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Work

Floating on the top

A designer lives his ambition to join the parade

Dave Pittman
Sketch of whale float.
One of his roughly 100 creations.
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Published 8/20/2008

For Dave Pittman, what he calls the "a-ha moment" regarding his career choices came during his college days as an art history major at Iowa State University.

Pittman, who lives in Royal Oak, knew from a young age that he wanted to be an artist. What he didn't know was how he'd be able to both pay his bills and pursue his passion — until he learned that there were a few people out there whose full-time job was designing floats for the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

"The moment it dawned on me that people did do it for a living, I knew that's what I was going to do," he says.

The fact there are only three or four people in the entire country actually doing it didn't deter him. It wasn't so much confidence in his abilities as it was a deep-seated fear of being forced to endure a commonplace, routine career, he says.

"Growing up in Iowa, when I looked around me I didn't see anyone doing anything that looked even remotely interesting," he says. "I always knew that what I wanted to do was be a working artist."

Designing floats for the Rose Parade, though — there's work that could more than fulfill the desire to express himself creatively and still keep a roof overhead.

There's something about being young and unjaded that can lead us to believe anything's possible, no matter what the odds against achieving a goal really are. So what if you can count on one hand all the people in the world who earn a living doing what it is you want to do?

Once Pittman discovered the career path he wanted to follow, there was no looking back — or off to the side. "I really didn't have a Plan B," he says. But the position he wanted isn't the kind where you just show up one day and get hired on. For Pittman, who's now 47, the circuitous route to his dream job began in 1983.

That first job did indeed involve working on Rose Parade floats. But instead of designing them, he found work as a sculptor, putting on a mask and picking up a torch to weld the steel frames that eventually get covered by all manner of vegetation — from flowers and leaves to fruit and bark and seeds.

Several years later he landed in Detroit, working on this city's Thanksgiving Day Parade. After a stay here, he started his own float-building company in Columbus, Ohio. By 1990, after a couple more twists and turns, he began pitching Rose Parade float designs to the corporations that pay for them.

The creative part came easily, he says. It was understanding how to maneuver through corporate culture that took a few years to get down. He calls it "reading a room" — the figuring out who has the juice to make something happen.

After a few years of failure, he eventually landed a contract in 1992. From there, he advanced rapidly —from three to six to nine. He's done as many as 12 of the parade's 60 floats in one year.

At this point he's done about 100 of them. With 14 awards handed out to floats in each parade, Pittman's designs typically bring in two or three each year. But a lot of his best work never gets seen, he says.

There's never a guarantee that designs that can take as long as three or four weeks to complete are going to find a taker. It's a hit or miss endeavor. When they do hit, designers earn 10 percent of a float's cost, which can be up to $250,000, he says.

One of the challenges of the job is the way it incorporates a number of different disciplines. In addition to the obvious artistic skills needed, there are elements of engineering and architecture as well as marketing and advertising. Part of the trick is getting TV cameras to linger on a particular float for as long as possible. With countless people watching worldwide, the value of an extra 10 or 20 seconds of TV time is immense.

And what is it like putting months of effort into a project that is seen by the world only once and then disappears forever?

"It is a temporary medium," allows Pittman. "The floats I create have a life span of a single day. On the other hand, the fact that the parade needs new floats every year is what keeps me working."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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