“Everything to scale, everything from above, everything’s the same.” These are the design parameters for displaying work online at Forest, the studio of L.A.-based art director and designer Joel Speasmaker. Presenting both personal and commercial projects side by side not only lends equal value to everything in his portfolio, but it’s an indicator for the personal philosophy that Speasmaker strives to practice when approaching a new design brief.

“It’s very important to me to bring the same amount of passion to a project, regardless of who the client is—myself included. I have no desire to be the dominating voice in a project, it’s always collaborative, and I only want to work with people who trust me as much as I trust them to be honest and thoughtful. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s a good mindset to work from.”

collection of zines from the small books series

Speasmaker says he can trace this spirit of collaboration back to his teen years, when he played in punk bands in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia, or in college when he founded The Drama, a quarterly arts magazine that featured art, design, and illustration. “I’ve always wanted to contribute to some sort of close-knit community, which lead me to starting The Drama. What began as a small group of friends and artists somehow grew into an internationally distributed contemporary art magazine, and through this process I learned basically everything I know about both graphic design and the business practices of running your own studio.”

Since his school days at James Madison University where he studied Media Arts & Design, Speasmaker has worked predominantly in branding and editorial design. He published his last issue of The Drama in 2007, and went on to serve as creative director for Spacebomb Records, Anthem Magazine, and Howler, an indie publication focusing in on the world of soccer. And lest you think that sounds awfully niche, Howler’s color-saturated spreads are rich in engaging infographics, illustrations, photography (both historic and contemporary), and Speasmaker’s deft design moves make it a pleasure to read for even the non-sports fan.

identity design for Sing Sing studio

Speasmaker’s current design practice is housed in a small, shared workspace in Chinatown, occupied by two freelance photographers, and his wife Caroline Hwang, an illustrator, writer, and food stylist. (Small world side note, it’s not far from Sing Sing’s studio, which Speasmaker designed the identity for). Speasmaker and Huang met after he moved to New York in 2009. Together with five other curators, they ran Beginnings, an art gallery and collective based in Brooklyn. The couple spent several years working in New York, and then after some time in North Carolina, they decided to switch coasts and move out West.

For freelancers, finding enough work in New York or L.A. demands a certain level of hustle, but Speasmaker is surprised by the difference the West coast climate makes, both professionally and geographically. “Los Angeles has really become a welcoming place for small businesses and freelancers. There’s of course the inevitable saturation of things sometimes, but the L.A. stereotype is very true: the climate lifts your spirits and begs you to make an effort to work harder in order to work less. My free time here is so much more important to me than it was in New York. I think that, in effect, allows your working time to be more productive and satisfying, too.”

Joel Speasmaker + Caroline Hwang

Speasmaker’s off hours are currently spent caring for an eight-month-old rescue puppy, and developing TOOOLS, a new creative endeavor he and Hwang recently launched together. TOOOLS is a line of multipurpose, stackable ceramic dishes and bowls inspired by banchan, the small plates of food served traditionally in Korean cuisine.

Also for sale is the enigmatic “Treasure Box,” described on the TOOOLS site as “part secret-keeper, part incense-burner, and part mind-expander.” Available in mint green and bubblegum pink, the Treasure Box is the kind of streamlined yet idiosyncratic design object we can definitely get behind.

So how is the designer adapting to his next business venture? Speasmaker admits, “It’s a huge learning curve, similar yet very different than the art direction or design I’ve done in the past. TOOOLS remains a largely free-time endeavor, but we continue to take small steps to build something we feel proud and worthy of taking up space in a very busy world.”