In much of his work, designer Todd St. John indulges his fascination with the tension between the manmade and so-called natural worlds. And whether expressed in 3-D animation, typographic design, or illustration, this fascination has informed his work for nearly two decades. In 1994, St. John founded Green Lady with longtime collaborator Gary Benzel, an endeavor that laid the groundwork for viewing the t-shirt as art. Then, in 2000, he struck out on his own and founded HunterGatherer, a production studio that has become well-known for its boundary pushing approach to design, illustration, and video projects. I recently had the chance to talk with St. John about his work.
You've been working in the art and design world for nearly two decades. You founded Green Lady in 1994 with collaborator Gary Benzel; Started HunterGatherer at the turn of the century. What first attracted you to art as a career?
As a kid, I was interested in art and music and film, but didn't really have any context on how I would do that as an adult. I went through cycles of wanting to make videos, be a musician, or maybe a commercial artist like an animator or something.
When I was in high school, a friend's dad had a small ad agency and also did music and surf posters, so that was probably the first time I started connecting some dots. I thought if I wanted to do that kind of work, you'd call it advertising. Later on, I discovered that it was closer to what you'd call design.
It's funny, because I've hear this same dilemma outlined by other designers—not knowing which path to pursue, or what it would even have been called. Do you think it's easier to come up as a designer today as opposed to say, 10 years ago?
I don’t know if it’s any easier. I think when you’re a teenager, so much depends on what you have access to and who you’re surrounded by, at least in terms of knowing how to become whatever you want to become. I think having the Internet helps—in terms of getting exposure to things—but your surroundings and experience still have a huge impact. If nobody ever says to you: “Hey, maybe you should check this out...” then I think it’s very hard for most kids to bridge that gap on their own.
For those who may not be familiar with your work, can you give a brief explanation about your HunterGatherer studio and workshop?
HunterGatherer is a small design and production studio that I founded in 2000. It does work that includes design, animation, filmmaking, and illustration. Probably the work that it's best known for has an experimental, hand-crafted process behind it. At the beginning, the studio also produced product work under the HunterGatherer label... Clothing, and small home accessories, like a magazine rack.
I always thought the original products you produced were impressive. What caused you to get away from that angle of the business?
I love doing that kind of work. I still produce quite a lot of stuff, and love building things. The thing that got really difficult for me was to actually try to manage the production and sales side of a line, or at least to manage it well. 90% of producing a line is doing things other than design. For that reason, I’ve mostly liked to collaborate with outside people on product-related projects, so I can concentrate on the part of the process I enjoy and am better at.
The work you do is diverse, from motion graphics and animation, to houseware and editorial design. Is there a specific ingredient that needs to be in a job for you to take it on?
I can't think of one single thing. I try to take on things that I'm excited about doing, and where a lot of ideas come to mind right away. I think people tend to come to me with projects that have a certain simplicity to them. Or maybe they want me to help them explain something in a simple or accessible way.
Many designers are hired and asked to bring their specific style to a project or idea. And many are hired because they have a wealth of ideas and are adept at applying the best ideas to any given situation. How do you view yourself?
On bigger projects, I’m often approached in part because of specific things I’ve done in the past. In my experience though, people are happy to have you push past that into someplace that’s entirely new.
Though video/film isn't necessarily new territory to you, it seems to be a direction that much of your work is headed. It also seems to take many cues from your design and illustration work. What were the challenges of working in this medium when you started?
I usually think of my work as being pretty far-flung in terms of media, but fairly focused when it comes to techniques and concepts. So when I develop a technique or process, I’ll often find ways of extending that to a few different mediums; illustration, animation, whatever. I’d say one of the things that’s different with video is that there’s more time and more people involved in creating it. For that reason, you need to really map things out ahead of time. Even if you work somewhat spontaneously, it’s much easier to be spontaneous if you’re extremely prepared ahead of time.
As HunterGatherer has grown, you've often had to include more people to realize the projects you do. Do you have a core team or do you reach out to new people depending on the assignment?
It depends, but I like to stay fairly small. I usually have one full-time person that helps me, and then there are producers, animators, and others that come in on various projects. Over the years, there are a handful of people that I tend to work with over and over. Most significant among those is Gary, who I’ve collaborated with on various things for years.
Your more personal, or experimental ideas, seem to hinge on carved-wood sculpture and geometric forms. Is this something you hope to eventually pursue on a larger scale—perhaps in a gallery installation?
I’ve done shows in small galleries over the years. I always like to try to expand things onto a larger scale, so those are all things that I think about. Somebody was looking at some of my sculptural projects the other day and said something similar... They thought some of them looked like small tests for something bigger.
I've noticed that sea and nature themes pop up in your personal work. Are there any universal themes that you try to embed in your work?
There’s usually some fascination about the tension between the manmade and so-called natural world. And how design and art fits in with all of that. That thought is present even in the name of the studio.