If you’re wandering around in the East Village in New York City and your phone picks up a wifi signal called Jennifer Aniston, you know you’ve reached SSHH, the design studio and creative event space founded by graphic designer Bráulio Amado and his partner, Nick Schiarizzi. The walls are lined with items for sale, like a Ouija board set in Comic Sans, a USB stick with student work from the School for Poetic Computation (the product description reads, “Maybe it’s a virus, maybe not!”), undeveloped film shot by “actual photographers,” and an “ancient wellness talisman” made of a large resin cube embedded with a picture of Meg Ryan, hanging from a gold chain.
By day it’s Amado’s work space, and by night it hosts all manner of events, from readings and workshops to language classes (French, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese), as well as launch parties for unusual products. It’s not typical for an independent designer to pay pricey East Village storefront rent for their own studio space, but then again nothing about Amado and Schiarizzi’s plans for SSHH are typical. They’ve said that New York City would be better if it were “1,000 times weirder,” and SSHH is their solution.
“We’ve all become so obsessed with paying the bills that we have no time to explore and be weird and do something that isn’t specifically output-oriented.”
While New York is large enough to house pockets of fresh, creative energy and areas that are more affordable, Schiarizzi notes that “the surge in luxury developments—all the glass condos and SoulCycles—is reaching an insane cartoon level, with all these villainous, super skinny towers popping up in Midtown and that sore-thumb glass cheese-grater-looking building by the Manhattan Bridge.” In a city that’s becoming increasingly inaccessible, SSHH offers an affordable alternative that privileges community and open dialogue. “We’ve all become so obsessed with making rent and paying the bills that we have no time to explore and be weird and do something that isn’t specifically output-oriented.”
When the private studio transitions into a public space at the end of every day, one of the many classes you can take is the regularly-occurring Gay Graphic Design Workshop, which promises “fun tips to come out of the closet at your design studio,” as well as topics of conversation such as: sex, PrEP, typefaces, BBS, bottoming, STDs, kerning, the 2014 La Roux album that everyone tends to ignore, and whether Michael Bierut is kind of hot. You will also make some graphic design.
Led by Amado and Ben Tousley, an art director and graphic designer, the class starts with a quick gay design origin story, of sorts. Amado shares how he came out at his job at Bloomberg Business Week, where he says he wanted to eroticize his work and make his “editorial spreads more gay.” They’re both quick to acknowledge that BBW was quite an inclusive environment at the time, which isn’t the case for many designers who feel closeted at work. That’s one reason Amado and Tousley say they’re always trying to up their “gay game” when it comes to their graphic design work. They figure the more visibility of work by gay designers, the better. Beyond working with gay musicians—Amado has worked with Frank Ocean, Roisin Murphy, and Robyn, and Tousley with Nico Muhly and Grizzly Bear (frontman Ed Droste is gay)—Amado (along with Schiarizzi and two friends) recently started a gay travel project called For Bottom, and Tousley started publication called Buds about queer people that smoke weed.
“SSHH is aiming to be something that isn’t luxury, isn’t trying to establish itself as an art world celebrity, is affordable to participate in, and encourages people to do something besides take selfies in their bathroom all day.”
To help the six gay designers attending the workshop up their own gay graphic design game, Tousley and Amado led them through a design exercise that began with four prompts: what’s your ideal date night, your personal vibe, your sexual fantasy, and your go-to pick-up line? Everyone was asked to write down their responses, pass them randomly to another participant, and then open up a black-and-white, 8.5 x 11″ page in Photoshop. They were each going to create a one-page visual profile for a gay dating book. Or app. Tousley and Amado weren’t sure yet.
There were a few constraints—this is a graphic design class, after all. All type must be set in Helvetica, but then you had to give it personality. To visualize one of the responses, you were only allowed to source images from Yelp. “We’re not trying to make super beautiful design, we’re trying to tell a story,” says Amado. Sometimes, he explained, if you’re too literal about telling a story, it can become obvious or boring, but piecing together these scraps of information can unlock unexpected ideas or ways of thinking. “This exercise is not unlike a typical design remit, where you’re given a ton of different ideas and you have to make sense of it all.”
But how is this… gay? “We don’t have a definition of what ‘gay graphic design’ is, nor are we trying to do that—or even say that that’s a thing at all,” says Amado. “But as gay people, [Tousley and] I feel like there’s this sort of PTSD from being closeted, where you feel somewhat lonely in what you do, and weirdly enough we realized we actually don’t know many other gay graphic designers. So we decided to start an event to meet them and do something together.”
While the designers hunted around online and pieced together their one-pager, Tousley and Amado offered help and advice (“Don’t overthink it, just dive in”) while sipping beers and taking requests for gay music to play or discussing the best local gay clubs. Did everyone know about the one just across the street, owned by Alan Cumming? They were all going there for a drink after class: the designer from Equinox, the designer for the queer makeup company, the designer who recently left her job at an investment bank, and the designers who were making the most of their final days in New York before their expiring visas sent them back to Malaysia and China.
Playing around with Photoshop might be one thing that brought these people together, but the main thing is the community that SSHH is building. “How many big shot designers like Bráulio would invite their participants to get drinks and hang out after?” an attendee told me the next day. “There was no sense of a networking script because I think they really care about getting to know people in order to build a community that extends beyond design. To me, this creates a more accessible environment for designers and artists across a broader spectrum.”
If SSHH had been around 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been just another one of NYC’s weird, welcoming spaces. But as developers continue to swallow up more and more creative pockets in the city’s never-ending land grab, it stands apart as a haven for designers and artists who feel left out of the “new” New York City, and it sends a bat signal to other likeminded folks to start similar ventures—not for profit and not for productive output, but just for fun.
Schiarizzi is hopeful. The revenue from their events and community support allows them to pay all their instructors and their monthly rent of $2,500. Plus, “the State Senate just passed some amazing renters’ rights laws,” he says, “and we’re coming up on a new decade where young people ostensibly will be able to rent recently vacated apartments way below market rate for the first time since maybe the 1960s. It seems too good to be true, and I’m curious to see how that shapes NYC in the coming years.” Of course if that doesn’t pan, Amado says they can always “become the Times Square’s M&Ms store of the East Village. Or keep doing what we are doing right now, it seems to be working.”