Shepard Fairey Has A Posse

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Studio Number One illustration
Studio Number One illustration
A contemporary street art and culture crowd favorite for the last decade, Shepard Fairey has expanded his artistic scope and audience in recent years, most notably through a series of Barack Obama posters he created for this year's U.S. presidential election. But while the Obama project was not-for-profit, Fairey has performed the fine balancing act between art and commerce for most of his career. No where is this more evident than his commercial design agency Studio Number One.

Nestled within L.A.'s hipster hood of Echo Park, Fairey's headquarters features his fine art gallery Subliminal Projects on the ground floor, while upstairs are offices for his Obey clothing brand and the design studio."We just tried to put together a collection of people with a similar vision to mine," says Fairey. "It sounds a bit egotistical but I wanted to surround myself with people I would get along with and who had a similar view on how art and design can work together, and were multi- dimensional people who have creativity coursing through every aspect of their life."

Obama mural
Obama mural
Founded in 2003 after Fairey split with his previous shop BLK/MRKT, Studio Number One has done branding work with Virgin Megastore, Honda, Dewar's and Fender, as well as album and packaging design for Led Zeppelin, Smashing Pumpkins and Black Eyed Peas. The shop is 17 people strong, with seven full-time designers and a 17-year-old intern named Spencer Elden, who started his commercial art career early as the swimming infant on the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind.

While Fairey's trademark style is evident in the much of the studio's portfolio, the company has added higher profile work, such as the Dewar's branding, that represents a departure from that iconic look.

"My artwork's been our great marketing tool and an asset to bring in business but also a liability in that we don't want to use it for every client, nor is it appropriate for every client," Fairey says. The challenge is "not only convincing the clients that it's not the best thing for their campaign, but also getting them to consider other approaches. I think our body of work has expanded to the point now where there are a lot of examples of successful imagery that have been executed in styles other than mine."

Studio Number One designer Flo Zapala agrees. "(The conversation) is just about getting away from simply going over what clients like about Shepard's work and instead getting closer to what they're trying to accomplish for their brand."

The power of Fairey's original Andre the Giant Obey street work, that made the artist's name in the mid-1990s, was its subtle comment on traditional advertising's often overwhelming use of public space. Fairey has asked in the past, what if all companies had marketing that didn't insult the consumer, that was instead somewhat creative and intelligent, almost like an art piece with a product behind it? It seems Studio Number One is his own personal effort to provide an answer.

"I think to have these very impractical delineations between art, design, what's keeping it real, and what's commercial, is not very psychologically healthy for most artists and designers," says Fairey. "It's just a reality that rather than being apologetic about it, we've put together a group of people who actually thrive on that overlap. It's difficult not to have the passion one has for fine art and creating spillover into one's design work, and I think that's what drives a lot of the projects we do. It's a desire to make stuff that not only works for the product but makes us proud."

Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin "Mothership"
The studio has received more calls from traditionally mainstream clients, thanks to the popularity of the Obama posters. Fairey cites new projects for Upper Deck and Saks Fifth Ave as examples and points to the poster campaign as the entry point for clients who may not have been very familiar with his art or street culture in general. He also acknowledges that taking on more mainstream clients isn't always the most popular decision among some of his early fans.

"There are people who want ownership of this counterculture stuff in a very elitist way," he says. "I get accused of being a sell-out but I think there are some mainstream things that can be good and no one should have to apologize for doing it. I don't really have any time in my life anymore for the people that bag on things once they get big. Sometimes it's just about something striking a chord and getting popular because of it - that's what art and communication is all about."
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