Like many modern-day love stories, it all started with a DM.
At the time, San Diego designer Phoebe Cornog was fresh-faced, green, and obsessed with hand lettering. She was an active member of Instagram’s online lettering community, and in the midst of scrolling, she stumbled upon the work of Roxy Prima-Johnson, a peer who just so happened to also live in San Diego. Cornog was intrigued enough by their undeniable similarities that she slid into Prima-Johnson’s DM’s and asked if she’d meet up for a drink.
Almost a decade after that fateful DM, Cornog and Prima-Johnson are now business and creative partners. In 2015, they co-founded Pandr Design Co., a thriving custom mural and branding company that they own and operate together. Through Pandr, Cornog and Prima-Johnson have painted 280 murals across 31 states (and even a few abroad), and their ultimate goal is to paint at least one in all 50. The insatiably driven duo also created 200 episodes of their own podcast, Drunk on Lettering, launched the non-profit Ladies Who Paint, and ran an accompanying all-female mural festival in San Diego in 2019 and 2021. On top of that, they published their own how-to book in 2021 entitled Wonder Walls: How to Paint Colorful Geometrics, Graphic Lettering, Decorative Textures Other Techniques to Create a Space You Love.
Aside from their obvious artistic talents, Cornog and Prima-Johnson’s unbridled success can be largely attributed to their evolution into masterful businesswomen. Neither had any business background or training when they first launched Pandr Design Co., yet a preternatural savvy, ability to learn on the fly, and relentless ambition propelled them to become expert entrepreneurs. So much so in fact, that the two now consider themselves businesswomen first and artists second.
I was captivated by their portfolio of work, backstory, and online personas, so I reached out to chat with this creative power couple directly.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
When you first met, did you hit it off right away? Could you immediately tell you had a special connection?
Cornog: I definitely felt that way, I remember I came home on such a high.
Prima-Johnson: Me too. Hand-lettering is so specific, and that’s why Phoebe had reached out to me. I was obsessed and very involved with the Instagram community of people all over the world, but to be able to talk to someone in real life that was my age, and living in my city who was really cool, it was really exciting. There are a lot of graphic designers out there, but at the time there weren’t a lot of graphic designers who were obsessed with drawing letters.
Cornog: We laugh about just being total nerds, meeting up, and talking about letters. It’s rare to find that.
Why do you think you two work so well together as creative and business partners?
Cornog: We got really, really lucky. When we met and started working together, we didn’t even think of it as a business— we weren’t thinking long-term at all.
Prima-Johnson: It was just something fun that we were doing in the moment, and just going with it. There was no real master plan; we came at it from this really naive mindset. Since neither of us has a business education or background, everything has been learned together. Every mistake that’s made, we’re going through it together. We’re constantly learning, so it’s not like one or the other’s fault. We’re both just riding this crazy wave together.
Cornog: We also have similar goals and similar ideas of what we want for the business. With some partnerships, one person is the creative, and one person is the business person, whereas for us, we collaborate on everything. It’s made us a really strong team.
As graphic designers and hand-letterers by trade, what prompted your leap to murals?
Cornog: We wanted to get off the computer and create something with our hands. We both have backgrounds in graphic design, having both gone to school for it, which we really love. But we’re also both artists at heart, and we’ve done art throughout our lives growing up. Hand-lettering was a way to combine art, design, and drawing, and then we really just wanted to take that even bigger. We had a goal of painting just one mural, and now we’re at 280— so clearly we liked it! It was a way to take our art and make it larger than life; really create a “wow” moment. We love that we get to not only design, but also paint for our job.
What is it like to navigate the more physical demands of mural painting?
Cornog: It’s incredibly physical. We definitely didn’t realize that going into it. The grass is always greener— sitting at a computer can be really boring, and you’re just sitting all day, which is equally bad for your health. But standing, and climbing, and constantly having your hands gripping a brush isn’t great for your health either. We’re constantly exhausted.
Prima-Johnson: That’s also why we’re really passionate about artists charging more for their services, because it’s so physically demanding. We feel it now, seven years into painting murals. Our bodies definitely hurt; there’s damage we’ve done to our bodies. We have to go to physical therapists, chiropractors, and masseuses.
Where did your goal of painting at least one mural in all 50 states come from? Why is that important to you?
Prima-Johnson: We set this goal early. We did one travel job, and we can’t just be chill about anything, so we were like, “Let’s make sure we do all 50 states!” We’re very goal-oriented. It’s been a fun way for us to be able to travel, and see the country, and experience different places. We really love experiencing other states and challenging ourselves. We like showing other artists that you don’t have to stick in your own little bubble; you can get work outside of your space. We get a lot of complaints from artists that no one in their hometown is willing to pay, so we show them that we just got a job in Alabama, or Australia— it’s possible. We’re proving it to ourselves, but also to our audience that’s following us.
Cornog: And we get to meet up with a lot of our Instagram friends that we’ve made over the years. Recently, we’ve been hiring local help when we paint out of state. We’ve made some wonderful friends that way and bonded with other artists, bringing the community offline and into real life. We’re also very food-oriented, so to have cuisines across the country is one of our favorite parts after a 12-hour paint day, to go get a nice meal, and have some oysters, or whatever.
You two have clearly mastered the business side of Pandr Design Co. in addition to your painting prowess. What has that process of morphing into business experts been like?
Prima-Johnson: Fairly early on, we got obsessed with the business side. As women, we were never told, “Oh, you can run a business,” or “You can make your own money,” or “You could be really successful.” Once we started our business, we really had no idea what we were doing— we didn’t have any financial goals; we just wanted to make a little bit more than what we were making at our full-time jobs before. We quickly realized that even though talking about money in the beginning was extremely scary, we just needed to get comfortable with it. If we wanted to be doing this long-term, we had to be entrepreneurs and businesswomen first, and then artists second. We could be starving artists for our entire lives and make it work, but artists deserve to be able to buy homes and have a savings account too. So we really dove deep into the business side, and I think that’s why we’ve been able to be so successful and build our brand.
Cornog: Money is power, and especially in today’s day and age, with Roe v. Wade being overturned, you can feel so helpless. It’s like, what can we do at this point? We can make money and pay for whoever needs help, we can donate to organizations that we care about, and make things happen that way, since it’s not working in our government.
Your use of social media is a key component of your business savvy. What advice would you give to other artists about using social media as tool for business, marketing, and self-promotion?
Cornog: I think authenticity is the most important thing. Social media is where we can really let our personalities shine. We really don’t have a strategy that’s like, we need to do one post like this, and one post like this. We’re just posting what we feel like posting, and what’s fun for us, and what we think is funny and entertaining. If people like it, that’s great! If not, whatever. It’s not for everybody. But I think that authenticity does come through, and you can see that we’re having fun with it, and that we enjoy sharing information in a way that’s digestible, and maybe can make someone laugh.
My advice is that there are no rules for social media. You don’t have to do social media the way that we do. Whatever is authentic, whatever is fun for you, whatever you enjoy doing, that will come through. It’s important that you have your own voice, and way of creating and sharing your business and personality on social media.
One of the special qualities about mural painting as an art form is that the finished product becomes a part of the neighborhood or city or community, and will likely be there for years to come. How does that make you feel as muralists?
Cornog: That really is the awesome part. People get to engage with it and see it; maybe it gets to be a part of their daily commute. We get messages all the time from people that are really excited about our murals, or we see photos of people in front of them, and that’s really special.
Whereas with fine art, you can paint something amazing on a canvas, and it can sit in someone’s house. That’s awesome too, but when the community gets to come out and see it, and it becomes part of the neighborhood, it’s a really special way to bridge art and community, and that’s another reason why we really love what we do.
Prima-Johnson: The negative would be that we are constantly getting better. So sometimes we look at old murals and we’re like, Ugh, we wish we could just go back and paint over it.
What would be a dream project for Pandr Design Co.?
Prima-Johnson: It would be really fun to work with a brand to do their full branding: painting the entire exterior of the building, the logos, everything to do with the brand. Maybe it’s a restaurant or something. I don’t know that a brand would ever give us that much power, but that would be really amazing for us to be able to really showcase our skills.
Cornog: We’ve always had a goal of painting a rooftop in San Diego too, because we’re so close to the airport, so when planes fly over, they could see one of our murals. We’d also love to paint in a tropical, beautiful area and be served a margarita or something while we’re painting.