The Daily Heller: “The Assistant,” Matt Iacovelli

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Welcome back to our occasional series “The Assistant,” a paean to the usually unsung essential members of teams, where we feature those who play, or have played, integral roles behind the scenes for designers both living and dead. This episode features Matt Iacovelli.

Born in 1997 in Staten Island, New York, Iacovelli received a BFA in design from the School of Visual Arts in 2019, and since then has worked with Gail Anderson, playing an invaluable role in assisting faculty during the pandemic year-and-a-half of remote teaching, as well managing and designing. We asked Iacovelli about Anderson, and vice-versa.

Gail (left) and Matt (right) making the best of their daily staff meeting.

Your assistantship began at school. Why did you attend SVA in the first place?

Iacovelli: While I was still in high school, I took part in SVA’s Pre-College program and I met John Ruggeri, Kevin O’Callaghan and Richard Mehl—they presented such individual perspectives on what design could be. They sealed my decision to attend SVA. I’m not just trying to hype the school up here, but they organized a great sales pitch for a pre-college program. Once I was at SVA as an actual student, I ended up taking classes with all three of these instructors. I took Kevin for multiple semesters, and John and I still talk every day.

Gail, what inspired you to anoint Matt as your first assistant in your new role as Chair of BFA Design and BFA Advertising at SVA?
Anderson: I was a bit overwhelmed with new ongoing design projects for the department that were too complex for interns. And I needed help creating presentations for my two new sophomore lecture classes from someone who had passion for and education in design, advertising and pop culture. I’d known Matt since his internship at Visual Arts Press, SVA’s design studio, and he started temping with me a few months into my new role as Chair of BFA Design and BFA Advertising in late 2019. It was nice to work with someone with shared interests who I enjoyed mentoring when he was a student. I felt like I could teach Matt more and push him to be more decisive, and in exchange, that it would be good for me to solicit opinions from someone who’d recently been an SVA student. I enjoyed Matt’s company, and he seemed like a good egg with a strong interest in design history, so it was win-win.

How did you come to work for Gail?

Iacovelli: The first time I met Gail, she was standing outside of the amphitheater at SVA. I recognized her, already knowing of her work at Rolling Stone. I am not usually one to approach someone on the street and bother them with a conversation (except for one time when I did this to Frankie Valli), but being a music and typography lover … I just had to say something.

I didn’t ask her anything about design. The first thing I said was “Hi, I’m Matt. What was it like working with Axl Rose?” I remember that she was very nice in her response and told me some insane story about how he was an asshole but then made up for it by showing up to the office one day with roses and an apology. She then told me a couple more Rolling Stone stories and suggested I reach out to her to intern at the Visual Arts Press where she was creative director, and I ended up interning there that summer.

When I started there, I don’t think that she remembered me and I was probably very shy. It takes me about a year to warm up to someone but one day I walked into her office to ask some questions about a project we were working on. I asked her whatever the question was and she just stared at me blankly and finally asked “Are you wearing a Monkees concert shirt from 2013?” I looked down at my shirt and said yes. She said, “So you actually went to see the Monkees in 2013?!” I will admit that I am a huge Monkees fan, which is an embarrassing thing to admit, but it was also an embarrassing thing to admit in the ’60s. Gail is a Monkees fan from the 1986 revival on MTV.

The year I graduated from SVA, the then-chair, Richard Wilde, was retiring and Gail would be taking over going forward. She asked me if I would want to come work for her. I used to work with Richard and already knew a lot about the department and I knew many of the instructors.

Iacovelli: “This is a piece I created in Kevin’s class based on the original 1952 Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head set.”

What were Matt’s characteristics (or charms) that appealed the most to you?

Anderson: Matt is an old soul with a thick borough accent who loves his family, The Monkees, The Beach Boys and classic TV. He’s got a fine sense of irony and lots of aches and pains, so I get a kick out of him. Matt’s a real grown-up for one so young, and he doesn’t complain about hard work. What’s not to like?

Was Gail one of your mentors or inspirations?

Iacovelli: I knew Gail before knowing her because of her work with wood type, which I love. Whenever I see a designer that uses wood type I feel like I have to hunt them down to find out where they found that type from. I don’t think I knew of the extent of her work pertaining to her writing or her work at SpotCo before working with her more closely.

Were you correct in your expectations? Has he turned out the way you had hoped? And what had you hoped?
Anderson: It’s been great to watch Matt adapt to office culture and even learn simple email pleasantries without much fuss (I had to gently nudge him to send correspondences that had an upbeat tone—and now he even seems to embrace the occasional exclamation point). Matt’s also learned to take notes rather than assume he’ll remember everything. Kids today. I wanted to hire someone I could develop a shorthand with; a designer who wanted to become a better communicator who was up for learning some time management skills. I needed to work with someone who’d eventually be able to stay a step ahead of me on the small but crucial stuff, and who wanted to both help and learn. Matt’s grown into the job quite nicely, especially in this awful pandemic year when we’ve only seen each other in person twice.

Iacovelli: “A very fancy photo of me.”

What are your most satisfying projects?

Iacovelli: I’ll probably never be completely satisfied with a project, but if I had to pick one … I’d pick my life-size “Star Trek” playset. I built this while I was still a student at SVA. It was for the school’s annual faculty party, which that year was outer space–themed. What I love about it is that it was successful in capturing a very specific moment in time, while being displayed in such an overwhelming magnitude that people were forced to remember it. A few people came up to me and said they remember having the playset as a child or they remember seeing the commercial for it on TV.

Iacovelli: “This is a piece I created with Kevin. It is a life-sized exact replica of the “Star Trek” USS Enterprise playset released by MEGO in 1974.”

I notice on your website a preponderance of work dealing with vintage TV and toys—the pop culture that existed long before you were conscious. Is this what inspired you to be a designer?

Iacovelli: I don’t know if this is what inspired me to be a designer, but it definitely shaped my view of design and art and gave me that backlog of knowledge that shaped my vision and goals as an artist. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who were divorced and each had their own houses filled with a lifetime of stuff they never threw out. They had vintage toys, posters, telephones, typewriters, newspapers, magazines, food cans, board games, record albums, books and tchotchkes as far as the eye can see—most of which is all currently crammed into my apartment.

What does Matt do for you that others have not been able to do, especially during this awful COVID year?
Anderson: Matt is a worrier, like me, but he’s also pretty even-keeled and pragmatic. His steadiness has been something I can count on, and others in the virtual office seem to agree. Matt’s done a great job with minimal supervision at times, and I don’t have to worry about what he’s doing or wonder if he’s in bed watching YouTube. We have regular “mattchatts” on Slack where we often just work quietly and interject a few words here and there. I enjoy those.

What do you do as Gail’s assistant?

Iacovelli: When I first started working as Gail’s assistant, she had me designing an exhibition for SVA. It was her first year in her new role as Chair of the BFA Design and BFA Advertising departments, and she wanted to put on a big spring exhibition that would showcase the students’ work from that first year. The idea was to do it salon-style, as if you were in a big, expensive, fancy museum. But the gold frames were all flat illustrations set back in a fake hollowed-out wall, with video screens behind. It was going to be great, but then COVID hit the city and SVA shut down the week before we were set to start building.

Since then, our main concern has been making the online school experience the best it can be for all of the design and advertising students. Things have kind of been on hold for a while, but at the same time, we keep moving forward.

What are your favorite roles?

Iacovelli: My favorite role as Gail’s assistant is teaching the freshmen and sophomore classes with her. In total, we have about 200 students per semester. It is mostly a lecture-style class. We give a presentation on a different topic relating to design each week. We spent the summer of COVID putting a lot of curriculum together to teach once we were officially via Zoom. The classes are called “Thinking Design” and “Design Thinking,” and they are all about introducing our younger students to the world of advertising, design and pop culture. Gail gives me a fair say in what we should teach. My main goal is to flood them with as much pop culture and vintage design as possible because I love and know this stuff. I know that, for the most part, they won’t see it on their own (or maybe they don’t want to see it). I find that many students tend to follow the same design trends, meaning whatever is on the first page of Pinterest they want to replicate because that is what we assume good design must look like. My favorite place to go for design inspiration is eBay. I believe that if you’re going to copy a design style, don’t copy one that was just created 10 minutes ago.

What is the difference for you between being a student and being an assistant?

Iacovelli: I guess the biggest difference is that now I am behind the scenes. I have always loved school since I was a little kid. I definitely was not a good student, but I was really good in art class. Working as both an assistant to someone who is a designer and someone who is an educator is especially interesting because these are two fields I have been interested in for almost my whole life.

How long do you think you should keep him as an assistant?
Anderson: Matt has the chance to turn the role into something bigger over time since he’s a 3D maker, and we’re working towards creating a fabrication lab for our students. I can see him segueing into a job that allows him to teach and to help run our maker space. My responsibility to Matt is to help build his confidence and leadership skills so he’ll be ready to take on more in the coming years. I’m not doing right by him if I try to keep him as my assistant for too long; but I do hope he’ll remain in the ecosystem since he’s sufficiently quirky and caring enough to always have a place in the department.

Iacovelli: “These are two section openers for the new book ‘Type Speaks’ (authored by you and Gail) that I worked on with Gail and Joe Newton.”

How does your assistantship help you with your future goals as a designer?

Iacovelli: Working with Gail, you don’t get an exact lesson. She will never say to you something like “OK, I’m going to explain this now,” or “OK, I’m going to teach you how to do this now.” It’s more accidental learning that you’d only pick up on by paying attention and going through the design process multiple times with her. Gail can have 25 things happening in her brain at once and still somehow will be able to remember every last detail about each and every one of them. She has taught me how to delegate tasks out so that many pieces of several projects can all be happening simultaneously. This is something I constantly struggle with because I am such a perfec
tionist and always want to do everything myself.

What have been your most challenging jobs with Gail? Or the most engaging and satisfying?

Iacovelli: Recently I worked with Gail and Joe Newton on a campaign for the comeback of The Lion King on Broadway. This is one of my favorite movies of all time (after The Wizard of Oz) and I had already seen the show on Broadway three times. Sometimes I think it is more difficult to work on something you are so familiar with because you’ll tend to overthink it more, but it was great to be able to witness Gail and Joe’s process from the very beginning stages of a concept.

Iacovelli: “This was created in Kevin’s class with a fellow student, Filipa Mota. It is based on a 1970s yellow checkered cab.”

I also know that you were engaged in Kevin O’Callaghan’s 3D design class. What did you do for him, and where do you believe this will lead?

Iacovelli: I was super engaged in Kevin’s class. We worked on many 3 a.m. projects together. I spent a very large majority of my time at SVA in Kevin’s wood shop. His class and his philosophy in general are all about pushing the boundary of what design could be. It’s about being a designer for the same reason someone becomes an artist.

I’ve always hated the term graphic designer because I don’t understand what that means. Does it mean that you make things on a computer? That’s what it seems to mean to most people. In Kevin’s world, design is art and art is design. The computer is just a tool, no more important than a hammer or a band saw. Kevin’s class is all about seeking attention. It’s about making design that forces you to notice it. We worked on that “Star Trek” set I mentioned before, a traveling rock and roll museum inside a tour bus, and a bunch of exhibitions all around Manhattan. I sold one of the artworks that I created while in his class. It was on display on Madison Avenue and somebody saw it and bought it for their home collection.

If you were asked to recommend Matt for a job today, what would you say?
Anderson: I’m hoping Matt will stay put for awhile, but I also think he’d do well in a newsroom—an old-school one, though, with paste-ups and composing sticks and stale cigarette smoke.

What is your dream job?

Iacovelli: My dream job? To be vice president of the United States. It seems like a great gig. But seriously, I would love to create paintings, sculptures and interactive installations for the rest of my life and have them exhibited.

And what do you want to accomplish within the next five years?

Iacovelli: Is this on the record?? I want to be able to share what I find to be beautiful with the world.