Interview With Peter Buchanan-Smith

My series of interviews with New York designers continues with another of my design heroes, Peter Buchanan-Smith. You can be sure that anyone who has designed for the likes of Wilco, David Byrne and Brian Eno is going to be high on my list of people to speak to. Peter has an incredible and infectious passion for design and examining the different avenues it can take him down creatively, such as his company ‘Best Made’ and it’s range of handmade axes. All is revealed,and more, below

Chris Bowden: Tell me about working in New York. It’s an epicentre for great designers, how do you set yourself apart?

Peter Buchanan-Smith: I try not to think about them too much. There is so much talent here and that in itself can drive you crazy if you really think about it too much, if you let your insecurities get to you. For me it’s more about taking what I can from it, being inspired by it, from my colleagues, my peers, my friends and then turning it into something. In NY you’re just exposed to so many different ideas, people and tastes and sounds and sights and everything it’s about taking all that in and trying to make it your own, filtering it back in your own unique beautiful way.

CB: Have you always here or are you from somewhere else?

PB: I’m from Canada. I moved here 15 years ago

CB: You worked as a designer in Canada?

PB: No, I graduated from university doing a fine arts degree, then I lived in Europe for a couple of years then moved to the States to work in publishing.

CB: You were at Paper mag for a while?

PBS: Yes. That was not first. I had to jump through a few hurdles before I worked go to Paper Magazine but eventually I worked at Paper.

CB: Did working in the environment of a magazine like Paper help you in finding clients when you eventually struck out on your own?

PBS: Not necessarily. I’m a really tiny studio and my client roster reflects that. I think that I’m such a boutique that I don’t get lots of companies banging on my door and I don’t go out and seek it. Things are pretty good the way they are and I couldn’t handle more work, I’ve got too much as it is. The Paper thing never really bought me too many clients – I don’t know why.

 CB: How did you come to do work for Isaac Mizrahi?

PBS: That came through a friend. I did a Masters degree at The School of Visual Arts and Maria Kalman was my thesis adviser, she was very good friends (and still is very good friends) with Isaac. We just made that interaction and I got to know him for a few years before I started working with him.

 CB: What’s it like working with someone who has obviously got a pretty strong design vision themselves?

PBS: It’s great because we really don’t have competing visions most of the time and I have never worked with someone I felt I could share closer tastes with. I really love working with him and am constantly in awe of this whole world he has created.

 CB: Is his ‘public persona’ like his private persona?

 PBS: Is he the same in private as he is in public? He’s really no different.

CB: I’ve been watching the television program he did The Fashion Show and quite enjoyed it…

PBS: He’s exactly the same. Isaac is very genuine.

CB: He seems genuine and interested in what he’s doing

PBS: Yes, totally and that’s really a great energy to surround yourself with and to be able to work closely with someone like that. It really rubs off and it’s a beautiful thing.

CB: I’m a huge Wilco fan and I’d be interested in hearing how you met those guys and ended up working with them.

PBS: I’m a Wilco fan as well. They had just come out with their movie: I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, I felt like their visuals never really held up to their music. Even with the movie I felt like somehow it was not quite doing them justice, at least like I felt I could do. So I approached them about doing a book project and they were really into it. I sent them these books that I had done and they thought it was a great idea, they were all over the project for a while, then they went to Australia, and it was right when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot came out and they exploded. I kind of lost touch with them for about a year then finally I got back to them and we started working on this project together. It turned out that Jack Tweedy the lead singer is a very big book man himself and had some amazing insights into narrative and storytelling and how books could be made, it was such a beautiful really wonderful collaboration. About half way through that process they started recording
A Ghost is Born and asked me if I would design the package for it, which I did, that was a great experience. It was the first album I ever designed.

CB: I remember seeing your concepts for the CD in The Essential Principles Of Graphic Design.

PBS: Oh yeah the Debbie Millman book?

CB: Yes that’s the one; it was really interesting to see your thought process going through, I imagine a client like that could be hard sometimes, but also good in a way. I imagine that the best solutions don’t come from the client picking the first thing you put to them.

PBS: Wilco are really great creative people. They’re very mercurial and constantly changing their minds about everything, maybe indecisive at times, but I think when it finally came down to it they were perfectly decisive and really acutely aware of what they wanted. I can see how difficult it is from their viewpoint.You release an album and you’re still mastering it and mixing it and the album itself is kind of changing. I’m sure in their minds it was changing even after it’s released, even as they played it live. So for someone like me to come along and just think that I can slap on a design, even if it’s the most beautiful design in the world, it’s asking a lot of a musician who’s been toiling and slaving over this thing for months and months if not years sometimes. For me it’s about coming together and going back and forth until you strike that magic moment. There’s almost always a lot of blood sweat and tears that goes into that, but I’m a true believer in finding a client and working for them for a long period of time, that’s how you really develop. It becomes like you start completing each other’s sentences, it’s not a matter of it becoming easier and it’s not like you know what they want until you do it, it’s more like the work gets better, because if you’re someone who can keep pushing themselves and your clients pushes you as well, then automatically things on one level become easier, it allows you to challenge yourself. When you just start with a client you’re figuring each other out, you get hung up on a lot of things that you probably don’t need to. I’ve found that once you have been working with a client for an extended period, over a number of years, you don’t get so hung up on those things any more.

CB: I imagine the repackaging design of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s seminal album My Life In the Bush Of Ghosts was an altogether different experience, did you have much dealings with them personally?

PBS: Yes it was totally different. I only dealt with David Byrne, Brian Eno was in England I think at the time so I worked really closely with David, he’s another really amazing inspired character. Nearly all of his stuff has been really beautifully designed, so it’s intimidating to enter into that pantheon of work, he’s worked with some of the greatest designers out there. From Tibor Kalman to Sagemeister to Peter Saville, all sorts of different people, so I was really excited about it and it was an album design that came really quickly. The process for me was more one of experimentation, it was indirectly inspired by the album itself which is so experimental and so playful. I was working on things that were more conceptual and it wasn’t really working out for me so I just sort of turned that part off and I took the scan we had of the original Bush of Ghosts cover and took it into Photoshop and started playing with it, for no reason really, just as eye candy for me. Then I started applying these Photoshop filters and I never use Photoshop unless it’s just to enhance an image, but never as part of the puzzle of the design. So I started just doing all sorts of different things and printing them out and putting them up on the wall, seeing what it would look like if you did this effect and what does it look like if you try another effect. I realised, this is actually really interesting because it’s like we’ve sort of taken this original album and squeezed it through a filter literally through this Photoshop filter and what came out on the other side was like those play dough machines where you put the play dough in and you get this sausage out the other end. That’s all it was and it felt like the perfect thing as soon as I saw it, especially the one that is all stretched out, the one that we ended up using. It really harkened back to the old cover but it created such a new experience and that was exciting.

CB: It’s feels very Eno-esque as well, in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices he talks a lot about experimenting with Photoshop

PBS: Maybe there was a conscious sort of channeling, he’s a hugely inspiring character.

CB: I think he’d be interesting to meet, I’m sure I would be more than a little bit intimidated by him though.

PBS: The thing I like about him is that he seems like a very down to earth guy not like some musicians.

CB: It always seems like he’s got something interesting to say and is doing something interesting.

PBS: Yeah, he’s so prolific.

CB: What was the inspiration behind starting up an axe shop?

PBS: It just comes from a life of being obsessed with objects. I grew up on a farm and there were always tools and beautiful things around me that were not necessarily intended to be hung on your wall or put on a stand in your living room or something. They were really things that belonged in a shed or a barn but I would always gravitate towards them because they were so formerly beautiful, like you take that kind of old shovel or something that had been used and used over time, just how beautiful that can end up being? The blade of the shovel gets eroded and then the wood on the shaft gets worn down and it really starts to take on a life of its own, there are so many stories to it and when you go out into the fields and you take a tool with you, you really want this reliable, comfortable thing, not something that’s going to break or that you’ve never used before. You’re not quite sure whether it’s going to work or not. So I moved to NY where you don’t really have any need for shovels or axes and things, I lived without those things for a while, then after going back and forth and back and forth to Canada where my parents lived, I would go back and take lots of pictures around the farm and then bring those back and study them and get inspired. I started bringing these tools back and realised how important they are for me. Eventually an opportunity came about where someone who was starting a store/gallery called Partners In Spade were inviting a few people like me to contribute stuff and so the axes just popped out, painting the handles seemed like such an obvious thing. It wasn’t like I gave it too much thought you know, it wasn’t like I did hammers and anvils and all these other things, it was like, no it’s got to be axes, and that’s it.

CB: It’s an interesting departure. A lot of designers are trying to do stuff other than direct ‘client work’, whether that be t-shirts, books, magazines….

PBS: I know. I’ve never done a t-shirt but I’ve certainly done lots of different books. I got to the point where I just realised that I can’t do another book it’s never going to make me the money I want to make. I’ve done enough and I’ve tasted their glory or lack there of and I know that for me it’s all limited and what I was ultimately always building towards with every book I did was creating these worlds which most people call a brand. That’s what Wilco is and that’s what Eno and Byrne are, The Bush Of Ghosts is this little world, it’s a microcosm. There’s a whole group of people out there who follow that album, it’s like they worship it, thousands of people who worship those two guys, ourselves included.When you start to think about it, there’s a feeling you get when you open up an album and you immerse yourself in it and especially into the music, but it’s also the visual experience which lots of designers talk about. I really feel it should be, in its best case scenario, like a fully immersive experience, where you have this feeling like entering a room or something. An experience you can take with you for years and years, maybe even a lifetime. There’s albums I listened to when I was young that I’ve since put away and I may listen to them on my iPod but for the most part they’ve sort of been filed away in some dark corner of my brain, then when I go back home, I’m like flipping though my vinyl collection and I pull one of them out, it’s like entering back into that world. Best Made is like that with the axes, it’s an attempt at creating an experience for people, just like it is when you go and see a movie. It’s like you enter into this world and become changed by it, hopefully for the better. One of the most exciting things for me that you can’t get with a movie for the most part, you can sort of get it with bands and music, is that you actually own something. You can buy a piece of it, for example, the museum experience has always seemed very limited for me, except for the store, to me that’s always seemed the most exciting part, there’s nothing worse than going to a museum and the store sucks because it’s the place where you can actually take things away with you and put them into your own curated museum which might be your office or your bedroom or wherever.

CB: You’ve done a lot of work for great people. What’s something that you haven’t done that you would like to?

PBS: I guess I feel like I’m sort of doing that. I’d say that I have a whole list of products I want to do that I’ve never done before, through Best Made The axe was the product that launched us, we just came out with a hat last week so we’ve got a hat and now we’re going to build on that and that’s what I get excited about. I have no idea for example how to make a blanket or a flag pole, but I’m really excited about learning how to do that and working with people that can teach me. I’m not going to make a blanket myself, but I might make a flag pole or at least a prototype of one, so that’s really what I’m interested in.

CB: I went to a talk Paul Sahre gave last night and he started off with a video of himself that his brother had filmed of him working in front of a computer for 4 hours (without his knowledge), he was lamenting on the fact that this was his life, hours walking on the computer and he wanted to get away from it, onto something more tangible. Is Best Made a desire to be involved in something tangible? You can’t get much more ‘hands on’ than an axe

PBS: Totally, that’s where it all came out of for me. When I was living in New Jersey, I had a great space for a woodworking shop and then when the economy tanked, I lost a lot of clients. A lot of people would say in that situation, I’m going to work even harder to get more clients or to get those clients back but I thought I’m just going to take this time to pick that chunk of time that I’ve regained for myself and really start working in this shop and building things, I soon realised that it was the perfect combination for me. To sit at my computer for an hour in the morning and then go into the workshop and start building things, then shuttle back and forth all day, that was just like an ideal scenario and that’s sort of like what I’ve got going on here. Eventually I would like to be completely off the computer, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.

Peter Buchanan-Smith is a New York–based designer, author, and entrepreneur whose career has included designing book jackets for Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; art direction of the New York Times Op-Ed page; creative direction for Paper magazine; and work for fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi, musical legends David Byrne, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, and the band Wilco. He is the author of several books, including The Wilco Book, and he has collaborated on many others, including Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style with illustrator Maira Kalman, and Muhammad Ali by Magnum Photographers. His first tome, Speck: A Curious Collection of Uncommon Things, which originated as a thesis project at the School of Visual Arts, where he also teaches, explores the fascinating lives of ordinary people and commonplace objects. This connection between people and objects is also at the heart of Buchanan-Smith’s latest venture, Best Made Co., a purveyor of bespoke axes that offers not only a finely crafted tool but also entrée into the symbolic world conjured by the object and summoned by its owner (adventure, hard work, balance, and so on).

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