By Diana Mosher
When the Chicago Repertory Ballet needed a full digital projected set of graphics for its production of Macbeth, it turned to Thirst (3st.com) in Chicago. This award-winning and prolific communication design practice has carved out a satisfying niche by working with like-minded clients in the cultural and design realms. I had the opportunity to chat with AIGA Chicago Fellow Rick Valicenti, founder and design director and John Pobojewski, principal designer at Thirst, for a look into their creative process.
Diana Mosher: Tell us about the Chicago Repertory Ballet project.
John Pobojewski: We do a lot of installation work. It’s something we’re really proud of. It was a unique opportunity for us to really shape the experience of the entire production through production design. We’re gearing up for another video installation in a very different venue as part of 150 North Riverside in Chicago. They’re installing a giant video wall and we’ll be one of the artists featured on that wall. So those are our areas of focus. The cultural realm, the design realm and all the things that cross between.
Diana: You gravitate toward specific types of clients?
John: A lot of our clients are in one of three realms. We have a lot of people who are designers themselves. We like to say “we design for designers” so that would include architects like Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architects, John Ronan Architects, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Urban Lab just to name three.
We also do work with design education like Illinois Institute of Technology here in Chicago and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. We’ve also done work for Harvard Graduate School of Design and then other kinds of people who make things. Furniture makers like Holly Hunt. We’ve worked with her for 20 years. We’ve done work with Herman Miller, Haworth and lots of different folks in the design world like Wright Auctions which collects and sells post World War II art and design. So we’re immersed in that culture of design through and through.
We’re adding a new sector of cultural clients. We had worked for over 25 years with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and since that engagement has ended we’ve been working with lots of different arts organizations from the Alliance Theatre at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta all the way down to a small music ensemble called Eighth Blackbird. We’re starting to lead a branding effort for their creative lab this summer, and we’ve also done other types of cultural events.
Exhibit Columbus is actually a perfect cross-over between architecture and culture. It’s a design festival dedicated to modern architecture in the small town of Columbus, IN, just southwest of Indianapolis. It has some of the best modern architecture in the country. This unexpected gem in the midwest is all the result of the founder of Cummins Engine Company, the late J. Herman Miler, who invited significant architects of that time to come and design all the public space buildings like churches and schools, event centers, and on and on and on.
Diana: The diamond motif on the exterior of City Hyde Park, an apartment property in Chicago designed by Studio Gang, served as inspiration for the building’s graphic identity. Why was Thirst selected for City Hyde Park?
Rick Valicenti: Because we’re good, but also because we have a long history with Studio Gang Architects. There is an ease of working that comes with a long term relationship between a design firm and an architectural firm. You understand and respect each other’s concerns although the process and artifacts are not exactly the same. And so we know how to support them—and they know how to support us.
John: Our relationship with Studio Gang has been going on since 2008. We’ve done a lot of work with Jeanne Gang, founding principal and Mark Schendel, managing principal, and their team over the years. We’ve also had a long collaboration with Mac Properties, aka Silliman Group, one of the City Hyde Park developers. We’ve also worked on Shoreland and other projects in Hyde Park with Jeanne Gang and Silliman Group.
Diana: What was the scope of your work on City Hyde Park?
John: We designed the logo and helped name the building. We also designed some simple brand standards that we’ve been working with the internal design department to help implement. Silliman Group has an in-house design team and they’ve carried the brand through a lot of the building space. But we gave them indications of everything from exterior signage—including some influence on the mural that Studio Gang put on the outside of the building—down to wayfinding signage and entry identification at street level as well as doors and elevators and parking lots.
Diana: The standards that you came up with and the designs—those were also carried carried through to the marketing materials? These elements on the facade of the building found their way onto multiple touch points used to connect with the public?
John: Yes, and the diamond pattern which was inspired by the architecture also found its way throughout the building. In terms of branding, our scope was to create the initial brand direction and the implementation of what’s happening internally. They had a lot of great success with the property, and with the identity of the package. The day to day is being handled by their team.
Rick: Design concepts from our studio’s perspective work best when we align ourselves conceptually to the essence of whatever we are expressing. In this particular case it was a unique orientation of balcony geometry. By aligning our graphic with the architectural form we were able then to make a very simple system. Simply by using the parallelogram as a modular form we discovered many different configurations.
Diana: When you’re working with an architect, they’re thinking along similar lines.
Rick: I think that you hit it right on the head—it’s the sweet spot for our practice. The discourse that takes place at the conference table emerges from people who understand where design comes from, how it works, and know its value.
Diana: Did you have a lot of contact during the creative process with City Hyde Park developer Silliman Group?
John: Absolutely. We were all working together to find the unique spirit of City Hyde Park. It’s always informed by the space. We had a great creative dialogue and the ideas bubbled to the surface. We had actually done a full branding effort for the developer independent of Studio Gang. We designed a really robust identity system for Mac Properties which is the development arm of the Silliman Group. They were used to working with us—and us with them.
Rick: There were very few meetings—if any—that did not involve the developer. There was lots of exchange between the graphic designer, architect and developer. The design director at Mac Properties used to be one of the architects at Studio Gang.
Diana: And how did you arrive at the name of your firm Thirst?
Rick: This is an old story but it deserves to be re-told because you asked the question. It was about 1988 and a young designer at the time invited us to do his first furniture collection. His name was Philippe Starck and in a fax between Paris and Chicago, while he was referencing a third layout, he wrote “3st” (like first, second, third). It was just a typo, but we said to ourselves: “Thirst. That’s the word we’re looking for.”