“In the ’90s, if you had any connection to the Beastie Boys, it meant you were cool…even if you weren’t.” Multidisciplinary designer Geoff McFetridge laughs as he remembers his cool-by-association beginnings working as art director for the Beastie Boys’ glossy Grand Royal magazine. He says, “designing for the Beastie Boys really set my studio and career into motion.” They ran the publication out of a recording space in Atwater Village, a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles, situated alongside the L.A. River. McFetridge worked across the street in his storefront studio, and years later still considers the neighborhood home.
With one foot in the art world, and the other in design, McFetridge exhibits paintings as often as he designs for the film and music industries or for consumer brands like Target, Patagonia, and Warby Parker. His signature illustrative style, both minimalistic and surreal, has an aesthetic specificity and yet is extremely versatile. It’s no wonder it translates seamlessly from a pair of sneakers or a skateboard to massive murals and environmental graphics.
Originally from Canada, McFetridge gained a strong technical background in design through his undergraduate degree in Commercial Art at Alberta College of Art and Design. He credits his grad school experience at CalArts for helping him hone the conceptual point of view that makes his work so enigmatic. “CalArts was all about thinking,” he says.
It was like no one cared about what anything looked like in a way that was fantastic. I went from getting graded on neatness to getting completely absorbed in the critique process, and developing a new way to think.
His thesis project, titled Chinatown, won a distinctive merit award from I.D. Magazine, and used L.A.’s Chinatown district as a model for exploring his own Chinese heritage. In 2008, McFetridge presented his drawings and professional work alongside his former professor Ed Fella in Two Lines Align, “an exhibition about the evolution of graphic design in the context of massive shifts in our visual culture.”
McFetridge’s ability to evolve our understanding and expectation of visual culture is evident in the graphic elements he created for Spike Jonze’s film Her. Set in Los Angeles in the near future, McFetridge created a world of maps and interfaces that felt completely new, and yet just familiar enough to be believable (his subway map stretching “from summit to sea” is topographic wish fulfillment for traffic-bound L.A. commuters).
He avoided sci-fi interface clichés like green holographic text, and instead expanded on Jonze’s limited design direction (“the future is nice”), creating a warm and approachable visual environment, with an undertone of ennui. “Spike is single-minded, and he’s very clear,” says McFetridge. “He makes great films because he communicates his concepts and visual intentions so clearly to the designers he works with. It’s my job to close the gap in the kind of narrative that Jonze is creating with the film.”
McFetridge feels like he’s learned a lot from working with Jonze in the way that he approaches design from an abstract, conceptual space vs. a problem-solving perspective. “I’ve found that I can cover way more ground if I keep the aesthetics and form limited.” His abstract sensibility is what’s led to his success as both an artist and designer, and he’s relieved to have left the early days of his career behind him, when he was required to present multiple comps to clients in various styles that differed from his own. “I just hated it. I always felt like it was a waste to go off on some tangent we were never going to use. For me, the creative process is like hiking up a mountain. Who goes for a hike and tries to find dead ends? If I’m hiking, I want to get to the summit.”
In terms of design recognition, McFetridge has already reached the summit. Last year, he was awarded the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Communication Design, which came as a surprise to him. “I was so shocked and honored to have won,” he says. “I really don’t have a lot of interaction with the design world. My public world is more in gallery shows and art fairs, so this was sort of a whole new introduction to the design community for me.”
Regardless of the accolades that come with his win, the Cooper-Hewitt award is representative of how McFetridge’s career has evolved in style and scope since his early days at Grand Royal. This year he’s designing two transit-related mural projects, one for L.A.’s new metroline station, and the other for an entire subway station in Ottawa.
He still operates a one-man studio in Atwater Village, just a few blocks from where the Beastie Boys used to hang out. He bought his current building ten years ago; a two-story structure with a private parking lot that’s perfect for large-scale installation work. Upstairs is dedicated to design development or storyboarding animations for clients like The New York Times Magazine, while downstairs is intended for silkscreen production, working on paintings, or running his wallpaper business, Pottok, with his wife. He says he intentionally created a division of space to reflect the way he approaches his art and design practice.
Conceptually, what I’m doing is all the same. The art just gets licensed and becomes corporate projects, and I’ll do logos that relate to drawings. I question if maybe I should make my studio all one room, but the reality is there’s a difference, and I’m interested in how those physical divisions can create a rhythm or a cycle for me between art and design.
When he’s working primarily on design projects McFetridge likes to stay upstairs, and then he may switch to working downstairs for months if there’s a period of time he’s focused more on art. “I’m gearing up for a show later this summer so I’ve been downstairs a lot lately. If I’m at my desk upstairs, I’m always answering phone calls, but I feel like the phone just stops ringing after a while once I’m down here long enough.”