Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss?

We caught up with James Victore during the annual Sahre, Victore, Wilker professional workshop held at ADC Gallery. James sat down to talk about the challenges of educating and the trouble with labels such as designer, advertiser and artist. His impressive new book, Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss? has just landed in bookshops – we strongly recommend you pick up a copy.

ADC: I got to check out an advance copy of your book a week ago – it’s great, it looks gorgeous.

JV: Yeah it’s fun – you know Paul Sahre designed it, and the mission statement was: Bad Ass. Just make it strong, you know? Make it feel like a book that you want to read, and is visually compelling, and a book that you could physically kill a man with.

ADC: It does feel like that – it’s very weighty! How did you get that production value out of Abrams?

JV: It was actually pretty simple. Early on Paul and I had some conversations and Paul said, ‘listen, I don’t want everything – this is a greatest hits. This is like Kiss live.’ And he said, ‘I think what you do best is teaching and lecturing, and it should feel like that.’ So we decided on the black format. If you sat down, and in what, and hour and a half, read the entire thing cover to cover, it should feel like a lecture. It’s at night, it’s in a dark room, and the only thing that’s glowing is the images. I think the last written bit is ‘thank you, good night’.

ADC: So it’s meant to be didactic. It’s a teaching tool?

JV: Oh yeah. I don’t think there’s anything that I can do that is not teaching. It’s kind of who I was meant to be. As much as I love being a designer, as much as I love – you know I’m almost a dilatant because I love fishing and motorcycles and surfing and doing all these things – I really quite frankly think I was meant to be a father or a teacher.

ADC: I read an interview with you a few years back where you said you weren’t ready to do a book yet, that you were too early in your work process.

JV: Yeah, I was too early in my career. I wrote that… you know that was when I was 40 [laughs], a mere babe. I wasn’t ready then. I didn’t have the work; I felt I didn’t have the work. I had made some good things. And I’ve been through a number of personal things in my life since I turned 40. One, I realized that my life plan that I made when I was 19 ran out when I was 35. So I woke up at 40 and I found that I was floundering. And it took me a couple of years before I could devise a new plan. And now I have a new plan and now I have a new confidence and hopefully the book is a part of that and grows out from that.

ADC: What was the life plan at 19?

JV: Oh, you know – I had made this plan when I had moved to New York. I started at the School of Visual Arts and I basically wanted to be the best poster designer on the planet. I wanted to have my name on the door. I wanted to design my life. So I’ve always had a live-work situation, I’ve always been very close to my work and lived and worked in the same place. And there was success involved, but I never said anything about money. And so it worked that I got all my plans. I kicked the shit out of my plans. By the time I was 35 I’d surpassed all my goals. And even was able to buy a loft in SoHo and have a comfortable living. But by the time I was 40 I woke up and I was living out of the city. I had left my bar and my friends – and your bar! I mean, it’s like leaving your church, you know? And I was spending more time pruning trees and fixing toilets. And people thought, ‘he must be 80 years old because I read his name in the papers a couple times. He must be retired; He’s probably rich; He’s probably not interested’ – the usual things. And I realized I was 40 years old, and I didn’t want to have my best work be the work I did when I was 28/29. So I kind of got back into the fore. It took about two or three years of really soul-searching, and talking to all of my friends about what we do and how we do it. Getting back into teaching and back into touch with the real spirit of the stuff, which is students – the energy. And by the time I was 46 or 47 I felt like I wanted to take everything that I’ve got, and for the lack of a better term, everything I’ve learned and all the wisdom and all the work, and put it in a box and start something new. So the book is like a box. It’s like: I’ve done this and I’m proud of it. I went through the book and I looked at every single project and I counted up money – and half of those projects are free or non-profit. And I would rather die with that reputation than with $50 more in my pocket. Now I’m on a new thing, and the Sahre, Victore, Wilker [workshop] is part of it.

ADC: So the book is like the first half almost.

JV: Yeah, it is. Hopefully the second half will warrant something as documentary as that.

ADC: As much as you’ve worked over the past decade, you’ve taught at least an equal amount. Why do you go out of your way for this? Why are you a natural teacher?

JV: The teaching thing is awesome. Two things: One, I have been given as few as two or three opportunities from other designers, and design instructors. And they’ve been a huge part of my life. A designer in my hometown gave me an opportunity to get out of my hometown and put a portfolio together and come to New York. One of my instructors, his name is Paul Bacon – your books are full of Paul Bacon work, a real genius – he was a real big influence on me. I had an opportunity to meet two of my European mentors, Henrik Tomashevsky and Pierre Bernard, and they made entrees for me. And part of the teaching thing is to give back. That was the original intent: to give back. The other thing is, if you do a really good job of teaching, it’s a selfish occupation – I get so much more out of these guys than they get. And the third thing is I have a history of hot heads and grassfires that I want to be associated with. I have a guy in my studio right now who was in my workshop last year and graduated from Portfolio Center. This guy is amazing. He’s so damn smart. And when he’s a success 15 years from now I want to be associated with that. There was a guy who came and visited the workshop yesterday, he was a student of mine from three years ago. He’s really sharpening his elbows and making a place for himself. I want to be associated with that.

ADC: Do you find your students’ work influencing your work too?

JV: Not my students’ work, necessarily. But we start every single class – it’s almost a joke for them – they come in and I sit down on the desk and I say ‘so, what’s going on? What’s happening? What are you reading? What are you looking at?’ I want to know what they’re reading, I want to know the movies, I want to know the music they’re listening to. They keep me hip, they keep me culturally apropos, culturally hip, or relevant. I want to know what they think of Coca Cola. I want to know what they think of Twitter. Cause I have my own ideas, but fuck, that’s a fucking 48 year old’s ideas. You don’t want to sound like your grandpa, especially at 48.

ADC: Not in this industry certainly – and we were talking before about the difference between teaching at the college level and teaching a professional workshop like this. What’s the big difference?

JV: Yeah, the thing is, with college my job is to push my students really hard and to put them out beyond their comfort zone. That’s my job and if they succeed or fail… they succeed or fail. They know after the second semester. Most of my students in the first semester are either ambivalent about me or really don’t like me. But I can’t change that. I can’t be the nice guy and be their friend, because if they stick around for the second semester they realize that I’m there for them and that there’s a huge safety net, and the classroom is filled with a lot of laughter and a lot of jokes. But we’re fucking serious – I’m serious about this stuff. The problem with doing a 5 day workshop, or a 2 day workshop like what we have here at the Art Directors Club is that these are people that have really gone out of their way, and taken summer vacation time and either they’re paying for it personally or they have their boss or something paying for it. And I have to push them out on the ledge, but I have to go there with them. I’ve got to let them know that this is cool, this is where you’ve got to be. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a bank looking for a new identity or whether you’re these guys coming here looking to change their lives. There’s still a comfort level that they want to assume. They’re a little bit afraid of being pushed out of that comfort level. So there’s a lot of handholding, and there’s a lot of cajoling, and I really have to dance as fast as I can to let them know “no, no, no – I’m in the same place”.

ADC: There’s no second semester with these guys.

JV: Yeah, but the great thing is, my assistant now was a Sahre Victore Wilker [student] from last year. With the book tour I’m going to Denver. The Denver tour was all made possible by a Sahre Victore Wilker gal from two year ago. We have long-standing relationships with everybody—not everybody, but a lot of people who come through this. There’s a guy Seth Levee who came through the first year and he writes me regularly. He’s like ‘hey have you read this book?’ cause he knows I’m into self-help and business books and stuff, and we’re always exchanging books. And his sister came the following year. She’s got an opportunity to intern at Pentagram, and I got an email from her this morning saying ‘… and I remember you saying you were going to write me a letter of recommendation…’ I was like, ‘of course I’m going to do it!’ These relationships – I love this stuff. One of my students form 15 years ago got married in Virgina two weeks ago and I unfortunately couldn’t come because I had to teach here [laughs]! But I like this, I like these relationships, it’s nice. I want to be associated with these hotheads. And I want to create more, because I think there’s a certain amount of tunnel vision that goes on in our industry, a certain way of seeing things, a certain way of responding to a multitude of questions with a limited vocabulary. I want to expand that vocabulary. I want other people to see that they can take a chance. Or that they can have their own tributary of this business.

ADC: You know, I’ve been eavesdropping on some of your lectures here-

JV: I try to blank out that other people are listening because it makes me very self-conscious. Even now it’s hard – it’s really hard. I had lunch with my assistant and she said ‘You know the first semester I thought you were an asshole!’ I thought, oh my god I can’t let this change how I teach. But she stuck through it, and now she’s spending time in my studio. She’s an intern and she loves it, and we enjoy having her.

ADC: As you know, ADC was started at this dichotomy between the advertiser and the fine artist. So I wanted to know: how is the advertiser different from the artist, painter, and musician, and should she be?

JV: So here is a funny little story: A bunch of years ago I owned a SoHo loft. And it was in one of the seminal SoHo loft buildings. The other people who were in this building were part of the Fluxus movement. They moved into this loft, and they moved the machinery out, so they had been there a long time. As a graphic designer I qualified for AIR status because I had exhibitions, I had a lot of shows around the country and around the world. But, in their presence, they saw me as an artist. So I really couldn’t talk about graphic design. And in another way, with my designer pals, I can’t really talk about myself as an artist. And I hate those borders. Especially coming from the ADC – I can go back through these books up until it gets into the 70s. This industry was populated by misfits and anarchists and failed artists and hoodlums. And I love that. I mean, where the hell did George Lois come from? Right? I don’t want these barriers. We in our studio do a little illustration, and I’m working on some animation—or not animation but film making with a pal of mine, Hilman Curtis. We do advertising, we do posters, we do all these things; we’re doing product design and customizing stuff – it’s all the same to me. I don’t really want any one discipline. There’s this wonderful line from, ah it’s not The Art of War… it’s about being a samurai: and a samurai doesn’t have one favorite tool. You know, you don’t want to have one favorite tool, you want to be good with a lot of things. It just makes you that much more effective. It’s all the same to me. The problem is when I try to go out and get work from someone else, they see you as…. And I understand – I was the Art Director for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and you want to work with people who you know will produce certain things. So I understand that we like the labeling. I hate the labeling! [laughs] I want to feel like I can be free to do a lot of different work. A lot of advertising in the afternoon, go out and have pizza and wine and then work on a social or political project in the afternoon. OR, do advertising and insert social/political meaning into it, or poetry into it, or sex appeal into it. These things all just kind of flow into each other. I just think that the way advertising is practiced today is a little tedious. Three quarters of the page is a goofy image, and then the bottom panel is white and it’s got a logo in the lower right corner and there’s flushed left Helvetica – you know some typography again and again and again. I would like to insert some art into that and some poetry into that and some humor into that.

ADC: I have one last question – don’t take it morbidly: If you died, who would get to be the boss?

JV: [Laughs] I am training my boss! I am raising John Conor [laughs]. You know, from Terminator? My son is amazing. My son is a good, smart, caring, empathy filled, young man, and he’s amazing. Otherwise there are number of really smart, charming, intelligent students who I can line up and they can have their turn.