The Pencil Factory: An Oral History
According to New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the six-story art deco building at 47–61 Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn was built in 1924 for the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. The firm had several buildings in the neighborhood dating as far back as 1872, when it had moved production across the East River, after a fire gutted its Manhattan plant. But this factory, designed by the architect Frederick H. Klie, was its largest and most striking. “The building is characterized by its large daylight windows, concrete piers, gigantic reliefs of yellow pencils sharpened to a point,” the commission wrote in a report, “and concrete roof parapets with shallow reliefs of diamonds . . . enclosing Faber’s trademarked stars.”
Today, many in the design world know this place as the Pencil Factory. Perhaps they’re familiar with its history, even though Faber shut down its Brooklyn operations in 1956. But it’s more likely that they know of it for the unusual number of talented illustrators, art directors, and designers who have been working from various shared studio spaces in the building over the past seven years. (And to give credit where due: Well before the illustration community showed up, the building had been paid a tribute by a popular watering hole across the street: the Pencil Factory bar.)
This Pencil Factory is a somewhat abstract thing—a group of people working in related fields at the same time who have collectively acquired a certain mystique, and maybe even a mythology. Think of the advice to artists that Dave Hickey once attributed to Peter Schjeldahl: “You move to a city. You hang out in bars. You form a gang, turn it into a scene, and turn that into a movement.” (To this, Hickey added: “When your movement hits the museum, abandon it.”) Are the designers and illustrators associated with a particular building on Greenpoint Avenue a gang, a scene, a movement—or none of the above?
Here is one answer, in the form of an oral history, edited and condensed from interviews with most of the few dozen people involved with the Pencil Factory, from its earliest settlers to its newest arrivals.
Photograph by Peggy Hageman
Grady McFerrin (Studio 410, March 2006–July 2011): I was at the Pencil Factory bar, and one of the locals told me that there was a letterpress printer in the building. And I’m like, “What building?” and he goes, “The building right behind us. It’s called the Pencil Factory.” This was probably my third day in Greenpoint, so it just looked like another warehouse to me. But I started working for this man, Earl Kallemeyn, basically just cleaning up. He had a huge shop and did amazing letterpress printing—a traditional printer who wasn’t doing his own art, but top of-the-line work. I thought, Well, this is a great building. This is before I shared a studio with Chris Neal.
Christopher Silas Neal (Studio 410, March 2006–present): My very first studio I got through Brian Rea. He was sharing a space with a bunch of people in the Flatiron district. I pulled in a buddy of mine, Grady McFerrin, because I was kind of lonely.
Zachariah OHora (Studio 410, March 2006–August 2008): I had moved to New York from San Francisco and had become friends with Grady McFerrin. He was sharing a studio in Manhattan with Chris Silas Neal, and they asked me to join them. The week I was going to do that, they lost the lease.
Neal: Grady had lived in Greenpoint, and he knew of this building.
McFerrin: The super showed me several spaces. They were all really well lit and gorgeous—you know, ideal-looking warehouse spaces. And affordable. So we hopped on one and needed five people to fill it. We knew that there were illustrators in Greenpoint, like Sam Weber.
Sam Weber (Studio 410, March 2006–present): I had met Chris at a party. I was in a studio in Williamsburg, sharing space with a graphic designer, a jewelry designer, and a music-PR woman. They were really wonderful. But the appeal—and I suspect that this has been the appeal for people down the road—was the opportunity to work alongside other people who do something very similar.
McFerrin: So we brought on Sam, Zach OHora, and Marshall Hopkins. That was it.
Marshall Hopkins (Studio 410, April 2006–June 2007): I was working at home, but I’d found a studio in Chelsea when I got a call from them saying they had found a space, and would I like to join them? I said no, I’ve got this sublet. A few weeks later, that fell through. So I called Grady back and he said, “Yup, there’s still a spot.” I went over and basically joined them that day.
Neal: The people who were in the space before us were, I think, designers in a production studio. And they had skipped out on rent for several months and gone missing. So when we told the guy, “We’re illustrators,” he was a little leery.
From left to right: Jillian Tamaki, Neil Swaab, Christopher Silas Neal, Jessica Hische, Sam Weber, and Jennifer Daniel in 2010. Photograph courtesy Jessica Hische
Weber: The first time I saw the building was the day we went to go look at the space. The studio I was in before was a converted apartment, so it was pretty clean and nice. This was a much different situation—sort of dirty, and lots of exposed brick. But the light was amazing.
Neal: To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about the area. I lived in the Clinton Hill/Fort Greene area, and commuting into Manhattan made me feel like I was going to work every day. It took a couple months for the area to grow on me. But the building . . . it’s beautiful.
Joe Shouldice (Studio 410, July 2011–August 2012): I’m sure other people have mentioned the beautiful pencils around the exterior—a detail that you wouldn’t get in a building today. It’s definitely rough around the edges, though. You can see the concrete pads where, in the past, massive machines probably used to exist, and you really feel the creaks in the wood floor. For me, that was part of the charm. It was a do-it-yourself building.
Weber: There was nothing down here. There was a creepy bar where people bought cocaine, and this other bar that has been here for a while and is pretty fantastic, called the Pencil Factory. Beyond that, nothing.
Bryn Smith (Studio 515, March 2008–August 2009): Now I feel like Greenpoint’s on the map, and it’s really changed. But I remember first biking up there when Chris moved in, before I even knew what Greenpoint was, and thinking, Well, this place is kind of great but way out of the way. Why would you ever have a studio here?
OHora: The 2000s were defi nitely the rise of Brooklyn as an art and music and culture epicenter. People are always looking for that next neighborhood that’s cheap and not totally developed yet, to make a living in. Greenpoint was one of those places.
McFerrin: We thought: Look, if we’re going to be out here in Greenpoint, we should treat it as if it’s a significant place to be. We had always thought that we should find a place in Manhattan, because we loved the energy. And now we’re going to be out in Greenpoint, like, the middle of nowhere. So we started e-mailing people and getting together with anyone and everyone who we thought was in Brooklyn.
Studio 515 on move-in day, 2008
Ted McGrath (Studio 410, July 2007–July 2010; Studio 512, July 2010–October 2012): I’ve lived in Greenpoint near the Pencil Factory since late 2002. It was just another one of these anonymous industrial spaces. You’d see people coming and going, but who knew what the hell was going on? Sam Weber knew I lived in Greenpoint, and he had been getting together with his studio mates and some other people every Wednesday at this local coffee shop for breakfast. They called it Conference. I’m not entirely sure what the origin of that name was.
Neal: We wanted a chance to catch up with our friends who were in the business. So we would get brunch at this place called Greenpoint Coffee House, and there was this Polish woman who was a waitress. She would see us there every week; sometimes there’d be 15 or 20 of us on a Wednesday morning. She’d say, “What’s going on—you having another conference today?” Kind of joking around. So we started calling it Conference.
McGrath: Sam and Grady were curating these get-togethers with Neal. Mainly this breakfast thing, but if anybody was doing something at all related to illustration or design, they would be pretty aggressive about spreading the word. This is all pre-Twitter and before the ubiquity of Facebook. But they were pretty good about e-mailing, like, “Oh, this is opening,” or “There’s this thing going on at the Times—why don’t you guys come out?”
OHora: Grady ended up knowing people in every group and pulling them, by sheer Death Star–like power, into his orbit. Conference is definitely how people knew that the Pencil Factory had spaces.
Neal: That’s how it came together, really. We were just one studio, but after we started having the Conference breakfast and getting together on a regular basis, people started to show up at the studio and rent spaces.
Weber: I think back on that time really fondly. My career was just getting started, as were the careers of some of the other people involved. A lot of interesting first big projects, first big failures, frustrating moments. Things seemed pretty exciting.
Hopkins: There’d be little daily powwows over in someone’s slot. It was completely open; that was a priceless aspect of the space. I miss the whole scene. If I could re-create it today, I’d do it in a second.
Smith: Rachel Salomon and I lived in Fort Greene, and we would commute over to those breakfasts whenever we could. I was a freelance designer either working from home or on-site.
Rachel Salomon (Studio 401, August 2007—January 2010): A lot of the time, the brunch was really close to the Pencil Factory building. I think it got a lot of people who were going to the brunches familiar with it. They were always talking about places opening up.
Neal: It’s a really huge building. A lot of bands had rented out space, and, you know, bands break up. So there was a lot of turnover.
Salomon: I went and looked with Gilbert Ford, and we decided to share a studio together, in about the fall of 2007.
Gilbert Ford (Studio 401, August 2007–December 2010): Right after we moved in, I ran into an architect I know who had a studio nearby. I told him I was working in this building down the street, and he said, “Are you talking about the Pencil Factory?” I wasn’t sure what he meant, so he said, “Did you look up? The building has pencils on it.” I was like, “Oh, wow, I moved into a pencil factory.” No one had ever mentioned it.
Studio 410. Photographs by Ross Mantle
Christopher Silas Neal
Jessica Hische (Studio 515, April 2008–December 2008; Studio 514, April 2010–September 2011): I first heard of the Pencil Factory when I was still living in Philadelphia working for Headcase Design and freelancing from home or in coffee shops. I went to the American Illustration party in New York, and I got to meet a lot of folks. It turned out that several of them had spaces there. And I was like, “Man, I love the idea of this collaborative studio.”
Alex Eben Meyer (Studio 515, March 2008–present): Since being in New York I’ve played in a street-hockey league. Chris Silas Neal’s now wife was in the league, and he joined for a couple of seasons. He invited me to the illustration breakfast that they were doing. I was working at home at the time, pretty isolated. So I got to know more of these people through those breakfasts.
Josh Cochran (Studio 515, March 2008–September 2011): Before I moved to New York, when I was visiting, I took a last-minute job and worked out of the Pencil Factory, in Sam’s studio. I was kind of blown away: “They have it so good here.” I looked at another studio in Dumbo, and it was just a little too clean for me. But there was an allure to this space—it was sort of dirty, there was paint everywhere, and everyone was wearing white T-shirts.
Smith: I was visiting the 410 studio and met Josh Cochran. He was moving from California to New York and looking for a studio mate. It seemed like a good opportunity to move my letterpress out of my apartment.
Meyer: Josh Cochran moved to New York, and he was looking to start a studio with our friend Bryn Smith, and I got invited. Rachel Salomon and Gilbert Ford had moved in just a few months before. With the three studios, we were going for lunches or coffees and visiting each other’s spaces. There was a little more of a social aspect.
Hische: Josh Cochran and I had become Internet friends, partly over our mutual love of the Harry Potter books on tape. When he moved to New York, he told me he was looking for a studio space, and the obvious solution for him was to move into the Pencil Factory because he already knew Sam and Grady and all of them quite well. I moved in a month or two later.
Neal: By the time the third studio moved in, it felt like a pretty good group. You know, we’d go out at night together, hang out during the day, get lunch in various forms. Plus Conference. I think it was unique to our crowd then, but I’m positive that other people have similar things now. There are also things like Creative Morning talks; I know Swissmiss seems to have a community going. People are doing it in a more regimented or, for lack of a better term, official way. But for us, it wasn’t a calculated decision or anything. It was just, like, hanging out.
McFerrin: When it started happening that people wanted to move into the building, we were all blown away. “Wow, there are a lot more people than we ever thought who would want to take a studio space in Greenpoint.”
McGrath: Around the summer of 2007, Marshall was moving to Ithaca, New York, with his wife. I had hung out with those guys a bunch because I was around the corner. I had been looking for a studio space, and it was like, “This makes sense, we’ll just get Ted to move in.”
Neal: Sharing a space with other people has definitely improved my work. It makes work more enjoyable. I learned a lot about the business just asking business questions. The experience has made me a better artist, a better person. I think the people that I share my studio with and the other people in the building are all so good, so you get inspired. And then there are the random, offhand conversations that you have with people in the hallway about your process or what it’s like working for someone. I think all of that sinks in.
McGrath: You’d see someone post a project they just did, or even look over their shoulder at what they were working on, and it was really great to be able to ask, “How did you pull that off?”
Meyer: It’s not just seeing the work—there are so many annuals and whatnot out there that you’re always seeing the work. It’s seeing people create the work. Watching how someone works. Or having lunch with someone and they’re talking about what they’re working on—you get this sense of how they think, how they get their motivations, even their ideas.
Cochran: I distinctly remember when I moved in, thinking to myself, I really need to step it up. Like, I have to, just to be able to hang here.
Studio 515. Photographs by Ross Mantle
Jennifer Daniel (Studio 515, September 2009–July 2011): I started drawing better. I mean, there’s a certain amount of pressure. Everyone thinks everyone is always looking at them: Everyone can see me drawing, all day long. I definitely feel like I put a lot more pressure on myself to pony up. You’re in the same room as artists that are . . . so fucking amazing. It’s a different kind of motivator, I guess.
Hische: I was always sort of freaking out about not being able to come up with good concepts. Josh and I would have these little sessions together, or if I was really struggling, I could go around and pick other people’s brains.
Smith: It definitely gave me more confidence creatively. I had my daily production or design jobs, and then I would come in at night and make letterpress posters or work on wedding invitations. Josh and I did a zine for a gallery in the U.K.—we sort of e-mailed drawings back and forth and put it together.
OHora: Some of the best moments were eavesdropping on each other—particularly on Grady. If he had a good idea and was super passionate about it, he would batter back and fight with the art director. It was just pure comedy, hilarious for us to listen to. None of us had the balls to talk that way.
McFerrin: I was the old man there—I was having kids before any of these other guys. In illustration, you really have to keep reinventing yourself and staying fresh, and I thought it was great to be surrounded by all these folks who were kind of cutting edge. Half the stuff I learned about illustration in the last five years was simply because Sam or Josh or Chris was talking about it.
Neil Swaab (Studio 515, January 2009–present): A lot of it too is just general business stuff. “This client just did xyz to me—what do I do?” You have 12 other people that you can poll right away.
Hische: I became a resident price adviser, which was kind of funny. “Jessica, I have this random job—help me figure out what to tell them it should cost.” Josh and I did that constantly.
Swaab: I had one client who was really giving me a rough time. I was going to lose my temper, and Grady McFerrin calmed me down and gave me some talking points. I followed his advice, and it turned out so much better than if I had gone off on my own.
Hische: I felt like they were all such rock stars. If we went to a Society of Illustrators event, people would freak out that they were actually talking to Sam Weber. Everybody else had such crazy star power and I was such a nobody.
Ford: I figured out right when I moved in that it was going to be a thing. The breakfast club was dying down, but other people were interested. And with all these talented people coming here, you make it what you want to. I had a dialogue with some of the people there and would get them to critique my work. I thought, Okay, this is graduate school. It’s going to be tough sometimes, and sometimes it’s going to be great. That’s how I saw it.
McGrath: I wanted to be around people who were among the best of the best, and had unique voices and unique processes. I wanted to see how these people worked, what made them tick, understand what they’re doing. That’s something that, to get totally cornball, I missed about art school—that environment where you’re surrounded by people who are making really interesting work, taking it really seriously, and doing a really thorough job of it. Being able to observe that process and feed off that creative energy—ugh, please strike that. I’m going to run into those guys on the street and they’ll be like, “Art school? Really? Thanks, Ted.”
Cochran: It’s a lot like being back at school, in a way. You’re surrounded by a lot of people who are a lot more talented than you. And there’s a certain level of competitiveness.
Meyer: There were days when it could feel a little high school.
Neal: We were all playing our music out loud, as opposed to using headphones, taking turns deejaying for the whole studio. Grady and I really got into soft rock, and it just drove other people crazy.
OHora: Oh my God, the soft-rock phase.
McFerrin: I was always playing my music way too loud, and I regret that now. Out of respect for people like Sam Weber, I probably shouldn’t have blasted Christopher Cross from across the studio. It wasn’t just Christopher Cross; it was Bread, America, Todd Rundgren. All of it.
Weber: That was just Grady. I don’t know what he told you, but there was no faction, no underdog team. It was one person, and everybody else hated it.
Neal: You can see why things got touchy. At the same time, Ted would play something by Liars, which is basically people just screaming and hitting drums. So we had both ends of the spectrum.
Cochran: Downstairs was really crazy about music. Too many alpha dogs down there.
Salomon: They used to have some huge battles. The years I was there, there were a lot more personal relationships. People fought. I had a couple of fights. There were some romances, and some drama, and it got a little Melrose. But I don’t think anybody’s ever thrown a punch. I’ll leave it at that.
Weber: Some of us were out last night and had been drinking for a while, talking about what we could say to you to turn this into something sensational. We couldn’t really come up with anything beyond a love triangle or two. But even that’s not all that interesting, and certainly not germane.
Swaab: I heard you were looking for more dirt, and that you were disappointed that there was not much dirt.
Daniel: Chris Neal worked without a shirt. So that was surprising. I didn’t expect that.
Neal: Well, I would go for a bike ride in the morning, and by the time I got to the studio I was really sweaty. And so I’d take off my shirt and let it air out a little bit. Right now, we have these two great ACs that keep the place really cool. But in my shirtless period, our AC really sucked. I had to cool off.
Daniel: He started wearing a shirt when girls became more of a presence in the Pencil Factory. I’m told.
Kim Bost (Studio 410, May 2008–July 2010; Studio 512, July 2010–July 2012): I was moving into a studio with three dudes, which I felt comfortable with. They’re all pretty easygoing, and I think they thought that having a girl around might help them keep their act together or something.
McGrath: We had a vacancy open up, and Kim moved in. We were there a lot of the time, and one thing leads to another and, ooh, office romance. We were just around the same stuff and kept running into each other and blah, blah, blah. But the collaborative thing was something that she and I were both interested in doing.
Bost: Ted and I had a natural connection, and we eventually started dating. But we also started collaborating pretty frequently on things, from record covers to branding.
Daniel: I was walking by the building, and Kim Bost, who had just moved in, pointed to a window and said, “My studio is there.” And I was like, “That looks like an abandoned building.”
Swaab: I wasn’t really that aware of it. But I had been friends with Alex Eben Meyer for years. We had lunch and he did the very soft sell, just taking me around. Next thing I knew, I’m hanging out with Chris Neal, whose work I’d always liked, and Sam Weber, who I was friends with and who I had just realized was in the space, and Josh Cochran, and other people. I was so overwhelmed by the talent, thinking about the possibilities of being around all these amazing people.
Studio 514. Photographs by Ross Mantle
Leif Parsons (Studio 514, April 2010–present): When I came to New York, I didn’t want to work on a computer, and I didn’t want to work alone at home. Becoming an illustrator turned out to be both those things, essentially. But I had a bit of a weird situation in that I also have an art practice, which really does involve being alone. So for a long time I resisted having a social space. I used to pop in on Sam and Chris and hang out with those guys, and I eventually decided that I could afford to have two spaces. Jessica Hische was opening up a new space, and Josh Cochran sort of encouraged me.
Daniel: I was working from home and I was busy, but I wasn’t in a work environment. And I didn’t know how much I missed that until I realized that I hadn’t showered for quite a few days and had only talked to my coffee guy in the morning and that was it.
Swaab: I’d worked from home for four years, alone. E-e-e-every day. I do art direction, and sometimes, when I’m talking to illustrators, I can tell that they haven’t had any human contact, because they won’t get off the phone, and they start talking about things that aren’t related to the assignment. They want to tell you about their cats and all this stuff. I was turning into that.
Neal: Sometimes people come in and they’re more social, and it just changes everything. Like Jennifer Daniel. I think when she moved in, we started meeting after work a lot more.
Parsons: I did some collaborations with Josh that were fun and interesting and pushed the edges of what I normally do. We would both draw on the same large sheet of paper and switch sides every 15 or 20 minutes. We were talking about making promotions together, and then the idea came up of everyone doing one big newsprint thing. Josh took the idea and ran with it, along with Jennifer Daniel.
Daniel: I came in with that kind of excitement. Like, Wow, you guys have been doing this for a while and you’ve never actually worked together? I don’t know if that’s because my background is design, and designers naturally collaborate with other designers. But I felt like we could easily do this.
Cochran: It felt like a cool moment, and I wanted us to do something.
Daniel: I knew if I could get Sam, Josh, Jessica, and Ted, then the other people were going to do it. Then it was just about making it happen. At first, we were only going to send it to clients, but then we did an extra print run of a couple hundred and sold those to make up the cost.
Neal: Jennifer Daniel and Josh Cochran collected our money, found the printer, and collected our files so we could get it printed. Jennifer designed it so that it all fit into the zine format. I feel like those two put it together, and we all contributed a piece. Some of the people who contributed had never even had a space in the building. Sam’s wife, Jillian, was included just because we love her and she’s Sam’s wife, but she doesn’t have a space in the building.
Jillian Tamaki: Even when I was a student, at school, I would work at home, because I didn’t like working with other people. I’m easily distracted. But in terms of a spiritual Pencil Factory idea, I’m definitely in it, and I’m good with that.
Hische: If you said “the Pencil Factory,” Jillian would come to mind, even though she never had a space.
Tamaki: I pop in and feel like Kramer.
Daniel: I remember needing 16 people for us to print on both sides of the paper, an even amount of pages. We ended up having to go to some alumni who were no longer in the Factory because we didn’t have enough people who could do it.
Meyer: There was a weekend when we all met up and brought in the interns and had this kind of assembly line, drawing and writing little notes for the mailer and packaging and figuring out all the logistics. A giant room of us and pizza and beer.
Weber: Our studio is the biggest, so they all came down here and we set up some tables and had a bunch of pieces of card stock. Just drawing on them together and passing them around. It was really fun.
Cochran: It was one of the few things we did as a group—hung out and chitchatted and did collaborative drawings.
Ford: That was probably the best it got. Everyone worked together, and they had a pizza party in the studios. We had plans to do more, but the people that made all those decisions, that got the ball rolling, were also really busy.
Weber: I think someone just decided to call the group of people “the Pencil Factory,” for lack of a better term. It might have been Jennifer’s idea, because I don’t really remember discussing it. She just got a URL and the name was pencilfactory.org, and that was sort of that.
McGrath: It was kind of amusing, because it was rare that anyone collaborated on anything, beyond fun goof-off stuff when you had downtime. I don’t think anybody was looking at it like, Ah, now we will make incredible creative work together! Start setting dates 30 years from now for our MoMA retrospective!
Bost: More than having other people seeing the Pencil Factory as a thing, it was the realization that we saw it as a thing. We started to share commonalities in our work and in the strength of our work, and in our admiration for each other.
Daniel: It was a good time. But then all of a sudden, everyone’s like, “The Pencil Factory Collective!”
Shouldice: As an outsider, that’s what I initially thought too. Starting with the newsprint thing that they sent out.
McFerrin: There was a lot of hype on the Internet. That was the first time any of us thought, Wow, this is getting some attention—people think we’re a thing, a big collective of top-notch illustrators.
Neal: And that’s completely false. I mean, we did one promo together. But aside from that, the only thing we share in common is our friendship and that we all sort of do similar things. Mostly, we’re not working together in any capacity whatsoever.
Daniel: We entertained the idea of doing something more like Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser’s Push Pin Graphic. We obsessed over those.
McFerrin: There was a lot of back-and-forth on how far to take it. Some people wanted to expand it into something big. There’s no question in my mind that we could have promoted a lot more and done a lot more of those group materials. I think everyone backed off because it felt a little disingenuous.
Neal: There was talk about doing another one, and, supposedly, since we sold a few, we actually had money in the bank to put toward printing another one. But really, we’re all so busy, and it’s so hard to organize that many people. We tried to put together a website once where we’d all have our individual websites linked, together on a page. It was hard to get people to agree what the website should be.
Daniel: And then we were like, Oh, we should make a website for this thing. People really seem to like it. So we bought the domain. Then we let the domain expire.
McFerrin: In hindsight, it seems like it should have been a goal: Hey, we should use this, we should pool our energy. You should take this one promo this month, you should take this promo that month, and we’ll use this thing to build us up. But there were definitely people in the Pencil Factory who felt like they were independent and they wanted to do it their way and promote themselves their way.
Weber: I’m kind of sad we didn’t do it again. When we talked about a second round, creating a new book or a series of posters or something like that, everyone suddenly had input, which we did not have on the first one. The first time, Jennifer said she wanted to do this, and we all sort of didn’t care, you know? Whatever she and Josh did, great. The second one never got off the ground because we were all trying to make it good. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion.
Daniel: It’d be hilarious if there were any sense of leadership in the Pencil Factory. No. It’s a bunch of feral cats.
Neal: I think that’s indicative of how we feel about making this an official collective. I think we’d rather just keep it a group of friends supporting each other.
Daniel: It was both a great and a terrible idea at the same time. There was no “Pencil Factory.”
Cochran: A lot of us have really strong personalities, and having this space together defined us more as individuals. It’s almost like you have to try so hard just to get your voice heard. You have to really shout it, you know?
The cover of the Pencil Factory zine
McFerrin: Here’s a story: David Carson actually wrote us and said, “Hey, I hear you guys might have a space there. I’m moving to New York and I’d like to be in the mix. You guys are the hot thing.” We kind of let that one slide—as talented as he is, he’s sort of a big personality, and he moves around a lot. He’s in LA, he’s in Europe, he’s in New York. A real jet-setter. That’s not us.
Cochran: We were careful about who we brought in. You want to be with someone you get along with.
Jing Wei (Studio 515, September 2011–present): When a spot opens up in one of these studios, somebody who would work in one studio might not necessarily work in another.
Parsons: When there’s a space in our studio, I’m actually looking almost entirely for personality, someone who seems like they’re going to be reasonable and fun. Of course, you don’t want someone whose work you don’t respect, but what’s maybe even more important is finding someone we like, who we’re excited to see every day.
Bost: It definitely attracted certain personalities. I don’t really know of another group of illustrators or creatives that have the same spirit or connection.
McFerrin: If there was something that probably people don’t want to talk about, it would be how much envy or jealousy comes with being around people like Josh Cochran or Jessica Hische. Big names, people who are constantly busy, taking these amazing gigs. That’s such a petty thing that it’s hard to really talk about. But it’s there.
Parsons: A couple of people have been known to overenthuse about their careers. Not to name any names. But if you get into the wrong headspace, that can be annoying, I guess.
Cochran: You’re with people that you really admire, and you see the person across the desk from you do something that is mind-blowing, and it kind of depresses you. You have to take that energy and push harder. Or you hear someone got this amazing gig, and it sort of pushes you.
Swaab: You have people who are in all stages of their careers: people who are taking huge jobs, and others who may not be as recognized but are doing good work. There are definitely rock stars. But when you’re here and people know who you are, that stuff disappears a little bit.
Meyer: The thing that never ceases to amaze me is that we get illustrators who are inter- ested in getting in here— probably once a month we’ll have a student group visit or an illustrator from out of town will stop by. And it is cool that enough people know about it that when you say, “I work at the Pencil Factory,” you see someone’s eyes light up.
Ana Mouyis (Studio 502, January 2012–present): I had Jillian Tamaki’s class for a semester at Parsons, and we kept in touch. She introduced me to Rachel, who was starting to do animation. I think I first started working for her, one or two days a week, in 2009, when she was in 401 with Gilbert.
Salomon: A lot of us were teaching at the same time at different schools. So there were frequently groups of students coming through and getting to see all these studios and getting to meet a bunch of illustrators. That was a great thing for us as teachers, and also great for the students. A lot of them ended up coming back in various ways.
Cochran: We called it the illustration petting-zoo. Huge crews of kids going from studio to studio, everybody just watching you. Sometimes it got to be a little too much, especially if you were on deadline.
McGrath: I’m sure people were disappointed when they’d come visit that everybody wasn’t on skateboards, that there wasn’t weird hippie body painting going on in a corner, and that David Bowie wasn’t walking around.
Ford: There were winters when the heat just didn’t come on on the weekends. And the mice. Every time I’d print something from my printer, there were mouse-bite marks all around the paper. There were days when we would put the mousetraps out, and there would be three or four mice stuck to one trap. It was insane. That was kind of the beginning of the end for me.
Salomon: I had this space open up next to my apartment. I did want to go back a little bit to having my own studio. And a lot of other things happened: I got married; I had a kid.
Joel Speasmaker (Studio 401, February–December 2010): Maybe Gilbert told this story, but at one point we caught a mouse and we wanted to kill it humanely. For some reason, we decided it would be okay to drop one of our watercooler bottles on top of it. But the bottle exploded, because obviously it’s going to explode. So we’re running around, trying to get that up.
Ford: I left at the very end of 2010.
Speasmaker: It was really nice sharing space with Gilbert, but it only lasted a year. I moved somewhere that was closer to home, and, to be honest, the building is just nicer. Josh Cochran is in the same building.
Cochran: The commute was starting to kill me. When Mike Perry asked me to move into this huge studio, it was kind of a no-brainer. It’s a seven-minute walk.
McGrath: Kim and I moved directly upstairs, into studio 512. Which was a beautiful space, great for two people.
Bost: It was very important for us to stay in the building. We didn’t really look anywhere else.
Smith: It was a hard decision to leave, but I was ready to move on, from a personal and a professional standpoint. I mean, we were all pretty young when we first were there. I was ready to be doing something else, to expand my world beyond that small community—which I think has been good for me.
McFerrin: We bought a place, and it just didn’t make sense to commute to the other side of Brooklyn. I moved to LA two months ago, and one of the big things was: Do I even see the guys at the Pencil Factory anymore? Do I even go out to the Society of Illustrators or go to the events? When was the last time we went out for breakfast or had a Conference?
McGrath: At this point, Kim and I are not doing a lot of collaborative work, and the facilities where she now works are incredible. After she left, not having her drawings all over the wall—it just became kind of a bummer. I moved to a new studio on Lorimer Street.
Bost: It was actually kind of crushing. Since starting at Etsy, I wasn’t able to find time to be in the space, so it was more of a financial decision than anything else. But it was definitely more emotional than I expected it to be.
Shouldice: My wife and I and our two kids have moved to a different part of Brooklyn. And I tried to hang on to that spot, but I had gone from a 10-minute walk to a 40-minute commute each way. That lasted about three months. I’ve found a new spot in Gowanus. But a lot of my decisions that informed this new spot were really, How can I re-create the experience that I had at the Pencil Factory?
Cochran: I miss it a lot, actually. Sometimes I feel a little bit out of the loop because I’m not in the building anymore.
Daniel: We still share our work. If I’m doing something, I’ll show it to Josh online and we’ll have that back-and-forth. But I don’t get to stare into his eyes like I used to.
OHora: I signed up for Twitter, just to have some banter like we used to have in the studio. But there isn’t going to be the trash-talking on Twitter. Even if we were Skyping all day from different places, it wouldn’t be the same as off-the-cuff human interaction.
Shouldice: There’s a lot of fluidity there. If you’re the new person there, it doesn’t take long before you’re not the new person.
Roy Rub (Studio 410, July 2011–present): Seth Labenz and I have been working together since 2005, and about a year and a half ago, he and his fiancée decided to move to Miami. I started looking for a space for the New York office, and Jennifer Daniel told us, “Oh, my buddy Sam Weber might be looking for a studio mate.” I looked into a few places, but after being here, it was pretty obvious that this was the perfect match.
Seth Labenz: When I’m in New York, I’ll split up a folding table and work there. It certainly has its mystique. I think it goes back to the caliber of characters there. They’re all great humans. Everyone is really interesting. Everyone’s got their own flavor.
Rub: I had a designer in the other day from Israel. I introduced him to everybody, and he goes, “Oh my God, you work with all these famous people!”
Cochran: It’s a different vibe in there now. There are a lot more designers there; a lot of them are a little bit younger. I think it’s great—it feels like the family kind of got bigger.
Paul Hoppe (Studio 515, February 2012–present): I’d heard about it for years. I studied with Sam at the M.F.A. illustration program at the School of Visual Arts, so I visited a couple of times and I met some of the other people. A year ago I went to their Christmas party, at a bar around the corner. By that point I was saying, “Guys, keep me posted if something opens up.”
Meyer: Every time we get a new studio mate, it changes the dynamic. Paul Hoppe does a lot of comics and brings a different feel. Jing Wei’s on the younger side, so she brings a new dynamic and energy.
Hoppe: I’m, like, comic-book guy in our studio, and I kind of like that. Or when I do handmade block-printed covers, the others look in. That makes me feel like I am also bringing something to this space.
Wei: I was in another studio in the Greenpoint area. I had thought it would be a very social thing where I would make connections and work around other artists. But I ended up being there by myself a lot. When there was an open space in the Pencil Factory, I had already been in the neighborhood for a little bit. I’d had lunch with these guys, they would come out to functions and drinks, and I’d hung out with a lot of them.
Jennifer Heuer (Studio 514, December 2011–present): I knew a lot of the names of the people there or those who had gone through. I was a little nervous going in. I was just picturing this amazing, huge room filled with incredible talent.
Lisa Hanawalt (Studio 410, September 2012–present): Honestly, yeah, it was intimidating. I’m going to sound like a dork saying that. They’ve been there for so long, they’re so established. That’s definitely a thing: They belong there. They’re all so nice that I don’t feel afraid of being there, or that I don’t belong. But I still have this thing of, They’ve all done a book cover, and I haven’t done that yet. And that’s part of why I want to be here.
Hoppe: For a year, I had a different studio, and it didn’t suit me. It was a lot of part-time artists, and a lot of the time I was by myself. It also made me realize what a studio can be good for: the camaraderie, the value of having other hardworking individuals around you. It boosts you, it makes you feel like you’re not different, like you actually have peers.
Studio 512. Photographs by Ross Mantle
Nick Iluzada (Studio 502, January 2012–present): I wasn’t looking to move into the Pencil Factory. But I was aware of the place during school [at Maryland Institute College of Art], just because a lot of people that I liked worked there. Rachel Salomon had Sam Weber come down to MICA, and he talked about the space and the working environment they had. Then I interned there, for Ted McGrath and Josh Cochran.
Mouyis: I’d been working for a fine artist whose studio is in the Pencil Factory, Robert Greene, so I knew the building’s super, Dino, really well. He let me know that there was a space opening up. It had been a music studio, and there was all this weird soundproofing stuff around.
Swaab: My students have a much more built-up idea of what the Pencil Factory is. They ask, “How do you get in? Do I have to audition?” No, you don’t have to audition. It’s a building, with spaces. If you want to rent one, nobody’s going to stop you.
Wei: I was intimidated when I first moved in here, because I was only just starting to get steady work. Everyone here is making awesome work, and I was just thinking, Am I going to be able to meet that caliber and quality?
Swaab: If there are cliques, they’re more proximity based. It tends to happen around lunchtime—we just go next door. Otherwise, you’re bringing a group of 30 people out.
Wei: It happens out of sheer laziness, because we don’t want to walk down an extra flight of stairs.
Swaab: And lunch attitudes. If you’re going to eat lunch at 12:15, you’re not going to get Sam Weber. He has his noon lunch. If it’s 12:15, he won’t wait.
Wei: The guys downstairs are never going to meet you at five for a drink. They’re going to work until at least 6:30. After a while, you tend to know people’s patterns.
Salomon: I think Sam and Chris’ll be there until they get kicked out or something. Diehards. I think they have the most fun being there of anybody. You laugh a lot when you visit that studio.
Hanawalt: I kind of like it when the energy in there gets a little bro-y, and they’re like, “Yeah, we’re a wolf pack.” I don’t know if I’m supposed to reveal that.
Cochran: Hazing? No! Well, a little bit. People still call Nick Iluzada “Intern Nick,” which he probably doesn’t appreciate. Maybe it’s subtle, psychological hazing.
Mouyis: In the beginning there was this running joke, and we heard that they had nicknames for us.
Iluzada: I think hazing is more Sam’s job. It’s a mental game. He’ll be like, There’s a name for all of you, but I’m not going to tell you what it is.
Weber: I’ve always liked the kids. They’re all really talented.
Wei: I came out of school not really knowing how to make a digital illustration. I was making everything by hand, and I could not have sustained a career doing only that. One day Sam Weber said, “Let me give you a tutorial.” It took an hour and a half. And it completely changed the way I worked.
Hanawalt: I think they were on their best behavior at first. They’ve slowly been relaxing more, getting a little more bawdy—which I’m very delighted by. They’ve been joking that, before me, Sam’s work was the most X-rated, because he does a lot of nudes and provocative paintings. But now they think I’m the most pornographic artist in there. I put some work of mine up recently—I have one that’s of a couple doing a somersault while fucking. The others were like, “Oh, cool, you put work up.”
Meyer: There have been some changes, but overall, I’d say the people who come in here are determined, people who have their shit together. But also sociable. I don’t know how to explain it, but there is a makeup to the people who are here.
Salomon: I probably go over there once a week. It’s five blocks away, on the way to the playground. I went in and talked to Leif Parsons the other day for, like, 45 minutes. I’m also really close with those—I don’t want to say kids, though they look kiddish. But I still work with Ana. She’s like family now.
Bost: Actually, last night we were all hanging out. Leif Parsons had an opening at a new gallery in Greenpoint, called Beginnings, which was founded by a former Pencil Factory-er, Joel Speasmaker. We all went out to support that.
Tamaki: It was so funny, because it was such an old-timey Pencil Factory gathering. It felt like a little bit of a throwback.
Meyer: Jessica Hische just got married, and she and her husband built an engagement website, jessandruss.com, and she got together a bunch of her illustrator and designer friends, and a good portion of those people were from when she had a studio at the Pencil Factory.
Hische: I got to be an art director, which was really fun. But I tried to make it easy: “Would you guys want to participate and make artwork for our wedding site? Do whatever you want, just make it two-color, and here’s your sentence.” Of course, once we got all the artwork, we had to completely reformat what we were originally going to do. Russ was like, “Thank God you’re handling this.”
Meyer: It got mentioned on Gawker. They did a sendup, saying people were spending all this money on these wedding things. And Jessica and Russ pointed out: No, we built it ourselves and got our friends to help.
Hische: I think that our site is a really good example of how to answer the question “Who is the Pencil Factory?” There are folks involved who never had a space in the Pencil Factory, but they were a part of the Pencil Factory scene. Over time, we’ve become this amorphous friend-posse.
Tamaki: “Amorphous friend-posse”—did Jessica say that? It sounds like something she would say.
Hoppe: It has a name, a pull, for whatever it’s worth. That doesn’t mean I’m getting a lot more work now or something, but professors of mine have said, “Oh, you’re part of that group now?” It has a certain ring.
Heuer: In meetings with art directors at publishing houses, I’ll say, “I’m working at this studio up in Greenpoint,” and sometimes they’ll immediately say, “Oh, the Pencil Factory!” And other ones will ask, “Which building is it?” and you’ll tell them and they’ll go, “Hm, never heard of it.”
Wei: When people come to visit, they’re like, “Oh my God, it’s so big! Is this whole building illustrators?”
Shouldice: The reality is it’s a bunch of little planets with their own orbits. It feels like there’s history there, like you are a part of something. But the building is filled with other creative people. Gary Hustwit, the director of Helvetica, is there. There are tons of musicians’ practice spaces; Design*Sponge is there; visual artists. Still, for whatever reason, these three or four illustration and design studios have something that holds them together.
Tamaki: It’s so ephemeral, the benefits of it. I think that artists—I use that word broadly: illustrators, designers, whatever—need to create a specific set of conditions in order to thrive. It has nothing to do with the building. It’s artists, taking control of their environment and setting up conditions for success. Anyone can do that, and it doesn’t involve a physical location on a map, on the corner of Greenpoint and Franklin, or whatever.
Weber: People still attach the name Pencil Factory to us, which is sort of insane. We represent about a thirtieth of the tenants here. There’s a woodworking co-op on the top floor and a lot of furniture makers on the first floor. And the second through fifth are kind of a mixed bag of musicians and artists—quite a few fine artists. There’s a recording studio on our floor, and a record-mastering studio. The building is enormous. I’m sure if you asked the people in the woodshop upstairs what they thought about all this, they would laugh at us.
Neal: It’s literally just a studio space. People have come and gone, moved to other spaces, or moved out of New York or whatever. There happen to be a lot of people in this building who know one another. Just last week, another group of designers who share a space moved in together. I guess you could say they’re a part of the Pencil Factory too. But there is no real entity. This is one of many dilapidated factories that have switched over to work spaces.
Weber: Some people enjoy perpetuating the myth, which is fine, but it’s inaccurate. I think they enjoy the fact that people have heard of the building, for better or for worse.
Hische: I think the Pencil Factory has become a lot less about the building now, because so many of us have moved away. We’ve been talking about doing some sort of retreat—just get together and have a good, friend-posse weekend.
Daniel: Maybe if we become relevant one more time, we could do a reunion tour. But really, it never existed. The Pencil Factory is a completely fictional place.
On the roof of the Pencil Factory. Photograph by Richard Borge