Damien Correll: Hand-Drawn Haiku

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“I am not ashamed to reuse a good idea if I don’t think I gave it justice the first time around,” says Brooklyn-based designer/illustrator/self-described “maker” Damien Correll.

His organic, playful style–which references early Sesame Street animations, ’70s interior design, and ’50s product logos–is as diverse as the media he employs, from collage to painting to pen ‘n’ ink. (For a glorious display of his hand-drawn fonts see the recent book, Hand Job.)

This 26-year-old Pennsylvania native and Futura font fanatic has built a structured career from his seemingly bottomless will to outdo himself. After attending Philadelphia’s esteemed University of the Arts, Correll relocated to Brooklyn and was soon hired as senior designer for Urban Outfitters. In his two years there, he created dozens of new typefaces and replicas of album covers for ads. Since leaving the chain, he’s collaborated with clients as diverse as Nike, Nickelodeon, snowboard company Rome SDS, and indie labels Polyvinyl and Plug Research. His magazine work has been equally varied, encompassing illustrations for New York Magazine, IdN, and Complex, and work for zines like UPSO’s Faesthetic and Shepard Fairey’s Swindle, to which he regularly contributes.

Most recently, Correll has released a series of Zoo York skate decks (with Hand Job compiler Mike Perry), gotten engaged, and begun to work in a collaborative space with the Rad Mountain collective (which also includes Justin “Demo” Fines, Wyeth Hansen, Garrett Morin, and Ryan Waller). “I think my new stuff is my favorite,” he says. “It feels like I am coming into my own a little. But I’m sure I would have had that same response five years ago, or even five years from now.”

XLR8R: Where did you develop an interest in typography?

Damien Correll: When I was around seven or eight, I can remember having this type book for kids. It had examples of all forms of lettering, mostly bubble lettering and techniques. From then on, I would take books out of the local library on advertising type and other old specimen books. In retrospect, it was kind of a weird and nerdy thing to be interested in at that age. And then, oddly enough, I didn’t even take one type class when I was in art school.

How does typography differ from other media?

I think the huge problem with it is that, by nature and sheer definition, it’s too literal. There are only so many levels of abstraction with it. You can’t get more literal than type.

Who are your influences?

Lately I have been really interested in the sensibility of [British graphic designer] Alan Fletcher’s work. Visually, I’m not sure how much of his work informs what I do, but there is always a level of experimentation with what he did and that is something I always include in my process. I try to push more of a sensibility than a style. I am pretty sure that’s why folk art is a huge influence in my work. Folk art can look drastically different from culture to culture, but it almost always has a similar sensibility. The combination of the carefree gestures, naïve palettes, and universal concepts is just really attractive to me–there’s something unmistakably human about it.

What is your favorite album cover and why?

I think it would have to be The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m a big fan of Sir Peter Blake’s collage work. I would also have to put Peter Gabriel’s 1978 self-titled [album] up there as well–the one with the “scratch.” Such a simple, yet beautiful cover. Storm Thorgerson, who designed that cover, also created a bunch of other iconic covers including Dark Side of the Moon!

Does what you do feel like a job?

It’s my dream job, but it is totally a job. I love working, so whenever I get a free moment from “working” I am working on something else. I’m still trying to play around with things and experiment and establish myself as an artist, so most of the time I am trying out new ideas or techniques. But when I legitimately take a break, I love getting lost in used bookstores and flea markets. My dad used to drag me to all of these Amish flea markets as a kid and I never enjoyed them at the time. But now, to me, just wandering around with only the possibility of stumbling upon something unexpected can be kind of amazing.

What would you do if you had unlimited time?

I’d probably freeze up and mull over everything! As much as I hate crunching for time, I thrive on short deadlines. I think less and do more. It’s a purer expression for me. I’m chockfull of self-doubt, so having a lot of time can be a detriment to my process.

How much planning goes into a piece before you start?

Everything starts with a sketch. If it doesn’t, it goes nowhere. When working on a new piece, I usually make a bunch of elements by hand and then assemble them, either in the computer or as a traditional collage. Once I get to the point of assembling, it gets super-loose. This is where I really start to refine the concept by adding or taking away things on the fly. Improvisation is huge for me, but I need to first set up constraints to work with.

What do you listen to while you work?

Some days, it’s dance music, some days it is psych-rock, some days it is No Wave. Lately I have been really into the new Cut Copy record and that Lykke Li record, and the new Ruby Suns album. MGMT’s is really good and I have also reluctantly come around to Crystal Castles. But I’ll have days where I burn through the entire Kinks discography or listen to back-to-back Diplo mixes.

Doing so much commercial work under your own name, do you find it hard to express yourself in your personal work?

I deal with this whole commercial-versus-personal dilemma at least once a day. The division of work isn’t simply black and white. Doing a lot of illustration work, I get to play around and experiment as if I were doing my own work, but it is the subject matter that’s not mine. When I figure out some new things or get some new ideas, that’s great. But there are situations where I end up burning good ideas for an illustration project instead of a personal project. It’s all relative.

What’s your biggest pet peeve in art and design?

It is really important, as a maker, to know your influences. I always think it is a shame when a young designer or artist can’t pinpoint what movement, period, or artists have inspired them. Fads and styles come and go so fast it seems much easier to replicate than go back and see what may have inspired these second- or third-generation aesthetics.