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"Make things better," reads a sign posted on the American Beauty Iron Company building, located at Woodward and Burroughs in Detroit.
Just what kind of sneaky advertising is this, and what exactly is it selling? Well, nothing.
You may have seen the simple black-on-white hand-painted signs downtown on buildings in dozens of locations. It's not merely some post-Super Bowl rah-rah exercise; it's the work of Secret Pizza Party, a pair of committed young Detroit designers, artists and entrepreneurs trying to get you thinking and talking about the city.
Andrew DeGiulio and Josh Dunn, both 25, met at the College for Creative Studies. Despite knowing nothing about actually running a design studio, they decided to do just that.
"We just wanted to work for ourselves on cool projects for clients that we liked," DeGiulio says. "When we graduated, we got the LLC right away, and I read a couple books on business and marketing. So I'm kind of the business manager."
That was back in January 2004, and they've had work ever since.
Speaking with DeGiulio over a couple beers on a warm spring afternoon at Motor City Brewing Works, it's easy to see how they've gotten good business. With his wispy mullet catching the collar of his T-shirt, he speaks straightforwardly, and his lack of pretension parallels the wide-eyed pop art style in SPP designs, showcased on their Web site, secretpizzaparty.com.
The group's "why not" attitude, coupled with serious design chops and nascent networking skills, have landed a steady trickle of gigs since the get-go, crafting editorial illustrations for national mags on both coasts, fliers for nightclubs as far away as Sweden, and Web and print campaigns for clients close to home, such as the Woodbridge Neighborhood Association (which is the neighborhood where DeGiulio lives and works). They've also made a name for themselves designing wearable art in the form of original T-shirts. DeGiulio's limited-edition "5 Faces" a line of T-shirts featuring grotesque cartoon character mugs gained the duo notice on the local scene, and they recently created wearable art for outdoor outfitter Moosejaw.
They've followed their whims with fine art as well, staging exhibitions at downtown Detroit's PuppetArt Theatre and at a gallery in Saginaw. "It was great," DeGiulio says with a grin about the Saginaw gig. Savvy locals showed up and so did Detroiters enough of them caravanned up to the tri-city area to make the scene, resulting in an all-night shindig at the gallery.
Their work always blurred the line between art and commerce, so eventually DeGiulio cooked up the idea to do more environmental work. "I set out to design this as an advertising campaign," DeGiulio says. Since he started Secret Pizza Party straight out of school and had to learn the business side of making commercial art strategizing and speaking clientese this was a way of taking those skills and applying them to his own work. "I want the message to be something a couple people might see when they're going by a building that will catch their eye and then they'll talk about it later."
Ironically, "Make Things Better" has been an operating mantra for DeGiulio and SPP since the start, when one of his friends from school brought over a hand-lettered card with the phrase printed on it. "That's been posted up in our office forever!" he muses. "So when I was thinking of something for this project, it was literally right in front of me the whole time." The catchy line became the slogan that Secret Pizza Party has plastered all over the city this spring.
In advertising parlance, "Make Things Better" is somewhere between buzz marketing (word of mouth spread sneakily through media) and ambient advertising (ads that merge and emerge from the environment in which they're created). To that end, Secret Pizza Party has produced T-shirts, bumper stickers and fliers supporting the campaign. DeGiulio is firm in distancing "Make Things Better" from graffiti art.
"I don't want it associated with vandalism," he says. That's why Secret Pizza Party's crew heads out in broad daylight on Sundays to hang the signs. And their art-school background is apparent in their thorough photographic documentation of the activities. They also have a goal for the project, which they plan on continuing through the summer. "Ultimately, what we'd like is city or private sponsorship," he says, totally seriously. "Wouldn't it be so cool to have a giant 'Make Things Better' sign on a building downtown?"
The creative inspiration comes from a trio of classic urban environmental art works. First and foremost, according to DeGiulio, is Keith Haring's iconic 1970s chalk drawings on black paper; the artist replaced ad posters in New York City subway stations with his commentary on AIDS-awareness. "He took what pop art and what Warhol was doing to the next step," marvels DeGiulio.
DeGuilio's says Shepherd Fairey's viral "Obey" campaign provided the seed for mixing provocative text with striking visual images. Fairey started the project in the mid-'90s, coupling the single word "Obey" with an imposing close-up image of wrestler Andre the Giant's face. The campaign spread around the world, inspiring locals to pick up the meme and allowing Fairey himself to tour cities and introduce his work in new environments. In fact, when he came to Detroit just a couple years ago, the buzz was so heavy that no sooner had he posted plaques around town than overzealous art-heads took 'em down as trophies.
Closer to home, the Secret Pizza Party pals found inspiration in Tyree Guyton's polka dots project, colorful circles painted on Detroit's abandoned buildings or structures in disrepair. The dots are symbols that call attention to the blight and the potential for beauty amid ruin. On a recent weekend, DeGiulio took his younger brother over to Guyton's Heidelberg Project. Coincidentally, Guyton was out showing folks around the art installation and DeGiulio approached him.
"I just said, 'You really are a serious inspiration for me.'" And when DeGiulio showed him documentary photos from his signage-posting outing the previous weekend, Guyton seemed genuinely interested.
The "The Whole Why World" slogan, which was coined around the same time as the other slogan, has its genesis in a New York Times story about second-graders, in which one child unintentionally changed the phrase "the whole wide world." "From the mouths of babes" may be a cliché, but it's a guiding inspiration for DeGiulio and company.
"I definitely didn't want to do anything ironic or cynical. I didn't want it to seem like it was pointing the finger at anybody," says DeGiulo. "I've been really interested lately in things that fascinated me as a child I'm really into G.I. Joe and Transformers right now," he laughs.
But these simple pleasures reveal themselves through exercises of the imagination and the creation of an environment that fosters play. And he hopes that spirit imbues "Make Things Better," and fills those who see it.
"Make Things Better" and "The Whole Why World" T-shirts are available at secretpizzaparty.com.
Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.