In a world that is saturated with disposables, Chris Allen affirms that quality and craftsmanship are relevant and sometimes forgotten traits in the business of communication design. Employing a multidisciplinary approach, Allen successfully amalgamates his appreciation for artifacts and processes of days gone-by with his experiences in skateboard and street culture, creating unique and lasting impressions for a wide gamut of clientele. As well as running a busy design studio in his own name, Chris’ most recent accomplishments include establishing and operating Ikigai Editions, an independent publishing company and acting as Design & Art Director for Inventory Magazine.
Rap or Rock?
Beer or Wine?
Black or White?
Serif or Sans?
Milk Chocolate or Dark Chocolate?
Gandhi or Mother Teresa?
L.A. or Dubai?
Goatee or Handlebars?
“Fuck” or “Shit”?
You suggesting that I fucking swear?
Guns or Knives?
Knives for whittling
Simon or Garfunkel?
Chess or Mortal Kombat?
First Blood (Rambo) or The Neverending Story?
Handshakes or Milkshakes?
King Tut, King Arthur or King Diamond?
Okay, now that people know a bit about you, on to part two…
Where are your stomping grounds and how has your environment contributed to the outcome of your work?
I have spent the majority of my life in Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s where currently I live and work. The city of Vancouver is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the the North Shore Mountains and offers a beautiful view from just about anywhere in the city. I still find myself in awe of the view of the mountains through the urban landscape. I spent a large portion of my life on Vancouver Island as a child during the summers on my family’s farmland in Duncan, BC, later moving to the Island for ten years before returning to Vancouver. Living in that environment has definitely made me more respectful of nature and has given me an appreciation for the land. My love of natural materials and a high regard for things made by hand has influenced my work. In the end you are a product of your environment so I feel it is best to celebrate that and let it come though in the work you produce.
You have done various work in the skateboard industry. Was it just a natural progression – being a skater, and being excited about skateboarding–that you came to do work in that industry? How have you benefited from those experiences and relationships?
In 2004 while still at design school I was asked by a good friend I had met through skateboarding who at the time was the art director for a large American publication called Transworld Skateboarding. He asked me to help out with the layout of some feature article. From there, another friend took over the role as Art Director and I continued to contribute to the magazine. In 2005 I was asked by Sandro Grison of Color Magazine to come in and help shape their current issue in establishing a design system such as the grid and type styles, etc. All of those opportunities were a direct result of being a skateboarder, and was nothing but a natural progression as a result of friendships. A lot of the work I do to this day happens like this.
Those relationships benefited me in many ways and working on Transworld and Color Magazine are great examples of this. I was a young designer not yet out of school and having the opportunity to work on an international magazine which I had been reading since I was ten, and then to working on Color, one the most progressive skateboarding magazines to date. I would have to say the largest benefit is the incredible people, the brotherhood of skateboarding has had an incredible impact on my life. I am proud to come from the DIY generation. I could do without all of the technology leaps, but for the most part it has given me the tools to do what I do so I can’t really complain.
You have recently stepped into the realm of art publishing. What are some of the differences you have noticed between your client work and this new venture?
I would say the primary differences is that with client work is that it is just that, it’s the client’s work. At the end of the day it will always be theirs. It’s something I feel designers struggle with – I’m a designer, not an artist. This is not to say that in publishing my own work there is not a client, you most definitely have a client. As an example, you are creating a monograph in publishing but the relationship is different in that it is truly a collaboration and there is this sense of authorship as a result of that collaboration that you just don’t get with client’s work.
I like that in publishing you are telling stories for sake of telling stories versus commercial work you are telling stories to sell or promote a product or service.
I guess there is less compromise in publishing as the communications are more honest.
You have worked in a design office before. How is the routine of working in a design firm different from working from home? What are the benefits and difficulties of either?
The routine is primarily the same. Briefs, strategy, conceptual design, production, quoting, press checks, presentations, revisions, etc. Studios will typically have more meetings, and I feel the larger more corporate the studio the more meetings you are bound to have. Larger clients find a great deal of value sitting around a table discussing the project, you know the whole song and dance, it’s as if they feel they are getting their moneys worth. Where working from my home studio, there are client meetings but they are much more flexible. They usually involve less people and are held at the clients workplace or over Skype and depending on the client, over lunch.
Working within the walls of a studio is great. I have only worked within small to very small studios but have learned invaluable skills in doing so. For me, working at a studio is comfortable and social, but there are personalities and egos that have to be recognized and nurtured. Working from home is comfortable but lacks the social aspect of a studio. There is no one to bounce ideas off of or give you that quick second set of eyes that are so readily available at a studio. At the home studio you are more than just a designer, you are the accountant, the project manager, accounts receivable, etc. I do enjoy both and if I could have both I would. I must say I really do like being in my own space. Eventually I will take on a studio off site which I would like to share with other designers, photographers or cinematographers which I closely collaborate with.
What is your personal career highlight?
I would say Inventory Magazine. To have the opportunity to build something from the ground up is an incredibly rewarding task, this is not to say it does not come without its challenges. The first issue was my favorite part. It’s the exciting yet stressful part that you get to answer all of the questions like…What size is it? What paper do we print on? Coated, uncoated? Do we speak with a serif or sans serif or both? And which face will capture what we are saying? What are the typographic details, micro and macro? How do we handle captions? Do features open as spreads or do they start on a single page? Are the titles expressive or restrained? Are the covers thematic? What is our editorial voice?
In addition to the magazine I have also helped developed the brand itself which includes a retail location and range of products. Also we have added a most recent addition to the family which is a supplementary piece of print. We will be release this addition once a year featuring images that did not get used in previous issues.
There have been other highlights and valuable lessons I have learned in my short career but quite honestly I am a firm believer in that you only as good as your last piece of work.
Tell us a little bit about how you came upon Inventory and what your role is like there.
I had sent Ryan Willms (now Editor-in-Chief of Inventory) an email a few years back when his magazine was online and was called H(y)r Collective. The email was simple, ‘Hi, I like what you guys are doing. I’m from the Island and if gives me great pride to see an Islander making something great. If you ever need a hand don’t hesitate to ask.’ From there I was asked to shoot a small editorial on Anemergency, a wonderful industrial design duo by Becky Brisco and Beau Kerner documenting life in their studio. Ryan and I kept in contact and I submitted another photo essay shortly after. That is when Ryan approached me asking if I would help him bring the magazine into print.
Taking on the challenge we started to work on a new name and establish the primary sections of the magazine. From there we looked at format and materiality. Working our way into the content and the structure we established a look and feel. The magazines design is quite typography led, but we are also very fortunate to use the same photographers issue after issue which lends itself well to our established aesthetic.
My role really comes into play after most of the content has been captured and written. From time to time I will create images but for the most part I handle design.
Tell us about the first series that you published for Ikigai – Front Lines, which is a series of recreated war scenario photos by Brendan Meadows and Matthew Robinson? How did this project happen?
Brendan would be a better one to answer this question but I’ll try my best to give you an accurate account of its origins.
About a year ago, Brendan and Matt had started to talk about doing a creative together in which they would use Matt’s extensive collection of vintage military garments in a Capa inspired creative shoot. During this time they conducted scouting, storyboards, castings and worked through location dress rehearsals. It should be recognized that Brendan’s intentions for this piece of work was never to be about fighting but to rather capture the camaraderie of these soldiers between the engagements of battle.
In a recent interview with art buyer Heather Morton, Brendan states ” In building our ‘cast’ I wanted to create a militia force that could have been anywhere in the Commonwealth, created from skeletons crews left along the way but together still working towards a singular goal. In our group you will find the Irish, Nigerian, Canadian, American and British soldiers all working together.”
The shoot happened in the East end of the Bluffs in Toronto over a period of one day which was compressed from it’s original scheduled two days. That being said, two days of shooting in one day is a monster of a task that one cannot fight alone. So Brendan enlisted the help of photographers Simon Willms and George Moreira and cinematographer Darrin Klimek.
It wasn’t until the shoot was complete and Brendan was organizing the exhibition for the CONTACT festival in Toronto that he shared the images with me.
How do you decide what Ikigai Editions will publish? Can you talk about content of any upcoming editions?
Considering the first edition fell into my lap it was not a conscious decision. I believed in the work and the people creating it, and that was enough for me to take the leap. That being said, the content Ikigai will publish must have meaning and have staying power, be it socially or conceptually. I am interested in the idea of Ikigai acting as a translator, the recorder and story teller for those who deserve to be heard, but more so those that have something to say and show the world.
While the primary goal at the moment is getting Ikigai into the proper doors and the right hands. We have started to plant the seeds for the next edition or shall I say series. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but we are looking a short-run series of books on artisans.
If you could work with anyone for Ikigai Editions, who would it be and why?
There are realms of people I would love to meet and help share their stories but most of the these people and subjects have been covered relentlessly. I would say we are looking for the undiscovered or perhaps the overlooked or forgotten, the ones who have something to say but have never had the opportunity.
I am very interested in the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast, specifically the Haida and Coast Salish. I am fascinated with their traditions and heritage. I am absolutely appalled and embarrassed with how their people and land have been treated. I would love nothing more than to learn more about them and their traditions. It would be wonderful to be able to share their story with a contemporary audience in a manner that would be appreciated and coveted.
The internet provides a relatively new outlet for publishing that has spawned a whole new generation of webzines. On one hand the medium is very accessible to a wide global audience, where traditionally distributing printed material would be much more costly and difficult to do. On the other hand, content becomes very temporary and it seems as though our diminished attention spans are dwindling even further.
How does this affect the value of the publishing vehicle – and also it poses the question–what is more important the medium or the message? Is there still a need for printed material, and what will it’s role be in the future?
Your are absolutely correct. The fact that the web is so accessible is the reason it’s such fertile ground for a start up magazine like 01 Magazine. It allows you to build a following and reach various audience you would otherwise not be able to reach. For the reader there is little investment in the beginning, but if your content is good then they will come back over and over and really start to invest looking at it. I see 01 Magazine practicing the exact model, which is where Inventory also started, online. They built a following and when they felt it was time to make the jump to print their readers came with them. I’m not sure if it would even be possible to start primarily with print unless your a title that has come out of a large publishing house that already has massive readership and advertising support. Even when a webzine makes the jump to print, I feel both print and online incarnations need to co-exist and feed one another to be successful. That may mean having exclusive online content, or other online brand attributes that the print medium cannot address such as video and print attributes.
The way in which I see this affecting the publishing vehicle is that the cream will rise to the top. People will always buy books (art books) and I don’t see this changing however, the quality of books which they buy and from whom will. The web has created a more intelligent and discerning consumer in that they now are more educated than ever. Consumers want to know how things are made and where they come from, and if their beloved brands are environmentally responsible, etc. Armed with the information, I feel the purchases they make need to be validated by quality.
I dare not challenge nor question Marshall McLuhan’s concept here, but do feel they hold equal importance in certain instances. The topic of the medium and the message a large one to tackle here but if you are referring to the internet as a concept, I do feel the medium is more important than the message. It is the medium that has connected us all. At which point the message really becomes irrelevant? It is there for us to sift through but it is the medium of communication that is the essence.
The future of print? With the role books play in society and the daily rituals we have created around them, I can’t see digital devices replacing this. Books have unique characteristics which say a device with a monitor does not poses that work on a primal level engaging our other sense which add to the experience of understanding. For starters paper is of the earth and there is a primal connection between humans and natural materials. There is the smell of the ink to the the texture and reflective quality of the paper, the format and cover materials to specialty printing processes and effects. These physical qualities also make it an object that can be displayed and collected, coveted, shared and traded. There are also societal roles in that they document and record legacy as an artifact.
I would say the future of print is bright but there will be a higher standard of what we have in lives. If it has worth it will be printed.
Do you think there is something missing in the publishing culture today?
Yes, quality and integrity. Although I do respect that there is something for everybody, but there are some many books being published on the most ridiculous subjects. The other day I came across this book – granted it was at a clothing store – but it was a book on celebrities and their scarves. It’s just a waste, complete garbage, it could exist online but someone felt it was a valid topic to share with the world. It’s bizarre to me that publishers would actually consider these titles, and it is sad these are the books that end up at bargain bookstores and sale tables.