Q+A – Jennifer Sterling

The Miami-born graphic designer Jennifer Sterling started her own studio in San Francisco in the mid-’90s and quickly caught the eyes of clients and peers with her combination of classic letterpress typography updated for the computer age, a style that culminated with a display of her work at SFMOMA last year.

What inspired your interest in letterpress?

My parents had this great book collection they passed on to us. I always read; I was an avid reader, but I didn’t appreciate the books until I was in my teens. Looking through some of the early works, they were really beautiful. [My parents] weren’t collecting art books; they were collecting everything from children’s books to poetry. As I became more interested in the process, I found all sorts of places that had old letterpress books. There was a particular store in San Francisco that you’d go into and put on white gloves. They had first editions of letterpressed and engraved books. I just loved the tactility; I guess because I grew up on computers, I loved the imperfection of it. So it’s funny to try and make computerized type. We hand-draw it in, then we scan it in to make it look like letter-type. We can use embossing and engraving and letter-pressing.

Did you have to sell clients on your vision? Did they look at letterpress as old-fashioned or outdated?

No. When you design a piece, you want people to hold it as long as possible. When we’re designing, whether we’re selling a bigger educational message or a product … we’re still selling something. When you have a person hold a message in their hands, it’s completely different than when it comes over a television or when something comes over the Web. You don’t have to, in the design world, make the cognitive leap of why you appreciate it. You just instantly hold it longer. It feels different from something else; it just feels a little finer or more thought out. I don’t necessarily think of it as old-fashioned. I think work should always stand out. Otherwise you cut down a tree just to throw it away.

You’ve attracted a lot of attention by using extreme sizes for posters.

It’s so funny; when I do a show and see 11x17s entered in Posters, I think “That’s a spread.” I love old posters where the size is what’s attention-grabbing and it just feels great. Scale to me, in architecture or anything, is everything. When you shift to print, why would you completely ignore it? Posters are the same way. What we’ll do with posters is make them bigger and print fewer of them because people will remember them. And that’s what you want.

Besides letterpress, what were your other early inspirations? The spare design with intricate details somewhat reminds me of da Vinci sketches.

I’m flattered that you say that. I always drew. I came from a family where everyone was an engineer or a doctor so I was always the odd person out. I painted, but I was never really encouraged to follow it. I’m not dismissing designers from an earlier time, but once the computer came, it was just a very viable, lucrative career, which is not the reason I went into it, but it was the reason my family thought it was acceptable. [Laughs]. “OK, we won’t have to support her for her whole life.”

Much of your work has been displayed in museums; do you see the line blurring between design and fine art?

I think it’s always been blurred. We go to museums expecting things to be artifacts. But if you look at any culture, the bowl or the bracelet was the consumer product. It’s all design, it’s all consumer points. There’s always a client. I’m sure even with the Sistine Chapel, there was someone [who said], “I want this one to look more like my girlfriend.” [Laughs]. Everyone has a client. Having work published that’s current is something that people aren’t used to, and it’s called modern art. But if it’s published for consumer usage, they don’t know where to place it. They’re used to seeing someone’s sketchbook, but they’re not used to seeing an annual report. But an annual report is just a modern consumer cultural piece.

Are you seeing greater or lesser demand for design in the wake of the disaster? If the economy completely tanks, will design be the first thing people slash from budgets?

Actually, it’s not what happened to the World Trade Center, because the economy, particularly in San Francisco with all the dot-coms, had taken a large hit anyway. Two months were noticeably slower than the previous seven years I’ve had my business. But the really big players in the industry have been spending more on really high-level design. We’ve been really busy right now, strangely and thankfully. But it’s definitely not start-up companies that are coming to us; it’s Fortune 100 companies. They’re putting more money into it, which seems unusual. I’m curious to see what’s in shows a year from now.