For most, a job translates to security, stability, and comfort. But for Eric Collins, Larry Pipitone, and Joey Ellis, the intrepid young founders of New York creative agency GrandArmy, ditching their corporate jobs at the peak of financial flux just felt right. “The last few months of 2008 were terrifying,” says Collins. “But we realized how unhappy we were, so we took a plunge in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.”
Without steady work or even a single client, GrandArmy launched its website. Initially an online portfolio of student work (Collins, Pipitone, and Ellis were recent graduates of the University of Delaware’s prestigious Visual Communications program) and personal projects cobbled together on nights and weekends in the Brooklyn apartment they shared, it slowly gained traction. The name was also born of some less-than-auspicious circumstances. “We were putting on a bit of a show, but we were confident in our abilities,” says Collins. Ultimately, however, it was about “acting the way we wanted to be treated,” says Pipitone, who believed that their colleagues and future clients would eventually catch up. And they did.
Now, the agency has grown to 10 people, including interns (whom GrandArmy is firm about paying in order to stop “self-selecting wealthy people and hiring only trust-fund babies,” as Collins puts it), and recently moved from its humble Brooklyn beginnings to a light-filled studio in Soho. Save for desks, chairs, and storage units, the workspace is strikingly lean and functional, which dovetails with GrandArmy’s aesthetic. Though the team works across multiple platforms and disciplines, much like Charles and Ray Eames (two of GrandArmy’s favorites), every detail must serve a purpose. “We’re modernists at heart,” says Ellis. “We don’t like things that are unnecessary, and we don’t like decorations. We critique everything and ask ourselves, ‘why does this exist?’”
While they count bold-faced names like Nike and ESPN among their clients, it’s their work with the United States Post Office that caught the attention of designers and everyday Americans alike. The challenge? Redesigning the routinely drab and depressing user experience—“anything you could print out or put on the walls, like signage, kiosks, boxes, and tape,” says Ellis—into something friendlier and more efficient. By combining “modern typography that feels like it’s from the past,” bold graphics, and a patriotic color palette, the new visual system streamlines the amount of time people spend at the post office and helps create a more pleasant experience overall.
If you’re wondering why the project doesn’t look like anything they’ve created before or since, that, too, is entirely by design. No matter the client, GrandArmy doesn’t adhere to a particular style or look. Like Dieter Rams, another favorite designer, they “approach new work by recognizing the unique challenges and creating things to address them,” says Pipitone. “That’s why we find ourselves saying yes to things we haven’t done before.” Ellis adds, “It’s about doing the best thing that’s right for the client at that moment, not about using the same perspective in all our work.”
As for trends, they bear little on GrandArmy. If anything, their broad and diverse portfolio is unified by timelessness. “We don’t want to look back in even five years and cringe at something we did,” says Ellis. “Our heroes didn’t work like that.”