Graphic designers Todd Baldwin and Paul Miller are used to seeing their work trampled underfootstrewn outside the Capitol Ballroom on Saturday mornings, casting about in the wind on the sidewalks of lower Connecticut Avenue on Sundays, covered with the tread marks of so many Diesel shoes. That’s the nature of their medium. “It’s disposable artwork,” Baldwin says.
Baldwin, 27, and Miller, 28, proprietors of the upstart design firm Airline Industries, have made a fast name in D.C. creating handbills for Buzz, the weekly rave at the Ballroom. Most Friday nights, members of the Clearasil set can be found at Buzz, flaunting their various piercings, wearing seriously oversized jeans, and dancing at exactly 180 beats per minute. “Paul and Todd really made Buzz a recognizable name in a relatively short amount of time,” attests DJ and Buzz promoter Scott Henry, shouting over the Ballroom din as a guy wearing a bear suit dispenses lollipops and Pixie Stix to the Lewis Carrollian characters trolling the dance floor. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Visually speaking, Airline also has to shout above the madding crowd. It takes a strong design voice to penetrate the visual cacophony of rave culture. Miller and Baldwin’s fliers for Buzz pop with energy, exalting the scene’s sensory overload with sleek, seemingly three-dimensional images drawn from nature and science fiction. On some of these hand-sized posters, hornets with transformers and hot-rod engines for guts (the Buzz mascot) hover in a digital rain forest around a rather threatening android. Others show stark, empty honeycombs glowing in an eerie back light; exploding, kaleidoscopic assemblies of industrial objects with numerous parts that lack any apparent purpose; or undersea depths inhabited by alien, ovoid creatures with tails but no eyes. Their creations are rendered in a computer-generated palette, ranging from glossy, supersaturated bleeds of bright primary colors to sterile, gray grids ornamented with high-tech hardware, all printed on heavy, creamy paper.
Then there’s the typography that ties the designs together. Airline makes some of its riffs in Japanese-style characters or lettering reminiscent of Omni magazine. But for the most part, Baldwin and Miller prefer clean, sans-serif fonts, far afield from the current fashions of shattered, “wired,” or otherwise impoverished type. It’s quite ironic, seeing the praises for “tribal/tech-house warrior” Kier One and “Belgian waffle smuggler” Lieven Degeyndt sung typographically with deadpan Swiss precision.
“We focus on a higher level of design sensitivity than this [rave] audience is used to,” admits Baldwin, swallowing the remains of his foccacia at the trendy coffee bar Xando at Dupont Circle. Most rave fliers, he observes, rely heavily on now-cliché images of orbs and fractals for their intrigue: “Crap, really,” he gibes. He and Miller are one in this opinion: “Artwork for electronic music was not respected before,” Miller laments, “mainly because it was so bad.”
DJ Henry wasn’t sold on the duo’s work at first. He and colleague Degeyndt first started Buzz in 1995, but when they launched Sting, a semiregular Buzz event for which they invite bigger-name DJs, they decided they needed something more exciting for promotional artwork. Miller and Baldwin called on their connections to wrangle a meeting with Henry, who at first dismissed their work as “too dark,” recalls Miller. “We just kept saying, ‘Look, trust us….Look at who your clientele are!” Now Henry is such an ardent supporter that he practically gives the pair carte blanche: “We don’t even see the fliers till they come back from the printer, ready to be distributed,” Henry says.
Distribution is key to Airline’s popularity. Anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 of their Buzz posters and handbills are printed every few weeks, turning up in music stores like 12 Inch Dance Records, trendy clothing boutiques like Bohemia and Urban Outfitters, and concert venues like the 9:30 Club. The mailing list alone has more than 6,000 names, covering both the East and West coasts of the U.S. as well as Canada, and even reaching the U.K.
Miller and Baldwin first met as seniors at Virginia Commonwealth University, where both were pursuing degrees in communication arts and design. The two recognized their common tastes and vibes and decided to form their own graphic design company.
Their work shows unusual refinement at a time when many hip young American designers are intoxicated by the ephemeral styles of Raygun magazinewhich really amount to a self-contrived crisis in typographyand are simply trying to out-shock one another. Airline, to the contrary, looks to the European neo-modern atmosphere for inspiration, including 4AD impresario Vaughn Oliver, Ian Anderson of Designers Republic in Englandand even Russian artist Alexander Rodchenko.
Despite their success with fliers for Buzz, Baldwin and Miller reject the notion that Airline is just another purveyor of the electronica movement. “People see us as ‘techno’ designersbut we’re not,” says Baldwin. “Sci-fi and high-tech elements have infiltrated everything, not just music. Look at what [designers] do in Europedesign is so advanced there. They use icons for everything because they’re dealing with different cultures and languages.” Yet Miller claims never to know what the end result of a design will be when he sets out. “What we end up with is never what we conceived,” he says. “And in the end, it’s up to the viewers to decide what they see.”
While many of their boldest images appear computer-drawn, Baldwin and Miller eschew a purely digital approach to design. Much of their work is executed in Photoshop on a Macintosh, but as part of the last generation of designers trained to draw and design by hand, they see reliance on computers as a double-edged sword. “It’s not out of the question for the average person to get their hands on some digital equipment and do something amazing,” Baldwin remarks. “Even video editing can be done on a Mac. But these kids can’t even pick up a pencil and a piece of paper.”
The designers foresee lifting their work off the printed page and onto video. “I’d like to see AI diversify as much as possible,” Miller says. So far, the two have designed for a wide range of clients, including Baltimore’s Modern Music stores and New York techno outfits Astralwerks and Breakbeat Science; and they completed the marketing materials for the new Star Trek: The Experience museum at the Las Vegas Hilton. Next, they’d like to do some gallery exhibitions or architectural hypergraphics (large-scale signage). “I’d love to do some identity work for NASA,” Miller ventures. “Maybe do a logo design for the Mars space probe. It’s not something that the big [design] firms are thinking about.”CP