interview by Rob Lehr
Charlie Wagers is a graphic designer, art director and illustrator, the product of gray Midwestern skies and a blue collar, Rust Belt aesthetic. Formally trained in fine arts, he draws inspiration from the antique and arcane: early printing techniques, vintage cameras and films, aged textures, forgotten books, and—oddly enough—old neon signs. Growing up on 800 acres of Kentucky farmland, Charlie forged a deep connection with nature, and today he still spends much of his time outdoors, hiking or riding his bike in search of new colors and contrasts.
Humorist and bestselling author David Sedaris has described Charlie’s unique style as “Chillbilly,” a term the designer proudly wears on his sleeve. While earning his BFA, Charlie became one of the founding members of Three Bears Design. He has worked for clients including NPR, Proctor & Gamble, Forever 21, RCA Records, Six Flags Theme Parks, American Idol’s Kris Allen, and The Black Keys. His work has been recognized by CMYK Magazine, UnderConsideration LLC, French Paper, Lomography, and KidRobot. Charlie currently lives in our beloved city, where he divides his time between his vinyl record collection, his Holga camera, and his girlfriend—not necessarily in that order.
I was honored to have the opportunity to interview him for the Curatorial Collective website.
RL: You have an incredible list of clients, some are very famous and others are just really cool. What have been some of your favorite design projects and what makes them special to you?
CW: I’m very lucky to have some of the work opportunities I’ve had, and thankful for some amazing clients who trust me to work on these projects. I try to keep a good variation in projects, between doing a ton of band merch, and also corporate work for some large & small businesses. When I was in high school, mewithoutYou was one of my favorite bands, and several years ago their merchandise manager brought me on to start doing their tour merch. Flash forward, and I’ve done more shirts for them than any other band, and I also got to design the packaging for their 2012 album “Ten Stories.” If you would’ve told the 18-year old version of me that I’d eventually be doing all of mwY’s t-shirt designs, I would’ve probably peed my pants.
Another project that stands out recently is the packaging design I made for Prawn’s “Kingfisher.” I really love the music on the record, and the band gave me full direction with the artwork. The resulting product is decked out in some Charlie Harper’esque illustrations that I’m very proud of. It’s pretty interesting how a record can feel so sentimental, listening to the songs throughout the recording & artwork process, and then seeing the end result as a whole.
RL: Since you have worked with such elite entities, who would be your dream client and what kind of projects would you make for them if you had the opportunity?
CW: It’s pretty cool to have some recognizable names on my client-list, which is obviously an important thing to show credibility in the graphic design world. Realistically though, the ideal client is one who has good ideas, and lets you create something exciting and new, and something you’re really proud of. Sigur Rós has always been one of my favorite bands, so I’d really love to make a few gig-posters for them. The same goes for Magnolia Electric Company; I wish I could’ve made a gig-poster for them before Jason Molina passed away.
RL: I want to thank-you because your designs have really helped my curatorial projects in the past. You have always been able to capture the essence of my group exhibits with a fun logo, poster, and card design. Can you describe the magic behind your process? When a client comes to you with a design problem, how do you work through your ideas to create the final product?
CW: It’s always fun to participate in your curated shows, and being the image-obsessed control-freak that I am, I can’t resist helping to make sure the shows look as good as possible (at least to my ability). With those projects, you always have a clear vision, and you’re very helpful in giving me some initial direction to use as a stepping-stone for the project. In general, sometimes my clients give me that first step, and sometimes they don’t. I’m not sure which I prefer because sometimes the crutch is helpful, but it also makes the project more challenging, and subsequently more rewarding when I have to do everything on my own. My process though, really never follows a specific set of steps. Sometimes ideas come to me right away, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth out of my digestive system (that’s a G-rated version of something Jonathan Safran Foer once said to me). I wish I was one of those people who worked on a specific schedule, but sometimes the ideas come late at night, and I try to let them develop in their own time.
RL: I know you have participated in many fine art exhibits, some of which have been at Square Records and Summit Artspace. Is it a relief to have creative freedom in the fine art environment? So much of your commercial work is naturally dependent on the client. Does that relationship stifle your creativity or does it act as a catalyst to your vision as artist?
CW: These days, graphic design is really my primary focus. I love the problem-solving element of design, and collaboration with (most) clients. But I have a background in fine art, and a pretty deep history with drawing, mostly with graphite or charcoal. I try to participate in at least one fine art exhibit each year; it gives me a break from the design work to do something that is completely self-initiated. It’s exciting to not be bound by the direction of a client, and to also try out some new techniques. I also try to do one screen-printed poster each month, just because it gets me away from the computer for a few days to work with my hands. I think it’s important to stick to my roots and not get too caught up in the digital aspects of my work.
RL: You have lived in Kentucky and Pennsylvania; You’ve also traveled a lot with various touring bands across the country. What brought you to Akron and why have you chosen to call it home?
CW: Well, I moved to Akron because I was in a long-distance relationship. I was living in Pittsburgh before moving to Akron, and basically just hanging out after I finished school. I moved to Akron to be closer to my girlfriend who was getting her masters, and we ultimately never felt like leaving. I like visiting big cities like New York and Chicago, but I would never want to live in a place like that. In a big city, graphic designers are a dime-a-dozen, and I feel more connected in a smaller city. You kinda feel like you know everyone, and it’s neat that I get to work with a bunch of the local businesses. I also need a lot of space, and Akron is really (really) cheap. It’s pretty awesome that I can rent a house with a studio for the amount of money I make in a few days. And of course, we’ve got some really good friends here, who I couldn’t imagine leaving, yourself [Rob] included.
CW: I don’t know if there’s anything I would change, necessarily. I am just excited to see what the future holds. Akron Art Museum is really great, and I’m excited about some of the new developments at Summit Artspace. Plus, I love the little galleries in Square Records and Land of Plenty. With a smaller city like Akron, there’s obviously a lot of bad art, but there’s a lot of amazing people doing great things right now. I’m excited to stay involved and collectively push things to a new level.
RL: Who is your favorite artist or designer currently living in Akron? What do you find appealing about their aesthetic?
CW: Well, I couldn’t limit this answer to just one, so I’m going to list a few. Right after I moved to Akron, tattoo artist Jesse Strother quickly became one of my best friends and frequent collaborators. I love his work because it’s so different from mine, and it’s inspiring to learn more about the tattoo culture. I also have loved getting to know Andy Taray from Ohioboy and The Social Department. Andy and I have a similar approach to design, plus the guy is a total legend; he got nominated for a freakin’ Grammy for crying out loud! Andy and I try to go out for drinks every week, and it’s always fun to hear what he’s working on, and learn a few things from his process. Lastly, I’m pretty excited that Phil “Burrito Breath” Guy recently moved back, and I’m looking forward to getting to know that guy (oops). I love Phil’s approach because his design background is clear in his work, I envy his excellent technique, and his stuff just makes me laugh every time.
A big thank-you to Charlie for letting me pick his brain and for sharing his story. You can follow Charlie Wagers’ latest design projects via his website at www.charliewagers.com, or on twitter at twitter.com/charliewagers.