Five Years of Thirty-One – Elie Andersen
“It’s a mixed-use project space and design studio.” “We’re a shared studio, and a place for designers to pursue non-commercial work and projects.” “We’re a storefront for the graphic design community.” “A collective of independent designers supporting self-initiated projects in the design community.” We’ve never gotten it down. It changes every time we say it.
During the workday at XXXI, as might happen in any workplace, I often find myself staring too long at a layout, writing an overly-worded email, infinite-scrolling through Are.na. When this happens, I suck myself out of the screen and go outside. If the weather’s nice, I walk down the street to the park and put my face in the sun. I overhear people having conversations about their dogs, their husbands, their jobs. If it’s cold, I go for a walk around the block, feeling the air revive my blood vessels, witnessing other people drinking coffees and delivering packages. I don’t have to take the elevator to the lobby, cross security and join a queue to get outside. The proximity and accessibility of other people’s days is humbling and reminds me of the larger whole, the population of this city, that I am an infinitesimal, kinetic part of. I return to the screen feeling connected. The task feels feasible again.
I was sitting on a mountain in Calabria five Septembers ago, looking out at the bright Mediterranean. I’d just closed Skype, an interview for an internship that would finally bring me back to New York after a post-graduate season of running away from the frightening prospect of trying, and with my scattered, unfinished portfolio of school work likely failing, to get a job in an industry I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in. I wanted to be around ideas that meant something, not digital marketing consumer goods. For the first time in my life, I was thinking about utopianism and public service, politics and infrastructure, community and accessibility. Thanks to my parents’ saving and investing, I had graduated with low student loans. I was learning what socialism meant. My heroes were Jane Jacobs and Margaret Fuller.
Five years have passed, and I’ve decided to appoint myself as Director of Community of XXXI. Other title options include Community Manager; Human Resources Department; Neighborly Services; or, more humbly, Person Who Makes Sure We Have Toilet Paper. Since 2015, we’ve produced fifteen exhibitions. Wade Jeffree turned our space into a basketball court. PlayLab spent the day waiting for Joaquin Phoenix to walk by. Simon de Dreuille and Elana Seegers built a self-sustaining moss ecosystem. We experimented with exhibiting fine art, but found we weren’t too good at it. Nitzan Hernan started hosting Arts and Science salons that a bunch of really smart people came to. We realized our basement was getting way too full, so we built an online store to get rid of stuff, like a foam football someone left here at a party, and the 20,000 copies of Grilli Type’s newspaper specimen that turned out to perfectly suit the diet of the common cockroach. We started buying interesting books made by people in our community (and people we wish were in our community) to add to our collection. We collaborated with a bunch of Swiss poster designers to have editions of their works produced in the US and distributed by XXXI. We hired someone to keep the store open on Saturdays in the summer. We started hosting workshops, like an intro to coding for designers, and the designers’ writing group in which this essay was written.
We hosted friends from around the world for residencies, and watched as they developed their time here into interesting, place-based engagements with the city and with their identity as travelers. Julia Schåfer visited from Austria and spent a month in New York studying the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras that we as Americans have become used to. She made a book and sent us copies for the store. We traveled too; some of us spent summers in Berlin to work and teach, others passed a winter in Mexico because obviously. We went to Los Angeles and gave away newspapers proclaiming ourselves the #1 Graphic Design Store in the World at the LA Art Book Fair. Some people didn’t get the joke. We came back and swapped tales of our travels over Friday lunches and stoop beers. We worked next to each other with our headphones on, cursing and smashing the desk over non-functioning code. Jake got us a Sonos speaker.
Jake is one of the two founders of XXXI. The other founder is named Jacob. Equally hard to remember, they named their design practice XXIX. They hired me as an intern for 2 days a week when I returned to New York in 2015. It was great. I got a job at a restaurant, and then at another restaurant, working brunches and a dinner shift, to make rent on an intern salary. I Airbnb’d my apartment and stayed at my parents’ house on weekends for extra cash. I was still sure of my own un-hireability. My professional insecurities within the graphic design industry were acute. But another sentiment was starting to creep in too. I felt like I belonged somewhere, somewhere attached to the creative energy of the New York that existed, in history and in myth, outside the realm of consumerism, and within the realm of ideas that mattered.
As time went on, friendships, often founded during parties and events at XXXI, turned into working partnerships, and design jobs did start coming in. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. It became possible to quit the restaurant and later, to unlist the apartment from Airbnb. As a designer, my production skills improved and I made fewer simple errors. Much of this was learned by observing my studiomates. David, who left XXXI last year to co-found an apparel brand, was incredibly skilled at making clients see things his way. After years of overhearing one side of his calls (inevitable in a space that falls short of 500 square feet), I found myself repeating phrases to my own clients, becoming more adept at offering my persuasive perspective in the service of getting the job done. Even so, I often wonder, during spells where projects require more soft skills than hard, whether my three years’ brunch service has been a bigger asset to my client practice than four years of art school.
As validating as what I’ve learned from the people I share space with was simply having a space to share: somewhere to leave the house and arrive to. While an occasional work-from-home day is restorative, when that’s your only option it can quickly become oppressive. Of course, there are now dozens of co-working options that have sprung up around the city since we started XXXI. A look around at the options shows spaces that are sterile and devoid of any evidence of the people who work there, or spaces whose memberships are exclusive and elitist, or spaces that tout “group fun” by methods reminiscent of campus Greek life. The need for independent space, spaces founded by friends and supported by larger communities, remains as needed now as when XXXI was born.
I had the store open on a Saturday afternoon in June, and a sixty-something neighborhood eccentric came in to browse books and shoot the breeze. We talked about the passing of time in the neighborhood, and he told me how the block had been littered with art studios in the eighties. “This was the runway for who’s who in the art world,” he said, nodding sideways with eyes bugged for impact. I told him about Ninth Street Women, a book by Mary Gabriel about five female Ab Ex painters who lived on the block that was published last year. “Oh shooore,” he said, “We used to call Joan Mitchell The Bitch of Ninth Street.” An image I often imagined of my favorite poet, Frank O’Hara, “lying in a hammock on St. Marks Place sorting my poems,” (Rhapsody, 1959), came to my mind. The man told me he’d been around the corner at Pyramid Club on a Sunday night at 1am when a call came in to the bar saying Andy Warhol was dead. Everyone mourned, and then danced.
In so many ways, today’s graphic design world is different from this portrait of twentieth-century downtown New York. Sure, art and design have never been the same medium or culture. But more and more, I notice a design culture that becomes increasingly disconnected from the public, and from the city, and from one another. But the studio, with its big storefront window and its wide stoop, can itself feel like a stage sometimes. This is sometimes annoying, sometimes downright weird. You open yourself to a lot of unpredictable human behavior when you have an unlocked door on a New York City street. Since 2015, we have also helped people on our street find medical help. We’ve befriended our neighbors, tried to help them negotiate fair leases and deal with unsympathetic landlords. Thierry got sprayed with a hose and called a very rude word by the woman who presided over the stoop next door and spent summer evenings spraying water high onto the tree on her portion of the sidewalk. We watched a woman grow more and more pregnant until one day she stepped out of a car holding her baby. We’ve given countless directions. We’ve seen the same oversized puppy, Boo, take daily delight in the opportunity to pee on our stoop.
Around us in Manhattan, grates are going down for good on storefronts everywhere. Retail doesn’t exist in the streets anymore, but people still do. How can we adapt our new methods for working into our city, using the idealism, pragmatism, good observational skills, love of improvement, and hard work that made us become designers in the first place? Maybe we can start by sharing the why’s and how’s with one another: Encouraging, supporting, lending skills and tools and advice.
So, here’s a piece of advice. The common thread that unifies everything we’ve done at XXXI is winging it. You want to make an exhibition? Figure out how to install it, how to drill into your bricks, how to build a basketball court in fifty square feet. You want to create a residency program for traveling designers? Build it and see who shows up. Listen to them, learn who they are and how to be a good host to them. You want to open a store? Get ready to organize that inventory — posters do not love dank basements. When you work in physical space, the work itself becomes physical, much faster than you might imagine.
We’ve never known what we’re doing. But more and more, as friendships grow and our careers evolve, as our industry transitions at the fleeting pace of the digital, and as the city changes around us, the reasons why have started becoming clear. And the truth is, we like each other. In an age when we could all technically do our jobs in sweatpants at our kitchen tables, that makes all the difference.