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It’s easy to get wrapped up in the cool-guy-isms of Eric Elms’ body of work, a stellar list including Supreme, aNYthing, Stussy. Huge Magazine, Arkitip, colette. The usual suspects. Even Pricele$$, for the real inside streetwear heads. I guess you could say Elms’ work at Supreme and beyond set a lot of the framework for what constitutes a streetwear t-shirt, but with his laid back demeanor, he’d never admit it if he thought it even halfway true.
Sitting with Elms in his Brooklyn studio, the thing that comes across most plainly is his strong work ethic and training in the trade of design. Looking at one of his t-shirt graphics, you might not get the sense that its designer clocks some serious hours contemplating golden means and negative space, per se. That’s because Elms’ treats a t-shirt as a t-shirt should be treated; casually. However when it comes to the hallmark and landmark gigs of a professional designer slash fine artist, rest assured you’ll find Elms in his studio, cranking on ideas and executions, designer gears turning on high, be it cool-guy, corporate or personal.
Text: Nat Thomson
Photography Stephen Wordie
Interview with Eric Elms
Generally speaking, what’s your approach to graphics? Is say, each one a reference or flip of another design?
I do reference stuff a lot, but I try to reference weird stuff. For shirt graphics, it can be more obvious. T-shirts are really anyman’s territory, you can do whatever. I don’t take it to seriously. It’s supposed to be fun, look cool, it’s whatever. But, the smarter the reference the better. If you’re taking two really weird things and putting them together in a cool way, that’s what I’m into. Every once in a while I like to switch up my stuff and do things a different way though. Playing with different visuals. I do like a hand quality to things, starting by hand and then ending up on the computer.
Over the past few years you’ve created a few of these mixed-media sculptures. How did you get into that style?
There’s a light bulb in the “Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out” piece, and that light bulb kind of started the whole thing. There’s this antique shop by my house and they had an old ’60s signage light bulb in there that had this kind of graphic feel, so I noticed that and it got me thinking about doing graphics in 3-D. I started with that light bulb and built around it. I’d call it a graphic sculpture.
Is there a way that you think your work has evolved?
It evolves naturally, but I work to evolve it as well. When I was in school I was doing very traditional graphic stuff with a specific look. Then I changed it a little bit to create my own look or identity. I think there’s a feeling to my work across the board, but there’s not a very specific or exact way of doing it. I think there’s something you can’t put your finger on. Polished things with rough edges is the vibe, maybe.
When is your Vans shoe coming out?
It’s coming out in a couple months, I think. The design is all done, but I’ll probably do a couple things around that. I’m going to do a sculpture based on one of the graphics related to it. The shoe isn’t a pro model or anything, they said that I could do whatever I wanted, so it’s my own model.
How did you tackle that?
It was kind of tough. It’s a totally different way of thinking. You have to draw it flat but then work in 3-D. I got a sample back and it was like my drawing, but not exactly like what was in my head. Too much of a traditional skater shoe. Once I got that sample it was easier to make changes and glue things on and re-sketch. The sample was about 95% there. It’s coming out in three colors, one’s canvas, one’s suede and one is a mix of the two.
What did you go in to it wanting to make?
Something that was more me. More of a casual shoe than a skate shoe. I have a casual style, and maybe something a little weirder. It wouldn’t make sense for me to make a skater shoe because that’s not me. It’s going be at all skate accounts. It’s not going to be limited which I’m excited about.
Any other projects you’re excited about?
I’m starting up a project called And Press, putting out art books, little monographs of people. The first few books are Parra, a big book of his stuff. Then a book with A-Ron, his My Life in T-Shirts exhibition will come in printed form. Other participants will feature this photographer Todd Cole from LA and another guy named James Black from Brooklyn. Everything is in the almost-ready phase, so we’re getting close. They’ll be released as soft cover books. I’ll have an in house press with a printer and bindery to do the more art ones… perfect bound, proper books. I’m excited about that so it’ll hit the airwaves soon, getting the books out to cool book stores or other outlets like that around the country.
How did you hook up with SILLYTHING out in Hong Kong?
They wrote me two and a half years ago or so, to do a little line up of graphics for them. I did that together with them and some other stuff came up, like logos for Chapel of Dawn. They had a bunch of stuff going on at the time. So, since then I’ve been working on stuff for them, logos and weird stuff. Overall, keeps it interesting.
Is there a different approach for you when you’re doing things for the Hong Kong market?
Well, they’ve changed stuff up a bit. When I first started working with them they skewed towards a younger aesthetic. Now, they’re a little more mature, more wearable for an older customer. But for Hong Kong, yes and no. They know what works for them so I pick up on that vibe from them. Some things that I do aren’t right for them, but it’s that way with any company.
Do you like going out to Hong Kong?
I like it, but I wouldn’t say I love it. I’m not used to that city as much as I am to Tokyo. They’re very different. Tokyo has had a long time to develop their very specific interests, whereas in Hong Kong they don’t really have that stuff, but it’s more exciting in that they’re discovering a lot of things. Things are moving really fast there. A lot of things are exploding. Which can’t happen in a lot of large countries, they’ve already been exposed to new things for a long time.
What was your first graphic design gig ever?
Well, when I lived in San Diego, I worked for Shepard Fairy, screen printing posters in his garage as my summer job. But, I wasn’t designing, just figuring shit out to print it. In college at Pratt one of my teachers was Kevin Lyons and I helped him with printing stuff and he brought me over to SSUR. So that was my first exposure to that world of graphics and tees.
Were you into graphic tees and stuff like that in High School?
More on the skate graphic tip. I was drawn to that type of thing, same as board graphics. Kids back then didn’t really think of it as like “clothing brands.” It was more just shirts that came out or whatever, pre-collector mentality with the sneakers and tees.
How did you get into the graphic arts scene here in New York?
Doing some poster and sticker stuff on the street whenever I could, while doing my own art and design. I assisted KAWS for a while. Not really consciously trying to build up a portfolio or anything but more to just keep busy and not be lazy while I was in school. I was always working on personal work. Then after I finished up school, I went to work at Supreme, around 2002.
Do you have a favorite design from your days at Supreme?
Well, I guess my favorite was the Ewing dunking tee. That was sort of my first one, a little milestone, and it was pretty cool for that time.
And after Supreme you started doing some projects for Stussy?
I think it started with the World Tour tee series. They recorded me for that as a feature and I did one of the designs. After that I started doing graphics for them. They have a sense of humor to their graphics, or vibe, like street-versus-relaxation that I can relate to coming from the west coast. I grew up San Diego which is kind of mellow and slow. So I feel like my personality works with them, juxtaposing the town and country vibe.
What are your favorite movies?
I like Harold and Maude, that’s a good one. Searching for Bobby Fisher is good. I need to have something with some street cred- Scarface? I like documentaries. Streetwise is a good one, it’s a documentary on homeless kids in Seattle. Mary Ellen Mark did a photo book on it at the same time. I think it’s from about ’83. It’s about these kids living on the streets and their personalities.
What do you listen to while you work?
I get into the habit of listening to one song over and over. I’ll play an album or a song to death. Just get in that zone. After a while I forget it’s on but I get into a work rhythm. So then I’ll just shelve and album for years. I’ve been getting back in to Japanther lately. I’m not really into electronic stuff as much as bands. Too far in the DJ direction, I don’t usually dig that. Animal Collective, Panda Bear. Meloldic spaced out stuff, but also Operation Ivy and rap. I don’t have the kind of memory to know the names of songs and recall them, I’m horrible at music trivia.
Who are you favorite illustrators or designers?
Geoff McFetridge is pretty amazing. Parra, Kevin Lyons. That’s what pops into my heads. Kevin was always a big influence, both in mindset and visually. He’s been in the game forever. But, he’s not really caught up in the mess of streetwear. He’s been doing rad stuff for a long time. I don’t know Geoff at all, but he’s super smart and his personal and promotional work always works really well, it never looks compromised.
What do you like to do for fun?
Ride bikes, run around the city. Try and go to some art shows if I can. I can’t really be bothered to go out five nights a week. Same thing as everyone else. I feel like a mellow time in New York is better than a hectic time anywhere else.
Thanks a lot for the opportunity Eric, good luck with everything this year.