Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang
Eric Elms has a lot on his plate. His work is divided into three distinct categories: painting, corporate design, and publishing. While he is usually doing most of the work by himself, the design firm is, paradoxically, called Partners & Others, through which he has churned out work for clients like Supreme, Vans, Uniqlo, Nike, HBO, Carhartt, and Colette.
His long journey in the art and design world began with a chance meeting with a man who changed street art. As a high-schooler in San Diego, Elms happened to live near Shepard Fairey, the mastermind behind OBEY. After working with Shepard doing screen prints in his garage, Eric headed out East and quickly found himself working with the whos-who of cutting -edge art and design. He took classes at Pratt with Kevin Lyons as his professor and began working with KAWS. After some time under the tutelage of some of the most influential people in the design world, James Jebbia, founder of Supreme, asked Eric to work at Supreme full time.
Eric left Pratt just before graduating to work under Jebbia. He designed the first two Japanese Supreme lookbooks, which have since become highly collectible and sculpted images that ended up on shirts from that time period. The present-day fascination with all things box logo is rooted in the graphics he and a few others crafted around the early 2000s, before blogs and Instagram bombarded consumers with images and information at today’s dizzying pace.
Like others we have interviewed who began their rise during a time before social media and the digital onslaught we all endure, Eric learned to shape his work by hand. He may be best known for his Kilroy character, inspired by a historical figure, James Kilroy (we think), who used to inspect WWII ships en route to Europe. Soldiers, apparently, would draw a cartoon character with a huge nose and hands peeking over a line and inscribe “Kilroy was here” as a way to mark that someone had been to a particular place or wall. Elms describes this proto-tagging as “Pre-graffiti,” before ego and marketing were part of scrawling a name. For his “Wish you were Here” exhibition at the Common Gallery in Japan, the Kilroy character was found atop logos and icons from the contemporary branding highway we all travel. Shirts from Stussy and KAWS and bags from Jansport emerged from that exhibition with a looming Elms-illustrated Kilroy character peeking out somewhere on the product.
His present output, which still shows the marks of a craftsman with a steady hand, takes the shape of corporate branding or advertising products, tricked-out studio-printed publications from the likes of Neckface, Parra, and Kevin Lyons, and fine art paintings that function like “urban landscapes,” as he deems them. With the ability to produce in multiple forms of media and engage what amounts to three different markets, Eric has become a staple in the design world. We got the chance to discuss, among many other things, the present state of publishing, changes in the design world, and collaborations. Click through and immerse yourself in the images and words of someone whose work demands consideration for its integrity, consistency, and originality.
FRESHNESS: Can you tell our readers about your publishing company, AndPress?
Eric Elms: As far as my studio, I’m trying to break it up into thirds. I do a lot of painting out of there. The design studio is out of there, Partners and Others is the design studio, and then And Press is there for the publishing side of things, which was on hiatus for a couple years. I was trying to find the right niche for it. I just did a lot of new stuff for the NY Art Book Fair that ended a couple weeks ago. We just put out a book by Cali Dewitt called Grave Yard. We did a comprehensive retrospective of all of his posters that were shown at Muddguts gallery in Brooklyn and Big Love in Tokyo.
Originally, when I started AndPress, I was doing some bigger books, larger edition off-set books, which I enjoyed doing, but the distribution side of things took away a lot of time. It was tedious, as it was chasing money. Now, I don’t really feel like I need to fill that niche in the bookmaking world, so I veered more towards really unique, lower-edition books because I do a lot of the binding and a lot of hand-personalized things in the studio.
We’ve seen that there’s been a greater interest among our readers in having a tangible item again. Have you seen the same trend?
I love books and like having them, especially with the more unique books, and also on a superficial level if the edition is low, it makes you want it more. I think people still want print in that way.
I wanted to cut out the middle man, so I can make more involved books on a lower edition that maybe some of these other small publishers couldn’t do. So, I can hit the higher end of that world, rather than throwing myself into the bottom end of larger publishing. I still really like good Rizzoli books, but they can do that type way better than I can.
Do you do the start to finish of the book yourself? Is it a one man operation?
I don’t do any color printing in my studio. I can’t really do that, so I’ll send out for that stuff. But, black and white stuff and the binding and stuff like that, usually I’ll do all myself. Or, if I’m busy, I’ll have a person come in and help me, but, for the most part, it’s a one-man show.
Can you give us a brief history about your history?
I’ll give you the run-down. I grew up in San Diego, and I was not doing art at all. I was more of a math and science kid. I was into graphics and all the visual elements, but more subconsciously just through skateboarding and all those types of things. I didn’t really surf when I grew up, but I was around that in San Diego, and I think all that affected me.
When I was in high school, Shepard Fairey moved to San Diego, and he had a design studio there and started putting up all his posters everywhere, and he lived really close to me. So, I was probably like 15 or 16 when that happened.
And people around the way knew about Obey and Shepard?
I mean, he was around, but it was still at that point where I saw the posters, but I had no idea where they came from. Yeah, there were some weird message boards and stuff like that, but it wasn’t a time where if you searched for something- I was going to say Google, but that didn’t exist. If you were trying to figure something out on the Internet, a lot of times, there just wasn’t an answer for it. I think at one point I figured out what Obey was, and I ended up running into a friend of his randomly, but I was just a kid at a coffee shop, and had one of his stickers on my folder, and he saw me. So, I kind of was introduced to Shepard when I was in high school. I was screen-printing bootleg shirts, things like that, so he knew that I understood the basics, but he taught me how to screen print posters and larger format stuff. For my summer job, I would screen print his posters in his garage. It was fun. It was a good few years of running around. When I came to New York, he introduced me to KAWS, when I first moved here. I kind of kept in touch with KAWS and started assisting him for a little bit, for a year or two.
What was he doing then? Around what time was that?
He was painting. He was doing the black and white Michelins and the beginning of the Kimpsons series.
And he was getting up on the ads by then, right?
Yeah, it was the tail end of that. He wasn’t doing the alterations as much then, but he was installing the Michelin Man paintings, stuff like that. And also, I moved out of New York to go to Pratt Institute, for design. So, Kevin Lyons was my teacher. He knew Shepard, so he kind of knew that I knew Shepard, so I would help him out on some screen printing projects at Pratt. He was working at SSUR at the time as well with Russ Karablin. He was doing Natural Born. So Kevin brought me into SSUR to work there and help on a bunch of graphics and all that. In that office, I ended up meeting Aaron Bondaroff and all those downtown kids. Everyone shuffled through that office. It was on Spring between Bowery and Elizabeth, so it was a little clubhouse.
And at that time, how long had Supreme already been going? This is what, like, eight years?
Yeah, eight years. This is probably, yeah, this is probably like-
Yeah, 2000, maybe ’01? Yeah, probably, like ’01, early ’02. I almost graduated from Pratt. Around that time I think James Jebbia from Supreme asked Brian (Kaws) if he knew anyone that might be good for design for them, so I got introduced to James . So, I dropped out of Pratt to go work at Supreme.
We know you did the Supreme books, but were you actually involved with actual graphics for Supreme shirts?
I was one of the designers. Back then, it was a way smaller operation. It was probably only, like, depending on the time, five, six, or seven of us in the Supreme office. I was always kind of doing personal projects. Then a lot of personal projects and travel stuff came up, and I couldn’t do both those projects and the job at Supreme, so I just decided to take a leap and do these other personal projects and shows and stuff like that. So, I left Supreme and just went freelance and tried to make it.
After that, did you just do a series of scatterplot freelance stuff?
Yeah, I did a lot of stuff for Huge Magazine in Japan, as well as a bunch of other work and shows out there. I did whatever freelance work came in. A lot of commercial work, design work came up. I did some of the Supreme Magazine lookbooks, the first couple that came out. I was all over the place as far as work was, which I enjoy. I get a little bored if I do the same thing for too long.
You began by discussing your own studio Partners and Others, and the ways that you divide things into thirds in the studio. So, what’s the difference between those years you just described and your time now?
Now, visually and thought-wise, way more of a division between what I’m doing on a design studio level and what I’m doing in the art and painting world. Some of the styles, obviously, visually crossover, but I think a lot of the paintings I’m doing now wouldn’t really have been applicable to design or street wear or anything like that.
Do you think that’s because your own interests have changed?
Yeah, probably. I mean, there are still things I enjoy seeing, companies I like, or parts of other companies that I like. But, yeah, and before, like I said, I was doing the thing where I would paint for a show and then stop. Now, painting is a little more consistent.
Have you noticed the changes over the years in the attitude concerning the trend of streetwear?
I mean, yes. It’s definitely changed. When I first started, everything was on a small scale, so it was more no-holds-barred, and it could be a little more tongue-in-cheek. Back in the day, those cool little ripoffs were funny, and you didn’t really have to worry about it. I think some nice things have turned out since that time. Now there’s official collabs, which, sometimes, if they’re done right, make for way nicer projects than if you’re just flipping a logo. I think if a company is going to another company because they make a specific thing really well, then I think it’s a really nice collaboration, rather than just having two logos on a shirt or jacket, et cetera.
Well, the brand that you worked with for a while has really done well with that. What do you think about Supreme now?
They’re still the best. I mean, James consistently does it right. As much as there’s going to be a backlash about the company’s success, because there’s always a backlash about anything, they do everything the best. A lot of people who really complain because they think they can’t wear it anymore, maybe just aren’t able to pick the right pieces and mix them in with other stuff well enough.
Well, let’s talk also about that social media side of what you do now, too. You were in and working when people were on the ground, using screen printers, putting stuff up. There’s a part in Exit Through the Gift Shop when Shepard Fairey is saying that perceived importance turns into actual curiosity, which turns into almost a version of importance. By putting up the Andre image over and over and over and over, it made people want to know about it, which actually turned something ridiculous into something important. In a certain way that was the first version, probably not intentionally, of what we see now, with people’s attempts to make things important in social media—a similar sense of repetition.
It just took him 15 years rather than 15 months, or less. Shepard built that momentum over fifteen years, on the ground.
What have you seen that have been some of the biggest differences in the past fifteen years in each of the things that you are still doing in painting, design, and publishing?
I want to think that I work really differently in the studio, but I actually don’t, which is surprising. I think exposure is the thing that changes. Making things stays the same, but putting it out into the world for feedback and production has gotten exponentially faster. On the other hand, people’s attention spans are way shorter, so it stays visible for a way shorter period, so it probably evens out in the end. Product cycles are so much shorter for smaller companies, like, the technology to print things and do direct printing. Styles can come and go in six months; whereas, before it was like, there was a lot longer run because people didn’t know what other people were doing. It would take a season or two for an idea to mature. It allowed things to evolve a little more naturally.
Now things are happening so fast that a style is getting burned before it has a chance to evolve. People don’t really have the time to get influenced by something new and add it to that in the meantime. So, it kind of just comes and goes and peters out. It’s like listening to a song on repeat where you just get so tired of it and then move onto the next thing.
How do you mix new techniques from technology and the craft of working by hand?
I always, even back in the day, when I was doing a lot more hand-lettering stuff in design, always kind of started from a hand-crafted base. I’d scan it in. When people just draw in Illustrator, that’s fine, but it’s not my style, as it always looks a little fake.
So, you’re still working by hand frequently?
Yeah, a lot of the time. In a lot of my work I reference different points of view. I may bring in things like a new graphic, or even something like a headline on a newspaper. So, I do have a selection of assets that I’ve built up over the years, kind of like a personal vocabulary that I can draw from. Most of the time, those all started by hand, or were altered in some way by hand. I still think that’s really important, and all that painting and stuff I think are pretty tactile now, so I transfer that energy over to that side of the studio. But it is obviously nice to have the technology at hand to combine those in a cool way on the computer.
So, you’re getting your fix of hand-crafted stuff no matter what. Even the printing has some hands-on elements, right?
Yeah. All the binding and stuff is by hand. There’s a lot of hand work, especially the books I’ve been doing lately.
Sure. Can you tell us about Partners and Others?
When I originally left Supreme, Partners and Others has always been, basically, me.
It’s funny, it’s a plural name but just you.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s because, I like that name because it’s playing off of partners in a business, but you’re always depending on the project, where I might bring in a freelancer, might bring in someone to help me with something. So, it kind of is weird. I like the way it sounds, and it’s kind of what a little design business is. For the most part, it’s just a creative studio that I’m running. But, I think after you get enough projects and enough series of art and design projects stacked up, you do get a rhythm and a point of view that runs a cohesive visual through the whole thing. Some of the lettering stuff is pretty consistent, but I think there’s just an overall feeling and sense of humor to a lot of the work that binds it all together.
Well, one thing that has become associated with you is the Kilroy character. Can you talk about figuring that out and how you’ve rolled that out in different iterations?
Yeah, I was always really fascinated with Kilroy. I was just drawn to it, five or six years ago. The history of it started in World War II, and it’s kind of an urban myth about how it started, but I think it gets linked to Army transport troops in World War II. One of the shipbuilders drew it. That’s how it spread. All the troops would go and see it, and others started drawing it. In World War II, it started spreading all over Europe.
For me, it’s kind of like this pre-graffiti graffiti, where, the ego was never attached to it. Now, the whole point of graffiti is you’re getting your name out there where, specifically, a writer says “I was here.” Back then, it was just “I was here,” but it was not attached to a specific person.
It’s more like the idea was there.
Yeah. They didn’t need to have ownership and tell other people they were there, but they wanted to make their mark. So, I thought that was kind of interesting. I think it’s like fascinating. I have an old collection of Kilroy. I like the history of it, so I have a collection of old trinkets and jewelry and stuff that they had back in the 60s and 70s.
Growing up on the West Coast and being on the East Coast for so long now, I have such a melding of two points of view, and that’s why I’m really drawn to really mashing up different styles, different verbiage, and different places that make something new. The Kilroy character is perfect for that feeling, that idea. It’s built for that.That might be a reason I am drawn to it. That was kind of the whole reason I made the Kilroy book “Wish You Were Here”.
Cool. The history was something I had no idea about, so hearing it now and hearing your explanation of how old and new fold into it, that makes it more than just a branding thing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s about this forgotten guy.
Can you tell us about the newer works that have the screwed in handles?
Yeah, they’re grips for climbing. They are my interpretation of landscape paintings in a way. I originally started making those when a friend of mine started going to the Brooklyn climbing gym. For me, painting a landscape was pointless, because we’re stuck in the city, and that’s been done. I’m not around that, and I don’t have anything to add to that traditional discussion. So, I started making these. I started making them on rectangular panels, just as rough iterations of landscapes. But, then, I read the intro to the book “Art as Experience.” It’s about how the viewer defines their own nature, and how it’s always filtered through the person looking at it.
So it's not necessarily something that's sticking out of the ground, or grows, or whatever.
It’s not even that. It’s like, even if you’re on a mountain, and everyone’s looking at the same mountain, it’s all how that person perceives it that defines what nature is. It’s always one step removed through the person looking at it. So, I started making these panels that were very asymmetrical and not square, because I didn’t want someone to look at the panels and think of them, “Oh, this is a painting.” I wanted them to see this weird shape and relate to it as an object. So, a viewer could kind of look at it as a piece of nature rather than a painting, right off the bat. I was trying to create a new landscape painting that makes sense for my life, for someone who lives in the city. I think they’re just as pretty as real mountains.