We met Stephen a year ago at his studio in Amsterdam and things have changed a lot for Mr. Serrato. From AMS back to LA, he has recently finished the art direction and design for Flying Lotus’ new album ‘Until the Quiet Comes’.
When did you notice you had a connection with typography and design?
I have been aware of graphic design and have been practicing it in one way or another since I was 18. But it really goes back to Legos (the toys). I was obsessed with them! I have always been a visual person. I’m the kind of person who points things out to people. Often overlooked details, you know? Like a pattern that may appear on cracked concrete…
As far as being aware of letterforms, I believe it was through the skateboarding culture of Southern California. As a child, I was infatuated with the logos (Bones Brigade, Vision Street Wear, Powell Peralta etc.). I would always draw these sorts of things in my notebook. I can’t tell you many times I practiced the Stussy signature!
But typography as a medium in of itself? I embraced this when I attended the Art Center College of Design (2002–2005) for my undergraduate degree. That’s when I realised those were not just letters you typed out but those were actual forms that someone before me considered, constructed and made for me to arrange. Every typeface has its own unique form, color and voice. Letters becoming words, words becoming sentences or lines, those lines in a block, and that block on a page… it has a color y’know? Where language is made visible.
So from Art Center to Arnhem, how did you make that step?
Well it all started with my typography instructor at ArtCenter, Simon Johnston. He would bring in various books to class, and on different occasions he brought Wim Crouwel’s ‘Alphabets’ and then Karel Martens’ ‘Printed Matter’. I was really affected by their work especially Karel Martens. So I started doing some research online, and found that he had started a post-graduate school in Arnhem, Netherlands, The Werkplaats Typografie (WT). The website was extremely minimal and sort of cryptic but I could tell something special was going over there, something unique unto itself. And in December of 2007, I visited my friend Scott Ponik who was attending there, and I was convinced that it was time for me to apply.
Every typeface has its own unique form, color and voice.
What do you like most about The Netherlands and why is it so important to you?
A country that supports art and culture and recognizes its value is always a good look. Being able to practice graphic design here will always be very special to me. Such a strong history and understanding. In general, I feel there is a lot of trust and support for young designers. So many talented and amazing people in Amsterdam alone. Lots of diversity, dialog, collaboration and mixing of generations too. It’s incredible really.
What is the biggest difference between LA and Amsterdam?
Los Angeles is sprawling and Amsterdam is very cosy. In LA you have to really plan well when you are going out. And better believe you will have to drive for at least half an hour. In Amsterdam, pick up your bike and go! I can’t tell you how many times I have went from one event to the next and meeting with friends along the way. Its a very liberating feeling to have so much access and mobility. LA’s large scale also has a charm to it, its hard to explain but when you live here and embrace its complexity, its a city that you can continually discover.
In LA, you’ve got small centers like Culver City and Echo Park. These neighborhoods, are they known to be more creative?
Yes. There are many different centers throughout Los Angeles: Downtown, Highland Park, Echo Park and Silverlake, Culver City… I would have to name every neighborhood or town, because in each one you have a sort of community there that is unique. Depending on your lifestyle and profession, you can find a place where you are comfortable and have the sort of quality of life that you prefer. For example, the North East part of LA (Highland Park, Mount Washington, Glassell Park etc…) There are so many musicians, artists, designers, film makers and so on and so on… I love this side of town and this is where many of my friends and colleagues have also chose to make it their home. And it helps to have an array of amazing taco trucks and stands sprinkled around this neighborhood. So good…
Do you have specific music to work with?
It depends on what task I’m doing. Music certainly affects my mood. Say I’m doing print production for a book, or something task oriented, I might listen to Omar S or Drexciya. It gets my mind right for what I am doing at that moment. If I’m stressed out, I’ll play some Shuggie Otis to lighten my mood. 90’s hip-hop to be nostalgic and 90’s R&B for guilty pleasure! But nothing is better than silence when working out ideas.
Can you describe a perfect day in LA?
80 degrees fahrenheit and sunny—just the right weather for jeans and white t-shirt. Have a productive day working in the studio. Meet up with some friends for dinner and head over to Low End Theory for bass heavy beat music and good company.
What do you think of the ‘everybody is a designer / photographer / dj’ culture?
If they do what they do well, then all the power to them. I admire when people can integrate all of their passions into their ‘work’. As long as people are sincere and sharing their gifts with others, then its all good.
What kind of possibilities do you see in the future of music and design combined with new media like ipads / tablets and social media?
There is no doubt that this an exciting time for the integration of sound and form in the digital world. We have seen lots of experimentation in the programming of applications and tools, interactive installations, the proliferation of video, fully integrated visuals with the live shows (see Plastikman) etc… One thing that i feel can be explored more, is how we interface with our personal music collections. For example, itunes. Okay so there is coverflow where you can see the artwork in a decent resolution, and you have your library in list format where you can sort by date added, artist, title, genre etc… But where is the serendipity? How do you create your own order of things here and why can’t you control how it appears? There should be plugins being made or other applications that cater to this sort of logic. Why should your music collection take the same form as any other group of files on your computer?
You have two sort of projects, your music / art related projects and more commercial work. How do you ‘survive’?
I survive through design of course. I prefer to work in the cultural sector (visual and performative arts, architecture, film, music etc.) This allows me to have a dialog with other creatives whom I respect. When you really try to have an understanding of someone’s work, process, ideas—this also influences the way you think about your own practice and methods. You also bring your experience and knowledge to the table and somewhere in that dialog magic happens. Some jobs may be paid better than others, but spending most of my time designing for things I am genuinely interested in, makes me happy and results in more honest work. Believe me, I have done and still do work for more commercial clients from time to time. I also learn a great deal from these experiences and it pays the bills.
What do you have for breakfast?
*laughs. It depends. On a normal day, Muesli with grated apple, banana… Greek yogurt and some honey. Sunday brunch in Amsterdam, I’m gonna have to order Uitsmijters… In Los Angeles, Chilaquiles. An orange juice and coffee to wash it all down.
Do you have any hidden talents that nobody knows of?
If you know me, then you know I have a habit of singing. (I got this talent from my mom!) I hear a word, it sparks a song, and I’m going all in. I don’t have to know all of the words, I’ll make them up for my own amusement.
You recently did the artwork for Flying Lotus’ new album, ‘Until the Quiet Comes’. Can you tell us something about that collaboration?
It was a perfect triangle really: Lotus leading the way with his intricate and cinematic sounds, Brian Cross (B+) conjuring dreamlike images, and myself art directing and bringing it all together. Seriously, B+ and I went over to Lotus’s studio, got our minds right, sat back and listened to the album start to finish. Immediately, we were both inspired and had similar ideas of color palette, lighting references etc… It was kind of crazy how in tune we were that day. It was his idea to bring the shoot underwater and our friend and creative comrade, Dan Kitchens, who is experienced in underwater photography came through to make sure we could pull it off. I do believe we achieved capturing a sort of lucidity or a dream state moment. To quote B+ “When we exist between awake and asleep, or in those transitional spaces of the consciousness, it is as though foreground and background become one.”
Anything else you want the viewers of Los Bangeles to know?
Los Angeles is everything and nothing like you have seen on the movie screen. (See ‘LA Plays Itself’)