First, congrats on the Playboy work, you seem very excited! With respect to that piece, what was the article Beer Wars about and how did you come to be the right man for the job?
Thanks! This was actually my second Playboy commission, but I realized after the first went to print that I was unhappy with some of the details and decided to leave it out of my portfolio. As for the article, Beer Wars was about a microbrewery in Brooklyn that’s been unusually successful for its size due to its brewing ingenuity and skill. The illustration was therefore focused on the chemistry and craft of beer making, which I exaggerated to the point of rocket science as the theme of the piece.
Are you a trained graphic artist? What is your background?
I’m not trained in anything, actually. My original background is in computer science, which I’ve been focused on since high school. I would have studied it in college, but I dropped out before I had a chance when I got an opportunity to work for some Silicon Valley startups instead. That experience lasted a number of years and ended up being a very intense, high-pressure substitute for college. I learned a lot, but also wound up pretty jaded about the tech world and found myself wanting to reset my life by my early 20’s. Digital art and illustration was always a hobby of mine, so I set to work turning it into a career and being creative instead of technical.
What is your preferred medium?
Growing up I was known as “that kid who can totally draw stuff”, but computers ruined me once I discovered things like layers, undo and color correction. I’ve been almost purely digital ever since. I’ve found that I occupy a somewhat rare niche as a designer, however, because of the way I combine 3D illustration (which has been a part-time focus of mine since I was a teenager) with traditional design and typography. It’s at the intersection of those things that I feel most comfortable as an artist.
For the series “Circut Bent Type” you are quick to point out that the typefaces are all original, are fonts your specialty?
Yeah, typeface design is something I’d pursue full-time if I could start a parallel life in another dimension. Creating an entire typeface from start to finish is a Herculean effort, though, so in this life I tend to focus on custom lettering, handsets and unfinished typefaces for my own use. It lets me explore the medium without dedicating 100% of my waking existence to it. People like Christian Schwartz and H&FJ are my heroes, though.
Is there hard process that you employ to create your work? I noticed the narrative that carries alongside your works and it seems to marry a specific concept to your work, how does fleshing out your thoughts in words contribute to your work/ideas?
A lot of my pieces make very direct use of those words, such as my Urban Cartography series. In those cases, a stream-of-consciousness writing exercise might even precede the artwork itself in terms of process. Other than that, art is my outlet for the kind of ideas and impulses that don’t lend themselves to everyday conversation. Much like songwriting, it’s an opportunity to say something without really saying it.
The info page on your website is quite cheeky, does humor play into your work? If so how does it?
Humor is definitely important to me, partially because abstract art and design can so easily come across as self-important and pretentious. Pouring your heart and soul into somber compositions of crumbling cityscapes and twisted freeways is all fine and good, but it’s important to throw in a good natured joke here and there to remind everyone that your head isn’t ALL the way up your own ass just yet. I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything insincere about the things my work is meant to convey, but a little self-deprecation goes a long way in taking the edge off.
Is there a hard line between your personal work and the work you do for clients? If so, what are the concepts/ideas that you gravitate towards in your personal work?
Yes and no. There’s a very clear line between the two in terms of intent; I include client work on my site for the sake of drumming up new commissions, but I don’t consider it a part of my “official” body of work. As an artist, the only work I can truly consider my own is that which expresses a personal message. Working for a client (Surface Magazine, Fortune, etc.) on the other hand, means lending my voice to someone else’s idea. The line blurs considerably when it comes to subject matter, however, as the vast majority of clients specifically request a design based on one of my personal series. The results tend to look extremely similar despite the fact that I think of them as totally separate worlds.
How do you characterize a post-hipster? What makes you a post-hipster?
I actually have no idea what a post-hipster is, but I’m definitely not cool enough to qualify. What I meant was that as a student of the indie rock world, my artwork tends towards the same post-modern, pop culture irony embraced by so many obscure bands, counterculture writers and insufferable hipsters. Even within myself, however, I often have a hard time determining whether a given instance of this attitude is genuine or simply some kind of instinctual posturing, so I’ve decided to preemptively accuse myself of artifice just to be on the safe side.
Finally, are there artists that influence your work, if so, who are they and what elements of their style or concepts feed your creative mind?
For some reason this question always makes me think of musicians. I know that’s not really the point, but it always seems to be the most sensible answer. With that in mind, I’d say I derive the majority of my inspiration from the following pseudorandom sampling: Sufjan Stevens, The Mae Shi, Of Montreal and any band under the “Omaha Sound” umbrella.
View all of Varanese’s work at www.alexvaranese.com.