While on holiday in New York, I went down to check out Vault49’s newly designed studio in the heart of upmarket neighbourhood Chelsea.
I was invited by graphic designer and illustrator Tom Mac - a long term friend of Digital Arts, his popular Pride print having appeared on our magazine’s cover back when we used to do print. He introduced me to founders of Vault49 - friends of his for many years - John Glasgow and Jonathan Kenyon. They were eager to show off their brand new pad.
The Vault49 open-plan studio space was inspired by the college space in which John and Jonathan met - bonding over their love for screenprinting.
Screenprinting has remained rooted within the company through its 12-year development from a small bedroom office in London to an eighth-floor studio in New York’s Manhattan. The scale of its projects has grown to match - and Vault49 now produces a wide range of CG, illustration and branding projects for big-name clients like Pepsi, Adobe and Vodafone.
Vault49’s growth and relocation didn’t involve a grand opening when they first came to New York. Instead, it was another humble beginning.
“We opened up [our first office in New York], which was another bedroom, and slowly grew from there” says John. “[We then] hired a bunch of Brits, a few Australians, a Mexican and a small sprinkling of Americans.”
With almost all the office staff from abroad - including John and Jonathan themselves - Vault49’s cultural diversity is one of its key strengths.
Exploring Vault49’s new studio
The authentic hand-craftsmanship seen throughout the studio took the team two months to prepare and around six months to complete.
Two conference rooms have been kitted out with tables made from old reclaimed wood from cable cars and tramcars in Texas. The team sanded the wood down and screen-printed designs onto the finished surface that reflect the important relationship between New York and London amongst the Vault49 team.
If you look closely you’ll see intricate characteristics unique to the thriving city – a rat carrying pizza, the subway, the US dollar, Statue of Liberty holding ice-cream and a lion eating the team's noodle takeaway tthey order in when working late.
“Even though out there is New York, in here we feel like we’re back in London, we’ve got all the London chocolate and treats,” says John.
Here’s another table.
Prominent gold-gilded lettering with the slogan ‘Make your mark’ designed by the team over four weeks was installed onto the glass conference room wall by “two guys in their sixties who do a lot of hand lettering on store frames around these parts of the US”, says John.
But what the team is most proud of is the screenprinting equipment in the corner of the office. Vault49 used to have to keep its screenprinting equipment offsite when staff was elbow-to-elbow in the old office, but now it plays an important role in the company’s creative process.
Finished prints have been used for clients, for other creative teams using the Vault49 studio, and plan to be used for fly posters throughout New York just “to get a reaction”.
John says screenprinting keeps the team excited, keeps them guessing, exploring, and learning the medium.
“We’ve created a space which is very open. We’ve handed a lot of craft material, a bit of screen-printing and letterpress facilities for the guys to get away from their computers and get their hands dirty and be craftsmen as well as designers or thinkers.
“It’s more inspiring for the people to think, actually, let me spend 30 minutes creating hand texture, spray painting a piece of paper and scanning that in and bringing that into the artwork as well.
“It’s what makes us different as a company to other companies. I think when you’re in an industry where you’re always constantly trying to create or recreate and be fresh and different, you get inspired by the people around you as well. What craft does for us is makes us go that step further where other companies can’t go.”
“Everyone does a different thing but we learn a lot off each other,” says Tom.
This cross-pollination means the team mix and match on many projects, allowing them to “let loose a little bit”.
“We try and get the guys not stuck on one project, we get them to move around,” says John.
I even had a go at screenprinting one of Tom’s designs from the agency’s 49 Minutes in-house project that the team completes every two to three weeks. The brief is kept to a loose, simple paragraph aimed at inspiring and challenging staff.
But as well as merely boosting staff morale and generating inspiration, the office works to bring in new clients through the agency’s creative labs.
Vault49 aim to host creative labs every three months for creative teams from new or existing clients, setting up different stations, such as screen-printing onto posters and T-shirts or painting onto American football helmets.
“We invite the whole creative team. We get them in our space, prepare them and say ‘Get ready, roll your sleeves up. We’ve got a bunch of aprons. Everyone grab an apron’,” says John.
This proved successful with Pepsi, whose creative team had a go at designing onto black and white spray painted Pepsi bottles.
Vault49 now works with them on a range of campaigns rolling out this year for sporting events the brand is linked with.
“For us it’s a win/win because we get to talk about who we are, but actually it’s quite a successful process. We actually do get business from it,” says John.
The team are currently working on a pitch to Nissan, and packaging for Bailey’s.