Brian Roettinger: Hand Held Heart

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Though it sounds sweet and innocent, the name Hand Held Heart is a literal interpretation of a gruesome H.R. Giger painting used as brutal album art by grindcore legends Carcass. It’s an apt name choice for L.A.-based designer Brian Roettinger, whose work can be heartfelt, hardcore, and everything in between.

Roettinger started Hand Held Heart in 1998 to release a 7” by screamo luminaries Orchid. The project quickly expanded to include a wealth of unexpected endeavors, like silk-screened album art, redesigning public signage, and music, among other things. “When I came up with the name Hand Held Heart, I realized that it wasn’t always going to just be a record label,” he explains. “I thought that having a title or a moniker would be nice to have as the platform for anything I make. Whatever my interests are, it falls under that.”

Maintaining a day job as the art director for the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Roettinger’s attention to detailed lines and choice fonts has crossed over into his design work for friends like No Age and Liars; similarly, his unique ability to balance financial stability with community-oriented output stems from his punk roots. In the late ’90s, Roettinger was the bassist for This Machine Kills, a Southern California hardcore fixture that featured Steve Aoki on vocals.

“You really felt like you were a part of something important, and you were involved and responsible in every aspect of your endeavors, whether it was booking shows, making t-shirts, or releasing records,” says Roettinger of the DIY movement’s lasting impact. “It’s a very self-reliant, skill-sharing community. That’s the primary quality that still influences my work and how I live my life today.”

Brian Roettinger has an exhibit at Echo Park’s Hope Gallery this month.

How would you describe Hand Held Heart?

It’s about collaboration not competition. It’s about staying up late. It’s about communication. It’s about getting pissed. It’s about thinking critically. It’s about not taking yourself too seriously. It’s about getting your hands dirty then washing them. It’s about listening to what others have to say. It’s about supporting what your friends are doing. One day it may be about something else.

How did you first become interested in art?

As a kid, and still to this day, I was excessively eager and curious for just about everything around me. My grandfather was a clockmaker, my father was an avid photographer and illustrator, and my mother painted. Me, I would break things, fix things, steal things, return things, take things apart, and basically get myself into trouble. I would ask a lot of questions: “How did you make that?” “What is this?” “Can I make one of those?” I was a dreamer, and ultimately just started making things, mostly drawings, at home and in school.

What did you learn in your four years at the California Institute of the Arts?

I know this will sound very academic, but it taught me to listen, distinguish sense from nonsense, and how to think critically and develop ideas. By the time I was finished, I was very aware of what I did and didn’t want to do with design.

Describe your artistic process from start to finish.

I learned this from the Dutch designer Hans Gremmen: 1) Do one thing at a time (which I have a hard time doing). 2) Know the problem. 3) Learn to listen. 4) Learn to ask questions. 5) Distinguish sense from nonsense. 6) Accept change as inevitable. 7) Admit mistakes. 8) Say it simple. 9) Be calm. 10) Smile.

How do you know when you’ve finished a piece?

I try not to over-analyze but when there is absolutely, positively no more time left to continue working then I am done, and if there is no more time and I feel it’s not complete, well, then it’s going to be late. I think the more things you make, the more comfortable you are with your work and knowing when something feels right or feels done. It’s not always that it looks done, but that it just feels done.

What does a day in your life look like?

I rarely eat breakfast. I spend about an hour in the morning reading and responding to emails. I spend most of my day at Southern California Institute of Architecture, either working on the current publication or a new series of public-program posters. I drink a lot of green tea. I try to never wear the same shoes two days in a row. I eat a late lunch. I wear all white on Wednesdays. I sometimes wear a suit on Friday (formal Fridays). I have so many projects that my days range based on what I am working on, but it often includes getting frustrated, confused, excited, and tired.

What is a classic album cover that you would re-design if you could?

David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. I like the existing design, but it’s something that I wouldn’t mind seeing with a solely typographic solution.

What’s your favorite album cover of all time?

There are so many I could call favorites, but The Day the Country Died by The Subhumans was the first punk record I remember buying because I loved the cover, so it’s a bit nostalgic.

What do you like to listen to while you work?

Animal Collective, Panda Bear, No Age, Liars, Glenn Branca, The Ramones, Mötley Crüe, AC/DC, Shotmaker. Sometimes I just listen to sports radio.

Who do you consider your influences, artistic or otherwise?

The early 20th century avant-garde for their experimental and innovative respect to art, culture, and politics. Ian Curtis for his musical and lyrical vision. William S. Burroughs for his words and social criticism. Robert Brownjohn for his wit and conceptual approach to design. Charles and Ray Eames for their timeless, simple, and brilliant approach to thinking. Dieter Roth for the fact that he never seemed to stop working, and finally John Cassavetes–the true DIY thinker.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?

I would probably be doing something else and trying to pass it off as art.

Do you still play music?

Occasionally Aaron Hemphill from Liars and I will collaborate and make tracks. We have a few hours’ worth of material that we never do anything with.

How do you stay financially secure without compromising your DIY ethics?

I try to stick strictly to arts-related cultural organizations or institutes. Most of the stuff has been for smaller galleries or museums and bigger publishers, but no real large corporate stuff. Right when I was out of school, I worked for Motorola and I couldn’t hang, really. It was hard to come up with ideas and make things. You have these great ideas, and they’re like, ‘That’s great, but we’re not gonna make that yet. Let’s just put that to the side, and maybe we’ll use it in the future.’ It just seemed like a waste of my time.