Kentucky-based design studio Neltner Small Batch is always doing something cool that HOW wants the scoop on, whether it’s bringing a craft beer café to life by nodding to the brewhouse history of Cincinnati, OH, or collaborating with TOMMYINK on event poster design for Buckle Up Music Festival.
Naturally, we wanted to interview the man leading the killer team of Neltner Small Batch creatives out of a gambrel-style barn overlooking a family farm. So allow us to introduce Print’s latest Designer of the Week, Keith Neltner.
Name: Keith Neltner
Name of Studio: Neltner Small Batch
Location: Camp Springs, Kentucky
How would you describe your work?
I had a Paul Grushkin, rock historian and publisher from San Fran call it “rural urban,” which I loved the juxtaposition of those two words. My work has been shaped by such a range of influences but the earliest was growing up on our family farm in rural Kentucky and the textures and experiences that were all around me. I study found objects and vintage printing techniques, which find their way into my aesthetic.
I also worked in the music scene (starting with Hank III in 1999) early in my career while I was working at Landor. So small budgets and lo fi printing (customary in the music industry) made me improvise and focus on the tools I had in front of me while I was cultivating fundamentals in branding discipline for global gum and soap products. That experience pushed me to evolve my illustration and typography sensibilities which now have become the backbone of how I approach branding, packaging, identity creation, and even film. Each piece is thoughtfully layered and storied, I don’t want my work to lose its soul so it’s important for that to bleed through.
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Where do you find inspiration?
For good or bad we’re all invaded by media daily, streams, blogs, pins—it’s an incredible stream of inspiration if you know where to look. I draw influence from all around me and depending on the project it could come from music, my eclectic collection of objects from farm implements, skulls, bourbon bottles, or seeing work that is being done by my peers.
Our studio is a gambrel style barn which overlooks the valley near our family farm. There is a red tail hawk that hunts and spends time outside our window—it reminds me to look up and not get too consumed by what’s on my “computer box.”
Sadi, our family dachshund has made her way into various projects; she is a walking caricature, and my kids (9 and 5 years old), who pop into the studio after school, have a pure, unedited reaction to whatever “art” is being made that day. It’s those crazy and diverse outside forces that influence the Small Batch life.
Who are some of your favorite designers or artists?
My earliest influences from an illustration standpoint would have to be James O’barr (The Crow) and John Mueller (Oink) who were published by a small group called Kitchen Sink in the ’90s. There is such a visceral, raw nerve in their storytelling that I’m attracted to. I also had the distinct pleasure of working with John Ham (not that John Hamm) who is a veteran commercial illustrator. Notably, John illustrated all of the original Star Wars packaging. I was able to chat with him on a daily basis and learned just by watching him how to approach traditional illustration and how it applies to ID, packaging, and fine art.
The brands that we have in the studio at any given time can range from bourbon, beer, pizza, chocolate to a limited vinyl release by Mr. Belding and Shooter Jennings (yes, Saved by the Bell). So I absolutely love Cricket Press, Methane Studios, David Kinsey, Helms Workshop, Warnick Art, TOMMYINK, Jay Ryan, James Flames, and Kevin Tong, designers who cross over consumer commercial work to collectible gig art.
Do you have a favorite among all the projects you’ve worked on?
We’ve been working with a family owned brewery since early 2014 called Braxton Brewing Co. We are right now in the midst of helping them launch their brand in early spring. They started brewing in their family garage when Evan (head brew master) was 16 years old with his Dad. We’ve had the opportunity to build their brand foundation from that early story and create their entire toolbox (identity; signage; beer naming and product architecture; tap design; can design; and interior mural). It’s so rewarding to present work to them and get such honest and emotional reactions. We’re incredibly proud to partner with them and the work is proof.
I would be remiss though not to mention projects like the Charlie Louvin documentary “Still Rattlin’ the Devil’s Cage” and the ongoing partnership with BCR (Black Country Rock) Media creating for a wide range of musicians creating limited edition vinyl, cassettes and cd releases.
Keith Neltner created an oversized infographic of the earth to beer to bottle process of the craft beer industry while NSB worked on naming and branding beer shop Halfcut. See the process above.
Is there a project that stands out to you as having been the biggest challenge of your career so far?
We named and branded a beer shop in OTR/Cincinnati called Halfcut. It was a great assignment, which we created literally from the ground up using a cross-country trip the founders went on as the basis for the brand, “The Incredible Journey.” Within their historic space I illustrated a large-scale mural that essentially is an oversized infographic of how beer comes from farm to tap.
This was our first large-scale piece so there were logistics in working on a raw brick surface, projecting, painting, etc. We had allotted a four-day window for the installation with a small team of
assistants and painters. What we couldn’t have anticipated were the physical challenges; cramped construction space; record-low temperatures in a space that wasn’t heated; a propane shortage; and for me, physical ailments that had to be ignored. It was both rewarding and challenging. The final mural has become the centerpiece of the space and unique expression of the brand. The brand was recently featured in DRAFT magazine and voted top 100 craft beer spots in the country.
What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I want to keep creating and expanding who we work with and how our art is experienced—from a public mural, to a 6-pack of beer in the family garage fridge, or a pour of bourbon that has 150 years of history distilled in it.
An upcoming example, we’re releasing a vinyl project under “Neltner Small Batch Records” with Arnold’s Bar & Grill in Cincinnati called “Bootleggers & Hustlers” which will feature artists from the area who have played at Arnold’s (the oldest bar in Cincinnati). Its important to me to create small-batch products that become artifacts of our time.
What’s your best advice for designers today?
Work hard. Find substance in whatever project is in front of you. If it’s a corporate brochure use it as an exercise to get better with layout. If there is a project, style or medium you’ve never worked in, push through and learn something about yourself. You can’t sit still because there are ten other creative people that can buy the same tools as you and be a “designer, photographer or film maker.” Collaborate with friends. You’ll become a better designer and person.
The Making of Neltner Small Batch’s retrospective in the beer, music and branding industries over the last decade and a half.
Braxton Builders Art Print Creation: Supporting the Kickstarter campaign for Braxton Brewing Co, Neltner Small Batch created a process video for one of the many NSB designed incentives. The “Builders” art print is limited and exclusive to the campaign. Music by The Kentucky Struts “Good Man”. Edit by Kyle Eli Ebersole. Illustration & Design Keith Neltner/Neltner Small Batch Printing by Southpaw.