When ADC Young Guns Sean Pecknold and Adi Goodrich met on the set of a commercial project, it was a match made in design heaven. He was the director, she the production designer; his work as an animator complemented her experience in set design and photography. It was their combined skills and shared love of creating work by hand that inspired them to leave the solo freelance life and open up Sing Sing studio together in Downtown Los Angeles.
They also started dating, which for some romantic/professional design relationships can turn into creative co-dependency. But Sing Sing’s dynamic is symbiotic, with each partner bringing a unique perspective and set of abilities that benefits them both.
Pecknold says they’ve been able to maintain their individual identities as designers, partly because they both had established careers before forming their studio together. “I think for some duos or teams, they start dating and they maybe get into photography, they start shooting together, and get popular. That can complicate the relationship part of things, where for us, we were traveling on these parallel career vibes and then came together.”
Goodrich adds that even though working as a couple took some getting used to, having a partner in life and design has been a great source of support. “To give up half of the title and half of the ownership all of sudden is, to be perfectly honest, a bit difficult. But then again you have double the power. In times of exhaustion or stress or when you’re like, ‘Is this a job that I should take? Is this the right pay?’ You have a person to check in with. And because we’re also in a relationship relationship, we’re with each other to check in about life and working, and it’s actually really wonderful.”
Before moving to Los Angeles in 2009, Goodrich went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago. She designed window displays for Anthropologie and Barneys for about a year before working on commercial shoots, ultimately opening her own studio and woodshop for set design.
Pecknold made his way to L.A. in 2012, after studying broadcast + TV at Washington State, and spending the summers learning how to shoot video as a Kiss-Cam operator for the Seattle Mariner games. He spent a few years working as a TV and film editor at a post-production house in Seattle, and has been freelancing in L.A. ever since.
I visited the duo at their Chinatown studio, an airy, two-story workspace that still bears the sign from its former life as the Happy Lion Arts + Gifts. Goodrich and Pecknold love the rich, cultural history of their neighborhood, and its surprising walkability. The Happy Lion/Sing Sing sits tucked away on Chung King Rd., a quiet pedestrian alley dappled with red paper lanterns in the West Plaza shopping center, where the surrounding businesses are an eclectic mix of souvenir shops, art galleries, studios of other creative professionals, and apartments of long-time residents.
Goodrich says they take walking breaks to clear their heads on particularly hectic studio days. “There are no cars allowed on our street, so in the city of L.A., where it seems like you’re always on Sunset Blvd. and in your car, Chung King Road becomes a really quiet, contemplative place.”
From an art director’s perspective, it’s a visually inspiring place to work. Pecknold says the entire neighborhood’s aesthetic feels like a “very Hollywood set-y version of Chinatown.” Which makes sense, since the film industry has been using its pagoda rooflines and curio shops for location shoots since the early days of Hollywood. Built in 1938, the district was actually named New Chinatown, after the original Chinatown (founded in 1870) was demolished to make room for the construction of L.A.’s rail terminal Union Station. The community that was displaced by this development moved their homes and businesses to the current Chinatown location, where additional shops and restaurants were built to appeal to tourists and locals alike.
The size and flexibility of their studio allow Goodrich and Pecknold room to construct sets for photo shoots and animate stop-motion music videos for indie acts like Fleet Foxes and Beach House. They’ve also built up an impressive client list with top brands like Target and Adidas, who regularly commission them for their distinctly analog style.
They recently collaborated with Sagmeister + Walsh which Goodrich says, “is funny because Sagmeister + Walsh is such a huge name, but the way that they run the show is just like us, very hands-on. Oftentimes on commercial jobs, you’ll have producers speaking to each other and then the photographer shows up and the art director shows up and it’s like, ‘Nice to meet you. We haven’t talked at all. I guess we’re starting now.’ When we work with Jessica [Walsh], she doesn’t have a producer speaking for her. She’s all about direct communication, totally seeing eye to eye with each other. And she, like us, wants everything to be in-camera or handmade.”
That handmade quality is what makes Sing Sing’s work stand out in a sea of vector-based design campaigns. Pecknold actually freelanced for about two years as a Cinema 4D artist, but the clinical precision of the software left him feeling uninspired. He’s found that creating something by hand, even if it’s slightly imperfect, adds an authenticity to his compositions and shows the physicality of the design or animation process.
Goodrich agrees, of course. Speaking about a recent project, she says, “Yeah, I could’ve laid that out in Illustrator and printed it and it would’ve saved me $300 and six days of work. But even if you’re cutting out a piece of paper or drawing with a paintbrush, it’s going to be so specific to the body that you have, that it just makes everything a little more real.”
The past year has been particularly busy for Sing Sing, and they’re looking forward to carving out more time for personal projects in between client work. Goodrich has started working on a line of ceramic vases and bowls, and Pecknold will produce his own animated film. Together they will be designing the visuals for Fleet Foxes’ upcoming tour, the band Pecknold’s brother Robin formed in 2006. Pecknold says, “You get sucked into the commercial world and you can start to lose your heart a little bit. It’s great to have the time to be able to help out on friend’s music video because it’s just a fun way to spend a Saturday. This year’s about more heart and art.”