At first, Chris Papasadero and Ben Pieratt—the design team known as Fwis, a randomly picked name from an algorithm of all possible four-letter words—come across as just another pair of talented artists who have put together a lively portfolio of book jackets, album covers, and identity work. Spend an hour with them, though, and you’ll be convinced that soon, they may run the world.
“We both have the same end goal in mind,” says Pieratt. “To do the best design that’s ever been seen,” continues Papasadero. Adds Pieratt, “We have these harebrained ideas, and if we don’t do them ourselves, or if we expect someone to pay us for them, they’ll never get done.”
This improvisational philosophy, which guides a big chunk of their work, has led to significant paying commissions. Their series of Readymech toys brought them to the attention of Corbis, for whom they’ve designed an ad campaign built around DIY pinhole cameras.Their Covers blog (covers.fwis.com), in which they critique and discuss contemporary book design, led to a meeting with John Gall, vice president and art director at Vintage and Anchor Books, who subsequently asked them to design the cover for the paperback edition of Damon Linker’s The Theocons. Fwis has also extended their cover-art criticism to a regular column for Publishers Weekly, which appears in the magazine and online. “They’re adept at generating their own content,” says Gall, “which puts them in another league.”
This creativity is fueled by a healthy competitiveness. “We want to stay innovative and push each other to try different things,” says Pieratt. They devise challenges for each other—say, to design a typeface involving Vikings and science fiction, with the winner collecting a $200 kitty. When it comes to work, Pieratt admits, “we argue all the time. But I think we wind up at the same spot.” It’s easy to mistake them for brothers, clearly close but with different temperaments, alternately praising and contradicting each other.
The pair met in 2002 when Pieratt contributed to Papasadero’s online zine, FwisZine (temporarily on hiatus). Pieratt was doing graduate work at Massachusetts College of Art; Papasadero lived in Portland, Oregon. “I actually had a vivid dream one night about having a firm in which Ben and I were partners,” says Papasadero. “I told him this, and he said, ‘Sure, why not?’” Pieratt moved to Portland to join Papasadero; last year, they relocated their studio to Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood (along with a third semi-member of Fwis, Eric Jacobsen, who handles the group’s web development).
The pair’s long-term goal, Pieratt says, is “to use design to help people who are doing things that are more important than what we’re doing.” Papasadero imagines the duo starting their own publishing company, and describes a project that would allow individuals to produce their own power. “I think that’s probably the reason we’re working for ourselves,” says Pieratt. “We’re still naive enough to not know that we can’t do it.” It’s that spirit, combined with their combination of independence and idealism, that’s won them fans. “I predict global domination,” says Gall. “Or at least a move out of Bushwick.”