For the second year in a row I braved the crowds and the chaos which is the South by Southwest festival in Austin to check out the Flatstock poster show at the Austin Convention Center. It was a great experience last year, and I was not disappointed to find much more of the same this year. As a graphic designer with a particular interest in posters it’s right up my alley, and it falls on my birthday, so that makes it a special part of the birthday celebration.
I consider myself pretty lucky that Austin is one of the five cities hosting a yearly Flatstock show. I’m not quite so happy about the fact that it’s held during SXSW, which is becoming more and more of an inconvenience for anyone who wants to travel anywhere downtown in Austin while it is going on. SXSW gets larger every year and even on the last day the crowds were unbelievable. No parking, even at inflated rates, lines of hipsters a mile long to get in to see bands, and this year the convention center had new events jammed into every nook and cranny.
Despite what appeared to be a smaller exhibit hall there were actually more exhibitors at Flatstock than there were last year. Not a huge number more, but some new ones as well as many who were returning. The layout of booths was more economical and the booths were jammed closer together, but there was certainly a lot to look at. The downside was that the crowds were larger by an even greater proportion. There was less room to move around, fewer opportunities to talk to the artists and people were selling out of posters and running out of business cards. The upside was that with more of a crowd and more of an assurance of sales the prices for posters were considerably lower overall – a pleasant surprise at a time when the price of so many things seems to be going up.
There’s no way I can go over everything I saw at the show in detail. There were a lot of great designers there, including many who were not there last year and a few I covered in my previous article. I’ll skip those I hit last year and hit the highlights of what I saw this year, some of which was very good and some of which was somewhat mystifying. There were fewer of the stock efforts to reproduce the design styles of the sixties and the Art Nouveau era, which was probably a plus, but the level of creativity of those trying to define a more contemporary style was not always impressive. Too many designers seemed willing to substitute complexity for creativity or to neglect text and design and let illustration carry work which seemed incomplete. Flatstock should be about posters as coherent works of design, not about great illustrations with a few words in a boring font hidden in a corner.
Two other interesting trends also stood out. A lot more of the designers were local to the Austin area, though there were still some from places as far away as England and Germany. There were also more exhibitors whose main business was something other than posters, but who produce posters as part of that business, including record labels, illustrative artists, publishers and clothing companies. One example which combined both of these trends was Austin-based Rural Rooster which was selling posters, but also selling the graphic fashion t-shirts which are their main stock and trade.
Also notable this year was a strong presence for art and posters with a psychedelic theme. The art prints and poster designs of Charlie Hardwick certainly fell into that category with their day-glo colors and floral motifs. Pop-art psychedelia with a somewhat sterilized commercial look. Like posters you’d have found at Sears a few years after psychedelia went mainstream. More visceral were a few posters which strayed into the domain of early 1970s blacklight poster design style, a style which seems dated, but was a nice change from the usual attempts to copy the classic Fillmore and Armadillo show posters. The example to the right really stood out. I haven’t been able to figure out who the artist was from the zillion business cards I collected, but I like the effect and it uses my Butterfield font, so it deserves a mention.
I also have to throw a nod to Vrooooom Press, a letterpress printing company showing off some creative applications of a venerable printing technology. You know I love letterpress and last year there was very little of it to be seen at Flatstock, so their work was nice to see. Unfortunately their website doesn’t show much of their poster work, but they had some great examples on display at the show. Also showing some good retro letterpress style work at Flatstock was Spoke Art. They represent a number of artists whose work ranges from the traditional 60s style show posters to letterpress to much more modern designs. I particularly liked their pieces by Chuck Sperry and Emory Douglas. Unlike most of the posters at the show, theirs were quite expensive, so I didn’t end up taking any home.
I overlooked him last time, so I have to mention the comic-book inspired art of Flynn Prejean of Bad Moon Studios. He’s known most for his posters for The Misfits, but he does a great job combining vivid art with creative use of type and lettering. He uses a lot of my font designs (Semiramis, Ligeia, Ironwork, Spoonbill) or variations derived from them, which predisposes me to like his work, but what really impresses me is his composition and the way he brings art and type together to produce an integrated whole without being too derivative of traditional styles, though obviously drawing on 70s era horror comics for inspiration. He’s also one of the few artists who is clearly working in a digital format to recreate a slicker version of a classic look, which I find appealing.
I can’t wrap up without a couple of more vague mentions. One goes to an artist who had run out of cards and who I can only identify as SBPW. His stripped down style for posters for shows at the Beachland Ballroom in Ohio was really eye catching, and I liked the fact that he kept things simple and clean and had the audacity to silkscreen his posters on unusual paper stock, including butcher paper and construction paper. I actually paid (not very much) to pick up a couple of his posters, and if I had any idea how to track him down I might buy more. I don’t know who he is, but I like what he does.
And finally a nod to Clint Wilson, another Austin local who had the kindness to pose for a photo with his poster for a Ministry show which features my Captain Kidd font, and who also does some very nice poster work, including a set of super cute dinosaur cards for kids. A lot of his work has a cool, distressed-punk look and a childlike quality which I find engaging.
I’ve just touched on a handful of the many great artists and designers who were at Flatstock 29 in Austin this year. But viewing the show in snippets like this is kind of like the experience of actually attending, where the crowds were too large and posters were selling out and it was hard to get to what you wanted to see. To really get an idea of the diversity Flatstock has to offer, find the show which is nearest where you live and take a few hours to walk through the hall and really experience it.