On a day long since past (meaning 2012), I aspired to create a magazine that focused on all things paper related. That was back when Fresh Rag was all about the art of using paper in the work we do. The site has obviously shifted, and my motivation to do the magazine waned because I was focusing on building something bigger with Fresh Rag, but there were elements of the mag that still need to be shared.
I have been wanting to get Vanessa Hernandez on the show for awhile, but schedules have been difficult to line up. The interview below happened awhile ago, so some of this may be out of date and unrelated, but I figure I owe it to her to put this out in the world. Vanessa is moving on to bigger and better things, but the words below are worth a read through regardless.
First, how about a brief design and illustration history?
For almost my entire life I knew that I was intrigued by the way things looked—it wasn’t quite art, but the way shapes and spaces interacted with one another. I was drawn to vintage signage, such as a lot of the beautiful liquor store and restaurant neons around Los Angeles. I worked on yearbook layouts in middle school, carefully piecing together letter by letter with rubber cement. I was turned off by brochures and advertisements that seemed too cluttered. I wanted to know why man-made things were the way they were and who did them. I didn’t know all of that was ‘graphic design’ until after high school.
From there I fell head-first into all of it. I went to the Art Institute of California for three and a half years, met a few phenomenal instructors and wonderful friends, and left during the middle of my senior year when I was awarded an internship at TOMS shoes. There were fifteen of us in a 4-bedroom house by the beach. We bunked, we worked full-time at HQ together, we lived together, we cooked, we rode bikes, we pulled mischief. For six months, we were plucked out of real life and taught social responsibility through the eyes of a for-profit company, and made great friendships. I still get nostalgic thinking about that, and it was only a little over three years ago.
After the internship, I had a lot of really cool opportunities to begin working in the design industry while being one of TOMS’ “custom shoe artists”, so I put finishing college on hold. I’ve worked for the last 4 years with a handful of LA-based non-profits, startups, and a production studio or two, but I was also pulled to do specialty design for companies like Aerial 7, WeSC, Haus of Gaga, and GOOD magazine.
When did you start illustrating letters, and what got you started with hand lettering and gilding?
I remember one of my professors in college being so passionate about the alphabet – not just ours, but letters in general. The anatomy of each letter and how the filets, and crossbars, and ears, and counter spaces, and shoulders, and apexes and all of it fit together so perfectly to create something that is a fundamental basis of communication—it fascinated me and in my first typography class, I felt home.
I’d always sketched and doodled, and was the person called upon to make signs or whatnot in grade school, but I never really thought about the thousands of years that made what I was putting on paper. I guess I started really illustrating letters then, including decorative type into many of my school projects and later, work projects.
The gilding sort of came as a fluke. Before she moved to Chicago, my very best friend and I would spend lazy sundays together, making things. One day while we were out picking up supplies (and probably champagne and ice cream), she told me about how gold leaf sticks to everything, and that I should try to do something with it. I bought a pack of leaf, and from there taught myself the techniques and learned about the best textiles to use for leafing. I remember my mom using leaf when I was a kid for ornamental things around the house, but I’d never seen anyone try to use it for hand-rendered prints, so I tried it, and it stuck. That was a little less than a year ago and I still practice it every day.
Many previously antiquated design processes seem to be regaining popularity. Do you foresee gilding being something you develop more, or is it an occasional diversion?
I would love to develop gilding even more. I do it on a very small scale currently, selling prints on my Etsy shop, but I’d love to take it off paper and put it out on a grander scale. Right now I’m dreaming up different ways to utilize gold leaf in more of an installation design format. I love the old practices of reverse glass gilding for business storefronts and plaque gilding for entryways – I’d love to work on those kinds of projects.
The revival of antiquated techniques is something that I’m completely smitten with – if at the end of the day, I can go home with letterpress ink all over my hands, or smelling like screen print emulsion, or having soldered metal pieces for a type sign, or completely covered in gold leaf dust, then I’m grateful and truly happy.
I saw the embroidered shoes you did for TOMS. Where else do you see your tactile work headed?
It’s hard to say exactly where I want my tactile work to go, because I want it everywhere. Windows, doors, walls, bags, books, bottles, furniture, bodies (I’ve actually gilded models for photo shoots) – Everywhere. I want to utilize every single method of making for my design practices. I think that’s why it’s difficult for me to call myself a graphic designer – that’s what I was trained in, but what I love doing goes beyond the logos and identities and collateral and typography in fact, that’s where the name The Vaguely came from.)
I love metals and woods and and fabrics and paints and inks and presses and brushes and unconventional ways of making something into something beautiful. I want to really get in the thick of it; if I’ve never worked with a certain textile or object before, I love figuring out how it’d best come together and the right materials to use, whether it’s illustration board and bonding tape or two-by-fours and some power tools.
I’m the kind of person who, when someone says “We should…”, I’m like, “We could – we just need some wood glue, a heat gun, a soldering iron, a T-square, and some tulle. Hold on, I’ve got it all in my car.” Seriously, if were ever pulled over and searched, I’d get a lot of questioning stares. I can embroider with my grandma during the day and moss-graffiti a building at night. And I want to do everything in between and beyond.
How cool would a full brick wall be with gold leaf?
Do you know a brick wall that needs some leafing?! I’m there!
Who inspires you right now?
Besides the greats? (Herb Lubalin, Paul Rand, Ralph Ginzburg, Saul Bass, Ed Ruscha, Jan Tschichold) Definitely the people I keep close. I’m lucky to have a great group of people who are all similarly-driven in that they believe with high risk comes high reward, and they are some of the riskiest.
Small LA companies I’ve worked with, such as Falling Whistles and State of Unique, manage to reel in fascinating people like a magnet and it always feels like a match made in soulmate heaven to be around them, whether we’re collaborating or just having a dance party in the downtown streets. Kevin McCarty, my former photography professor & good friend who shoots some of the most beautiful editorials I’ve ever seen (and who trusted me to design his logo – that was scary.) Sonja Rasula, founder of State of Unique & my former boss/first mentor, for being a woman who goes after what she wants while making it seem like a neon-colored breeze.
Kyle Lishok, a good friend of mine who lets me dump hair-brained ideas on him, for his unique perspective on photography (and his mixtapes are just always spot-on.) My college friends. My hometown friends. Everyone offers a different angle and I love being inspired in ways that I wouldn’t have dreamed of had it not been for them.
And of course, people in the industry whom I only hope to meet one day – Erik Marinovich, Dan Cassaro, Jessica Hische, Stephan Sagmeister, Bobby Solomon, Alex Trochut, and probably approximately fifty more.
“The last creative thing I did was… “
Probably the mood board I put together for a recent client pitch – I wanted to showcase my graphic & layout abilities while maintaining an air of accessibility, & thoughtfulness, so I hand-cut reams of newsprint and had the spreads printed on that (I love how newsprint soaks up the ink and offers such beautiful saturated colors), sewed each page to an inner margin of vellum and various fabrics to add durability, hand-punched each page with gold eyelets & did a manual bind with adhesive & a heat gun to hold it all together, & finally gold-leafed the front cover with their logo.
It was a lot of work but definitely a labor of love – I think each new client I approach deserves to be shown that what they do is appreciated and relevant, and I try to come across that way in my design.
Any shout outs you want to give?
My friends have been amazing in their support of all the crazy things I do – & not settling into a field that I didn’t love & deciding to finally captain my own ship was definitely a crazy thing. My very good friends Erin & Frankie, also known as Hunter & Fox, for letting me be first in their portrait series & really kickstarting this whole viral gold frenzy – plus, they have phenomenal taste in music & hearing the song that they chose to accompany the portrait video makes me smile so big, every time. They have such a natural sense of anticipating their subjects’ personality & next move, & I think that’s such an integral part of keeping the videos fascinating.
My best Maggie, who keeps me together. My mom for not completely jumping ship when I told her I wanted to go to art school… that poor wonderful lady.