I made few resolutions for 2012, but one was to up more interviews here. I’m a terrible interviewer — I spend much of my time talking over the subject if I get excited about something. Eric Elms is a good guy and an artist and designer I look up to, so I was keen to chat with him at the launch of the Vans OTW part of the pop up House of Vans space in Berlin late last month. This was meant to go somewhere else, but there’s barely any talk of sports footwear. Plus I cannibalized some quotes from it for Dazed Digital. The solution was to throw it up here. What it excludes is several minutes of conversation about Worldstar HipHop at the start (incidentally, I’m obsessed with the Wounded Dog dance now), but the rest is intact. It really is just a conversation rather than an interview.
Listening back to it, I really must like the sound of my own voice. Except when it comes to transcribing an interview, where I cringe at the ridiculous, nasal noise that emerges from my mouth throughout. You don’t need me to right-click from other people’s sites with regards to Eric’s work. Go Google it — there’s loads out there, or you can check his site or AndPress‘ sites out. Thank you to Eric for his patience. I know you’re supposed to give things quasi-intellectual titles and deep-thinking pull-quotes (ERIC ELMS: ARTISAN AESTHETICS or some such fanciness), but on this site, we don’t play that.
Me: Eric, what’s the advocate role at Vans OTW about?
Eric: I guess it’s kind of the lifestyle equivalent to the skate team. They just put it together to do interesting things represent the brand. We have a little input in the shoes and we do our own versions, but most of that stuff is done in-house.
Tom Cooke has a good eye for hardcore stuff.
It started out with Tom and Rambo the marketing guy. It started out small but it’s growing slowly.
They seem to have a good eye for decent creative roster. You can do a zeitgeisty “look! we’re eclectic!” thing…and it won’t necessarily work.
Wasn’t the RZA involved?
He just DJed at the party.
Were you there at the launch party?
We were in the lift with Amber Rose. I still don’t understand the hype. I didn’t expect him to play Black Eyed Peas. I expected him to play some dusted Memphis stuff or something and he played ‘Boom Boom Pow’…who was on the team then? But having Mister Cartoon on the team and I remember the Blackouts being on it too.
Yeah, me, Ato, Atiba, Dimitri and Mister Cartoon..
It was an interesting way of getting multiple disciplines there.
That group bonded super-well, because we were together for two years and I knew Ato, I didn’t know Atiba very well, none of us knew Dimitri and I’d met Cartoon but didn’t really know him.
He’s a nice guy, but he’s gnarly, right?
Yeah, super, super nice guy.
Did you go to his studio?
Yeah. It’s crazy.
Did you see the ice cream truck?
Yeah, he has a huge warehouse.
Maxime at Sang Bleu hooked it up so we went there with Estevan a few years back. I remember it being near a gun range.
Yeah. It’s just off Skid Row.
I laughed about that place then I saw it and was frightened.
They’re like zombies. ‘The Walking Dead.’
Like ‘The Walking Dead’ meets ‘The Shield.’ So they put you together A-Team, and what was the actual aim – was it to come up with creative concepts?
They asked our opinion on the general vibe and showed us the shoes to make little changes on them. So we’d each do our model of an existing silhouette.
I saw the Bedford and shoes like that with a partner name in the colour part of the boxes.
Yeah, you could do whatever you wanted.
It was refreshing that it wasn’t VANS X MISTER CARTOON or VANS X ERIC ELMS.
Yeah, you know how crazy colourways got or how crazy colabs got?
Did you ever get caught up in that?
For me it was always a double-edged sword. If an artist is doing whatever — a Vans or Nike or any object they’re always like, “I want something that reflects me and it’s like my art!” But then it ends up unwearable — a disaster visually, or you do something that’s low-key visually and wearable, but then people are like, “What’s the point of that?”
To project an identity on a shoe is hard. With KR, he just has to apply the Krink and it’s recognisable but wearable, but when it comes to other artists it’s tough. Like the Kilroy work you’ve done with KAWS on a shoe might not be so good. Maybe it might work on a canvas shoe.
A lot of the original Vans had patterns, so it’s almost traditional.
Have you met Steve Van Doren?
Yeah! He’s super nice.
He’s awesome. I wish he was my granddad. He told us how people could bring in anything when his dad started Vans…you could bring in a duvet and they’d make a shoe out of it.
Oh yeah, me and Dimitri were talking about it. I don’t really collect shoes but the needle point ones are amazing. They’re the ones I liked — the girl’s ones. Supposedly they were for cheerleaders. He had the strawberries, the lady bugs…
He’s passionate. Just as he was telling us how Vans did Ronald McDonald’s shoes, my recorder cut off. He said something about them having a clown shoe division. So how do you make something that doesn’t look like a clown shoe?
Because I know that this is a longer relationship, like a few years long. I feel I can make something wearable. You know sometimes you do a shoes and you never talk to the company again? I know that the shoe will be supported. I know I have more images and artwork ALONGSIDE the project so it all fits together.
It’s nice that the environment we’re sat in now isn’t too contrived. (Note: We’re sat in a room of pennants made by Eric — one has a Brick Squad reference on it) Did you make these for the event?
Jesus. How long did that take?
Not that long. I just bang ’em out. I didn’t have to show them this stuff. The first time they saw it was when I was hanging it up. They’re not like, “Oh! It has to be like this!” I told them that I’m making some stuff and they were like “Alright!” I think they kind of trust me. I think. They asked if I wanted to print anything.
I like the ‘FTW’ stuff.
It’s so generic at this point!
Do you get approached for collaborations a lot?
I’ve done a million t-shirt graphics over the years and it’s cool to do, and it’s not something that I want to stop doing. It can get a little tiring though.
I like the whole Kevin Lyons behind-the-scenes tee design thing.
Kevin used to be one of my teachers when I was at Pratt. That’s how I met him. I started out helping him out.
What stuff did you help him out on? I love the stuff he did with Russ for SSUR for Supreme.
I used to help out Russ on stuff for Supreme.
Did you work on the Santana shirt? I love that one.
I think that was right before I started.
It’s such a perfect design.
That was a different time. Now it would be an official collaboration.
It’s a different time. It’s not a negative thing either.
There was a time when people would just take it.
Before it probably wouldn’t even be noticed by Carlos Santana’s people — but now Supreme is a big deal, so it would require some officialdom. Like that Hennessy stuff recently was licensed, so it’s a Mobb Deep repro that’s official…that makes it even more exciting to me.
There’s a whole era of design that feels like a different world.
I don’t think things are worse now — they just evolved.
I love Erik Brunetti’s stuff because he is a real artist — no Photoshop nonsense on those classic shirts. Were you a journeyman kind of designer, going from brand to brand? Kevin seemed to work for a lot of brands — like KINGPIN was my shit around ’94. Some of the designs look a little ugly now…
But there’s a time and place.
To put an image of ‘Mean Streets’ or Travis Bickle on a t-shirt now wouldn’t work, but then, it was crazy. Fuct did it with ‘Goodfellas and Supreme with the ‘Taxi Driver’ shirts.
In the 2000’s, things got so crazy that they got kind of unwearable.
But there’s a charm to the unwearable. I like it when something reaches breaking point.
It’s a moment in time.
How did you get involved with Kevin?
When I first moved to NYC I met KAWS and I was art assisting him while. That was before I met Kevin and I was just helping him paint. Everything happened and I just got lucky. Kevin was one of my teachers and I knew how to screen print. He was working on a show — I’m not sure where it was. I think it was Philly and it was one of Rostarr’s shows. It was one of those things. I was helping him screen print for that and he said, “Do you want to come along?” He was doing Tokion then and he was with Russ from SSUR, so I came along to his office to do stuff.
Did you have any real aspirations at the time?
At the time I was just making stuff. Making cool shit and meeting people. At that time, everyone came through the office — A-Ron and a steady cycle of downtown kids. I wasn’t even super exposed to that world at that point either. I was just getting thrown in. I worked for Russ on and off for a while, and was still in school. I think Kevin may have moved away for a little bit at that point. KAWS knew James (Jebbia) and he was asking him whether he knew any designers. He said, “Oh, you should talk to this kid Eric” and that’s how it happened. So I left school to work at Supreme. I was there a couple of years and then went freelance.
I like Supreme because they’re thorough. In this industry, everyone’s so vague and full of shit, but James and the team go in.
He’s on point at both sides of the spectrum. His business and taste levels are super high. It shows.
It’s still a Teflon brand to me. Any criticism that “Everybody’s wearing it!” is dumb to me. Everybody wears Polo. Polo’s still great to me. It always will be.
People get very possessive over things they feel they own.
People get possessive over things they got into very recently. That doesn’t mean anybody getting into something earlier is cooler than the next…I used to be like it with hip-hop.
My music knowledge is fairly low.
I remember trying to deny my love of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, back when we were all into that Mike Zoot stuff.
That backpack rap shit.
Really, I just wanted to listen to ‘Crossroads.’ It’s odd that everybody’s a critic, an aficionado and a curator these days in every other spectrum, but musically, if anybody plays ‘Thong Song’ everyone loses their mind. Nobody’s even trying to pretend to play it cool with that pop/hardcore ratio any more. We’ve dumbed down musically. I’m kind of glad.
I don’t care what music anyone likes unless they’re DJing. It turns into a judging contest. I mean, some people really like talking about it, but I’m not into that.
I hear you — it can get really muso. I’ve met some good friends through Three-6 Mafia appreciation. Hip-hop fanaticism is like having a second language. I had you down as a hip-hop dude — not because of some art and street cliche, but because you drop references in your work.
Yeah, a lot of my work is pulling from polarising worlds in a way.
You see the innate funniness of hip-hop.
Yeah, I grew up in San Diego so i saw that and skate and took in all these influences. It was cool to grow up there. Now I live in New York and there’s a lot of opposites. That’s where I got this dual thing. Looking at something in a context that’s different to what it actually is is always funny and more interesting to me.
I like the fonts and the letterforms. Do you have a favourite font?
It’s kind of corny to say it, but I like Helvetica.
I like Albertus MT, but you couldn’t work with it for, say, signposting…too creepy and gothic. It would be like, Subwaaaaaayyyyy or Nurserrrrrryyyyyy…too weird.
A creepy kid might want to go in.
Do you have a specific style?
I don’t have a specific go-to thing like KAWS, like a character….
With the Kilroy thing were you pushing towards like that.
But that character’s from way back when. I did that show but then I decided to pause on that. Not having a thing is like a blessing and a curse at the same time. It frees me up. Sometimes people get stuck in a rut, like a one-trick pony. KAWS does well, because he can flip it and revolve it, but some people are just stagnant.
He has that authentic graffiti background to back it up. Did you ever write?
I dabbled, but I like to stick to things that I’m good at. Like, I skated a little but I never wanted to be a pro skater.
I like hardcore, odd things. I fixate on JA or Worldstar or the self-destructive Baker guys. Do you follow the “scene” on the internet?
I look at things in the same sense you look at CNN — not in the sense that it’s worldly, important news, but just to see what people are doing. For keeping tabs. I don’t know if it stops things from evolving.
Fashion media and blogs can be very serious. When it comes to footwear do you hoard things?
I have to get rid of things because my girl yells at me. I have all these shirts that I never wear. Like, my drawers are full of things I don’t wear that I carry around from place to place.
In this culture now you can’t just put something out and be like, “laters!“— you need a viral video of you sat solemnly talking it through, going through the inspirations.
Yeah, I don’t have a case study, but there are things that don’t fit with me.
When you’re just doing graphics, then you’re behind the scenes.
Yeah, but that turns into design work that pays the bills…the studio stuff.
Were you a big Vans wearer before this OTW thing?
Vans is one of the very few brands that has lasted from when I was a kid in San Diego to now. I remember wearing them when I was in elementary and junior high.
In New York it feels like a very post H-Street movement.
Yeah, even of the last two years, that whole Tyler thing has meant we see a lot. Five years ago everyone was wearing Nikes.
Strange to see a backlash against Odd Future and their influence.
That’s the same kind of thing that we were talking about before though.
A kid came through and created a movement with his crew, with an openly gay producer and became a global sensation. That’s awesome!
At 20 years old. It’s crazy to get so famous in a year. That’s kind of cool. People want things to be theirs. Like, do what you want! Who cares.
And the flipside is people dressed like old men at trade shows. People wearing ties.
Dressed like they’re going to rob a stagecoach?
It’s like those sepia toned pictures in cowboy gear you can get at Disneyland.
People dress like bartenders. I think it’s a reaction. But it’ll change.
A collective reaction. And things seem to be going back to sneakers. Everyone is wearing camo again.
You know the crazy thing? I look at Hypebeast, and I see the BAPE stuff now and I think, “Those are nice!”
People have short memories — they forget the thick stock and scarce supply of BAPE. I don’t understand how it became the whipping boy for an era.
But do people feel like that any more? I feel like it’s going to make a comeback.
It’s one of those rare examples where something seemed to hit London before it hit New York.
We were three years behind on that. But you guys had Goodenough and Footpatrol.
I think the blog explosion post-2005 put us all on level ground.
Before that it just seemed to be ‘Being Hunted.’
‘Being Hunted’ is my shit. That was the blog then. Then there was ‘Rift Trooper’ too.
I remember that!
I used to live a lot of my life vicariously through what Jorg at ‘Being Hunted’ was doing.
I remember meeting with Jorg for an interview.
They supported what James did at Supreme, what Kevin was doing and what Marok was doing with ‘Lodown’ and they had the ‘Relax’ fixation.
With those covers? Fuck. Those covers were…
I get depressed looking at those covers and how good they were. I wish somebody would do something like that now.
But would it work any more?
I don’t know.
I saw Marok yesterday. You couldn’t get those magazines in many places.
But everybody seemed to find the same things. Like, we’d post on the Mo’ Wax forums and everybody was there. Gravitational pull.
We were the last generation to grow into our teens without the internet. We had it, but when I searched on the ‘net, there were no web pages for what I wanted.
Do you use it as a research tool a lot? I find a lot of imagery from 1999 to 2004 has been eroded. Like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or something. It’s as if everything started in 2006.
A lot of people who started those sites seem to have taken them down.
I remember a lot of acts of site suicide where people were like, “I’m ending this site. Thank you for the support.” There was a certain integrity there. Remember GeoCities?
And Alta Vista?
A lot of movements are lost there. As if they never existed.
I guess it’s good though. For kids now, it’s just different.
I like being out of touch.
Yeah. I love it sometimes, like when I get a coffee in the morning and go through all the sites or whatever and there’s some gossipy stuff.
It’s expected that you know about you know everything. It’s quicker to fall out the loop but easier than ever to get back in it. When it comes to agency work, is there a huge difference for you. In this current realm, is there a greater understanding from clients and suits that what you do takes time?
It depends on the job. Some companies come to me for me and there’s a trust level and a little more freedom to do whatever you want. But if you’re working with a creative director or art director that you respect then that’s good too. You look back and constructive criticism is helpful. On the art and personal stuff there’s none of that influence, so I can just go off. On some things it’s close to what I do and other times it’s just straight up corporate. But I like both of them, because I like doing corporate identities. That stuff’s fun. A lot of the time it’s just problem solving. It’s really easy to make something look good visually, you know? That’s not hard. I like that stuff.
Logos are hard. Who are you a fan of in terms of graphic design?
There’s the classics…like Paul Rand. And the old classics. I don’t think I was directly affected by people I worked with.
The older generation of designers never had Google Images.
Those dudes like Paul Rand would never give options. He’d tell them that he’d go and do options but he’d give you what was best.
Do you still fan out when you meet certain people? It’s not a very New York thing to do, but you’re a transplant there.
It’s not Japan where it’s okay there. I grew up into the whole crew like Kevin Lyons, Michael Leon and Geoff McFetridge. For me, that was the generation ahead of me that kept crushing it. I remember how I looked at those guys when I was 20 years old. Kevin was older than me, but he was only around 29. When kids are looking at my work are they looking at it the same way? I’m just some dude trying to make some cool stuff. You don’t think about yourself in that same manner.
Did you sign autographs at the Japan show recently? Was that awkward?
Oh, super awkward. At the opening there was three hours straight of autographs. I was signing the bills of caps and taking photos. I was exhausted. I went to dinner then straight to bed. I didn’t party.
What does your family make of it all?
I don’t know if my parents get what I do. Even the kids from New York I know who were there just for the show were like, “This is fucked up!”
But it’s nice.
Oh, it feels great. It’s for the work, not me. It’s not a reality show. It’s for stuff I made. It’s validating in a weird way but you never get used to it. It’s like doing interviews.
5 thoughts on “A 44:21 MINUTE CONVERSATION WITH ERIC ELMS”
great interview — thank you! i always enjoy the interviews where both parties are interested and interesting, the exchange allows the reader to be more engaged. oh and enthusiasm is never a bad thing.
Definitely not a terrible interviewer.
Really great read.
Thank you for the kind words!
This is Brilliant, did you see the Kevin Lyons. Bone Thugs n Typography Tee?
Love that shirt. I was going to put in a Complex feature on streetwear homages but excised it because it wasn’t streetwear…but now I think about it, it qualifies.