You might know Chris Day for his solo cassette project Vlonde, or as the bass player in the excellent dark punk band Witch Hat — but even if you don’t follow local music you’ve seen his iconic, screen-printed show fliers hung up everywhere from the H&H building on the Westside to Normal’s in Waverly.
Dense collages of counterintuitive images with striking, hand-placed lettering, Day’s designs have helped define the visual language of Baltimore’s music scene. His intense style and focus on manual processes have inspired more than a few collectors; his fliers endure as art hanging on living room walls years after the events they promote have come and gone.
I recently got him to answer some questions about his flier-making process.
What’s your background in art and design?
I have been making art for as long as I can remember.
I graduated from MICA in 2008 with BFA in printmaking. I never studied design in particular, but being familiar with different printing processes allowed me to move toward design in a backwards trajectory. Most design programs (especially Adobe Photoshop) are designed to function a lot like standard printmaking processes — i.e. layers, masking, gradients, etc.
I became interested in printing and multiples around high school. I have always been a huge music nut and I really studied record covers and CD inserts when I got them. A lot of what I know about design just comes from closely studying record sleeves and show posters. I would, and still often do, learn techniques by figuring out what I like or dislike about a cover or a poster or a piece of fine art and then trying hard to understand exactly what it is that makes me like or dislike said object. In the over-saturated, graphic world we live in, I think its super important to consider working backwards like this. It helps keep me from inadvertently duplicating something. If I decide to copy something, at least I know why I made that decision.
Do you make fine art in addition to the show posters?
I do make “fine art” when I have time. “Fine art” is a funny term because sometimes I think the only thing distinguishing it from any other kind of art is the price connected to it. I try to consider content and formal relationships just as much in my posters and design as I do in my fine art.
Your fliers tend to feature a lot of manual techniques — hand lettering, screen printing, etc. What’s your design process? Is there any digital component?
I used to be very strictly anti-digital, but in the last few years I have eased up out of necessity. Most clients ask for digital versions of everything so it has been easier to give them that if I partially compose the pieces in a digital setting.
I draw a lot of imagery from a long-defunct image of Hollywood. Somehow the old-world Hollywood glamour allows for a lot more imagination. There is an obvious disconnect in age. We aren’t bombarded daily with images of Hedy Lamarr and Gloria Swanson, so their personas are easier to abstract — but there is also something else. The stars seemed prettier and the dirt seemed grittier.
All that being said, I try to approach design from a similar perspective. Each poster or album cover or tape insert is a direct reflection on both the client involved and myself, so each piece is a balancing act giving some of the client’s image and some of my own. Most of the time I shoot to defy expectations — e.g., connecting an image of a hand gripping a dagger to Future Islands or a severe ’80s metal font to the David Pajo project Papa M. I often hand draw my own fonts for posters because they end up being highly irregular and the mess-ups and irregularities are what make the piece so interesting. If a piece looks perfect than you may absorb it and dismiss it in seconds. But if there is something out of the ordinary about an image or a font choice, your brain will spend a lot more time processing those decisions and connecting them to the information involved.
What’s your design philosophy? Are there any artists or typographers you draw from?
The aforementioned policy of contradiction or wrong-is-right is probably the biggest part of my design philosophy. I consider a lot of issues when designing a piece and if I can surprise myself with a resolution than I think it can surprise other people too. A lot of my perspective on the connections between design, music and the culture at large come from writings by Ian Svenonius, Brian Eno, Greil Marcus, and the ever-present spectral soul of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.
I don’t look at a ton of particular design or typographic work other than record covers or the occasional collection of show posters. I do look at lots of comics and B-culture imagery. I love to look at work by Gary Panter, Raymond Pettibon, John Carpenter, Andy Warhol, all of the artists associated with Ft. Thunder (especially Christopher Forgues), Richard Prince, Eric Stanton, John Willie‘s Bizarre magazine, and a million others. But I’m most inspired by the people close to me: Noel Freibert, Conor Stechshulte, and Molly Colleen O’Connell. These are the people I can really relate to and discuss things with and the people who push me to push myself.
Do you find Baltimore to have a design identity to any degree?
I don’t think Baltimore has a particular design aesthetic, but in recent years at least for me it has had some serious associations. For me, it used to be all about Wildfire Wildfire, Shaun Flynn’s posters, Jason Urick and Lexie [Mountain] booking at the old Talking Head Club, and of course the inescapable aesthetic of Wham City. But in the last few years things have calmed down. Baltimore is moving at a slower pace and everyone is presenting themselves a little more professionally. After all the hyped “party party party” I think people have a desire to be taken seriously in the world at large, to get a little serious recognition. Just because we understand fun doesn’t mean we can’t produce redeeming work.
Look for the new Witch Hat record Pig Film and three new Vlonde tapes to come out this summer. Look for his fliers anywhere.