Peter Buchanan-Smith

Uploaded by walkerartcenter on 17.03.2010

Andrew Blauvelt: Tonight, I'm pleased to introduce this evening's speaker, Peter Buchanan Smith.
Peter is a Canadian born, but New York based designer, author, educator, and entrepreneur
whose varied career has included designing book jackets for Farrar, Strauss and Giroux,
art direction of the New York Times' Op-Ed page, and Creative Direction, a paper magazine
from 2005 to 2008.
He is the author of "SPECK: A Curious Collection of Uncommon Things" which originated as a
thesis project at the School of Visual Arts, where he also teaches, and is also editor
of The Wilco Book, which provides an engaging portrait of the band's creative process.
He has also designed Identity's packaging, collateral material for the fashion and music
worlds, including fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, rock luminaries Brian Eno, David Burn, and
legendary American composer Phillip Glass.
Peter's latest venture, Best Made Company, purveyor of custom design and hand made axes,
offers not only a finely crafted tool, but also an entr••e into the symbolic
world conjured by this particular object.
A past board member of the AIJ New York chapter, his work has been honored by ID Magazine,
the AIGA, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which awarded him a Grammy
for his design of Wilco's album "A Ghost is Born."
Please help me welcome Peter Buchanan Smith.
Peter Buchanan-Smith: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It's a real honor to
be here tonight, and thanks to Andrew and Lisa and the AIGA for inviting me, and flying
me out here, and putting me up in such a nice hotel.
I'm just going to start by putting things... Andrew touched on a lot of this, but I just
want to put things in context first, before I start launching into the eye candy.
I was born on a small farm in Canada about an hour west of Toronto, 15 hours east of
Minneapolis. I lived in Canada until my mid-twenties, when I moved to New York City to work in publishing.
I've lived in New York for the past 14 years.
My design career started out as a junior production assistant at book publisher Farrar, Strauss,
and Giroux. I left FSG to join Steve Heller's first class in the Masters of Design program
at the School of Visual Arts, where I was lucky enough to have Maira Kalman as my thesis
advisor on a project called SPECK, which eventually became a book that celebrated the uncommon
beauty of common things.
After SVA, I became the art director of the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, where I
was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to have been there to cover the 2000 Bush/Gore election
and September 11th. Not long after September 11th, I was burning out of a very fast paced
deadline, editor, and news driven job, and decided to take matters into my own hands.
So, with a friend, I formed a book publishing and packaging company. Our first order of
business was to publish a book about our favorite band, Wilco. The Wilco Book, as it was eventually
titled, was a visual analog of the band's music containing work by photographer Michael
Schmelling, artist Fred Thomaselli, and writers Henry Miller and Rick Moody.
The Wilco Book was released in 2004, and it was met with great critical acclaim, and it
quickly sold out. But, we had just spent the better part of two years slaving away on a
project that had dwindling financial returns. So, my partner continued on in a different
direction, and I left to become the design director of Paper Magazine. I was brought
onto Paper to replace the previous art director who'd been there for about 15 years, which
is really a golden opportunity. It was an opportunity for big change, and I was able
to transform this venerable New York beacon of style and fashion into quite a substantial...
Made quite substantial changes.
The next four years were some of the most thrilling design years of my life. I had a
chance to collaborate with some of the best photographers and stylists in the country,
and shoot some of the biggest entertainment and style icons, like Penelope Cruz, Charlotte
Gainsbourg, Chloe Sevingy, and Chan Marshall, and Rhianna, among others.
Halfway through my tenure paper, I started taking on smaller design projects on the side.
I was eventually hired to be the design director for Isaac Mizrahi, and with that, my design
business was fast eclipsing my job at Paper, and it was time to head out, once again, on
my own.
I spent my next five years designing a vast array of products for Isaac, from shoeboxes,
to identities, to labels, to magazines, to look books. I'll never forget the very first
project I designed for Isaac was a pooper scooper for his Target line.
All the while, my small studio picked up a host of new clients: Phillip Glass, Maira
Kalman, Brian Eno, and David Byrne among others. Then, in 2008, the economy burst, and my business
had to change. So, I let go of my staff, and moved everything from my midtown Manhattan
office out to New Jersey, where I was living at the time. The saddest part, of course,
was just letting go of people that worked for me.
But it was nice to come home, to regain those two hours of my life each day that were previously
spent in a commute, and to spend time with my dog, nature, and some hands on projects.
I soon learned the notion of coming home can be a complicated one.
I need a drink before I get to this next part.
In early 2009, my wife and I decided to separate, and I got a divorce. And so, the last year
of my life... Sorry. And so, last year I had to sell my house, the house I was planning
on living in for a very long time. I had to divide five years of marital possessions in
a matter of weeks. All the wedding gifts, the furniture, the artwork, the photographs,
the books, the linens, the music, and so on.
I moved everything I could into a small 500 square foot apartment in downtown Manhattan,
and for a few months, before the sale of our house, I would commute out to New Jersey to
work and to sift through the remainder of life to be loaded into my Subaru Forester,
destined to any number of repositories: My new apartment, friends places, Salvation Army,
a storage locker, the local dump.
Three days before our house closed, we hired 1-800-GOT-JUNK to dispose and distribute the
hoarded matter we couldn't possibly contemplate. Stacks of old magazines, bags of clothes we
knew we'd never wear again, random stray bits of furniture, gifts that were always meant
to be re-gifted, but never found the unlucky takers, dusty sporting goods, and a laundry
list of that disappeared in a little under three hours in the swift and merciless hands
of the junk removers.
All in all, they filled up two truckloads. Of what, I can't really imagine now. For the
past ten years, I also hoarded all of my pocket change. As 1-800-GOT-JUNK were finishing up,
I took the bags of coins to the bank, deposited them in successive fistfuls into the machine,
and in the end, withdrew almost the exact sum of $1,000, all of which went to pay the
guys who had just liquidated the material remains of my life.
I spent the better part of last year dividing, discarding, pondering, loving, hating, hauling,
lifting, boxing, selling, and moving objects. Not only my personal possessions, but for
the first time I was manufacturing objects, and shipping them all over the world.
Sifting through the effects of my personal life, I could stumble on objects that would,
upon very first glance, bring tremendous sorrow and grief, say a photograph or a love letter.
And at the same time as being called upon by our new and excited customers to box up
these sharp and colorful new instruments. Tools, that as it turned out, could evoke
an amazing sensation of hope and promise, both for me and my customers.
It was also last year that I finally realized that for a very long time, maybe since I was
a kid, I'd always needed something tangible to hold onto, something tangible to create,
something tangible to share. So, in the thick of last year, I started a company called Best
Made with my oldest and best friend, Graham Cameron, and our first product was an axe.
My plan was never to get divorced, nor was it to start selling axes. For the past ten
years, I'd been a graphic designer working in pretty traditional and established context,
but that was all starting to change. My desire to make a simple and quality driven product,
my desire to build a small and inspiring place to make and shape those products, and ultimately,
my desire to build a world in which to share those products, the inspiration and the culture
had completely registered in my head.
That's what I want to talk to you guys about tonight. How, through products, a workshop,
and the worlds of my clients and my friends, and ultimately my own, I have been able to
embark and sustain the most fulfilling and demanding chapter of my life.
So, I'm going to start off...
So I'm going to start off with the objects. This is my thesis project from the masters
program SPECK. It was a book that involved a lot of collaborators and contributors and
I sort of pulled them all together and creative directed it and curated it.
The cover was inspired by a story that a friend of mine told me about a German artist who
locked himself in a room in a gallery with a big box of BIC pens, and just over the course
of a month or so covered the entire walls, just basically repainted the walls with BIC
pens. And this is the title page of the book.
The egg, as you'll see tonight, is a reoccurring motif in my work. And it was something that
one of my instructors at School of Visual Art, Paola Antonelli, who's the curator of
the design department at the Museum of Modern Art who had talked to us about the egg. And
how the egg is sort of really the perfect design object. And I really believe that.
It's quite an inspiring object itself.
You think of how fragile an egg can be, how durable it can be, both at the same time.
You think about the shape of it. I think about the uses of it, what can come out of an egg
if it's incubated, and what can come out of an egg when it's cracked and put in a pan
and then put on your plate.
This is a piece that I commissioned a photographer to do, which was to take... Well, back up
a bit. Whenever I went to museums, I'd always been interested not only in just the painting
that was before me. And a lot of these paintings, especially in New York, I had seen, I had
gotten used to seeing in studying art history and looking in enough books.
So one of the first things that I would do is run up to the side of the painting and
look down, especially a painting that didn't have any frame around it, and just start studying
the edge where the canvas was stapled or the edge where the canvas overlapped, the stretcher.
And noticing how great that part of the painting was, to see the finger prints and the part
that was sort of more unconsciously decorated or covered with paint. And I decided to take
that one step further and commission this photographer to photograph the backs of famous
paintings. And this is, as you can see, Franz Kline.
I also stumbled on this amazing body of work by an artist, Stacy Green, who photographed
women's lipsticks completely untouched. She took these straight from women's purses, like
friends and things, photographed them and blew them up into a big scale. And I thought
they were just really beautiful objects and really say, having shown these to enough people,
women are always telling me about how it's true. Like, it really says a lot about the
character of a woman and how she shapes her lipstick. This is obviously a very OCD person.
And this is one of my favorite pieces in SPECK. Really I think this could be a whole book
on its own. I sent out an email and it is sort of a book on its own. It's called...
The middle of the book, there's about 40 pages called the Repository and it's all sort of
black. It looks like this. And it's basically just profiles of people's collections. And
I sent out an email to friends and colleagues saying, if you know of anyone who collects
anything, preferably the weirder and the stranger, let me know.
So I got an email from someone who said he knew of this guy in Philadelphia, a retired
barber who had an amazing collection of earth, air and water. So I went to Philadelphia and
I met with Eddie Simon, the barber, and he told me a story and it's a really fascinating
one. He was a guy who had a one man operated barbershop near one of the universities in
Philadelphia. And a friend came in one day with a souvenir from like Daytona Beach, and
it was just a bottle of sand.
So he put it up on his shelf and then a professor or a student or someone who was going abroad
saw this. And then when they were abroad, they came back with another specimen from
wherever it was. And this collection ended up growing into hundreds and hundreds of things
of earth, air and water. And the saddest part is that Eddie Simon, the barber, never really
left the state of Pennsylvania. He didn't have that much money. And when I saw him,
he was pretty much on his last legs.
And he said, "You know, Peter, the one thing... My dream in life," and he's standing there
with this huge rack of all these samples. He's like, "You know, I would do anything
to be able to go back to all these places where these things came from and empty them."
I thought that was really beautiful. And the great thing about it is that he kept.... The
way he was able to preserve these specimens. There's no format to it except that they were
all small and that he eventually typed out all these labels that sort of had their own
character. They were just done on a typewriter and they were filled with typos.
So this is a piece that I did at the op-ed page. By the way, I'm Angus McWilton. We had
to have pseudonyms when you're at the op-ed page if you were to contribute something.
They took themselves very seriously, you see. If I was to contribute something, it couldn't
be a staff member, so you had to make up a name. And Angus McWilton was one of the first
bulls on my family farm that I remember. Very intimidating creature.
It didn't really intimidate my editors, unfortunately. So one of my favorite parts of the op-ed page
was to do these things called op-arts, which were these stand alone pieces that weren't
usually whatever was in this space was there to illustrate whatever story it was. But occasionally
we would come up with an idea that would just be a stand alone thing.
And so it was in the middle of a heat wave and I came up with this idea of just photographing
a melting ice cube on wherever it is -- Midtown Manhattan. And this is one of my favorite
pieces that I did for the op-ed page. Catherine Graham, I don't know if any of you remember
her. But she was the very famous publisher of the Washington Post. And she died and the
day after she died the Times op-ed page did their little tribute to her, sort of an obituary.
And I couldn't for the life of my figure out how to do this. I didn't want to, you know...
It's something so interesting -- we're working on a newspaper and here we are doing an obituary
on a legendary newspaper figure. So I could have commissioned a portrait or we could have
taken some stock photo of her something and done something to it. But I walked into my
editor's office and I saw the Washington Post was sitting there on her desk.
And so I just said, can I grab that? Just for inspiration so I can read a bit more about
her, whatever. And then it just dawned onto me. I was looking at the mast head and it
was all there. There was no photoshopping to be done, there was nothing. I just cut
out a crown and took a picture of it. And there you have it.
So as we were working on the Wilco book, they were simultaneously working on their album,
A Ghost Is Born, recording it. And that was one of the really interesting facets of the
book for us. It was a chance to not only follow this band and see them in the context of their
studio. They have this very famous sort of bat cave place called the Loft in Chicago
where it's filled with hundreds of instruments and things. But I'll get to that in a minute.
But they were also working on a new album. So we got to spend time immersing ourselves
in what that whole process is, and it's fascinating. They really took us under their wing and we
spent a lot of time in the recording studio with them, watching them and talking to them.
Especially Jeff Tweedy, who by the way has just amazing insights into making books. And
he's an avid, avid reader. And it was always one of the rare opportunities when you get
to work with someone on a visual book like this. And the subject himself was really just
such a wealth of knowledge about books. It was kind of intimidating.
And so, as they were recording "A Ghost Is Born", they asked us if we would be interested
in designing the packaging for it. And, of course, we were like, "Yes. Definitely." But,
it was the first CD I'd ever... I'd never been asked to design a CD before in my life.
It was just excruciating. I mean, it was really unhealthy. Like, you know, because we were
so like, you know, we were deeply embedded. We just sent them everything and anything
we could possibly design, even if it had nothing to do with "A Ghost Is Born." We would send
it to them, because we loved them so much, and we just wanted to make this thing work.
And so, I remember about three-quarters... It had to be done in about a three-month time
period. And we just put everything aside and worked for three months solid on this thing.
And about three-quarters of the way through that process, I just hit like a wall. And
I was like, "I can't. This isn't working. They've rejected everything. What are we going
to do?" So, in this moment of desperation, I just started flipping through some of my
old work, which I tend do sometimes, just not necessarily to reassure myself of much,
but just to at least get some kind of distraction.
And so, I came across that title page of SPECK and, you know, "A Ghost Is Born" and it just
seemed sort of perfect. So, we sent them about 50 egg variations. And this is what the ended
up choosing. Well, actually, no. Sorry. They rejected this. And then, in their moment of
desperation, came back to it, and were like, "This is what we want." And it really lends
itself well to a sort of thorough packaging.
The one thing that I wanted to emphasize about these objects that I'm showing you is that
first and foremost, I see them -- really, now as I'm standing here -- as objects and
not really pieces of graphic design. When I'm making something like this, I really,
really like to think of people, whether they listen to this CD or not, whether they read
one of my books or not, it doesn't matter. It's just having, you know, it's first and
foremost the process of buying this, which is such a kind of a beautiful thing.
Someone is going to take their money and buy something that I've designed. And then, it's
just - This is something that's just going to sit in their house for probably, hopefully
a long time. And in some cases, probably not in this case, it could actually be handed
down and have many lifetimes, and be experienced by many generations of people. And we extended
this one even further into the 12 inch design.
Goddamn hand... And further into the sleeve of the 12 inch. And further, which is kind
of hard to see, but it's more crinkled paper.
So, in about 2000, almost the same time... Yeah, it was shortly after the Wilco stuff.
Maira Kalman, who was my thesis advisor on SPECK, in the School of Visual Arts, asked
if I would be interested in designing her new version of "The Elements of Style". And
I grew up with this book. It's, you know, a bible to anyone who writes anything. And,
I never really realized it until Maira pointed it out. But, this book is just - it's an amazing
read. And it has a lot of valuable lessons to be learned, not necessarily just from the
point of view of writers, but I think that even we as designers could take a lot from
it. I'm just trying to think of one of them. It will come to me later. Oh, what is it?
And, there's also a lot to weird, like there's a quirkiness to their, you know, especially
when they use... They used a lot of different examples to illustrate sentences that they
would write to illustrate what every point it was that they were making. And they used
some amazing -- they, themselves, had their own crazy sense of style.
And the hard part about this book was to design something that was going to be in complete
homage to Strunk and White and the tradition of "Elements of Style", but also to do something
that was going to bring the Maira Kalman sensibility, and her quirkiness, and to make something
that was going to be a real beautiful object. Never before, unless you maybe had a first
edition of "Elements of Style", all the previous editions sense were just these sort of crappy
paperbacks. So, we really wanted to make something that was substantial.
So, this is the front. This is the back. I'm still trying to think of that. OK.
After Wilco, I left that company and started working as the Design Director of Paper Magazine.
And, this was the first cover that I did. I kind of feel like everything went down hill
after this. It was sort of like the perfect storm of covers for me. And it was like, I
created what I think could have been a template for future covers, with having like this border
and things. But, it just didn't work. And, it never really - I don't think I every really
topped this.
And, it was also and incredible shoot, because it was the first real cover shoot I was on.
And I was like terrified. Kelly Osborne was there; Ozzie Osborne, and Sharon Osborne.
Kelly showed up and immediately locked herself in the bathroom for half an hour. And Ozzie
Osborne of all people had to go in and talk her off the ledge. And so, she came out, and
she was in a real mood. And so, she sat down basically as you see her here, but without
that bow in her head.
We were planning on shooting her with this bow, so the stylist put it on her head and
she was like, "No. I'm not going to wear that." And the photographer, Danielle Levitt, who
can make like anyone do anything, said, "Look, Kelly, just one shot. That's all we want
- just one shot." And she was like, "OK, one shot." So, we shot her, and then, that was
it. To Ozzie's credit, he was there for like the next 10 hours trying every other variation
on all sorts of other different looks. And the first one is the one that stuck.
And these are more of the mastheads from Paper. For me, it was really important that these
sort of become collectible. And that's why I'm showing you this slide. It's like to sort
of have each mastheads, at least, be this own little kind of playful little box that,
you know, no matter who was on the cover, at least we were always like sort of changing
that. And, it could be something that, even that in itself, was a special little moment.
So, there's this album called "My Life In the Bush of Ghosts" that was recorded in the
early '80s by David Byrne and Brian Eno. They were the first people to sample sounds. This
was before they started doing it in rap. So, this album, I hadn't heard of this album until
I was approached to repackage it. The original cover was designed by Peter Saville. And,
it was basically just a Polaroid that David Byrne had took of a television screen.
So, I wanted to do something that was not totally new, because I wanted to hearken back
to that original spirit, or at least, the feeling of that original cover. But yet, at
the same time, I didn't want to just sort of ape anything that had been done in the
past. So, once again, in the moment of desperation, I just - which is another thing that I do
sometimes - is just to start taking something, and playing with it in Photoshop. And, as
you can see, I rarely ever, ever use any kind of Photoshop techniques or filters, or anything.
But, they can be really fun.
And, I just took the original album and started playing, applying all these filters on it.
And eventually, this is one that just really started to speak to me. And so, I presented
it. And they were like, "Yes. That's it." And it's nice because, this is actually a
sleeve that covers the jewel case, so when you pull it off, it has that sort of motion.
It also exaggerates the motion of like taking the sleeve off.
[cough] Sorry. That's the original cover right there underneath it.
This is a look book that I designed for Isaac Mizrahi.
That's a bellyband that wraps around it. I hated this book. Henry Petroski's a great
writer, but I got like 10 pages in. I'm like if anyone's going to read a book about toothpicks,
it would be me.
But I really hated it. Almost to spite the book, I was like, "Fuck it. Just put a toothpick
on the cover and that's it."
And that's what ended up working as you can see, and I was so happy. I kind of didn't
care if they ended up firing me and gave the job to someone else because I really didn't
like the book that much. So I was like, "This is exactly what I would want. If I'm going
to buy a book about the history of the toothpick, there should just be a toothpick on the cover."
This is the softcover. Chip Kidd designed the hardcover jacket. It's a toothpick, but
it has like an olive and all sort of frills and things on it, which I didn't really like.
So I'd had a long-time fascination with Marlene Dietrich and dots, and women of this era and
these sirens. And at the same time I'd worked on a few book projects about outer space,
and something came to me at one point. I was like, "I really want to try and combine all
of these things into something, and no one's going to hire me to do it."
So I took it upon myself to say, "OK I'm just going to do this for myself and see where
it leads." So I started printing out dot patterns in my spare time on little tiny pieces. This
is a piece of paper that's probably only like an inch by an inch. I just printed them out
on a black and white laser printer, and then I would sort of shape them with my fingers
to give them some sort of depth.
Then I just put them on my scanner, and I scanned them. And these things really started
to take on some beautiful qualities. You know, when you scan anything that small and enlarge
it, it's always almost automatically going to be beautiful.
I did one project in the past. This was like five years before this which was to scan the
last periods of famous books and magnify them to 5000%, which I guess that's probably also
an extension of this.
So that ended up becoming "Constellations" which was a very elaborate and expensive self-promotional
thing. I was like, "OK. I've just got to do this, and I'm going to print 2,000 of these.
And I'm going to mail them out, and I don't care how much it's going to cost. And in the
end it cost a lot more than I was expecting.
And I have some copies somewhere over there to hand out later. I'm still giving them away.
[laughs] I can't get rid of them. But it was so gratifying to finally do this, and I ended
up creating within the edges of this poster. At least to me it was this little world, this
little celebration of dots. If I was to describe this project to anyone, they would be like,
"You're crazy. That's just so trivial."
But once you actually go through the motions and you actually just say to yourself, "I'm
going to make a poster, and I'm going to make a real living, breathing object. And then
I'm going to have to send this thing out. I'm not just going to have 2,000 copies sitting
around my office. I'm going to have to bring them to Minnesota and give them away to people."
So it was originally out of the obsession with dots that the ax fell. And I realized
then the language of, say, a polka dot pattern or a stripe pattern spoke immense volumes
to me. And if it was done the right way and applied to the right thing, it could be really,
really powerful at least for me.
So Andy Spade of Kate Spade duo and Jack Spade opened up a gallery called "Partners in Spade"
in New York. And he started commissioning all these great designers -- some of them
were friends of mine -- to do these really beautiful kind of one-off art/design pieces
for him.
And I went in there and I was like, "Andy, I've got to do something for you. I've got
to do something. Is it OK?" "It's yours. Do it. Just send me some ideas." So I had been
obsessing over axes for some time. I had grown up with them. I had gone to camp with them.
I moved to the city, and I'd sort of forgotten about them until I moved out to New Jersey.
And one of my best friends, Graham Cameron who I mentioned earlier, came down to visit
me for his birthday in the middle of January. And we decided that we were going to celebrate
the birthday by buying two of the most expensive steaks known to mankind, these Wagyu Japanese-bred
steaks. They were $100 each.
And the only way to cook them was not going to be on a gas grill. Keep in mind this is
in the middle of January. Freezing cold. We had to do it on a hot wood-burning fire. So
we had plenty of firewood, but we didn't have any ax to chop it up and to get it into kindling.
So we went to Home Depot and bought a really cheap plastic-handled yellow-handled ax, which
I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with.
And a lot of people, since I've been involved with axes, extol the virtues of those things,
but they suck. They are horrible. The only thing people say about them is that they're
going to last a lot longer than a wooden ax, and that's true. I won't argue with that.
But if you ever try using one of those, it's painful. It's painful. They don't sharpen
very well. They hurt your hands, and it's plastic. Who wants to be going out into the
wilderness chopping wood with plastic?
So I wanted an ax. I had this plastic one and wanted a real one. So I asked my mom,
as anyone would do, for a real ax for Christmas.
My parents are very close friends with Graham's parents. So she consulted Graham's father
who's a great outdoorsman and woodsman and ax man. I had wanted one of these really fancy
Swedish axes. And when she told him that, he was like, "Oh, no. Peter lives in New Jersey.
He needs one of these things. I'll look after it. Don't worry."
So he got a yellow plastic-handled ax for them...
...and that's what was waiting under the tree.
So again I was like, "OK, this is ridiculous." I was so motivated at this point to get this
ax, so I just started buying them like crazy on eBay -- old used ones. It didn't matter
how beat up they were. In fact, the more beat up the better. They just had more character.
And I had these sitting around my office for some time.
Because they were old, this was I guess probably before they started painting those little
yellow or red flashes on the ends of them, and I'd always remembered my dad's ax growing
up. It had that yellow little handle on the end.
So I just put two and two together. And I was like, "Andy, this is what I'm going to
do. I'm going to paint axes. I'm going to do 10 axes. And you guys can take them and
you can sell them, and good luck." I sent them over to them, and he took them and they
just sold. And not only did they sell, but he saw them and he was like, "These are going
in the window."
And at that point I knew I had a live one on my hands. So I'm just going to go through
these quickly. I was originally going to just show you a couple of them. I felt like it's
hard for me to pick any favorites, and everyone always has their own favorites. So here we
go. These are all the axes that we've done so far with Best Made.
Peter: Named after Cate Blanchett.
[laughter] [silence]
Peter: And I'm sorry for... Any hockey fans out there? I'm sorry for this last one. Oops,
sorry, the next one. This one.
This was done to celebrate the amazing overtime victory of Canada.
And it's numbered 02 28 10, which was the date of the game. 67 40, which was the time
of that last goal. And 87, which is Sydney Crosby's number, who's the...
And these just went... We just launched these last week. And it's the first time that we've
done an axe in a limited edition and it's selling like... Someone here better buy one
because they're going very quick. They're not cheap, though.
So this is the second part of my talk, which is the workshop. And I realized when I moved
out to New Jersey just how important a workshop is. And this was before I realized I was going
to start doing axes.
But I needed something other than a computer and a desk and a printer. I needed some space
that didn't have any of those things in them that I could go into and make a mess. It could
be dusty, I could nail things into the walls. And shortly after I realized that I was sort
of in a way... I think I'd been inspired by a lot of my clients and people that I'd worked
for in the past. And also some of my other design heroes. So I wanted to show you some
of their spaces. So this is Jeff Tweedy's desk, if you could imagine. And it was a desk
that he would definitely come in in the morning and report to.
I mean, he would sit down, check his email, have a coffee and get up and then start working
from. And the loft itself is sort of like the workshop of all of Wilco and it was such
an amazing and inspiring place to be in. We actually ended up sleeping in there for close
to a week. And just to be surrounded by all of these tools, you know, these things, their
tools for creating music was so exhilarating. Just to see and it's the thing I love about
tools so much. And I guess the workshop is the home for them and it embodies this notion
of a tool sitting there, like these guitars sitting there have so much potential.
And especially when you think that the man behind who usually sits behind that desk,
Jeff Tweedy, has God knows, what has he written with those? What notes has he strum? What
songs have they been used in? What context have they been seen? Where have they played
live? And you start thinking about this and for me these tools started to really take...
These guitars really started to take on a life of their own. And you can just see looking
at this picture, you can count... I mean, there's just so much going on in there. So
many, not necessarily musical tools. But there's like a football, there's a globe, there's
like paintings.
There's so much that they would go in there to derive inspiration for themselves. And
it was always one of my favorite spots in the world and I swore to myself, having spent
enough time there, that some day that this is what I would want. This is something that
I would have to have in order to get me to where I wanted to be.
This is your hometown hero, Isaac Mizrahi, in his workshop in... I guess former hometown
hero. In his studio in Manhattan. And, as I said before, I did two magazines with him
called the Isaac Style Book. And really the best parts of the magazine were capturing
this world that he was working out of and everything that goes on in there. And we kind
of did the same thing with the Wilco book in that sense.
I never worked with this guy. He was dead before I got to his workshop. But his name
is H. C. Westermann. I don't know if too many of you know him. If you don't, you should
definitely look him up. One of my favorite American artists and an amazing sculptor and
drawer. And he built this house and workshop in Connecticut all by himself basically. And
I don't think he even really used nails or anything. I mean, the whole place is just
the work of an absolute master craftsman.
And when I was working on this journal that we used to publish called the Ganzfeld, we
got an invitation to go up there by the guy who currently owns it. And, to their credit,
they basically left it untouched. So we walked in there and this is exactly how it would
have looked when H. C. Westermann was working in there. H. C. Westermann reminds me a lot
of this guy Dick Proenekke, who, again, another name you should look up. You may have seen
one of his movies on like late night public television called Alone in the Wilderness.
And like Westermann, he was a retired Navy guy. And Westermann was actually an acrobat
in the Navy. And Dick Proenekke just became this survivalist. He moved up to Alaska, built
himself a cabin thinking that he was only going to be there for like one season and
ended up spending like the next 32, 33 years of his life there. And he was, if you ever
see this film, he was yet another just completely amazing...
You know, it's like these guys who were trained to be so good at what they did in the context
of like the Navy. And you can assume that they left and what were they going to do with
themselves? Apparently that's how the Hell's Angels sort of came out of that. It was like
these guys who were in the Army, in the Navy fixing things, using their hands all the time.
And then they left and they had nowhere to actually apply them, so they started a motorcycle
And this is Ray Eames' studio. There's a film, one of my favorite, favorite design films.
Maybe even one of my favorite documentary films ever is called... I should know the
name of it. But it's like 901, whatever the address was of their studio that they were
in for like 25 or 30 years in Venice, California. And this documentary is so sad. They made
it right after Ray died and it's about the dismantling of the Charles and Ray Eames studio.
And now here's little old me. Our workshop is in Tribeca, in like downtown Manhattan.
And it could not be, like I don't think I could be in a better spot in the world, probably.
I'm just at the epicenter of not only everything that goes on in Manhattan and everything.
Let's forget about that. It's just that one block from me, I have like one of the best
hardware stores I've ever been to. Two blocks from me, I have a rubber store, a plastic
store, a lighting store. All the way down Canal Street has so much industry around there.
And one of the best illustrations of that is this company, Lockwoods. A friend of mine
from Canada, he's a great carpenter. I was asking him about stains and where to get good
stains. And I thought he was going to stay, you know, somewhere in Germany or something.
And he was like, no there's this American company called Lockwood. You should check
them out. So I Google them and get their website up, look at the address. They were literally
one block from me.
And this is the company that we use to... We hand mix all of our own stains, but they
make the powders and stuff for them.
I've lately become obsessed with flagging tape, which comes in like every color of the
rainbow in pattern.
It's always so interesting when you walk into someone else's workshop. That's why I'm kind
of curious to show these to you, just because... To see what varnish does someone use, or how
do they store something, or the way that elastic band is holding those brushes in place.
So, the last part, the world, which is what everyone sees, really, and I don't think I
would never be concerning myself with all of this previous stuff that I've talked about
tonight if it weren't... If I didn't have some kind of vehicle, some kind of place to
actually put this out there, to sell it, to speak to people, to create this community,
or this culture that is... For us, it's slowly building momentum, but for other companies,
like Wilco or Isaac Mizrahi who have been around a lot longer than us, they've really
been able to build these worlds that are so powerful, and have given me such inspiration
throughout the course of working with them.
And in a case like Wilco, especially, it's like a world that we loved so much, we had
to be a part of it, like so many fans. But luckily, we had some skill that we could bring
to the table, and some idea, which was this book.
One of my first worlds that I was born into was camp. I went to this incredible camp up
in Algonquin Park up in Northern Ontario called Camp Ahmek. I'm sure, probably a lot of you,
being... If you've grown up around these parts went to some good camps. And, our camp would
actually run canoe trips to Quantico, which isn't that far from here.
This place, it wasn't like an outdoor survivalist thing. It wasn't about conquering nature in
any way. It was about having fun, and being in awe of nature. One of the primary tool
for navigating those waters was an axe. The axe was something that was iconic, and something
you didn't mess with. It was taken very, very seriously. From the lore of the axe, to the
maintenance of it, and everything in between.
There were a few guys who worked at the camp who themselves are legendary Canadian outdoorsmen
who have been true inspirations to us, one of which is this guy Dave Cocker, who we always
talk about in the context of best man.
A few years ago, I went back to camp for the first time since I had left. I was going up
to stay somewhere else near there, so I drove in, and I took this picture, which was the
first thing that you see when you come back. I just love this. This sign to me, especially
now in what we're doing, says so much.
This is an artist who's been an integral part of our world, and the creation of it. His
name is Tom Thompson. I'd be surprised of any of you have heard of him. If there's any
Canadians here, I'd be really upset if you hadn't. He was sort of tagged on to this group
of painters in Canada, although there were a couple Americans, called the Group of Seven.
They painted nature in the turn of the last century.
Tom Thompson started life as a graphic designer, actually, in Toronto, and then he moved up
north, into Algonquin Park, and spent most of his... He died young, which I'll get to
in a minute, but he spent basically all of his life up there painting and fishing and
living. He died on the same lake that Graham and I went to camp at Camp Ahmek, very mysteriously.
There's still, to this day, film crews and things who will, with underwater submarines
and whatever that will go up there trying to get to the bottom of his -- he's sort of
like a Loch Ness figure -- trying to get to the bottom of his death.
This happened right on our lake where we went on to camp, and it was always, obviously,
a great source of ghost stories and things. But him, this notion of Tom Thompson, and
the mythology that surrounded this guy, always stuck very deeply with us.
This is one of his paintings. I love this picture. This is Roger Troy Peterson, who
is, I think... I have a great argument, which I'll give to you if... He basically was the
first guy to really popularize nature. And because of that, he has done such immense
things, great things, positive things for nature itself. He was the first person to
write a popular field guide to the birds. There were field guides before him, but they
weren't very accessible. They weren't very good pieces of graphic design. They're bad
information design.
He came up with a system, one of many systems that he came up with, was to just show the
black silhouettes of birds. And, in the end, the US Air Force stole this method and used
it to train their to attack enemy airplanes and things, which is sort of ironic. So, he
has also been a big part of the motivation behind this world that we're creating.
And then there's the axes themselves. And as I go further down this road with the axes,
I just realize what an insane depth of history there is to the axe, especially the axe in
North America. I'm not going to get that deep into it, but I'll just say at one point, 40
years ago or so. Wait, let's see. 40 or 50 years ago, there were over 300 axe companies
in North America, and now there are probably about five.
And because of that, you can imagine how competitive it was. There were some companies that would
produce 300 different types of axes. That would be in their catalogue. 300 different
axes, each one for it's own name and it's own weird way, and beautiful way. Each one
that had it's own very specific purpose and function.
Because it was such a competitive market, they went to great lengths to market them.
This, what you're seeing here, are all these labels that they would use on the actual axes
to distinguish them. There's a lot of bravado and showmanship involved in this. As you can
see from the design of these beautifully designed labels, a lot of work went into it. From the
naming, to the design, and the romance of it, too.
I truly believe the axe is...The axe is the oldest tool known to mankind, there's no question.
There's some arguments about it actually being the first form of art, because they were used...
People would trade them not necessarily for an intended use.
You think that, for all the history of mankind, there have been axes. And then the chainsaw
came along, and it basically wiped that out, and now there's... You go into a Home Depot,
and all you can get is a pathetic yellow handle axe.
That's where we are right now, and that's sort of fine in one way. I'm not asking for
a throwback or anything. I don't feel like Best Made is about nostalgia, but I think
that the axe is, and this may sound kind of crazy, but think that the axe is embedded
in our DNA.
Most of us, you know, who are in this room, it's only a matter of one, or two, or three
generations ago, where the axe would have been a very significant tool, in your great
grandfather, grandfather's household, and every grandfather before that, would have
had an ax.
And these things became, and especially once you start getting into the whole, the lore
of the lumberjack, and everything, it's like these guys would, you know, these lumberjacks
would sleep with their axes. You couldn't touch another man's axe. You literally couldn't
touch it. They were sacred, sacred tools. And Best Made is founded on this notion of
the axe, and that the axe represents any number of things to any number of different people,
some of which can actually be kind of negative. And that's fine.
It's a powerful instrument. And with anything that's that powerful, you always run that
risk of going the other way. But, Graham and I really see it in a lot of people that have
come on board with us, really see it as such a positive, especially in these times when
you have so many tools at your disposal. And so many of them, even the best ones like my
iPhone, I hate. It's like it doesn't work half the time. And if I had to make a list
of like the 10 things that I need in my life right now, the iPhone probably won't be there.
It started to give me a real comfort to have an axe sitting in my New York apartment after
I had sold half of my possessions, or after I had sold my house and divided all my possessions.
I moved into this place, where its like everything that went in there had to have some purpose.
It had to be important. And that was a really cathartic experience for me.
And, I brought the axe with me. And it sits there. One of our axes, it sits there. And
I look at it everyday when I walk in, and I admire it. Not because of what I've done
to it -- that's kind of meaningless at this point in the conversation. It's just that
it's an axe. And the axe is for me this window, a really beautiful window into a world that
I usually would rather be, than like sitting in my, you know, small cramped apartment,
I would rather be up in Algonquin Park, paddling the waters like Tom Thompson did.
So this is us -- Best Made. And the thing - I also wanted to touch on, as I did a little
bit before, about the community of it. And, that's a really important part. This is a
poster that we did that we sent out to people who, anyone who would join our mailing list,
really. And, it's gotten a great response.
And the packaging of what we do is very important, especially speaking to a room of designers.
We wanted this to be an event. When someone opens up their ax, it would be like Christmas
all over again. Nick Zdon, who's sitting here in the audience, was really helpful in helping
us develop, especially at the beginning.
And Nick will tell you, because his ax didn't come looking like this, I was just so overwhelmed.
You know, we came up with this idea. We started selling. We literally built our website in
a weekend. And axes started flying out the door. And, I didn't even have time to think
about what I would normally be hired to think about which was the packaging, and the identity,
and all of that sort of stuff. So, Nick brought it to my attention. He was like, "Look, dude.
You got to get your shit together here." And, he started sending me some ideas. And we went
back and forth.
And this is basically, when you order an axe, this is what you get. This is a deluxe box.
But all of our axes come shipped in a crate. Whether you buy the box or not, they are going
to come in a crate, packed in this really beautiful wood wool that's used for stuffing
taxidermy animals. And, you get a badge and there's this hand signed and dated sticker.
And so, we were just crushed under the weight of all of these orders that came in throughout
all of last year. And, we never had time to think of much except just keeping up with
it. And that was OK. I mean, we started the company without any business plan without
any direction except to make these axes, and to get them out there to as many people as
We always equated it to like starting a rock band, like, "We're just going to do it. And
then, once we get to a point, we'll know when that point comes. We're going to have to sit
down and like come up with a real business plan or something." And that point has come.
But, before that, it was just all axes all the time. I think at this point, we're basically
keeping our manufacturer in business. They can't keep up with us. And so, right after
Christmas, we decided that we were going to do our first non-axe product, which is The
Red Cap of Courage. And for me this had -- I had bought a red cashmere cap at this little
shop in Manhattan. And, I'd been wearing it constantly for throughout the latter part
of my divorce, and the moving and everything. It was just constantly on my head.
And, I can't think of a better term. I can't think of a better way to describe it, but
it was almost like a safety blanket. Like, to have this thing on my head gave me great
comfort. And, it dawned on me that, "Wait. Wait. This is like another axe. Like to have
this thing, to have like this could be a powerful tool for someone, this could be a powerful
object. If I could feel this way, maybe I could convince other people that just a simple
little red hat could give you a since of courage. Why not?" And so, we produced the red cap
of courage.
And now, we're working on tons of new products. We're a boot strap company. So, everything
has to... We enjoy it this way. Everything has to go very, very slowly. We're plodding
along. But, it means that we're always, you know, generally we're making like the right
decisions because if we came upon like too much money, I think that we probably won't
know what to do with it. And I think things might progress kind of weird.
But, we've kept our day jobs. And so, I'm still - Graham and I are still doing what
we did before. And, I'm still incredibility happy working with Isaac Mizrahi. And, I've
just started a new book project with Maira Kalman, her sequel to "The Principles of Uncertainty",
and a slew of other design projects.
The last thing I'll leave you with tonight is that, for me at least, if nothing becomes
of Best Made, which is not going to happen, but let's just say nothing becomes of it,
this has been such a valuable process for me as a graphic designer. To be able to...
You know, sometimes in the thick of it, between, you know, what was going on in my personal
life to like having to fulfill all of these orders, and the logistics of all of that,
and then running a design studio, I thought like, "OK. The first thing that's going to
give here is the design studio." Because at times, I felt like, "OK. This is what I've
done for the last 10 years. I don't need to be doing this anymore."
But, in fact, the axes and Best Made really has helped inspire and to sort of like motivate
me. And the reason is because it's empowering. I'm not dependent on a client anymore, or
a boss, or whatever. It's like I've got this thing, even though I'm probably losing money
on it, right now at least. But, it's going to be something some day. And, it may take
a while. But, that's fine. And that's it.
Andrew Blauvelt: Do you have some time for some questions, because there're some people
at the microphones [inaudible 1:07:48] who might have some questions.
Man 2: How as it working with Phillip Glass?
Peter: Oh, I never had a chance to work - Everything that I did for him was done in
the course of one summer. And he spends his summers up in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia,
actually. So I didn't work directly with him, but I had been a long-time fan of Philip Glass
and his management and everything were great. Just that body of work was enough to inspire
Yeah. Oh yeah.
WoAndrew Blauvelt: OK, thank you. So how often do you use your axes? Do you go camping and
use them? Are you able to use them?
Peter: Since I started it I haven't had time.
Graham uses them. My partner Graham, I don't know if I mentioned this, he lives in Toronto
and he has a beautiful plot of land about three hours north of Toronto that we call
base camp, which is like our outdoor playground or workshop. He goes up there all the time.
Before we release anything it goes to him and he'll play with it. If you come up later
you can see Nick's axe, Nick's famous red hair, has been well use. Our customers vary.
Some people use them, some people don't. It's totally fine. Whatever. I have some axes that
I never intend to use.
Man 3: I have two questions. One, I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit to the history
or tradition of a person marking their tools. I'm lucky enough and honored enough to have
several of my grandfather's tools that are all marked with a bright orange stripe around
them so that if he was using them communally or using them at a job site he always at the
end of the day knew which ones were his. The way that Best Made axes are marked remind
me a little bit of that. I'm wondering if you can speak to that a little bit. And I'm
also wondering if you have any plans to make hatchets.
Peter: OK. That's a question that's often asked, but the first question, really, really
good question. I don't know too much, and I've been investigating it, that history.
My personal history, again, started at camp. We would all paint our paddles and you could
pain anything on them. They were usually a rock band or whatever weird graphic you put
on it. But, again, it was purely to mark them and be creative and have fun. I've heard stories
about the Voyagers, who were the first sort of canoe traveling fur traders in Canada,
would mark a lot of their equipment.
That's a good question. I don't know too much else about it.
Man 3: I guess I had assumed that that was maybe the inspiration for painting Best Made
Peter: Well, for me, you know, I would say I was more inspired by fashion designers.
Not necessarily for the functional purpose of marking a tool so that if you lose it amongst
the other tools you'll be able to find it or whatever, but just to be able to adorn
something and to adorn it beautifully.
So, the hatchets. We're going to be coming out in the spring with a pocket axe, which
is smaller than a hatchet. Hatchets are incredibly dangerous. The reason is, OK, big axe if you
swing it and miss it's probably going to land in your ankle. A hatchet will land in your
femur. It can hit much bigger arteries. It's also something that you kind of take for granted
because it's smaller and less a risk to take. They're always prone to having more accidents
from the use of a hatchet.
But the pocket ax is going to be really special. It's about the size of a hammer. Fits perfectly
in a woman's purse. They're going to be painted. They're going to have their own little world
around them. There's a lot of people that we've discovered love our axes, but they're
intimidated by them because they're big. I mean, you can see, and if you want to hold
this one later you'll see they're heavy. They can be intimidating. But wait until you get
the double bit.
Yeah, there's a question up there. Oh, just wait for the mike. Sorry.
Man 4: What was your favorite moment from camp as a kid?
Peter: My favorite what?
Man 4: Your favorite moment from camp as a kid.
Peter: Oh. Oh my God. Smoking "bamwatos". OK, I'll tell you what that is first. Don't
do this at home. You take pine leaves, pine needles, roll it in toilet paper, and smoke
them. They literally will peel the back off of everything from here down.
OK, my favorite moment was tripping and going on canoe trips. The camp was legendary for
having these really, serious, extended trips to Quetico to Biscotasing. The camp had an
outpost we would trip to. Some of these trips, you're talking 13, 14 year old kids going
on a 42 day canoe trip where food had to be air dropped by helicopter to them.
Really, really serious. Just paddling and learning how to paddle a canoe properly. It's
a total art-form. I know that in Minnesota a lot of you can probably appreciate that.
There's a really great tradition of that here. Any other questions?
Man 5: Yes. It's very refreshing to hear your ten year itch to write and looking for new
ways. Very honest and I appreciate that very much. It seems to me that the axe is almost
a metaphoric tool that you have in order to chop all those things in the past into little
pieces so you can actually figure it out. So the question is, do you have any inspiration
with your book design with Tibor?
Andrew Blauvelt: OK, So Tibor taught one class in his life and I was in that class. It was
when I was at the school of Visual Art doing my master's program. It was an amazing, amazing
class. He died halfway through the class. But the first class we walked in and he put
up a slide on the wall of his apartment. It was a picture of probably some African tribesman
in a pair of shoes, the picture is in his book "T. BOR.", a pair of shoes he had made
out of cardboard.
He put this picture up and we literally sat there for two hours in complete silence staring
at this picture. No one said anything, people were so intimated by him. Then he's like,
"OK you've looked at this long enough. What I want you to do is come into class next week
with an image that will compliment this image that you've been looking at for the last two
hours." This is what happened every week. So we'd come in and put our image next to
his image and then it started to grow exponentially. By the end we had 100 images that all stemmed
from this first image.
Maira really carries the mantle so beautifully from Tibor. I never worked with M&Co company,
but from everything I've heard she's such an integral, sort of a silent partner, of
that company and was really a force behind it and behind Tibor. I definitely see it,
having worked with her enough and spent time working directly with her on so many different
projects now.
Everyone looks up to Maira, even Isaac. Isaac, I don't know if he would admit it, Isaac lives
in the same building that they do and they're like best friends and when you see them together
it's wonderful. Maira a is such a powerful force. Anything else? Great. Thanks. Thank