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Reagan Ray is the lead designer and resident illustrator for Paravel.

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John Passafiume

June 12, 2011

Tell us about your background. How did you get started? Have you always specialized in hand-lettering?

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, probably the earliest evidence of an interest in lettering is a handwriting evaluation by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Janes—Writing is nice without curls and decorations.

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Throughout high school, I was almost exclusively invested in painting, drawing and the fine arts. I dreamt of becoming an architect as a child, but once exposed to the monotony of model making quickly changed direction. A three month internship with designer Daniel Simon the summer before my freshman year in college soon blossomed into a full-fledged apprenticeship. (Dan is a master craftsman with an instinct for refinement of the highest degree.) This summer immersion left me with a considerable amount of practical knowledge, and when I enrolled at Indiana University in the fall I was an archetypal over-zealous-year-one-design-student. My professors have since forgiven me (I hope).

Things got complicated as I approached my thesis semester in the fall of 2007. Due to an unrestricted schedule and an obsession with detail, I developed a debilitating case of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome heading into the spring semester of my senior year. I was forced off of the computer—faced with a difficult task of graduation without the crutch of technology. This prompted the hand-drawn (Process), which visually documents 700+ hours with a Bic mechanical pencil over the course of 90 days. After its completion I was utterly wrecked. The piece enjoyed success and generated interest, but on a number of corresponding visits to New York I had to find ways to conceal my condition from would-be employers and art directors. It took nearly three years, including six months of overuse rehabilitation in a small Pennsylvania clinic, to get back to form. Meanwhile I was still drawing a lot, possible because I am (thankfully) left-handed.

So, the focus on manually crafted lettering and illustration was largely necessitated by a formal education and an injury that just about preemptively foiled my career. I had been freelancing in Brooklyn for six months when Louise Fili hired me in December of 2009.

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It’s amazing how something devastating such as an injury turned into a springboard for your career. Did your injury spark you to invest so much time and effort into creating “Process” and was the finished piece a deciding factor in Louise Fili’s decision to hire you?

A thesis, it seems to me, is something like a sabbatical. It’s a chance to exercise what we have discovered in a public forum. Before the injury, my initial ideas were of the same scale and ambition, but I’m unsure of what would have resulted had things been different. In reality I was so completely shaken from the injury, just trying to cope, that everything came out naturally in the form of an allegorical and organized plurality which defines the piece. It’s not merely about the impact of technology in the modern world, it’s equally personal. What is progress? What will actually make us happy? These themes are staples of (Process). Also, the time-intensive lettering aspect was an intentional one. In the past two or three years we’ve experienced a renaissance in lettering which I think is great. Unfortunately, the increasing pervasiveness of social media and emphasis on sharing within design does have its consequences, some of which have resulted in a certain degree of stylistic repetition.

Definitely, my thesis helped get a foot in the door at Louise Fili Ltd. However it was not the deciding factor. Matteo Bologna (Mucca Design) was in attendance at the 2008 Adobe Design Achievement Awards in New York when he saw (Process). I will never forget that when it was announced the winner of its category, he and his colleague, the Brazilian illustrator Roberto de Viq de Cumptich stood up and cheered—”Bravissimo!” I had never met them before. Shortly thereafter, Louise was seeking a designer and at Matteo’s recommendation I obtained an interview. I have a great deal of respect for Matteo’s work and business acumen. He’s a good friend.

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Prior to the interview I had considered graduate school. Upon meeting Louise and touring the studio, it was apparent to me that there was infinitely more to learn under her direction and in that setting than at any school I would have chosen. Once I began working at the studio, we quickly developed a rapport which effectively allowed me to freely explore under her guidance. The origins of Louise’s work come from an authentic desire to create things of lasting beauty which she frequently achieves because of her personal grace and uniquely feminine sensibilities. These qualities have had an important and immediate impact on my work thus far.

So with that freedom to explore, how do you typically get started on a project? Do you spend time conducting research or work up a series of sketches first?

As a lefty, acquiring the skill-set of a calligrapher is problematic at best. Instead, my method of addressing the work has been primarily comprised of draughtsmanship in the spirit of a Doyald Young (RIP) or Samuel Welo. When granted a generous timeline I always choose to spend a significant amount of time initially on paper. Because of this, I have amassed a serviceable collection of imported mechanical pencils, lead pointers and the like. A good lead holder is just as useful if not more capable than the software on a computer. Research is important, although I think it’s much safer to stay away from overtly referential treatments whenever possible.

The way things operate around the studio, under the art direction of Louise, varies somewhat from what I have established in my more personal work. She is remarkably efficient in regards to time management without detriment to quality. I have a predisposition to grinding out the remaining 5% of a project. Louise is sympathetic towards this practice for the most part and will reel me in when necessary. While working outside of the studio setting I intentionally defer to natural inclination as it continues to broaden my perspective.

The evolution of such a detail-intensive methodology stems from my fundamental belief that one thing can be of higher value and/or preferable to another. Allowing for critical (hopefully thoughtful) discernment helps bring clarity to the so-called gray areas. This logic filters all the way down to the fine arts, to design, even lettering.

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What are your favorite aspects of the design process? Are there any areas you’re interested in improving your skill-set, or learning more about?

There are so many things to love about what we do. At an early age the basic elements of the visual arts intrigued me: quality of line, composition, proportion, form. A visit to Rome as a teenager and an encounter with the Pietá left an indelible mark on my subconscious—an ideal model of what it means to pursue something beautiful. In college, the concept of Gestalt instantly resonated. It still does. Putting pencil to paper never gets old and in all likelihood never will. A couple of years ago I was in jeopardy of moving on from design altogether due to the injury. Now fully recovered, I’m more aware than ever of how fortunate I am to be making work on a daily basis.

I’m sure a lot of people have seen the Ira Glass clip in which he discusses taste in relation to quality of work. It makes perfect sense and should probably be mandatory viewing for aspiring art students. Like any respectable young designer I am constantly looking for ways to improve and am wary of complacency. I’ve concentrated much of my energy on form which means there is ample room for growth in a number of other areas. I enjoy learning about other, non-design related topics and allow it to inform the work when appropriate. I’ve long felt that a single person can only successfully master one craft/discipline. There are a handful of noteworthy exceptions, but it’s a theory I subscribe to.

Describe your work day (hours & rituals you keep) and your work environment (how your workstation is set up & what your office is like). Also, do you listen to music while working?

For the past two years I have lived in Fort Greene, a recently gentrified working class neighborhood with a few well-knowns mixed in (Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Spike Lee). In the heart of Brooklyn, it boasts one of Olmstead’s parks which makes for a convenient and much needed escape. Prospect Park is a manageable walk.

There are no particularly ritualistic morning routines aside from an obligatory stretching regiment devised to keep my hands in good working condition. Getting to work is a 40 minute affair that I usually spend reading. I arrive at the studio, located at 23rd street and 2nd Avenue, soon after nine. For an illustration of what it’s like around the space, Design Sponge’s feature narrated by Louise still paints an accurate picture. Felt & Wire stopped by last spring too. It’s such a pleasure to spend time there; it feels more like a second home than an office. I even pieced together my Fort Greene studio in similar fashion for the sake of continuity (an unintentional side-effect of this means that it now feels like I am at work 24/7). Louise is great about wrapping things up by six everyday—there is still plenty of light in the spring and summer for the trip home to Brooklyn.

Outside of the studio, I am pretty selective about which freelance projects I’ll agree to take on. It has to be something of unusual interest as I don’t want to detract my focus from matters in respect to LFL. Instead, the hours spent moonlighting in Brooklyn are reserved for more personal, exploratory, and craft-exercising work.

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Music has always accompanied the workday. My close friend and only coworker, chalk lettering aficionado Dana Tanamachi makes for a terrific listening companion at the studio—we are more like siblings than studiomates (e.g., one of my favorite pastimes is launching taffy at her unexpectedly). Lately we’ve been listening to J.S. Bach’s (whom with I share a namesake) Brandenburg Concertos. At home, I’ve assembled a nice library over the years despite three or four hard drive failure disasters.

Show us an image of the most inspiring thing you’ve seen this week.

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Long-time confidant and fellow Indiana alumnus Sougwen has been producing some genuinely exciting work for the past several years. Spirited allies throughout college (evidenced by the excerpt above), our styles have matured together and now strike an agreeable balance. It’s wonderful to see her work continue to evolve so fluidly. We now live only a few blocks away from each other, refreshingly close to the way things were back in Bloomington.

Thank you John for taking the time to talk to us, we appreciate it!


John Passafiume's Work
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