IN CONVERSATION WITH ARCHIE ARCHAMBAULT
New York based designer, Archie Archambault reinvents complex ideas and creates beautiful simple letterpress prints. He trades under the name ‘Archie’s Press’ where he simplifies maps, human anatomy, planets and even mushrooms. I’ve already collected a couple of his prints from my travels over the last few years and was keen to find out more about his work and how he balances his creativity with running his own business.
Thanks so much for agreeing to chat with me Archie! Keeping it as brief as possible, can you explain the type of work you currently make?
I make letterpress "maps from the mind" of cities, planets, organs, and many other subjects. They're all super-simple distillations of the complex ideas.
Before you even stumbled across maps and simplifying them, what was your work like and do you look back fondly of this work or do you try and hide it's existence like many other artists would?
Ha! Well, I wouldn't say that I'm hiding anything per se, but you'd be hard pressed to find any of it. When I started taking this design practice seriously, I went in a dozen different directions. Most of it was type and image with quippy or impactful messages. I made things that were funny, clever, crude, and everything in-between, but the maps were by far the biggest hit and I really enjoyed making them. Then my brain became like this map-thinking machine and I stopped thinking about other things.
Can you talk more about your journey before starting Archie's Press?
I studied philosophy and graduated from college amid the big recession in 2009. Is there any combination that made me more unemployable? I moved to Portland, where they say 20-somethings go to retire, and so I basically retired. I had a part-time job at a bar and hung out at a letterpress shop for hours every day. I was frantically making stuff with no real direction, so I applied to advertising school because it sounded like fun. I went through a year-long program at a big agency, but really wasn't very good at it. It's a tough business and is changing so quickly. A few days before I graduated, my Portland map got some good press for the holiday season, so I was like "Hell no I'm not getting a job in advertising." Then I was very broke for a year while things started moving.
What would a typical day for Archie look like?
On work days, I get up, eat something and head straight to the studio. I really like to do Morning Pages, a practice from the book "The Artist's Way" which I highly recommend. I write 750 words of jibberish or brilliance, depending on the day. It's really the only space in my day where I can just wander in my head and explore thoughts that don't belong somewhere specific. Then I look at the To-Do list I made the day before.
I make a To-Do list the day before to mentally prepare you for the next days' work, something I learned online somewhere and recommend
I try to prioritise them the best I can. In the mornings I tend to do things that require a lot of strategic thought because I feel a little more elastic. This is like making plans for a marketing campaign or exploring ideas for a new series of maps. Stuff that takes a lot of thought to grow the business. By 2pm I'm kind of a slug and just barrel through tasks that are a little more "tasky". Things like accounting, responding to a designer's draft, responding to emails, ordering supplies, writing a newsletter, editing photos, editing website copy, paying bills etc. By 5:30 or 6 I go to the gym then eat dinner with my boyfriend. I'm pretty dumb from 8pm-11pm when I go to bed.
Looking at your work in more detail, what was the first piece that you developed?
The whole series started with the Portland map. Portland is a pretty geniusly designed city with very simple radial divisions. There were a few unclear things in my mind, so I made a map to help me explain the city as a whole. Just a few lines and some circles. I was really inspired by a book called The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch, wherein he describes elements that makeup the experience of a city. I found out about that book while at a summer Urban Design course at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The aesthetic of the maps comes from my experience as a letterpress printer, using only type and lines. I actually have no formal graphic design training which shows when I try to do things like make a catalog or design a webpage. I would never get hired as a designer. Everything I learned is from type-setting in letterpress printing, which is a totally antiquated (went out of style in the 1950's), and in hindsight, was probably a waste of time. I use the font Futura, which was probably the most produced san-serif lead-type in the world.
Has there been a particular city or subject that has proven to be more difficult to convey?
Cities that don't have a particularly strong local identity are oftentimes difficult to orient oneself within. This is typical of American car-dominated cities, where people don't really interact with the landscape they live in. Nobody develops the identity of the place, so there aren't and common neighborhood names, and the thoroughfares are soulless highways. I've also run into trouble drawing things that just don't translate to 2-D images well. For instance, I have been trying to draw a car for years and it isn't working. There are just too many parts. Also, some things just aren't interesting-looking. I wanted to make a drawing of a Tornado really badly but couldn't make it work. Sometimes it takes days of work to realise this and I curl into a ball under my desk.
Travelling must form a big part of your life. Do you try and visit most of the places you convey as maps beforehand?
I used to go to every place and meet as many local people as possible, deconstructing the elements of the city to simplify it. Then I realised the value of partnership. I now work with designers who have spent an extended period in the place or are actually from the place itself. As much as I would love to think that I really get to "know" a place after a week there, I really don't. It takes years to really unearth a mental map of a city. I still travel quite a bit and always learn about the design of the city. Almost every city has a museum that outlines its history and I usually go.
Which is your favourite city that you've visited and why does it stand out?
I think Tokyo is one of my favourite places in the world. It feels so calm despite being an absolutely mind-bogglingly huge place. The city was actually designed to be confusing to dissuade anyone from invading it (like tourists!). But when you're there, it never really seems that stressful. There are millions of people swirling around on clean and efficient trains, taking you miles in a matter of minutes, without the noise one associates with cities. The feeling of efficiency amid chaos is just such a unique feeling. Most cities succumb to some weakness, making the experience of movement frustrating for one reason or another.
Have you ever struggled to balance your creativity with managing your own business? I know that many creatives do struggle and I’ve also experienced it first hand at Ohh Deer myself.
Yes! And no! I have 1000s of ideas that I don't have time or energy to pursue. It actually hurts to think of a really great idea and then "I will never ever ever be able to do that". But at the same time, I need to be super-creative to keep my already-established thing growing.
The admin stuff is unavoidable, but I'm getting a lot better at outsourcing things that I'm not passionate about. That's a skill that nobody is born with but is absolutely essential to staying sane.
The creative work itself is energising since the subject matter is also constantly changing. I'm always diving into new subjects, editing their content and aestheticising them. I'm not a super-patient person, so I get really stuck when I'm faced with things that take a really long time and lots of skills to get right. Taking good product photos is something that gives me a ton of anxiety even though it's really not that complicated. Also website/coding stuff.
What advise would you give someone that is looking to breakaway and start producing and selling their own work?
When I started actually selling things, I went in many different directions with the type of product, art direction and voice. Only a few of them were any any good. Only one of them proved popular and interesting enough to actually make a business out of. It takes some experimenting and the final brand idea won't emerge right away, but the failures are really valuable. It makes the successes that much more obvious. It's really helpful to get in front of people and to talk to your customers (either retail or wholesale). People tell you exactly what they think with their wallets. Also, start small. Don't expect it to work all at once. But drop everything and chase an idea/brand when it starts working. Also, you really need to want to do it, because it is very unrewarding for a long time and you kind of need to sacrifice everything for it.
Someone once said to me "You don't get braver the older you get".
So getting started sooner than later is another good idea.
What do you have planned for the future, are there particular cities or subjects that you are keen to tackle?
I'm currently working on all 50 states in the US. We’re about 40% done. It's a slog, but feels like it will be a really nice collection in the end. I'm also trying to do a computer. Computers are so magical to me, and I really don't understand how they do what they do, but the image hasn't really worked out yet. I also need to do a bike. And a car. And a lightbulb. And a grain of rice. And every other city in the world. I love when people send me ideas/requests, that usually ends up guiding my direction.
- By Mark Callaby