Those visiting Williamsburg, Brooklyn in recent years would be forgiven for thinking the neighborhood was patrolled not by police but by a militia of malnourished lumberjacks. Before they became the butt of every joke, this ubiquitous crew roamed the streets wearing a uniform of button-down flannel shirts, suspenders, carefully rolled up jeans, and Timberland boots, topped with a standard issue high-and-tight haircut and fussily trimmed mustache (beard optional). While the Ur-hipster-lumberjack may have had an original look, those that slavishly followed subscribed to a personal style that really wasn’t so personal at all.
The self-conscious sameness of fashion posses came to mind when perusing the pages of Start Me Up!: New Branding for Business (Gestalten). Most of the rarified brands included in the book offer artisanal products and services, and each has its own twee take on simplicity. But put together, these young, entrepreneurial companies from around the world exhibit a collective back-to-basics aesthetic. Comparing brands to people, the editors invoke the “discreet and endearingly awkward” fashion sense of Jerry Seinfield or Steve Jobs—white sneakers, nondescript jeans, and button-down shirt (or mock turtleneck)—a.k.a. Normcore.
The brands in Start Me Up! are represented through beautifully composed photographs of product labels, stationery, business cards, and other marketing collateral. As a group, they share a number of character traits—soothing palettes, simple typefaces—but a few brands break out of the overly polite pack. In fact, some of these are quite personal brands indeed, like that of Jay Bennett, an electrician in Cornwall, England whose AC/DC-inspired identity (designed by After Hours) is pure visual jolt. Or that of actor Anne Lessmeister from Baden-Baden, whose calling cards (by Perezramerstorfer Design) feature self-portraits that make chameleon-like changes.
Other brands get points for sheer cleverness, like Hamburg-based roofer Dachdeckermeister Garling, whose set of patterned business cards (by Friendship Hamburg) transform into a 3-D array of pitched rooftops; and Skovin Golv, a flooring specialist in Oslo, whose collateral (by Heydays) is made from actual wood samples.
Though global in scope, many examples in the book’s 200-plus pages come from Western Europe. But to an American eye, accustomed to being shouted at by cereal boxes and accosted by garish violators (like those starburst interventions that announce “50 percent more chips!”), the refined brands in Start Me Up! seem destined for a pummeling on the playground. (And to American ear, the book’s rockin’ title suggests brands vying to win VC funding at the next TechCrunch conference, not sell you a beautifully wrapped artisanal soap.) Indeed, the U.S. brands in the book seem to have a bit more bite. The identity for New York City’s Café Standard designed by Triboro blends a Valentine palette with austere geometries, and Lotta Nieminen’s brand work for Paintbox, a chic NYC nail salon, could be part of a W magazine fashion editorial.
Good brands succeed by distinguishing their product or service from the competition, and we’re left wondering how these businesses are faring in the real world against other strong personalities. But whatever the book’s little-brands-that-could lack in brashness, they make up for in design and a homespun appeal that’s like catnip to a certain truth-seeking sophisticate. A real start up idea? Bring Start Me Up!’s brands together to create an artisanal market in Brooklyn.