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WELL, TALK ABOUT CONVERSATION PIECES. UPON ripping open the FedEx box that arrived recently from Frank Zepponi and Mike Styskal of Seattle's Burning Bush Design, the Creativity staff, who've seen just about everything over the years, found one of the strangest portfolios they've ever encountered: An empty Busch beer can is tacked atop an old Astroturf-covered suitcase, inside of which are three supine Barbie dolls, a scratchy cassette recording of Tony Bennett singing "I Can't Stop Loving You" and a mini slide projector for viewing the enclosed transparencies. What gives? Are these guys trying to make some kind of design state- ment, or are they just out of their minds? "We can't afford a rep yet," explains Zepponi, "and we need to make a lasting first impression."

They needn't worry about that. The portfolio, coupled with the glittering disco ball that hangs in their studio, says a lot about the designers' work, not to mention their taste in music. Whether they're designing brochures for a local medical clinic or CD covers for George Thorogood, admitted Bee Gees fans Zepponi and Styskal say their work is always "more tacky tech than high tech."

Describing their often psychedelic fuchsia-and-orange designs as "goofy and naive," the 28-year-old Styskal adds that he and Zepponi, 33, along with recently hired illustrator Suzy Hutchinson, 28, steer away from design annuals toward fast food joints and "bad TV" for inspiration. "Our work is kind of like that Thelonious Monk song, 'Ugly Beauty,'*" he jokes.

The Burning Bush signature style is indeed cheesy Americana and kitschy pop icons like smiley faces and googly eyes, those plastic-encased movable eyeballs that appear on much of their work, including business cards that bear the slogan, "Serious f--kin' design." The studio's fondness for trashy, low-brow self-promotion items includes a lovely green plastic key chain embossed with "Burning Bush Studio: Your key to good art & stuff," as well as an "official" Burning Bush royal pine-scented car freshener complete with faux retail packaging and the guarantee, "Makes indoor art outdoor fresh." Even weirder is the red, white and blue ballpoint pen that reads, "Proud graphic artists with XL American wankers."

This campy motif carries over into their work for actual clients, like the poster they did for the Bellevue Art Museum that reads "There's no place like home" and includes an illustration of a '50s style toaster, a smiley face and a couple of googlies. Another for the '94 Bumber Shoot, a local Seattle arts fair, features a pink guitar with eyes.

"Frank and Mike are the best bad taste guys I've ever met," says Seattle designer Art Chantry, whose avant-garde '60s-inspired designs, which Zepponi names as a Burning Bush influence, were recently featured in a retrospective at the Seattle Art Museum. The two first met when Zepponi was an MFA student at the University of Washington (the New Orleans native has a BFA from the University of Southwest Louisiana); Zepponi recalls feeling stifled by the school's conservative approach, until he met Chantry. "To my instructors, I was a fool from outer space," he says. "But to Art, I was normal."

Styskal, a Nebraska native who holds a BFA from local Kearney State College, met his partner to be at Fini Design in 1991, a Seattle firm where they worked on corporate collateral projects but, more importantly, discovered that they both liked Pee-wee Herman. The pair opened Burning Bush-appropriately located across the street from a Hostess cupcake factory-in late '92, after agonizing over a name that according to Styskal met the requirements of "being both visual and having sexual, political and religious connotations."

Though much of the trio's work is for local clients, including Firehead, a sportswear line, and radio station KZOK, Burning Bush also got a request from MTV late last year to design a press kit for its joint venture project, Comedy Central, and another from Reebok to submit T-shirt designs for its Planet Reebok campaign. They're proudest, however, of a three-dimensional shrine to Jimi Hendrix, a 3-foot tall "Red House" that plays the Seattle-born guitar god's song of the same name. Zepponi hopes the spec piece will earn them future projects with a local Hendrix museum currently under construction.

The Bushers also hope to get more entertainment projects, and fantasize about building a set for Pee-wee, should he ever try his hand again at TV. But for now, he says they'd be happy designing a "car, couch or catalog, as long as we can put googly eyes on it." After all, Zepponi adds, "The world is still groovy, and people are jive talking."

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