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Rick Valicenti Quenches His Thirst

The Chicago-based design firm Thirst announced last week that its founder and design director, Rick Valicenti, is closing the Thirst office on December 31, 2019. Effective January 1, 2020, Valicenti, recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, National Design Award for Communication Design, will transform his “collaborative studio” into an individual practice as a new consultancy. The new eponymous studio will engage in more unique opportunities and widen its creative output by producing and directing a wider range of independent projects.


Valicenti was a pioneer in the move away from Swiss-style design to a distinctly personal post-modern typography in the 80s. I’ve long admired his past and present work. We were both recipients of the National Design Award in 2011 and bonded while sharing in the generous piles of shrimp at the White House reception hosted by Michelle Obama. It is with this pleasant memory still running through my mind that I recently asked Rick to speak about his future (and his memories).


Exhibit Columbus A limited-edition 24 x 36 poster and laser-etched award batons commemorate the 2019 Exhibit Columbus. Designed in collaboration with Anna Mort.




You are closing Thirst after over three decades to be on your own and work on more personal projects — a move, I feel, you’ve been leaning towards for a long time. What convinced you to pull the trigger now?

On April Fool’s Day 1981 I set out on my own after 3.5 years under Bruce Beck, one of Chicago’s finest designers at the time. From 1981-1983 I was the president of the STA and as a young designer I was just beginning to understand and participate in the emerging profession of design professionalism.

For me being a designer has always been a love/hate choice. I will always love the creative process and the promise design makes to the social fabric. I will forever have deep disdain for the irresponsible evidence of design.


Lyric Opera Commemorative posters for the Lyric Opera productions of Showboat, 2011 and Tannhaüser, 1988.



Well, you’re too young to retire, that’s for certain. What are some of the new options that you have up your extra long sleeve?

First of all, I am not retiring! I am leaving my studio, however, and will re-emerge on April Fool’s Day 2020 with a new theme-specific body of work in collaboration with artists and designers in Beijing, Milano, Los Angeles, Chicago and Columbus, Indiana.

In the past two weeks I have said yes to a couple of commercial projects as they take full advantage of my directorial and strategic expertise.


Echo Global — Art in the Workplace: CannonDesign brought on Thirst to create large-scale murals to express the values of “The Echo Way” using cues from the trucking industry. Designed in collaboration with Anna Mort, Kyle Green, Zach Minnich.



I feel like one of those flowers that just keeps blossoming even though I do purposely go dormant in order to recharge from time to time.


Beautifools / Memoir May – June 2018 Located on the third floor of Block 37 across from the Chicago Design Museum in an empty retail space, Beautifools / Memoir was Rick Valicenti’s public commentary designed in collaboration with Thirst and Satoru Nihei (Cranbrook MFA), Japanese designer and 2018 Thirst Artist in Residence. Mohamed Dardiri crafted the displays.



Makes sense. But this decision still had to be difficult?

Yes! I have been self-employed leading a studio for over 39 years. In many ways being at the helm of Thirst is how I defined myself. as I move forward I am leaving behind this way of defining myself so there is no doubt it will result in a vast void within. Needless to say I will take care of this empty space until it fills and heals.

I have taken time this year to think deeply about my next future. In doing so I did need to make peace with this decision as it related to my past. the first step was to give myself permission to no longer be an employer. This deceptively simple conscious decision is today feeling like a liberating gift to self. In and of itself it will make room allowing me to pursue whatever I want and bring to those opportunities all of the experience and trust in my abilities.


Holly Hunt Holly Hunt Image Direction and Branding Designed in collaboration with photographer, Tom Vack.



Having a design firm is like a marriage, if you have partners — at least it is like an extended family. Have you considered the future of Thirst and how your legacy will continue or not?

My sister, Barbara, has been with me as studio manager and steady muse for over 30 years. our daily exchanges will be missed as will my collaborations with John Pobojewski and Bud Rodecker who have been with me for over 25 years collectively. The two of them, along with most of the staff, will move forward under the moniker SPAN Studio. They will remain trusted collaborators.

Beginning in 2020, I will be sharing a new studio space situated over West Supply, a bronze forge in Chicago’s Logan Square, with Anna Mort who has been working alongside of me since 2014. This amplifies the making aspect of what is before me.


Exhibit Columbus A limited-edition 24 x 36 poster and laser-etched award batons commemorate the 2019 Exhibit Columbus. Designed in collaboration with Anna Mort.



Having spent the past three months preparing my archive for various institutions, I can see clearly that a very strong and steady pulse continues to beat in the works. This energy has been (if I may) rather masterfully crafted and seems to have stood this first test of time.

What I really see in this corpus, is my presence. Regardless of whether it is in service to a commercial commission or self-initiated, my presence has been a visible harmonic voice in the presentation and delivery so many messages.


Echo Global — Art in the Workplace: CannonDesign brought on Thirst to create large-scale murals to express the values of “The Echo Way” using cues from the trucking industry. Designed in collaboration with Anna Mort, Kyle Green, Zach Minnich.



On April 1, 2020, the first collection of works dealing with the themes of Time and Change Will be on Display. In this small assembly of conceptually-pointed expressions will be designed artifacts within my familiar métier — objects, print, typography, photography, video, animation, installation, social media, etc.


I am looking forward — not to the golf course or to assisted living plans, but rather to time selfishly dedicated to re-channeling my creative energies in service to new collaborative opportunities with my vast network of friends who happen to be artists and designers.

#DailyHeller #RickValicenti #StevenHeller #Thirst

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