“The thing that gets me excited is not necessarily having some sort of dream project, but figuring out how to do a project in an interesting way,” observes Holly Gressley, over lunch at the Times Square eatery Kodama Sushi. “Designing anything is interesting—anything at all. A scrap of paper is interesting. I don’t care about the form of the project that much; I just like doing a new thing.”
Gressley has had the talent and good fortune to work on a number of dream projects—page layouts for The New York Times Magazine, assignments from the design studios Flat and Number Seventeen, design for a global-warming “survival handbook” distributed at last year’s Live Earth concerts, internships for Ryan McGinness and David Carson. Yet she has also demonstrated a Speck-like ethos through which she extracts the sublime from the mundane. Proof: In a series of self-initiated experiments she titled “A Love Affair with Words,” Gressley cut letter shapes out of paper and then made photograms with the resulting stencils. Gressley was drawn to the novelty of creating letterforms with light, but she was also continuing her investigation of design’s fundamentals. “I think type is the most important part of graphic design,” she says. “Type is the thing that carries all the subtle messages of what the project is about.”
Theory provides a strong foundation for Gressley’s design sensibility, as does her easy fluency in a wide range of aesthetics. Her chapter openers for Craftivity, a book featuring DIY, eco-themed crafts projects made from found materials, showcases her knack for illustration and for translating concepts into a visual narrative. Her identity for the boutique Barometer has a classical grace, but is also eminently au courant; her designs for The New York Times Magazine riff on and enliven the content. Gressley has a playful sense of visual humor, too, as she has shown in layouts for The Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook and witty charticles for Jane.
After graduating from Parsons with a B.F.A. in Communication Design, Gressley worked for two years at Flat. The studio’s principals—Tsia Carson, Doug Lloyd, and Petter Ringbom—would select and design projects based in part on their interest in art, architecture, and handmade crafts, which showed Gressley the value of having a wide range of cultural knowledge and how to dovetail design with personal interests. Of Bonnie Siegel and Emily Oberman at Number Seventeen, where she worked briefly, she observes, “That things are funny and entertaining—as well as useful—is very important to them.”
Gressley’s independent spirit led her to leave the design milieu and New York during the summer of 2006 to contribute to Space 1026, an artists’ collective in Philadelphia that launched a group-made installation in January last year. Gressley explains that she went to Philly because she “wanted to work on more of my own personal projects and figure out what it was that I really wanted to do.” Was she successful in her quest? “Not totally,” she says. “I think I’ve realized that I’m probably not going to figure it out, and that I’ll just do it as I go.”