Kathleen and Christopher Sleboda, Draw Down and Gluekit (New Haven)
by Jaz Halloran
Christopher and Kathleen Sleboda, founders of the small publishing house Draw Down and partners of the illustration-design practice Gluekit, are presenting at the 2014 Vancouver Art/Book Fair on Saturday, October 4 at 3pm. Their publishing project, Draw Down, was set up as a platform for testing out ideas, both practically and conceptually, and allows them to continue to experiment with the deceptively simple marriage of form and content. They will discuss all of this at VA/BF, as well as how their various other projects—all involving the acts of “making, curating, collaborating, collecting and distributing”—continue to overlap and inform each other.
Project Space: Your work as Gluekit is very enjoyable to look at—it gives off a “we had fun doing this” vibe. It’s also very different from the type of output featured on Draw Down. Each has a very distinct vernacular and speaks to a different audience. The connection I make between these two projects is illustration. In my experience, some of the most impressive graphic design work comes from someone with a strong illustration background. Do you share this belief?
DD: That’s so interesting! We actually have more formal training in graphic design; illustration is something we both picked up along the way—kind of fell into—but is something we’re passionate about. We think about our work in a really broad way: we’re drawn to images and image-making, but neither of us likes how well we can draw—so we use the tools of designers and photographers to create our illustrations and graphic images. Our Gluekit portfolio is pared down to just illustration, but at one point it included all the other image-making work we did, including dimensional art pieces, typography, videos, exhibitions we’ve curated, etc. We’ve always been interested in experimenting and learning new things, whether that meant pushing our illustration work into different styles or thinking up new ways of engaging in image-making practice or engaging with others. It is done in the spirit of fun and adventure! But you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head when it comes to the distinction between Gluekit and Draw Down; we’ve purposefully shaped them toward different audiences—it’s been interesting to consider areas of overlap, but not emphasize the multiple worlds we occupy.
We personally know quite a few graphic designers who’ve taken up editorial illustration—maybe it’s because as designers we’re taught how to effectively communicate a message, and that’s exactly what one does with editorial illustration. There’s definitely a porous boundary between the fields, and throughout the history of graphic design there have been designers who’ve had amazing illustration, photography and art practices. We agree that some of the most impressive design work has a strong visual component and we’re also quite taken with purely typographic work. We see ourselves falling in line with graphic design’s interdisciplinary tradition and are really excited about growing our practice in different and new directions.
PS: The publications and products on Draw Down are all things I want. You’ve really tapped into this specific niche that speaks very directly to me as a person (and graphic designer) who’s interested in these items. When did you start to be interested in publishing projects such as those featured on Draw Down? How did you discover them?
DD: Thank you! That’s a huge compliment. We’re always so happy when people connect with the work we’ve published and curated. We are avid book collectors and book buyers, as well as really enthusiastic supporters of the printed tradition. We have to keep building additional shelving to house our new acquisitions because we’re rapidly running out of space! It seemed like such a natural extension of our interests to get into publishing. The opportunity to undertake self-directed projects was something we particularly relished, and Draw Down originally started out as a way for us to design and publish work that spoke to us and that we thought deserved greater recognition, as well as a way to experiment with printing processes. From 2005 to 2010, we also were involved as contributors with a number of small cool arts magazines, like Faesthetic and The Drama—which made a really positive impression on us.
Draw Down also opened up the possibility of collaboration with different people, which is something we’ve always really loved. Publishing is a slow process, though, and expensive; in order to keep Draw Down active and vibrant during periods when we are working on new titles—or busy with other projects—we realized that we could distribute rare and limited-edition titles that complemented our own publishing endeavours. Many of them are by publishers we admire, or designers and artists that we know. What’s great about this dimension of Draw Down is that it’s presented us with an opportunity to cultivate relationships with all sorts of creative people who are also passionate about publishing and printed materials. We do keep our eyes open everywhere we go—bookstores and online—looking for work we’re attracted to and want to share with others.
DD: We greatly admire JRP Ringier, Rollo Press, Occasional Papers, Nieves, Steidl, Ooga Booga, Printed Matter, Aperture… there’s a pretty long list. We’ve personally met so many publishers at art book fairs who’ve inspired us. Folks like Oranbeg Press, Conveyor Arts, Ponytale Magazine, Capricious, Empty Stretch, Endless Publishing—it’s one of our favorite parts of Draw Down, being able to meet so many creative talented people who are equally in love with books, photography, graphic design, art, etc.
For finding inspiration, we’ve always naturally had our eye on what’s going on in the design world, and a strong interest in photography and the visual arts. We’ve just used Draw Down as a way to more actively engage with projects and work we find attractive, interesting or important.
Kathleen is also a co-curator of Women of Graphic Design, a project that began as part of Tori Hinn’s degree project at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013. WofGD spotlights contemporary and historical work by women in graphic design; it’s a broad focus, and some of the research she does for that project feeds back into our work with Draw Down. For instance, that’s how we became aware of the Hall of Femmes titles from Sweden that we carry.
Lately we’ve also been pleased to find that some folks who are drawn to what we carry have been contacting us with their printed work. We like that we can help designers get their work more broadly noticed as well as spotlight typographic specimens and experimental publications. It exposes us to a lot of great work and helps keep us inspired.
PS: You founded Part of It in 2007, just as Manystuff, 032c and Super Super magazine were getting started—right as the whole wave of “ugly” design began to popularize. How do you feel graphic design has changed (or hasn’t) in the years since 2007, and how has this passage of time informed the founding of Draw Down (and its book collection) in 2012?
DD: Graphic design seems to be something more people recognize and are attuned to. The field has always been in flux, with pendulums swinging in different directions. We think it’s one of the things that makes graphic design so exciting! There’s such strong history to explore, and of course, technology is constantly introducing new opportunities for designers. The internet has made it more possible than ever to be aware of what’s going on around the world, to be aware of design practices internationally, and it’s this cross-cultural design conversation that we’re most excited about and interested in supporting. Thanks to Google Translate and social media, people have been able to expand their design horizons.
We also are fortunately situated right outside New Haven, Conneticut, which has given us the chance to meet many of the students in Yale’s Graphic Design MFA program and a birds’-eye view of the program over more than a decade. The program is interesting as a microcosm in and of itself, but it’s also fascinating how Europe informs/inspires student work and how Yale’s program is influencing other schools and places. So many students from Yale’s program, which was the first in the United States, have become educators at other institutions, or gone back to their home countries and established groundbreaking practices. (A note here: when we started distributing other titles, our catalogue really strongly represented Yale-educated designers simply because those were the friends we knew to originally reach out to; our aim, though, is to showcase design work from all around the world.)
We started Part of It as a way to interact with designers, artists and makers who inspire us. We found, however, that the medium of tote bags and t-shirts was somewhat limiting. Draw Down was born from the same impulse—to connect with others and support their work, to do something meaningful—but really opens up the field and the possibilities for different kinds of collaborative projects.
PS: Part of It is amazing. It brings to mind Ken Garland’s 1964 manifesto “First Things First.” Have any other projects been an inspiration for Part of It? What inspired you to become activists?
DD: Wow, thanks! We both come from punk rock, D.I.Y. backgrounds. We suppose that plays the biggest part in inspiring us. When we were younger, we organized punk shows where a can of food would get you a $1 off admission price and the food would be donated to local shelters, with the remainder going to animal rights organizations. We believe in civic and social engagement, and for both of us there’s been a thread of how to make art/music but also help people as well. These two ideas are linked for us; they’re both equally important. We weren’t inspired by any particular projects when we launched Part of It, but it definitely is rooted in a punk ethos.
PS: Can you speak to your role as curators and how this role has evolved since founding Part of It?
DD: Over the years we have become more and more interested in curating. We’re currently thinking about different ways, mediums and methods in which curatorial activity can occur. Whether it’s in a physical space, or a publication, or online, or through a series of events.
In 2011, we curated a show in Los Angeles called A Product of Design; our concept was to highlight the work of traditionally trained graphic designers who had turned to creating products (Peter Buchanan Smith of Best Made, Geoff McFetridge of Solitary Arts and Andy Mueller of the Quiet Life, to name a few). We were particularly interested in showing work that straddled the line between functional object and collectible piece of art, as a way to further play with the ideas of “product” and “art work” in a gallery space. These boundary issues—for both the makers and the objects—were a really interesting way to frame the exhibition.
For us, curating a show in a physical space is a more collaborative effort, but it draws on the same sort of approaches we used for Part of It. And these skills in turn are feeding into the work we’re doing with Draw Down: curating the selection of titles we distribute and the works we share on social media, handpicking the contributors and content of printed pieces like our photo publication Pretty Much. If graphic design is about finding solutions, curating is about posing questions.
We’ve also found that curating can enrich our practice, by allowing us an opportunity to introduce and consider ideas we’ll eventually incorporate into a future project. For instance, last year we were invited as Gluekit to mount our own pop-up shop/exhibition in Los Angeles, as a follow-up to the 2011 show. The exhibition, which we called Long Play, reconfigured some of the ideas we’d introduced in A Product of Design and gave us more room to expand our thinking. We were again intrigued by the idea off subverting some of the conventions of the art shop pop-up. For an art gallery space converted to a store selling products as art, we conceived a series of items that clung to their essential nature as products NOT art. Everything was created with formal consideration and artistic intent, but fully commodified and priced as a functional product (records, skateboards, furniture, home accessories), not an art piece. We wanted to take full advantage of the art space as a point of popular commerce. Coincidentally, we also used the exhibition to stage a launch for Draw Down with a mini-bookshop as a centerpiece in the shop.
PS: How do you manage inspiration vs getting work done? Do you see yourselves as “dreamers” or “doers-who-dream-but-get-
DD: Inspiration is all around, so it really does take effort to focus on a project. We’re currently investigating how to add more hours into a day. This bending of time would greatly benefit the realization of some projects we’d like to move forward. The good thing about having a queue of projects to work on, however, is that we always have something to look forward to! At present we would categorize ourselves as makers, rather than dreamers. We really like to make things happen and to make projects tangible.
PS: What’s your day like? What time do you get up and start work? Do you have any routines that support your work process?
DD: Between the two of us, usually someone is working. Our freelance projects require us to be reactive and responsive, so our process and schedule really vary dependent on rapidly changing deadlines that other people set. Draw Down is great because it’s something for us to pour energy into in our spare moments, but it’s flexible enough to allow us to take on our commissioned illustration and design work at a moment’s notice.
Images: Courtesy of Draw Down Books