Denver-based multidisciplinary practice The Made Shop is a family affair that's as closely knit as it is broadly talented. Led by Marke Johnson, an architect and musician turned graphic designer, and Kimberly Johnson, Marke's wife and studio manager/producer, the firm also includes two of Marke's brothers: Nathan Johnson, a songwriter and film composer, and Zach Johnson, a painter and illustrator. Rounding out the troupe is Adam Blake, a graphic designer, web developer, and former high school bandmate of Marke's who might as well be blood. After all, says Marke, "a band is like a second family."
Music is in their DNA, and so is a DIY approach to solving design challenges. As their studio name declares, they aim to be "a shop for making things." Before establishing The Made Shop as an umbrella for all things design — from branding and art direction to architecture and furniture — the Johnsons bonded as the Cinematic Underground, a sprawling ensemble of nine (plus or minus) musicians and visual artists, orchestrated by Nathan. "We use music metaphors to define our structure and how we want to live and work," explains Marke. Zachary and Nathan often pursue solo gigs, while Marke, Kimberly, and Adam run the business day to day. Depending on the project, they'll regroup and enlist others to join in as needed — "like design as a band."
"As people would come to us with projects of all sorts of scales and requirements, we talked a lot about the idea that the answer is always yes. 'Can you do this?' 'Yes.' And then we'll figure out how," says Marke. That resourcefulness came in handy when designing titles for the film "Looper," directed by their cousin Rian Johnson, as well as billboards and holographic-like product advertisements and interfaces for the cell phones and computers in the movie.
"We like doing big, impractical things," says Marke. For the cover of Son Lux's 2011 album "We Are Rising" (Anticon), they created a gorgeous fog of pastel hues in-camera by setting off a series of colored smoke bombs that were staged, photographed, then brought into Adobe® Photoshop®, and finished the sleeve in just 28 hours.
Another hands-on endeavor is their ongoing work with actor/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his open, collaborative production company, hitRECord. The name refers to the video record button and is "a personal mantra for Joe to make stuff for himself instead of waiting for someone to write a part and cast him," says Marke. Gordon-Levitt began by posting short videos he made on hitRECord.org, and found a community of writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians who were eager to participate. The Made Shop stepped in and gave hitRECord a brand identity, rebuilt the website to make it easier to collaborate, and assumed creative direction for hitRECord's productions.
One surprise success has been the Tiny Stories series, initiated by hitRECord member wirrow, who wrote brief, three-line stories and invited others to illustrate them or submit their own. Thousands of entries came in, the best of which were turned into a book — curated, designed, and produced by The Made Shop — and led to a deal to publish three more with HarperCollins. "It's really fun when we have an idea and think about the unique way we want to make it, but it's deeply — if not more — fun when something is bubbling up organically," says Marke. "It's like, this is happening — how do we facilitate it and make it a real artifact of the collaboration that it came from?"
A hitRECord TV show is also in the works — not something they've ever done before, but all the more reason to do it. The fun is in the trying. "The tendency with creative work can be to try to get it fully, perfectly formed in your head and then birth this fully formed, perfect result," says Marke. "It's a very paralyzing way to go about making something. Making something wrong is sometimes one of the most interesting first steps, where you know it's wrong but you make it anyway because then it's real. You can edit it, you can throw it out, but you can know why you're throwing it out and what's wrong with it and then make it again."
Marke adds: "The idea that there could be something that doesn't exist in the world, and then by your actions you make it, is a powerful thought."
Here, The Made Shop describes how they created the Son Lux album cover. See the making-of video below.
When beginning a new project, we love to start as conceptually as possible. We try to refrain from getting too far ahead of ourselves with preset visual ideas early on, and initially focus almost entirely on storytelling. We’re often working with artists in other mediums like music, and it becomes our privilege to get into their heads and absorb the story they are already telling in one medium and find a unique way to tell that same story visually.
We also enjoy working physically. It seems that with so much of our media intake becoming increasingly digital these days, there is something refreshing and arresting about graphic design that is grounded in physical production. Also, it's a ton of fun to get away from the computer and get our hands a bit dirty.
So the artwork we did for Son Lux was a perfect opportunity for both conceptual storytelling and real-world physical production. The project was unique because Son Lux wrote, recorded, and produced the entire album in just 28 days.
As we listened to the music, we were struck by the stark juxtaposition of the rigid constraints of the album's production with the resulting music, which had this amazingly beautiful yet chaotic ephemeral quality. It suddenly became clear that we could tell a parallel visual story of ephemeral colorful chaos emerging from a rigid structure. It started with a quick napkin sketch of a regular grid of 28 points on a hard, concrete surface, shot from an aerial crane, with each grid point containing a different colored smoke bomb. We had a fairly tight deadline of a week or so, and decided to make it much more interesting by challenging ourselves to do the entire art production in just 28 hours. Constraints can be a really good thing.
Surprisingly, the physical build and aerial photo shoot went off without a hitch (minus an unplanned visit from the fire department), and we came back to the studio with hundreds of raw photographs. With about half of our 28 hours gone, we brought the work into Adobe Bridge for a rapid review of the photographs, organizing them with labels and ratings to narrow down the selections. Parallel to that, we started work in Adobe Illustrator® on a customized font that would align well onto our base grid. We then brought a selection of original photographs into Camera Raw for some serious color work before bringing it all together with the typography in Photoshop.
"As much as we enjoy the early physical work away from the computer, we love coming back to our digital creative tools where everything comes to life."
We've just recently started working with Creative Cloud™ and really love the seamless integration between all the various software we rely on. It's also exciting to us because our studio setup is really flexible between our main workshop in Denver and our collaborators in New York and LA, so the new ability to share and work on files through Creative Cloud is a godsend for the way we work.