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I became familiar with Gerst's work long before I became familiar with his name, as is often the case today. With graphic designers and visual artists crawling out of the woodwork there is a plethora of formulated, templated junk, amidst which Gerst's work stands out. Living in the world's garbage art capital can quickly reduce artistic genius to creative frustration, which Gerst combats by occasionally leaving Los Angeles for destinations decidedly less hectic. I caught up with him shortly after one such trip, which took him to Iceland and Sweden, two countries where art and design are more like threads in the fabric of life than as simple marketing platforms. "Not many surprises in Sweden really," Gerst reports back on the trip. "It was nice though to see and be around a different culture. Very good design there, all around. Graphic design and industrial design, et cetera. Iceland however was surprising - very forward thinking. Very good design, in fashion, furniture, et cetera, for a country of only 220,000 people." While design is obviously at the forefront of his mind, Gerst always leaves room for good, old-fashioned fun. "I did stay in an igloo a couple of nights and that was bizarre. It was 30 degrees below zero."
That Gerst finds the need to escape the din of Los Angeles on a regular basis is understandable, having relocated to the City of Angels in the mid-Nineties. "I'm not from here at all," he explains. "I've lived here two years I guess. I'm from Atlanta originally, a southern boy." Gerst graduated from Atlanta's College of Art with a Bachelors of Arts, an emphasis in Graphic design. While enrolled Gerst "took everything from sculpture to painting and photography," a regiment that instilled an obvious diversity in his style that would later lead to an equally diverse portfolio.
A lowly PC user, I had initially assumed that the name Option G was a play on his name, but Gerst explained differently. "Option-G came about when I was working as art director for Alias Records. I had been doing freelance for a while and started throwing around ideas for a name. Many of my previous designs for business cards or letterhead were kind of anti-corporate. I used big copyright symbols and barcodes as the main image of the design. The Option-G comes from the keys you hit - at least on a Mac - to get the copyright symbol."
After working for Alias and freelancing for others, Gerst took the coming of the year 2000 as a signal to strike out on his own. The Alias job had filled up his Rolodex with a list contacts as well as a respectable and highly visible portfolio, which he immediately began expanding on. "I have been fortunate to work for such diverse people," says Gerst of his clientele. "Even just in the music business I have done work for so many different people, from Curtis Mayfield and Chuck D to Stone Temple Pilots and Everclear. I guess I'm more known for my indie work, because that's kind of my background and what I love, but I have worked for some more mainstream artists and people too." Mainstream being a gross understatement. When he says "Just being in the business and loving music, as you know, you tend to meet all sorts of people," Gerst isn't kidding; the current Option G portfolio includes everything from the House of Blues to Cheap Trick, from Nike to Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Amber Smith.
You may have also caught his work in the horrid meathead schtick film Road Trip. "Dreamworks called me specifically to use one of my posters, the 'Emperor Norton Fall Basho', and I signed off on it. They ended up calling me back and asking to use more of my work and I was like Ok, cool, and I sent them some stuff. I didn't even know what movie it was for. Then when the movie came out and all sorts of people called me and said Your posters were all over that Road trip movie, so I had to go see it." I'll admit that, prodded by a group of friends, I actually paid money to see Road Trip in the theater and was none too impressed. Neither was Gerst. "Yeah... a bad movie," Gerst confesses. "Kind of embarrassing, but funny at the same time."
Of course where Hollywood is concerned, there is generally a trail of money to be had. Wondering how much Option G was compensated, I asked Gerst if he minds my asking, which he didn't. His reply comes straight forward, without hesitation. "Zero. Fuckers."
From there our conversation bounces around the topics of art, money, aesthetics and functionality. One of the arguments that I classically pitch to artists is the debate over design versus functionality - art for art's sake as opposed to the integration of artistic expression into items used on a more functional level. Which is more important? "Well, being a designer, I would say functional. I think there is more to design - its more than art for arts sake, it solves specific problems," Gerst replied, cutting quick to the heart of the argument. "It is made to communicate to people in one way or another and can be in your face or very subtle. There are many design solutions or approaches to convey the same idea."
"I don't mind experimental art or art that is somewhat meaningless, but I actually despise most of the art world anyway," Gerst confesses. "I really thrive on the energy that a lot of outsider or visionary artists have, not only in their work, but in their lives in general."
Much to my delight, Gerst and I agree whole-heartedly on the issue. I also find that art is more of a subliminal driving force today than it has ever been, and if not art then at least design. Everything in the modern world is visual now. We are wired, we are connected to the market, we are color coordinated, ergonomic and portable. Functional design is much more of a presence than traditional art in today's consumer driven, lifestyle oriented global marketplace/living room. We are much more likely to know the name or the trademark style of a designer than we are of a traditional modern "artist" - painters, ceramicists or sculptors. Of course much of this is driven by the technological revolution, the proliferation of designer television programs and the Internet, all of which are a strictly visual platform from the common user's end.
"We now have design 'superstars,' for a lack of a better term," as Gerst puts it. While there is some crossover from design to art, and back again, pure art often plays the mistress to functional design. Gerst finds himself in the same predicament as most art school grads turned professional designers. "I have been gearing up to start painting again, probably next month. I haven't done any in a few years. I like to paint as a sort of therapy and I can't stand designing on the computer all the time so I tend to sketch here and there. I was really into photography and still am, but haven't really gotten back into that much lately either. It takes a lot of time and energy when you are on your own and the time just flies by." Of course time and motivation aren't the only factors that keep many of us, including those as talented and accomplished as Gerst, at bay in the art world. "I wouldn't mind having a show of my work later this year, [but] I just don't like the politics and scenesters."
Art has always facilitated vanity and inflated egos. Who does Gerst consider the most over-rated designer? The most under-rated?
"Without naming any names... There are many designers that just are in the right place at the right time and get a lot of recognition for something that overall isn't that great. Not naming names but it happens a lot. And then there are people who continue, year after year, to do amazing work and not get much credit."
Go ahead and name some names if you want, Cole. We won't mind.
"Well, for instance when Kosik started doing work on the computer, I don't think it came across the same way as his hand-drawn stuff, but people eat it up just because of his name. Does that make sense? There are some artists that are starting to do more design work and its being well accepted. Like Dave Kinsey [LAS feature], and he deserves it. I hope he gets more recognition."
Of course recognition often depends on trends and, as Gerst points out, being in the right place at the right time. One thing I wanted to talk about was design trends, like how modern fonts and white are terribly dans le modèle right now, and how trends affect art in general and designers in specific.
"I think people are still trying to get over the 'Raygun Years' to some extent. Most people don't know how much of an effect that had on design. I think the trend is definitely heading towards a more clean and simple look. Graphic design follows other areas of design, such as fashion and furniture. Just look how much mid-century modern furniture is in demand and how clean the lines are on a lot of new designers' clothing. Even a lot of new architecture is very clean."
One of the most recognizable trends is the previously mentioned fonts. While most designers have always enjoyed the simple and clean approach to text it is only now beginning to trap their work into the same fold as GAP and JCrew and Ikea. "You are exactly right," agrees Gerst. "I think the experimentation with fonts and use of fonts I am seeing in general is very good. As far as the actual design of fonts themselves, there are way more badly designed fonts than good. I like House Industries collection."
The mentioning of House Industries leads to the question of style and the fine line between being identifiable and being inflexible. "As far as my design goes, I try not to fit in one category. I treat every project differently. Some people say I have a style, but I don't really see it. There are advantages and disadvantages of having a recognizable style. I feel lucky and I do think I'm somewhat diverse. I've tried to force myself to have a style before because I thought that was what I was supposed to do but now I think I just have to many influences that don't meld well."
On the positive side of having a certain style there is the potential for branding. The work that companies such as Black Market do is more recognizable as their art than it is for the subject it is promoting. On the flip side, when the company wants to focus on the product rather than the design they are often forced to exclude those types of artists because of their lack of flexibility. "And people get tired of that after awhile," adds Gerst. "Unless you can change and grow as a designer." Gerst's versatility has shown through and is represented in the diversity of his portfolio, allowing him to design across media and product platforms without being pigeonholed by a certain aesthetic.
Wrapping things up, I ask Gerst what he would consider as one of the Top Ten Questions to ask designers.
"What would you be doing if you weren't a designer," he answers. "I think that's a hard question, because most true designers can't think of a life where they are not designing or creating something."
Cole Gerst is a designer, design is what he does. What would he be doing if he weren't designing?
"I'd probably be drinking... No really, I would hope that my drive to design would be funneled somehow into something else creative. I have always dreamed of being an architect." SEE ALSO: www.option-g.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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