Introducing On Ice, a series of interviews with our friends to see what they’ve been up to since COVID put their plans on hold.
Photography by Andrew Peters.
CLUB Studio is Noah Love and AJ Mercer, two dudes operating out of a brick building in East LA. There, they create unique art, graphic design, packaging, and branding for a host of notable enterprises including The Los Angeles Athletic Club, Google, REI, and our favorite home away from home, Walt’s Bar… And the reason why you’re soaking up this article with your thirsty eyeballs, Slow & Low, where Noah worked on the marketing team once upon a time to help bring the brand to life. We gave the CLUB Studio clubhouse a quick call to see how Noah and AJ are entertaining themselves in the age of COVID (ie, drinking themselves silly).
What’re you guys doing?
AJ: It’s only 5, we’re still jamming some stuff out the door.
Where are you located in LA?
AJ: We are in East LA, Glassell Park-ish area.
Is it just the two of you?
Noah: Yeah just two of us and then we’ve got a few friends who shoot photos, illustrators, designers, etc. that we sometimes incorporate in projects. Whoever really fits the bill at the time.
Are you an all-inclusive agency?
Noah: Yeah, we don’t really say the 360 thing but we’ll do anything people will pay us to do.
Are you both graphic designers?
Noah: Pretty similar backgrounds, both graphic designers, went to school, got out of school, worked for large agencies, small agencies, bounced around from branding specific studios to ad-agency type places and picked it up from there. At the end of the day, we just want to create really good work. I think we were drawn to each other mostly because we didn’t talk about graphic design in our off time.
What’d you talk about in your off time?
Noah: Everything else (laughs). Anything and everything else. We would go to bars and hang out and conversate around anything that wasn’t graphic design. And for a lot of people that are in graphic design, you sometimes find that isn’t really the case and it can be hard to find people who have similar interests outside of the design world.
When you were hanging out in bars together did you drink Slow & Low?
AJ: Actually, when I first met Noah in New York, he was working with Slow & Low, so yes, we did have an excessive amount of Slow & Low available to us. It wasn’t necessarily in bars, but we were able to taste it before it came out.
Are you both signwriters by trade?
Noah: No, that’s all AJ.
AJ: I was in NY doing the graphic design thing and was just craving something other than sitting at the computer. It’s what I do most days now (sit at a computer), but there’s nowhere else in the country that teaches the program or teaches the trade, of sign painting other than trade tech in Los Angeles. I tried to get apprenticeships all over the place, but no one really wanted anyone that didn’t have any experience in painting and only had experience in design. So, I moved out here, we had a buddy who took the class and he made it a little more familiar to me, so I was able to move across the country and start going to school out here to try being a sign painter.
What’s happening this weekend?
AJ: I’m moving in the middle of a pandemic, it’s great, can’t recommend it enough.
How does that work?
AJ: I don’t know. I’ll tell you on Monday. I think movers come, and you wear a mask, and they wear masks. I’ll probably just stand outside a lot.
Are you guys properly locked down? Back to how it was in March?
AJ: Yeah, I think so. We’ve been coming to the studio because it’s the two of us and we aren’t really doing anything outside of this so there’s less concern around that. So, for us the days feel to some degree regular, you just can’t go get lunch or doing any normal errand now just takes an additional 15 minutes or so. But we are starting to trim back into more of a lockdown state. Everyone’s acting like mission accomplished but there’s not really anything accomplished (laughs).
What would you say to a young person thinking about becoming a graphic designer or starting a creative agency’?
AJ: I would say don’t look at graphic design. Look at everything else and pull from everywhere else.
Noah: Yeah. Don’t start with graphic design, if you start with graphic design you just become this stereotyped graphic designer, you don’t actually become yourself. You don’t become anyone unique; you just regurgitate what is deemed as good design at the time.
AJ: I would say start with more history and go back and figure out what it is that you actually like. Say you like modern design you would go back and see where modern design came from and how did we get to that place and figure it out more than just I want to do this thing.
Noah: There’s been a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time and you have to ask yourself what it is about this thing that you are really being drawn to.
What are the biggest influences for your work?
Noah: (Pause) AJ, what are they? I forgot (laughs).
AJ: Great, you forgot your influences.
Noah: It’s been a long day.
AJ: We find influences most in things that go uncelebrated. It tends to be older things. I don’t know if that’s necessarily intentional all the time. Sometimes it’s things that aren’t really old, but it’s always something where it’s more vernacular or more naïve art. It’s people who maybe don’t call themselves artists doing things. Sometimes it’s old things, sometimes it’s ashtrays and candy wrappers and that kind of stuff. Usually it comes from untrained artists.
So you’re not necessarily studying fine art?
Noah: Exactly. I think we look towards the uncelebrated things – people who wouldn’t call themselves artists who are more tradesmen and finding the art in that. I think that’s what we look for, like, “That ‘E’ is really weird. Why did they do that?”
How do you guys go about a project from brief to completion? What’s your process like?
Noah: I would say the overall process is pretty standard for us, but I think what we like to do for anything we work on is bring a lot of soul into a brand. I think that’s what a lot of brands nowadays are lacking, that humanity. We call it soul and a “lived in” feel. You need that humanistic touch to feel connected with the brand. When we go look for inspiration we go through old books or scour eBay. The last thing we want to do is just pull up Pinterest. We save pictures in our phones. It might be something that we just saw or just walked past. It could be a sign on a telephone pole.
AJ: Yeah, and a lot of times too it comes from whatever project it is that we’re working on. We’ve been fortunate to work on a lot of historical projects, especially in Los Angeles. A lot of times they’re sitting on a goldmine: little details of the building or architecture or other things that lend itself to the design. That’s really when we get the most inspired, when the project itself has all the answers hidden within it and it’s just sort of picking them out, dusting them off, cleaning them off, and bringing them into the digital age while still keeping the soul.
On that, do you think there’s an inherent quality to vintage artwork or physical design work?
Noah: Yeah, I would definitely say there’s something. Like comparing it to photography, there was a time when you had to have a very specific skillset to be a photographer. You had to know the tools of the trade. With the current digital setup, it’s just way easier to become a photographer. So I think when it comes to design, it’s the same thing. It’s a lot easier to become a designer nowadays and learn the tools. We always look at it like, how do we unlearn what we were taught? How do we break everything that we’ve learned?
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the job?
Noah: I would say for us, the most challenging thing is pushing work through that’s unexpected. It’s really difficult to make work standout against the sea of things out there. The best part is seeing that brand or bottle or can or whatever come alive in the world and evolve into a new life of its own.
Do you guys work more on the physical and tangible side of things rather than digital? What’s the actual day-to-day work like for you?
AJ: Our process involves so much of the computer—our days and lives do—that whenever we work on physical things or do anything off the screen we get excited about it because we mostly sit at a desk and have computers that we rely on to do the majority of the work.
Noah: Putting our hand touch to digital platforms is really what we strive for. Even with the digital stuff, we try to approach it with the same mindset. So much of the internet is cold and sterile. It doesn’t have to be though. We’re still trying to bring some soul and warmth into digital. It’s like, how do we take this mindset and do it in a digital sense too, which is fun when we get to do that but also challenging. The skill of bringing warmth to a screen isn’t something that anyone immediately knows how to do or really has figured out.
Philosophically, should everything in the world have a hand made quality? Is it necessary for design?
AJ: No, not necessarily. It’s funny because right now we’re working on a project that doesn’t have that feel and it’s just because the project called for it. I love not being digital but I love taking on any style or approach that’s right for the project.
Noah: I think the projects we take on that are still geared towards a full-on digital approach, we still try to build in some soul or humanity or something that gives some sense of discovery with these projects, as opposed to just a logo on the page. There’s something you can discover when you go into the space and experience these things. We want everything to be as warming and comforting and soulful as possible, however you experience them.
What was it like working with someone like Rob Cooper who’s been such a visionary in the alcohol industry?
Noah: In the spirits world he’s a pretty big deal. I honestly don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing today if I didn’t know there were people like Rob out there who have this holistic vision of what they want to be doing and want to take these jumps off cliffs or aren’t afraid of failure. I think that’s so hard for a lot of people who come to us to try, and maybe approach that ledge or push the envelope a little bit. I think he was really good about that and knowing how to navigate it. That was one of the things with Saint Germain. Everyone thought it was [such an old brand]. But it was maybe five years old. It blew peoples’ minds. It’s possible to make things look amazing and also look as timeless as possible.
That approach certainly translated to the work you did on Slow & Low as well, right?
Noah: Definitely. We wanted to make something feel timeless and not like it was from a certain era.
Did you ever do shots with him or cheers him at the bar or anything?
Noah: Yeah (laughs). I think a big part of Slow & Low was drinking it. It would be in the bars so you would go and check out what it would look like in the bars or how they’d pour it as a cocktail. I would say later down the line it definitely came with some work (laughs). But it was still good fun.
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