Steven Harrington is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He emits an aura of relaxation and seems prepared to drop everything he is doing at the moment to take you and a friend surfing. There is no doubt that Steven is a California boy.
We sit in the National Forest studio, a design firm that Steven and business partner and friend Justin Krietemeyer founded after college. The studio directly reflects Steven’s sensibilities: a beautiful skylight garage turned workspace. It is very clean, it is very versatile, and includes a small full service kitchen. You can definitely tell that one minute the space would home a photo shoot, while another it is housing a highly publicized art opening.
The studio space has a wonderful conversation with the weather, pouring its energy into everyone within it. “There really is something about the skylights. That’s something [Justin and I] chose intentionally, moving in. Like California culture in general: it’s something I’ve fallen in love with…the vastness of the city is really different from the East coast in that way–or any other city in that way.”
But, even more than echoing California culture, the relationship the studio has with nature is deeply tied to his work. “I honestly think that a good forty percent of my work has to do with California weather and living in California. The colorful nature and the optimism behind it and, with traveling, you can definitely see that once I think about it, working with other designers out in Paris and Europe. After seeing those guys and getting to know their work, I realized and feel like the weather there and living on that side of the planet definitely has an influence on what you make and your general outlook. I think the same with the East coast and–I don’t know–there’s definitely a certain optimism about waking up to seventy degree weather every single day year round. I’ve just really learned to enjoy that over time.”
Steven has definitely learned to enjoy it over time, as his having lived in Southern California his entire life is very pronounced. “I was born and raised out on the Eastside of Los Angeles County–kind of the city furthest East, in a small town called La Verne. It’s next door to Pomona and Claremont. I figure it’s suburban and like opposite other valley.”
Here, around skateboard culture and other “standard suburban stuff,” his artistic interests emerged as he would make artwork for music. “I think pretty young, with my group of friends, I realized that art and design were a passion and something that felt natural. I think having all the time I had in my younger years, it turned into my own mix CD covers–essentially, graphic designing them for myself–creating graphics, wacky band posters.”
The pursuit of art so young was not because he wanted to be an artist, but rather out of a need to create, to make things look better. Steven is a man that is very proud of everything he does. This is very apparent from his workspace to his clothing to the art that he creates. He states clearly, gesticulating to a piece behind him, “You want things to look presentable. You want things to look good. You want someone to want to have that. You are creating for a dialogue and you want [your work] to be refined and crafted: you want people to look at it and talk about it.”
Making something you are proud of comes with time, patience, and some obsessing. But, obsessing over one’s work for it to be perfect is something that must be regulated…or else things get out of hand. “You quickly find yourself just in this downward spiral of being pissed off that you can’t fit everything in. You’ll just be anxious and not be able to sleep–but, then you realize you are just doing it to yourself. No one is telling me that I have to take out the time to do these art shows or take out the time to do these wacky assignments. I’ll find myself freaking out over building a life-sized tee pee–‘What am I doing? No one is paying me. What am I doing here?’ Now, I’ve made all these projects a lot more manageable. If they aren’t more manageable, what am I going to do? Just stop making work because I cant fit any in?”
Obviously, not working because of battles with time management is not an option for Steven. Instead, he has figured out a system for himself that balances his design work with his artistic work: he has carved very specific roles for himself. He explains what roles he inhabits: “Essentially, designer and artist…or designer and inventor? I’ve started to look at the artwork as these kind of visual inventions or explorations. I’ve kind of simplified the work and have gotten a little bolder.”
Of course, this gets at a fundamental philosophy that Steven and National Forest abide by: making time for the corporate work world and making time for the independent art world. “I think [Justin and I] always had an interest in art, keeping one foot out in the art world. It’s not necessarily because we are so much interested within the arts, even though it is really great and we are supportive of the arts. For us, it’s now become this personal means of exploration–to break the client cycle.
“We’re constantly breaking that cycle with these self-initiated international projects or these wacky Japanese projects. Now I’m building all these wacky sculptures and, every time we have an art show, it’s about pushing the medium. It’s funny because it’s become this cycle: we explore and somehow [the pieces] find its way back into our commercial work. A client sees that and then wants that applied to their project. We’ve found this small stride with exploring our own personal work and client work, to keep the two of those balanced.”
National Forest’s process is very unique and is seemingly born out of Steven and Justin’s education in art. “Upon graduating from Art Center, we had that age old college conundrum of, ‘Do I go on and work for a business or do I work for myself?’…I think it was really great to have someone else there who I graduated with from school that had the same kind of values and ideas that I did. We essentially put our portfolios together and started a design studio. Ten years later, here I am.”
Steven’s process and National Forest has also really made him realize what he wants in his career and what relationship he wants to have with the public as an artist. For him, he aims to keep his work in the modern cultural conversation–the pop cultural conversation, to be specific.
“I’ve finally come to the realization that [pop culture] is the kind of stuff I dig on…and the layers of that and the many definitions of what that may be. I love the amount of layers and playing around with that and repurposing ideas within pop culture and living within that world.
“It’s interesting: I was talking with someone about it the other day and there are extremes within art, like the funny, big pop artists like Andy Warhol and Lichtenstein that played around with that. Then there’s Henry Deringer, who made paintings in his garage for years and didn’t even care to present them to the public–that’s not what it was for. He didn’t care to have that dialogue, therefore he was not really recognized in his lifetime, but years after when he was dead. He has shows now at the Met and what not, but he just didn’t feel like it was necessary or just didn’t have a desire to have that larger dialogue. Therefore, his work just didn’t become that until later.
“I’ve come to this point where I’ve realized I kind of like speaking to this larger audience and I like the playfulness of the iconography I’m using…what happens is that it speaks to someone who may enjoy Target. I guess I’m fortunate in that way. I’m definitely not trying to push my work toward commercial things. I could do that intentionally, but then I’d feel like I was focusing on advertising not art or initiated art projects. It’s kind of strange.
“I’m interested in having people respond to the work, to have people see it and having an impact. I feel like art is just so fast and–especially static images–are so quick. It’s nice to know that there’s some sort of payoff, that someone is looking at the work.”
The prints and pieces and sculptures that frame him echo this, all of them varied and vibrant and lush with activity. With these pieces being readied for a new show of his, we close the conversation discussing what he’d like to see in the future for National Forest.
“I’d like to see National Forest existing between a small, boutique design studio and an ad agency/studio, having clients directly to us, commissioning us to do creative projects directly–and for those projects to be fuller, more experimental, more creative, and just larger, to be seen by a larger audience. It’s already happening. I’d like to see that shift–in ten years–I’d like to see us in that. I’m a humble reasonable guy.”
But, what about Los Angeles? As someone who has been here his entire life, would he ever leave?
“In my mid twenties, I definitely got that itch to get out of the country, get out of the States. Maybe move to New York or just somewhere else outside of California. I travelled quite a bit then and have travelled quite a bit since then.
“I think that that desire to move has definitely evolved over time. I think from taking trips to New York City or San Francisco or out to Europe or Asia, every time I come back to LA, I realize how close I am to the city. Each time I come back, I love it more. I think the last couple of years in taking trips and having art shows and vacations has reinforced my love for Los Angeles as a city.”
So, no living anywhere else ever?
He thinks for a minute and toys with an idea.
“I can see myself working remotely in Paris for, maybe, a year. Like me and Justin working it out where we try the remote thing, see how it goes.”