Ed Roth pays attention. Whether it’s twin sets of discarded high heels on the the street that he stops to photograph or a stenciled iron gate on a wall in Vinegar Hill, Roth is always finding hidden treasures in his daily life. It’s these unexpected occurrences that serve as the inspiration for his work as a graphic artist, animator, and stencil maker. As proprietor of Brooklyn-based design shop, Stencil1, Roth is best known for his iconic stencil designs. In the ’90s, as a Williamsburg gallerist, Roth was exposed to a lot of street art, he says, referencing his first stencil designs that are primarily graffiti inspired.
In the last two years, Roth has published two stencil portfolios with Chronicle Books. “I thought why don’t I do a book of stencils for people who want to try it out.” The first, Stencil 101, is a playful collection of stencil imagery that includes everything from water towers and birds on a wire to poodles and sumo wrestlers. Last year’s, Stencil 101: Decor offers repeat-pattern imagery—think hounds-tooth and Frank Lloyd Wright-esque interlocking squares—meant for the home. Though, according to Roth’s design philosophy, any of his stencils can and should be translated anywhere. “I’m always interested in where else it can be applied,” he says. “I don’t like to think about the rules. And I always like to remember,” Roth notes, “that I design a tool for people to use in their way.”
It’s his refreshingly inclusive, well-meaning manner that has lead him to a variety of collaborations outside of the stencil realm with the likes of Sharpie, Fashion’s Night Out, and NYC’s Chocolate Bar. He recently stenciled three walls in the New York branch of the Ace Hotel—one of which features a seven foot grizzly bear. He’s also a popular leader at the Etsy Labs space in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Currently, Roth is in the middle of several projects but took a moment away from the flurry to answer a few questions.
Tami Mnoian: What I like about featuring your work now is that you’re in process with a variety of different projects. I think that often we’re so quick to make a fuss over the end product, that I wanted to focus on where you’re at with everything now, while you’re in the thick of it. What’s surprising or frustrating or awesome? And how is it juggling so many things at once?
ED ROTH: I am working on Stencil 201: Advanced Stenciling Techniques with Chronicle Books, developing a full-product line, doing more install work for the Ace Hotel, and keeping my Stencil1 site and blog a-go. It’s good to be busy. Love it.
Is launching a product line versus publishing a book similar or completely different? What do you enjoy about both?
So different—well, from my experience anyway. I love working with Chronicle Books. They have become like family. I feel their support. They take my designs and they create beautiful books with my stencil art, photographs and writing. It’s a wonderful collaboration. On the other hand, developing a line seems more serious and commercial, but very exciting, too, as I meet with tool developers and marketing people who know their stuff. Smart business people.
You’ve become a popular workshop personality with your events at Etsy Labs and the powerHouse Arena. I think there are Stencil1 groupies out there! What do you like most from leading these workshops and dealing with the public face to face?
These are my best events, and the Etsy crowd are serious crafters. They already know me and Stencil1, so it’s humbling, and I don’t have to explain much! I also learn a lot since all these artists come and use my stencils with their own techniques and ideas. One of my memorable moments at the Etsy space was being able to teach online in their virtual lab. It’s a genius interface and I felt the online community support.
What is at the heart of your design philosophy?
Well, I guess it’s keeping it simple, not overthinking or overdesigning. I like simple iconic graphics so people can use them and make them as complicated as they want—simple building blocks.
As the world (design and otherwise) continues to digitize, what’s it like as an artist who works primarily in the physical realm?
Well, I don’t. I design all day on the computer. I do eventually get to paint and use my stencils, which is that special reward. All digital designers, like me, want to get our hands wet but we are trained in the computer. I learned art on the computer first, really.
How do you stay current in your medium?
I just keep producing more of what I like, and my likes always change.