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“If I had not become an artist, I would have been a conservationist.”
– Charley Harper
The “minimal realism” of Modernist illustrator Charley Harper enchanted design enthusiasts and animal lovers alike for generations. His disarming blend of simplicity and earnest accuracy made his animal illustrations unquely suited to works including The Golden Book of Biology, as well as clients such as the National Park Service, the Cincinnati Zoo and other naturalist organizations. With the re-release of the 1994 book Beguiled By the Wild last year, Harper returned to the forefront of American design history—and now,a new line from The Land of Nod brings his work to a timeless collection of home decor products.
In order to capture the reverence for nature so prevalent in Harper’s work, the collection had to be rich in quality and detail. Designer and illustrator Michelle Romo was tasked with adapting Harper’s work to the line of children’s bedroom furniture, linens and toys, which brings rooms to life with intricate embroidery, delicate applique and careful patterning. I had the pleasure of speaking with Michelle about the project.
How did you get involved with the Charley Harper project?
I have worked in-house for the past two and a half years as a product designer, and illustrator for The Land of Nod. The first Charley Harper collection was focused on bedding and I was designated to conceptualize the collection under the direction of Nod’s Development and Design Director, Seana Strawn. I was thrilled and honored!
You had done three-dimensional design and product design before, correct? Did this project present any new challenges that you had not faced before?
Yes! I have been working as a product designer for 14 years. Prior to working at Nod I have a background in women’s accessories and apparel.
Working on the Charley Harper collection was challenging because we wanted to honor Mr. Harper, and embrace the spirit of his artwork in the best way. An example of this effort was the patch we included on the back of the quilts, rugs and some toy items. When he worked, he would wear the same pants, and wipe his paintbrush on his pant leg to clean it. We thought this was such a cool detail so we created a blue canvas patch with paint dabs on it to mimic the look of his pants. The challenges came through working out those special details to create the most beautiful collection possible.
What can you tell me about the process of adapting Harper’s print illustrations for use on the Land of Nod products? What did you learn from this process?
I have admired Charley Harper’s work for a long time, but recreating his artwork made me appreciate it even more. For some of the larger items, I needed to recreate the artwork in Adobe Illustrator. I spent a lot of time thinking how amazing it was that he painted these details by hand. Creating them in Illustrator required patience, and attention to detail. Thinking about how much effort it took to create geometrically perfect paintings really blew my mind.
After recreating the artwork we would sit together as a team and work out the details for each product. We decided how items would be constructed, what elements would be appliqué, what fabrics we would use, what would have special printing, etc. The whole process was very thoughtful!
You are also a designer yourself. What was it like working with another designer’s artwork?
It was so fun! I am primarily a digital artist, and wouldn’t have the skills to recreate the artwork of just any artist. This project was such a good fit for my aesthetic and skill set.
It seems to me that your design aesthetic shares some similarities with Charley Harper’s, especially with regards to your use of perspective and the way you draw your characters. Do you agree that there are similarities, and had you found inspiration in Harper’s work before this? If so, how do you think blending your aesthetic with Harper’s influenced the final products?
Thank you for the compliment! There are definitely similarities. I think that Charley Harper’s artwork has a level of simplicity, but completely conveys its message. You know exactly what all the animals are, even though they aren’t photo realistic. I aspire to have that clarity with my artwork. There is a quote on the back of the Animal Kingdom books that says “… I have never counted the feathers in the wings, for that is not what my pictures are about. I just count the wings.” I also think there is a sense of humor in his work, and I like to think that my work also has a bit of a smile and a wink to the audience.
The blending of aesthetics came through creating the elements of the product that accented the art. For example, choosing corduroy to replicate the line work in his artwork, or choosing the colors for trims or backgrounds on products. On the Nature Center Toddler Quilt the color palette for the stripes at the top match the piece, but also would be a palette I would use with in my own work.
Do you have a favorite among all the products from this collection?
I have a few! The Rocky Mountain Quilt is a fave because I spent a lot of time with that piece of artwork. The embroidered and appliqué details came out so lovely!
The Raccoon Shelf is so sweet (developed by our home decor designer Kristin Mueller)—those little wire hands and whiskers are such a fun interpretation of Charley Harper’s linework. And the Giant Ladybug Stuffed Animal (developed by our toy designer Libby Clabaugh)—the ladybug is so iconic and I just want to snuggle up in it and take a nap!
What is your educational and professional background in?
I am a self taught illustrator, that fell into product development. As a teenager I wanted to get into design but was restless and didn’t want to go to school. My mom was a graphic designer so I learned Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop on her computer. At 18 I started my own business creating t-shirts with my illustrations (they were terrible), and that turned into more production related work, and illustration, and so on!
What other projects have you worked on that you’re most proud of?
Crowded Teeth is my ongoing lifestyle brand / art project / life project. I’ve been doing it for 14 years! It’s changed so much from where it started as screen printed t-shirts. Now it’s just an hub for my artwork and various projects.
What’s your best advice for designers today?
Be nice to yourself! Working hard is also of course key, but take time to enjoy the world. Give yourself personal projects if your day job is not giving you what you need, and remember to sleep regularly.
Be sure to check out the full Charley Harper for Nod collection, featuring Harper’s intricate and enthralling modernist interpretations of the natural world.