing that you just did– how do you guys feel about displaying these very personal messages with these company names attached to them?

SH: I think that I feel like– as long as the work is good, and it’s something that we believe in, and those companies are something that we believe in, then who cares? I think it’s like, if those people are going to support us, and we believe in their products, and they believe in our artwork, then so be it. Let’s go bigger and further than we could just on our own, you know?

JK: In our conversations internally about how to approach those things is that there’s definitely the personalization as to whether or not you like the product that the sponsor or the patron produces, and if that’s something that you actually align with, or use yourself, or think is a positive product in the world, then that’s the first step towards it being a cool collaboration. We also like the idea of the Medici family, who funded the church murals and were big patrons of the classic artists like the Michelangelos of the world. So we like the idea of a contemporary look on art patrons like corporations becoming these kind of patrons of the arts. And if there’s a cooperative nature to them funding a creative project, and their product is not negative in the world, then it seems like it makes sense to do it.


SH: We’re fully aware of the risk of it, and that sell-out-y, compromise perspective, and how many of them just really suck, and are weird, but there’s something very contemporary, and pop culture, and interesting about it. You know?

In the Bill Withers documentary, of whom I’m a really big fan of, there’s a certain part of the documentary where he gets asked about aligning himself with clients and these really big brands, so he was being asked a similar question with talks about selling out and all that stuff, and I remember he put it really well. It was something like “I get associated sometimes with that word, being a “sellout” or having “sold out”, but when you put it into perspective and think about, what if I was a shoe cobbler, or a book binder, and I’m working on selling this product? And then all of the sudden you show up to my business one day and there’s a big sign out there that says ‘sold out.’ Isn’t that, like, one of the best things you could have ever done?” I know this doesn’t exactly parallel the concept of selling out, but I think that given the right opportunity, and the right client, it can bring a lot of successes. If the project’s done right and done well, hopefully we can continue to choose products and clients that we really believe in, and those products sell well.

CK: So how do you get to the point of getting these corporate commissions for your fine artwork? Is there some kind of advice you can give to people that are in their studios making all day that would really like to get some of these commissions?

SH: As cliche and as generic as it sounds, I think the advice is to just continue to sit in your studio and draw everyday. It’s literally that simple. Continue making the works that you believe in, and be really confident in whatever that is because the clients that come to us are essentially looking for that human. They’re looking for that maker, that creative entity that is making his work with them, or without them. And there’s that confidence in their work, and they’re having an effect on the world with these projects without big, successful corporate entities. They’re more or less just looking to tap into that individual’s audience that they already have, you know? So it’s just important to continue to make your work.

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JK: I think part of the reason we intuitively were able to reel in some of those "dream clients"  is that from very early on the work that we made was just about what we were interested in, and the culture that we’re interested in. For example, skateboarding and snowboarding culture or surf culture. We do a lot of work within those industries, but that’s what we grew up doing. So for twenty years, these industries informed us as to what was cool, and what was fun, and we stayed pretty close with what was going on in those worlds. And then we went to design school, and started our studio, and we made work that was reflective of what our interests truly were. When you think about it like that, it’s no wonder that those companies came back to us, because they spent twenty years helping form our perspective. A lot of it comes down to having the confidence to create work about what you’re interested in. It puts you in a very vulnerable place, because the more you stay true to yourself, and the work perspective you’re truly into, the closer of an emotional context that people who are like-minded will be able to connect to it. But then, the closer and more intimate the work that you make is to you, you kind of back out of the equation. There’s a lot of people in the world, so someone will always relate to the perspective that you’re putting out there. So just make the work that you’re interested in, and make sure that it gets out there for the people to see it, and then those people will be the ones calling you.

CK: Great. Switching gears a little here, I’ve found that one of my strongest tools some days is optimism. In a world where there’s a lot of music and art being made about the big drama, break-up, personal disaster, pain, and all this other bullshit, how do you guys manage to consistently harness your optimism as a creative energy?

SH: It’s funny, because we do talk about it a lot, and we get asked that a lot, and I think that as I've thought about it over the years, and it sounds kind of cheesy, but we do live in California.The sunshine definitely has something to do with that… literally. You know, waking up every day here with 70 degree weather and the sun always shining– it’s something that can easily brighten up your day. I think that living within that environment alone breathes incredible amounts of optimism into our day to day, our work and our drive to work. It’s interesting, you know? We had a friend that recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, and he was working right downtown in Manhattan and took the subway in everyday to work and he was saying how one of the first things that struck him when he moved from New York to L.A. was the sunshine. Now he makes his daily commute and there is literally a 30-45 minute time frame that the sun would be directly overhead and that alone helps you feel that kind of connection to the greater earth. It’s funny, you know, you travel out to Europe, you travel out to Paris, and it’s not nearly as sunny as it is here. And then even beyond that, the two of us working in the studio together here, I think that just in general, the music, again, that we’re interested in, and other more general interests that we have, it keeps things pretty optimistic.

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JK: In our conversations around the studio we have quite a few “what does it all mean, what are we doing, what is this place, what is the world” types of conversations, and optimism does come up a lot, and it’s kind of become the mantra of our studio, or, almost the purpose of the studio. We’ve all been mean to people in our lives, and had people being mean to us, and we know what it feels like to be on the in-crowd, and be in-the-know, and to be outside of that too – and working with the fashion industry, or cool industries, we realized that a lot of that is still stuck on the fear of not being connected, and not being “in the know.” 

A lot of fashion projects that we've worked on– when we weren’t as wise to the ways of the world– we didn’t realize that we were accidentally creating fashion stores or fashion projects that were about “these people are so cool, don’t you wish you were that cool?” We thought it was aspirational, but really it’s blurring the lines between the things you need and the things you couldn’t possibly attain. And learning from those types of projects, we’ve been thinking about how there’s a different kind of cool, or different flavor of cool, where everyone can be connected, and there can be this community, and things can be so positive, and add such a value. The kind of cool that's good enough for everyone to know about it and it still retains its value. We just want to be the studio, or the agency, or the consulting group that can find that.

CK: So with you guys working together all the time, and being optimistic, and loving life, do you guys ever feel competition between the both of you for your individual projects like fine art commissions or gallery shows when not working on National Forest stuff?

JK: I always say that we replace the word competition with drive. We’re constantly pushing ourselves, and we have a lot of drive to maximize our potential. Because we both believe we have this amazing potential. And having that amazing potential is great, but trying to realize it is very difficult. but I think that we’ve been working together long enough that when one of us shoots ahead of the other, that's only because we are examining the timeline in a very close view. The graph has a bunch of bumps up and down, but in the wide view the trajectory is still going up. So, if competition does come up, we try to keep the dialogue open enough so that one person’s success is everyone’s success.

SH: I think Justin put that really really well, with just replacing that word “competition” with “drive”. I think that it’s something that we’re intuitively thinking all the time. I feel like that's one of our strong suites, you know? The core of National Forest, even beyond Justin and I, is that we’re all very driven people. We show up at the studio every day– and, let’s face it, we don’t necessarily need to be here every day– but we show up, and we’ve always got something to work on. Whether it’s client-related, or it’s a personal, self-initiated project. And I think that drive is completely essential when building a truly creative, exciting and engaging unique workplace. I think that all of us are just very fundamentally interested in creativity as a whole and that’s what truly drives all of us.

JK: I think we can even extend that to our competition or what other people would think of as studios or artists we compete with. There’s no studio like ours, and there’s no artist like us. So, we just put it out there to the world and if the appropriate jobs come our way, that's great. And when the job don’t seem like the right fit, we gladly throw it back to the studios that potentially could be. Competition is seen as such a negative thing when in actuality it’s very positive.  Competition, outside of feeling competitive against one another, is only helping us reach our own potential.

CK: Great. I think that’s all I got for you here. Don’t work too hard you two.

Oh, we won’t.

--Many thanks to Aimee Quinkert for transcribing this beast of an interview. 

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