The Post Family isn’t some grandiose design collective. Rather, this group of seven Chicago designers operate more like a family, with support, collaboration, and their fair share of healthy debate.
By Lisa Baggerman Hazen
At some point, pretty much every creative has fantasized about creating a Utopian environment to fuel his craft. The space would be spacious, bright, and able to house all the necessary tools that would facilitate abundant creativity. A space to gather with friends and colleagues, exchange ideas, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Despite this common refrain from designers, few actually make it happen. There’s a space to procure, partners to inspire, and money to pay for it all. Not to mention the reality of balancing a 9-to-5 (or 8-to-11) job. But as daunting as this task may seem, it is do-able. Just ask The Post Family, a group of seven creatives in Chicago who brought this idea to life—and even make it look kind of easy. Founded in Spring of 2007, The Post Family includes a vibrant (and enviable) studio space, an award-winning blog that gets roughly 30,000 visitors per month, popular bimonthly gallery shows (which are also kick-ass parties), and even a fully-funded self-published book.
UNITED BY BURNOUT
The individuals who were to become The Post Family met independently in Chicago at different design gigs. “Individually, we each had separate conversations about how we wanted a space where we could get back to working with our hands,” said Chad Kouri, 24. “Rather than being on the computer for 10-, 12-, or 24-hours a day.”
“Those of us who went to design school really missed the concept of working collaboratively,” says David Sieren, 29. “That’s the great thing about working in a studio. It’s not just working with your hands, but finding a way to bring that studio culture to life.”
Within a month of meeting, the group of six founding members had secured a space—via Craigslist —in what is known as Chicago’s Kinzie Corridor. “We wanted a centrally located space where there was no excuse not to be there, says Rod Hunting, 31. “But not necessarily in River North.” (Which is known as Chicago’s gallery district.)
“It was nice that our space was a little removed from where things were happening,” says Sieren. “Since we’re off the beaten path, we have to be a little more experimental with our events, make them a destination.”
The Post Family didn’t want their space to be a white-walled gallery where people do a lap and move on. In addition to the art space, there’s a “Family Room,” with couches, tables, and plenty of room to linger and socialize. “During our events, we keep our entire space open,” says Kouri. “So, people see the show, then hang out in the rest of the space.”
Two months after securing their space, they added a seventh Family member (Davey Sommers, 24). And within six months, they procured the lion’s share of the studio’s furnishings. This included a Chandler and Price letterpress (found through a letterpress show in Sleepy Hollow, IL), cases of metal and wood type (donated), and a hard-core screen-printing setup. “What we couldn’t find or have easy access to, we made with our own sweat and blood as a group—like our darkroom, work tables, and shelving,” says Sieren. “IKEA was a last resort for any furniture items we needed, but didn’t want to break the bank on. Resourcefulness was key. Looking to unexpected places to find great stuff for cheap. Craigslist, eBay, word-of-mouth, the closing of the Marshall Field department store—all great resources.”
Despite the romantic notion of creating a space to inspire creativity, there’s no dearth of bureaucratic elements that must be addressed when you assemble a group of seven and a shared space. Family members are expected to attend bimonthly meetings (held every other Monday) and curate at least one show per year. Each month, members pay $280, representing rent, utilities, and miscellaneous purchases. Another source of income is The Post Family’s online store, where items created by members are sold, like screenprints, jewelry, and even fonts. The artist gets 75% of the sale price, while 25% goes back to the Family. And their blog, which gets 30,000 unique visits per month, has a structured advertising network called The Fridge, offering a variety of different ad levels. Since having income means that you’re on the grid. The Post Family is registered as a C-Corp, and files taxes accordingly. (Something they hire an accountant to do.) Sales tax is collected on all store purchases.
Not to be overlooked is the practical matter of managing the opinions, vision, and personalities of seven different creatives. There’s no Post Family President—it’s important to the group that it remain collectively equal.
“As a designer, you want to own the creative process from start to finish,” says Alex Fuller, 29. “I feel like we struck a super-healthy balance. There’s plenty of arguing at times, but at the same time, there’s dialogue. We make sure to prioritize our own projects. We make sure that there is a division of labor that focuses on people’s strengths. We divide dues equally. No one pays more than anyone else. Each of us is responsible for curating one show per year. We want to make sure we are giving back to the group.”
“When we hit bumps, majority rules,” says Kouri. “A lot of emails that go out to the group saying, ‘I’m going to do this unless someone objects.’ If there’s no response, it’s considered permission to go ahead.”
Predictably, there have been bumps along the way. There’s an element of risk involved when you gather seven creatives, a space, and names/social security numbers on a bank account. For some time, late payments, drained funds, and subsequent overdraft fees were an unfortunate reality. This made the group reevaluate goals and find ways to supplement their income.
“The goal was never to make money—it was to be self-sufficient,” says Fuller. “For a while, we were getting killed with bank fees. We set a goal of determining what we needed to stay afloat. It helps being graphic designers rather than just artists. There’s a strong business side to everything. It’s pretty well understood by everyone that there are timelines, client payments, etc. Overall, there’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”
WORKSPACE VS. GALLERY
When The Post Family started, all members had full-time jobs. But now, about half have quit their day jobs in favor of being self-employed. This has generated a collaborative atmosphere, not just with those who are independent, but there is valuable input that others bring back to their full-time jobs.
“If a project lends itself to letterpress or screen-printing, then the studio is hands-down the place to be,” says Sieren. “The space is absolutely laptop friendly. In fact, the studio has begun to serve as a destination for people outside the immediate Family as well. You’re equally as likely to find Family members as you are ‘extended family’ hanging out on any given day.”
“I find myself kind of blurring the lines between my 9 to 5 job and The Post Family,” says Fuller, a creative director for Ogilvy. “Whatever we happen to be pitching, I try to bring in these guys to help me with my design explorations. When we all throw down and collaborate, it starts to inspire the others around us. It’s part of what I love about the energy of this place.”
The breadth of talent between members lends itself easily to working together. “The arrangement, flexibility and informality of the space fosters many different types of collaboration—many of which are unexpected,” says Sieren. “It functions much like a college studio. You may find people glued to a laptop, printing on the letterpress, washing out a screen, or doing something in-between. What makes the space great is the free-flow exchange of information. Critique, input, evaluation, expert advice, tips on technique, camaraderie and general, good conversation is readily available and just footsteps away.”
The space is considered as much a gallery as it is a workspace. Yet the Family designed it to function quite differently than a typical gallery. “The goal of a traditional gallery is to make money off of artists,” says Sieren. “There is also a level of curation in selecting the art. The only curation we provide is a concept, the artists bring the talent. What they consider to be a good piece may never show in a gallery. We let them choose, and in the process, provide a nontraditional model for showing their work in a professional setting.”
Music adds another dimension to the experience of the gallery shows. Some artists have performed, in addition to creating art for the walls. Others have put together multimedia performances complete with live musicians. The group is even experimenting with establishing a music label called Family Hi-Fi. “It’s hard to not acknowledge the place that music occupies within the community that we’re a part of,” says Sieren. “We’re each incredibly passionate about music, and a few members are musicians themselves.”
The Post Family has brought their space to life by curating a diverse lineup of shows. While many Post Family members have exhibited their own work during shows, they often bring in the work of other artists whom they admire. Subjects have involved everything from a photographic exploration of the Roma culture in Kosovo to an interactive event where attendees are encourage to create and distribute their own collages, inspired by Kouri’s work.
Some shows have found a life beyond the gallery. To wit, consider the Officially Unofficial show, an exhibition of prints, posters, photographs and videos from 2008 from the art movement in support of Barack Obama for President. Using work from the show, the Family (lead by Scott Thomas, 29) assembled a 344-page book. Wanting creative control over this project, The Post Family raised money through a microfinancing site called Kickstarter so they could self-publish with their own imprint, Post Press. They raised $85,000 in 45 days, which enabled them to create a 2500 run with six-color printing and a fabric cover for what they called Designing Obama.
ABOUT THE NAME
Finally, where’d that name come from? Like many other things with The Post Family, this was a result of collaboration, brainstorming, and taking a good idea and expanding from there.
“I’m a big name guy,” says Kouri. “I was participating in an art competition in Grand Rapids in the middle of July and found a Christmas card in the space that says, ‘Merry Christmas and Bless Jesus from The Post Family.’ The family looked like the happiest people. I started playing with the name, thinking that Post could relate to post-modern, so they were past the family. Starting thinking of the various definitions of post, and looked it up and found that it had been one of the longest-recorded last names. It resonated with me for a long time, so I brought it to the table.”
“My favorite part of our name is the idea of family,” says Rosen. “We view each other as a family. When people come together for a purpose–in this case, promoting sustainable art—our only goal is to be a family and support each other. We all came from different places, very different backgrounds, yet we’ve decided that we’re brothers.”
Lisa Baggerman Hazen is a writer and Web designer working in Chicago. www.lisahazen.com
The Post Family, Chicago, IL thepostfamily.com/
Alex Fuller, www.alexfuller.com
Chad Kouri, www.longliveanalog.com
David Sieren, www.davidsieren.com
Rod Hunting, www.rodhunting.com)
Sam Rosen, www.sammyrosen.com
Scott Thomas, simplescott.com)
5 do’s, 5 don’ts of starting a design collaborative
By The Post Family
1. Begin to look for a space before you have anyone else to share it with. This will give you an idea of financial responsibilities involved, what part of town you want your space to be in — in general what options are available to you.
2. Know your community and surroundings.
3. Be involved in and engaged with both of the above. When creating a work/event/gallery space, success correlates directly to what you give back to the community.
4. Figure out why you want to do it. Define your goals and objectives. Everyone should be on the same page regarding what the space will be used for in a grand sense … not a micromanaged sense.
5. Go with the flow. Magic happens when you least expect it, in places where you aren’t looking. You have to work to find a fine balance between setting a plan and letting the plan unfold naturally. On top of that, be nimble. If something unexpected happens, be able to shift gears and follow a new lead.
6. Leverage all of your resources.
• Creatively: One of the benefits of having a collaborative is working with a diverse pool of talent. However, even with 7 people (in our case), you can’t do it all. Bring in friends with different talents: photographers, writers, etc.
• Practically: How did we get 8 cases of donated metal and wood type? We knew someone who was interested in our mission and wanted to help. Reach into the far corners of your collective networks and you never know what might pop up.
7. Trust your collaborative. A design collaborative is an exercise in collaboration, trust and delegation. It’s all about divide and conquer. If you find yourself unable to trust your colleagues, maybe you’re working withe the wrong group of people.
1. Be selfish. Don’t hold onto your ideas and keep them precious. Give back and be receptive to what you receive in return. After all, that’s the whole idea behind a collaborative, right?
2. Burn bridges or make enemies. The reputation you create for yourself can come back and affect you in the most unexpected ways — either positive or negative — at the most unexpected times.
3. Wait. There is a daunting aspect to creating a collaborative. Prioritize what needs to be accomplished in order to get the ball rolling and dive right in.
4. Become complacent. It will take momentum to get to where you want to go. Once you reach that place, its not time to rest! Stagnation is the first step in a collaborative’s downfall.
5. Get cocky. If you’re lucky and magic strikes, you could have a bit of success on your hands. Remember where you came from and what your group’s original objectives were. Invest what you get back from your community into the collaborative and watch it grow!
7. Be dramatic.
8. Be afraid to argue and disagree (but don’t let it fester). Many people are deathly afraid of this, but how can a group of passionate people get together and not butt heads at some point? This is a part of the process and can be looked at as constructive, as long as things don’t get nasty or personal.