Todd St. John’s creative track record is long and varied. He’s created illustrations for Money Mark, produced stop motion videos for The New York Times, designed graphics for his own t-shirt line (the now defunct Green Lady label), constructed collectible toys for surfing’s US Open, and built tape dispensers simulating a wave. His creations have been exhibited internationally, and he taught design for film and video at the Yale School of the Art’s Graduate Design Program for nine years. Our Pilgrim logo, too, was the handy work of St. John.
With a low-key demeanor, St. John approaches creativity in pursuit of solutions. Using the limits of a client’s boundaries as a reason for resourcefulness, he poses a challenge to himself, then tackles it from all angles. While his work can take diverse forms, his signature playfulness is attached to each project.
We visited St. John’s studio, HunterGatherer in Brooklyn, a space that covers the gamut of his ingenuity (a 9'6" Dano single fin hangs above the door and a wood shop is tucked away behind video editing stations, for example). Here, he talks with us about what motivates and informs his imagination in the wide world of design.
"I grew up on Oahu, Hawaii. When I was a little kid, I lived across the street from the sugar cane fields. It’s one of those places that you realize after the fact just how great it was. I was on the less athletic side of things, but I was still near the water all the time. It’s a big part of your life growing up there. You have an appreciation for the water that’s sort of different than if you were to grow up anywhere else. You’re surrounded by it, and it feels like home in a way. If you can’t see water, you kind of freak out. My parents and family still live there. I left when I was 18 but I’ve gone back almost every year since."
"I was interested in too many things as a kid, and couldn’t quite decide on one thing. I didn’t really know how to become an artist because I had no real examples of how to do that, especially because it wasn’t something my parents were particularly familiar with. There was a friend whose dad was a designer at a small agency in Hawaii, and that was the first time I could remember connecting the dots and seeing that there was somebody who was doing this for a living. It took me quite a while to finally settle on it, especially since I was initially interested in music or film. When I was eventually exposed to design, it seemed like even if you called it 'design,' you could get away with doing a lot of different things. I have a hard time describing what I do, it doesn’t always fit as neatly into a category as I would like, but sometimes I think that’s good. I like to start an idea in one medium and carry it into another, that’s always really exciting for me."
"Growing up, I was always forced to build a lot of things with my dad in the garage -- that kind of thing. At the time I didn’t really like it, but it sort of stuck as I got older. A lot of the work that I do is about building things and then photographing them. When something’s just a sketch, it sort of sits there. But when you build something, it opens up a lot more possibilities of the ways you can light it, or the way you can grab it, or the backside of it, or the way you can place it next to something else. It’s a way of opening up all these possibilities. Sometimes what I like to do is actually make it difficult for myself because it forces you into uncomfortable places. It forces you to solve some problems that you might not otherwise have to, it’s a process way of working where you learn by working. If you have this problem solving mentality, you are always looking to make problems for yourself. I think by building and shooting and adding layers to the complexity, you create more problems, but you also create more opportunities."
"I think the idea behind design is the promise of simplicity, and people are drawn to design because of that. So, if on the one level it can be that, but if there’s a level of complexity behind it, I think that’s always interesting to me. I think it’s probably interesting to other people as well, where there’s sort of two things going on at once."
Is that what separates good design from not-so-good design?
"I think people have low expectations for design in some cases but for a lot of people, I think especially young people, a lot of their visual input comes through design. And if you can put ideas in there that are actually more complex than they are expecting, that could be really powerful."
"In terms of people I’m really into, I think people who can sort of speak in multiple voices at the same time, both high and low. People that come to mind are people like Jim Hensen, and it sounds corny in a way, but people like Carl Sagan who are interested in communicating very complicated things very simply. I think a lot of furniture designers also think in that way."
"Certainly, you can point this trend or that -- it’s funny, I always try to avoid doing anything that has to do with a trend, I try to stick to what I'm into and not pay too much attention. But, inevitably, as a human being, that stuff affects you, whether you are participating in the the trend or consciously not participating in it, it still impacts you."
"As you get older, you realize maybe you’re not such an original creation after all. I think after you have kids you start to see that as well. One thing I think I realized very early on was the importance of knowing what you’re bad at and what you actually enjoy, and then to try to line up your life so that it reacts to those two realities."
"Design is more approachable than labeling yourself as an artist. I was never comfortable labeling myself as an artist. If I say I’m a designer, maybe there’s a chance that even if you don’t like my art, you’ll still wear the t-shirt that it’s on. There’s an accessibility in design that I’m more comfortable with. There’s also a collaboration in design that I’ve always liked, and if you’re just an artist the problem solving aspect isn’t there unless you create the problems yourself, whereas I always like working with people and solving real world problems. That’s what keeps me coming back."
More of St. John's previous work:
- Words by Chelsea Burcz, photos by Joseph Falcone