Designing Charleston: How creative entrepreneurs are transforming the city

Jay Fletcher (from left), Boatwright and Gil Shuler gathered in Shuler’s office recently to talk about their work. Buy this photo

A city’s visual landscape is defined foremost by its prominent markers. Paris has its Eiffel Tower. Rome has its Coliseum. St. Louis has its arch.

Old downtown Charleston signs and murals

Charles DeSaussure perhaps is most popularly known for his outdoor signs: murals he painted for Martha Lou’s Kitchen, Alluette’s, Dell’z Deli, Charleston Crab House, Juanita Greenberg’s and others.

DeSaussure died July 16, just before he could witness an exhibition of his work organized this year by the MOJA Festival.

He was part of a long tradition of painters and graphic designers in the black community who created public art, logos and signs, mostly for black-operated shops and restaurants.

These hand-painted signs feature a recognizable calligraphy that once was ubiquitous around town, often accompanied by images of various kinds. The city’s visual landscape, therefore, was defined in some measure by these murals and lines of elegant script — the work of Charleston’s early graphic designers.

When you look at something by the muralist David Boatwright, the influence of black artists is evident.

Consider the mural at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, for example.

Adam Parker

Charleston’s obvious landmarks include Fort Sumter, Rainbow Row, the Cooper River Bridge, its church steeples and even the Coburg Cow making its turns in West Ashley.

When we think about “place,” these objects spring to mind easily.

But a city is defined not only by its evident iconography; there is a second layer of stimuli that influences our perception of the visual landscape, one that is entirely the result of a creative community of entrepreneurs and artists called graphic designers.

They are the ones who make the posters, logos, websites, restaurant menus, store signs and public murals with which we interact every day, usually without recognizing that these images are the result of careful, deliberate, hard work.

And Charleston’s design community is growing. The city is becoming a hive of activity, generating work that’s receiving national attention.

The upper part of the Charleston peninsula now is home to a formidable cluster of companies that include Stitch, Hook, Fuzzco and J. Fletcher Design.

Freelancers and related companies also located here include Buff Ross’ Alloneword Design, muralist David Boatwright, videographer Adam Boozer and specialty printer Sideshow Press.

This design community is largely responsible for much of what we see each day in town, and for the image of Charleston that’s projected to other audiences. When tourists come in May and June to attend Spoleto Festival USA, their response to the arts festival is partly determined by the presentation: the program book, schedule, website, banners. Spoleto Festival is a client of Stitch and Fuzzco.

When television viewers see the ads for the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, with their gorgeous aerial shots of marshscapes and golf courses, their colorful views of cobblestone streets and historic churches, and the close-ups of crab and shrimp baskets, they are lured here by these images, by this controlled presentation of place. The ads were done by the creative agency Hook and videographer Adam Boozer.

When patrons eat at Husk or Jack’s Cosmic Dogs, their impressions are partly formed by how these restaurants present themselves — and that starts with the logo itself and the messages it conveys.

Husk’s “farm-to-table” mantra is embedded in the logo, a shovel and fork delineating the “H.”

And the cartoonish hotdog logo seems to promise a burst of otherworldly flavor and old-fashioned hipness. Those restaurants are clients of Gil Shuler Graphic Design.

In the beginning ...


Gil Shuler, who grew up in Sumter, came to Charleston in 1983, straight out of design school and all fired up.

“From the get-go, it was my mission to have really awesome design in this great city,” he said.

But in the early 1980s, Charleston wasn’t very great, not yet; its urban renaissance had only just begun, a process that would be disrupted in 1989 by Hurricane Hugo, then resume with force during the rebuilding effort.

Shuler, who is widely credited as the father of graphic design in Charleston (a label that makes him uncomfortable), and now works from a studio in Mount Pleasant, was trained in printing during the pre-computer era.

He made posters for Chopstick Theatre, where he met his wife, Robin, and foraged in the back of Nelson Printing for “funky paper” that would complement his funky graphics.

Shuler set a creative standard, and his award-winning work in years since has continued to keep the bar raised high, other designers said.

For Shuler, Charleston’s visual landscape in the 1980s needed work. Bland corporate logos were the rule, not the exception. But as the city began to attract more residents and tourists, as the hospitality sector ramped up and new restaurants appeared, the opportunities became manifest.

“Charleston just happened to blossom when we were all down here,” Shuler said, referring also to his friend David Boatwright, an artist who arrived in town at about the same time.

Other medium-size cities — Seattle, Portland, Austin, Nashville — have robust design communities, “and it really shows,” Shuler said. “It really gives the city a certain aesthetic.”

Boatwright, who grew up in Hopkins, S.C., lived in California for a while then came to Charleston in 1984 and formed the production company Lucky Boy Films. His intention was to write a screenplay, return to L.A. and pursue a movie career.

“But once I got here, I was so happy,” he said. “And there were a lot of things to do.”

The rebuilding after Hugo included a “restaurant craze,” he said, and soon he was doing work for Zebo Restaurant and Brewery, Sonoma Cafe and Hank’s (his first big mural project).

About 13 years ago, Boatwright painted the now-iconic mural on the exterior of Hominy Grill: “Grits are good for you.”

Since then, he’s created more than a dozen: at Growfood Carolina, Freshfields, East Central Lofts, Taco Boy, Xiao Bao Biscuit and Rutledge Cab Co., among others.

Disappearing act


Jay Fletcher also is a graphic designer who helps clients establish and promote an identity.

He worked at The Post and Courier as an illustrator from 2001-09, and began freelancing while there, he said.

Before long, those side gigs were taking up a lot of his time. “It became a whole second job.”

Fletcher said graphic design is unlike illustration.

“As an editorial illustrator, you’re encouraged to have a style and your job is to represent an idea through an image that’s executed in your style,” he wrote in an email.

“So you’re reading a story, finding an aspect of it that’s interesting, and then putting your visual spin on it. As a graphic designer, the job becomes more about finding somebody else’s voice and masking your own.”

It’s a process of self-effacement, he said. Yet graphic designers are artistic and can’t entirely avoid asserting their vision or personality.

“We’re making art to support others and brand their businesses,” Shuler said.

“We like it when they do well,” Boatwright added.

When they do well, the designers do well, and part of doing well is establishing a reputation for creative good work.

“We have our brand, too,” Boatwright said.

When Fletcher created a limited-run letterpress poster of iconic local buildings called “The Charleston 25,” the project took on a life of its own, inspiring designers in other cities to make versions of their own.

That this elegant black-and-white poster (printed at Sideshow Press) was both the brainchild of an artist-designer and an object that celebrated a specific community by highlighting its landmarks reveals the power of graphic design to both reflect and influence a sense of place.

Time invested


Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, who earned a design degree, said most people don’t think about design from day to day; they just assume that what they are looking at is fated: from signage to script to the way parks are constructed or chairs are made.

When things are proportional and integrated, when they have “the right feel,” the visual landscape can be said to work well. It may all seem effortless, but much labor is required, Sloan said.

When he engaged Shuler to devise a new branding identity for the Halsey, the process took several months.

Shuler presented 300 logo options, plus loads of ancillary materials.

“People have no idea that that kind of thinking goes into it,” Sloan said.

At Hook, a creative agency co-founded by Brady Waggoner, the work has been ramping up. It began with local clients such as Andolini’s, McCrady’s and Revolutionary Eating Ventures but soon expanded to include Moretti beer, Twelve South and others with an international reach.

“We get walk-up business now,” Waggoner said. “That’s what you hope for, that the phone always rings. But we want to stay small enough to be busy.”

Around the corner from Hook is Alloneword, Buff Ross’ web design business.

Ross said the reason Charleston is becoming a hub for creative techy types is because its economy is ready for this sort of entrepreneurship and because the work is portable.

“Charleston is at a point where it appreciates design more,” he said. There are higher expectations because a more cosmopolitan quality of life is attracting new people and inspiring locals to step up their game. “It’s not nearly as insular as it was for so long.”

Besides, he said, design work is computer-oriented and can be done from anywhere. It’s easy to serve clients who are far away. In fact, Ross sometimes never meets his customers face to face, he said.

Lure of the city


At Stitch Design, a half-block down Cannon Street from Alloneword, partners Amy Pastre and Courtney Rowson work on projects that often blend branding, web and print solutions.

The company launched in 2009, when Pastre left Gil Shuler Design after more than four years and teamed up with Rowson, who was freelancing.

They said they pay attention to how their work contributes to the visual landscape. “We are always thinking about how what we do fits in,” Rowson said.

A place influences design and vice versa, Pastre said. Certain creative choices are made based on what the terrain looks like, or the general style of the city, or what its laws dictate (consider the Board of Architectural Review). But so does design transform place, changing the way people perceive it, interact with it, and make decisions about what to do and where to go, Pastre said.

At the same time, she noted, a certain universal excellence is increasingly achieved because social media and technology make others’ good work easily accessible. This prompts designers everywhere to do better. As designers provide clients with high-quality work, clients, too, become more savvy and demanding.

It is this cycle of quality that we are seeing play out in Charleston now, she said.

“One of the most surprising things is the rate at which it’s happening,” Rowson said. “And not just in the creative community.”

Clients from other cities are becoming increasingly aware of Charleston and its aesthetic reputation. Not long ago, locating in South Carolina might have hobbled a design company seeking work outside the state, Rowson said. Not any more.

Stitch’s clientele is about 40 percent local, 60 percent from outside Charleston.

Fuzzco, a creative design company founded by the husband-wife team of Josh Nissenboim and Helen Rice, got its start in 2005 and soon was working with local clients such as The Kickin’ Chicken, David Thompson Architect, Westbrook and Coast beer companies and Sweeteeth.

Today, Fuzzco is the largest of Charleston’s design operations, with 14 full-time staffers working on up to 50 projects at a time, according to Nissenboim. Increasingly, those projects involve clients from other places; only about 30 percent of Fuzzco’s work is for local customers.

Company strategist Caleb Yarian said Fuzzco has helped foster a clustering of like-minded people coming together to form a creative community in Charleston.

“If the city is rewarding that, people want to come,” he said.

Nissenboim said Charleston’s design layer is like a yard’s undergrowth that’s revealed after a bit of weeding.

“Charleston is sold as a historical town, but design hits you pretty hard,” he said.

Much has changed since Shuler and Boatwright arrived in the early 1980s. And as the city has recovered from the social turmoil of the 1960s and related urban decay, it has required a community of creative designers to spruce up the place, adding color and texture and commercial appeal to the old landmarks and natural amenities.

For this is what design does, Sloan said. It makes a place feel inevitable. “It is everywhere, yet no one knows what it is.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.

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