Typography Icon Alex Trochut on Working With the Rolling Stones, the Empathy of Design and More.
There are few creative milestones that Brooklyn-based illustrator, designer and topography artist Alex Trochut hasn’t attained. He’s received accolades from the Grammy Awards and the Art Directors’ Club and was selected as one of the top 5 of the 20 most influential designers in the last 20 years by Computer Arts Magazine. He’s partnered with some of the world’s most iconic brands and artists – from Katy Perry to the Rolling Stones – to bring their album artwork to life. He’s even published a book. Our crew shadowed Trochut for a day in the life. During our time together, he expounded on the differences between art and design, and how he overcomes creative blocks.
How did you find your style?
I’m very grateful for the lack of knowledge sometimes, I think that sort of naive-ness or ignorance is what creates drives and excitement in the process, bringing unexpected accidents, which then creates unconventional results. It is sometimes a good thing being clueless about how to do things. Sometimes it’s better not to have a teacher with certain things, it forces you to figure out things on your own way. And eventually develop a style of your own.
»It is sometimes a good thing
being clueless about how to do things.«
How do you feel about working by hand or on a computer?
There’s something about working by hand that gives you a different pace, whereas a computer gives you results that are very fast and clean. Somehow the down tempo of using a pencil and paper creates a different result, it’s kind of like a working meditation... I like to go from one to the other. At some point, I tend to get bored and I just try to change my method or tool, creating some uncertainty in the process, that always brings some excitement.
How do you deal with projects you’re not passionate about?
There is always this love hate relationship with your profession, but I think I’m starting to let go a lot of my own personal opinions towards paid jobs. And, I feel like it’s sort of helping to the result and process to let go of your own attachments to certain things and try to be more open minded about changes.
Nothing is permanent or perfect anyway, so embracing that, whatever you do, opens up your limits somehow, there is always another way of solving the same problem. At some point you stop thinking, and then it becomes a more emotional or subconscious process, it really almost is like your not in charge or as if it doesn’t belong to you, because you are not controlling or predicting the result.
»Art should be an unapologetic form of freedom,
something pure and selfish in a way.«
How do you differentiate between design and art?
When I was younger I thought, well okay I’m doing design but, if i wanted I could also do art. As if I could change the context of whatever I’m doing, and place it in a gallery. And just like that, I will be art. Today, I see it differently, and I think that art should be and open debate as opposed to design, where we need a collective acceptance and communication, should be more conclusive in its message. In a way, design is an act of empathy, and Art should be more like an unapologetic form of freedom, something pure and selfish in a way.
»Anything you do, either great
or not, if it becomes repetitive,
will eventually create a feelings of routine and insatisfaction.«
How do you get past your creative blocks?
Anything you do, either great or not, if it becomes repetitive, will eventually create a feelings of routine and insatisfaction. Make yourself kill your darlings and your formulas so you can start again in order to destroy the routine. This will then build up something new again. And sometimes, you need the go through the struggles of the creative process, that is in the end the core of creativity, that fight with yourself. It’s always a little bit of a crisis, but resolving that thing you have no idea how to do and learning more is, I think, the best way to go. The limit is in ourselves. Many times it’s like “Okay yeah my identity is this. I’m this box.” But once you start adding a new thing, you’re like “Oh actually, my box is bigger than that”.
From Humble Hobby to Booming Business: A Day at the Wheel with Potter Helen Levi.
A New Yorker born and bred, Helen Levi has been making ceramics since elementary school. Today, she runs a studio in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. And if you’ve opened a lifestyle publication—or Pinterest, for that matter—in the past year, you’ve likely encountered her beautiful, one-of-kind designs. We spent some time with Levi in her studio to learn about how she built her one-woman empire, how she avoids selling out as the demand for her pieces skyrockets, and why keeping it simple is her No. 1 motto in business and in life.
How did you get into pottery?
I was always balancing like four part time jobs, and I used to wonder what my full time job will be because I could never find one. I was teaching pottery, I was waitressing, I was bartending. I had studied photography, so I was doing a little photo assisting here and there. I interviewed for a lot of jobs; I tried to find that one full time job. But it never happened for me. I didn’t even know that this was a thing that you could do. I didn’t know anybody who did this. I wasn’t really tuned into the whole world of handmade stuff, so when I learned about it, I remembered feeling like “Oh, you could do this? Cool!” You know, that was very exciting. And so then I thought, alright well, let me give this a try. But I also felt like if it doesn’t work out, I’ll be ok.
»I wasn’t really tuned into the
whole world of handmade
What are your biggest struggles?
Oh man there’s so many all the time. It’s not like there were struggles in the beginning, and now there’s no more struggles. All the time different challenges present themselves, and I mean I try to ask friends for advice or look into it that way, but really I feel like the way I learn is I do it wrong, and then I’m like well I won’t ever do that again, and then I don’t make that mistake again.
Do you miss pottery as a hobby?
Someone came and did a studio visit, and they did pottery for fun as a hobby outside of their job. They’re like yeah you know after work I love to just go to this studio and just clear my mind and go on the wheel. And I’m like yeah it used to be like that for me, but not anymore. It’s not like I’m on the wheel and that’s my life - you even said, oh it’s so meditative. Right, it used to be, but now it’s my job. It’s relaxing in some ways, but not the same way it used to be because it was an escape from whatever pressures were in my life. Now it is the pressures of my life.
»I try to keep in mind .. like ..
why did you start doing this?«
What drives you to keep creating?
I like to think that there are people out there all over the country or in other countries who have my stuff in their kitchen, and they wake up, make a cup of coffee, and are drinking out of something that I made sitting right here. Like that’s an incredible feeling you know? So I can’t trade that for anything. Sometimes people ask me “You could have six assistants in here, you could be like having stuff manufactured overseas, design something for Crate and Barrel” or whatever, and yeah, I could do that you know, and maybe in five years time I would want to do that, but that’s not like why I started this. That’s not why I wanted to do this. So I try to keep in mind ..like .. why did you start doing this? Because you love making ceramics. That’s it. Keep it simple.
How has social media influenced your work?
It’s obviously really amazing because it costs me nothing. It’s free. Over the last few years it has grown for me, and that’s definitely the biggest audience that I can reach. It’s amazing that I can share stuff with them and that people are really supportive, but there is this kind of aspect of it’s a total facade.
I mean - you’re choosing one image from your whole day to put on there, and then it’s all edited and everything. It gives people an illusion. You assume it means something, but it doesn’t really mean that much. It just means that you have an audience that you can talk to which is really cool, but it doesn’t mean that they’re all going to do what you. They’re not robots. They're just people.
»You might have a good idea
or something you want to try,
but the cost will stop you
from getting there.«
How has the economic setting in New York affected your work?
One of my best friends from growing up lives in Philadelphia, and he was able to open a small gallery with a couple of friends because they each only have to put in $250 a month for the rent. But imagine if you wanted to open up a gallery in New York how prohibitive that would be. He was able to put on shows and curate because the cost is not too high. I do feel like in some ways, you might have a good idea or something you want to try, but the cost will stop you from getting there. There are cities where I don’t think that’s much of a problem.
My rent here to me feels like a lot of money. So that puts a certain amount of pressure on me to make a certain number of pieces, sell a certain number of pieces all the time – whereas if I lived out somewhere cheap, I wouldn’t have that pressure on myself.
What advice do you have for those looking to turn passion into career?
One: Try as much as you can within your situation to limit your expenses. So if that means getting a roommate or working in a studio with a bunch of other people, whatever you can do in the beginning to try to keep your overhead as low as possible.
Two: There is this idea of collective consciousness I see where a lot of people have the same kind of style because it’s almost like a trend, but you can find a way to like make your small spin on it that's a little bit different than how it’s already being out there in the world. I think that’s really the key because once you have the demand the money’s gonna matter less, but you need to have your own unique take on something.
XOXO: Welcome to the Colorful World of Independent Creative Director Zipeng Zhu.
More than a breath of fresh air, independent creative Zipeng Zhu is a tornado of passion and emotion. His story begins in China, where he diverted from a career path in biochemistry to explore his love of design (and affinity for “Gossip Girl”) in New York City. Today, he runs a creative studio, DAZZLE, and his exuberant and colorful work has made him an icon and source of inspiration in the design community. We tried our best to keep up with Zhu long enough to learn about what makes him tick, why he calls New York home, and how he uses personal projects to balance it all out.
How did you get into design?
I was a biochemistry major in high school, but meanwhile I was really really into manga when I was a teenager. That left me huge Photoshop skills, and because of that, I started to do a lot of posters and a lot of retouching for my friends in high school, and one of my art teachers asked me if I were ever interested in considering graphic design as a profession. I was debating between New York and Savannah. I got accepted to SVA and Scat, and because I was really obsessed with Gossip GirI at the time, I decided to come to New York.
»Because I was really
obsessed with ‘Gossip GirI’ at
the time, I decided to come to
Anything you miss from your full-time job?
For now I’d say no, but I have to be super honest: There are times when I think back that there are perks of working a steady job that has a similar routine and rituals. But everytime I think like that, I also just suddenly realize how much freedom, liberty, and control that I have over my own life, my own schedule, my own work, and my own client. The second I thought about that, everything seems really irrelevant.
How do you describe your process?
Even to this day I am still a creative and math maniac. I calculate a lot in my design. I do a lot of math. Even the animation, the composition - sometimes I calculate them by ratios. When you look at shapes, they are pretty cold, pretty mechanical, and pretty perfect, and when you see color, it provokes some sort of feeling.
»I have never been exposed to
so many different cultures,
people on a daily basis«
How do you challenge yourself?
I do try to make as much personal work as possible, like I just made some murals today, and on my Instagram I try to make a post a day if not like every other day at least. It's sort of a little design practice everyday, a little challenge that I can give myself. How fast can I make a little animation, how long would it take for me to make a pattern, what interesting new type of graphic form that I can make.
What are your thoughts on social media?
For me it's really great to get my work out there. It's a really good platform for the world to see my work, but occasionally I do feel this obligation, almost anxiety, that “Oh my God I haven't done a post for two days, what do I do?”. They’re not waiting, but I think they would like to see what I can offer more.
What is your favorite piece?
So okay this is the thing that I probably am the most proud of. This is my first illustration ever that got published. It's on New Yorker, and I just feel so honored and so lucky that this is my first illustration.
How was your transition to NYC?
For me, a Chinese boy that grew up in a place where everybody is just like me, a place where nobody is like each other, that really blows my mind. I have never been exposed to so many different cultures, knowledge, experiences, people on a daily basis, you know? Today I learned probably a phrase from my Brazilian friends and the other day my friends from Miami. Everyday I feel like I'm learning so much as like a global citizen.
»I feel that a lot of people are
really scared to make the
What do you think prevents people from starting their own business?
I feel that a lot of people are really scared to make the wrong decision. They’re really scared that if they took one step wrong, and then the rest of your life is going to fall apart. It doesn't work like that. I see life is this constant crossroad that you’re making decisions, so which road are you gonna go? Once you pick one, there’s more coming up, more options. And there are probably elements and factors that you didn’t put into consideration that might change the game completely. And therefore don't be scared to make decisions. Also when you're scared, it probably means you're stepping out of your comfort zone. I think that's a good thing.
From Venezuela with Love: How Chef Adriana Urbina Pioneered the Modern Pop-Up Dinner.
Chef Adriana Urbina has always done things her way. She began cooking at age 12 and attained a double culinary degree from Le École of Alain Ducasse in France and Sumito Esteves in Venezuela. World-traveled and based in New York, it’s Urbina’s home country that most inspires her craft, and she has built an independent business around bringing her passion for Venezuelan cuisine to the masses. Urbina invited us to her table to share how she found her own style and why she thinks tepuy (more on that below) is the next big thing.
How Did You Get Into Cooking?
I started cooking when I was twelve, well maybe earlier. My dad loved cooking, and he got me into it. I always cooked with him, and then I started doing my own pastries and my own cooking. I started selling it with my neighbors. And also cooking for my family was the most important time of the day to get together and share. It was like the most important part as a family. So, cooking for me was always that happy place I could rely on.
»So, cooking for me was
always that happy place I
could rely on.«
How has the move to New York affected your life?
Living in Venezuela was really hard because right now the country is really, really dangerous. You can’t go on the street without being worried that something is going to happen to you.There are so many things that you have to worry about all the time. So when I moved here, it was very shocking to see how I could walk on the streets and be happy, and look at my phone without having to worry about anything. It’s that contrast that made me feel the value of these little moments that I have here in New York. It’s crazy. It’s crazy how little things like that can make me so happy, and I hope I’ll never forget that.
What is Tepuy?
Tepuy is an idea I have of my ideal restaurant. Tepuy right now is a pop up dinner. It’s a seven course tasting menu. You can bring your own wine and it’s contemporary Venezuelan food, so it’s a little bit of everything. I have a lot of very traditional dishes from Venezuela with my twist. I also try to use seasonal products because it’s very important for me to work with farmers.
I worked in all these Michelin star restaurants and I’ve seen how they waste food. I feel like it’s a little vain in a kind of way, so I really wanted to give it a meaning. And also, I feel like when everyone hears “fine dining,” they’re like “Oh no! I can’t go because I don’t want to dress up.” So it’s really important for me that people feel relaxed. That they can feel at home, that the servers are very nice, and that you can come with your vans and it’s totally fine. But when you’re eating, it’s just amazing food at a fine dining restaurant.
»I worked in all these Michelin
star restaurants and I’ve seen
how they waste food.«
What did you learn about yourself while working in restaurants?
While I was working for chefs for many years, I started feeling like my cooking was very similar to their cooking and their style, and I was getting really angry because I wanted to find my own style of cooking. I am very creative so I felt like everything was just the same. And that was the moment I knew I have to do my own thing.
What challenges did you face starting out?
In Spain, they treated me really bad. I remember once, they threw a tray in my face. They were like that with.. well.. mostly the women. But I feel like I would never change that about me because it made me stronger, and I was always constantly trying to prove that I could make it. So that pushed me even more.
»In Spain, they treated me
really bad. I remember once,
they threw a tray in my face.«
What were you apprehensive about?
I was scared of failure, and I was scared that it was going to be really bad. And that people weren’t going to like my ideas. A lot of people told me that I was too young and that I needed to wait more. You know, all sort of things.
What do you enjoy most about cooking?
Every successful dinner is my happiest moment because it’s about that struggle to getting to the dinner: Getting people there, getting people to buy tickets, preparing all the food, and testing all the recipes. And once you get there it’s like “Okay, finally we’re here.” That moment when you see everyone happy like they can’t believe it, it’s like “wow this is amazing.” That’s makes me the happiest.