Spotlight: Rick Valicenti

Rick Valicenti is the founder and design director of Thirst, a communication design practice providing design and immersive environments for high profile clients in the architectural, performing arts, and education communities.

His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), resides in the permanent collections of the Yale and Columbia University libraries, Denver Art Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and has been published in The New York Times.

The White House honored Valicenti in 2011 with the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Award for Communication Design. In 2006, he received the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) Medal, the highest honor of the graphic design profession, for his sustained contribution to design excellence and the development of the profession.

Valicenti is a former president of the STA (Society of Typographic Arts) and is a member of the AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale) since being invited to join in 1996. In 2004, he was recognized as a Fellow of the AIGA Chicago.

He has served on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Architecture & Design Society under curator Zoe Ryan since 2011.

Valicenti is currently leading a Moving Design initiative on fresh air in Beijing, China. Entitled “Deep Breath,” the three-year project involves 20 interdisciplinary design students. Their work exhibited at the Salone de Mobile Milano in 2014.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. Thirty-five years ago I was a card-carrying member of the United States Steel Workers Union working in a surgical stainless steel mill in Washington, Pennsylvania (south of Pittsburgh closer to West Virginia). Today, I am a member of design’s working class. I am 63, a father of two adults, and married to a full professor who holds an endowed chair at Northwestern University in Medieval History.

What are some recent, upcoming or current projects you are working on? Bound by NDA agreements, I am only permitted to mention who I am working with and little if not anything about the process. There are a couple of recent commissions, however, that are worth noting: the Lucas Museum graphic identity and 90 unique typographic works to be installed in the elevator corridors of the latest Smithfield Property at Chicago and LaSalle. (It should be noted that while I love each of these letterforms, the commission feels a bit like a hotel art gig). *sigh* The Thirst studio is currently engaged in projects in NYC, Phoenix, Bogata, Miami, and Doha. I am in the second of a three-year Moving Design initiative in Beijing and continue to advance the CHGO DSGN agenda across multiple platforms.

What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other designers are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? I cannot speak for others, but for myself there are three challenges I always experience in an always-evolving and hyper-present relationship everyday:

-Staying interested (and focused) in the day to day
-Remaining relevant and creating a valued corpus
-Providing livelihood and opportunities for others who I enjoy sharing my life’s work with

How did your interest in art or design begin? I grew up in the south hills of Pittsburgh in the 50’s and 60’s. When I was an elementary school kid my mother would drive me to the north side of the city to the Carnegie Institute every Saturday morning. It was here in the museum’s basement that I took drawing classes. It is said that Philip Pearlstein and Warhol took classes there too. When the repetition became too much of a hassle, my mother arranged for local private drawing lessons after school. I have a BFA in painting and drawing and an MFA in photography.

What products or companies are you interested in right now? The fish market at Mariano’s. And I must admit that on two subsequent days last week I met with two different people each sporting the Apple Watch. They both extolled its virtues. My interest has been peaked.

What are you watching? Last night I watched the season finale of Mad Men and a documentary movie trailer for Wolfpack, the story of home schooled brothers who were let out of their NYC home only once a year (if that).

Who would you ideally like to collaborate with? I am a creature of habit and prefer collaborating with those I have already collaborated. I enjoy familiar personal dynamics and like it when a verbal shorthand is shared and in place. But, if I could collaborate on an art or design project with anyone, I would enjoy making something gallery worthy with my accomplished wife, Dyan Elliott, the medieval historian.

What artists or designers are you interested in right now? Most design bores the shit out of me with its vapid ideation, risk averse approach, and ubiquitous commodification. On the other hand, a generation of artists, like Jennifer Lefort and Patricia Treib, are making painted works reminiscent of the lanquid Cy Twombly, late de Kooning, and sloppy tagged graffiti. Their marks feel (to me) like the paths our fingers take meandering across the glass of smart phones and tablets. I refer to them as lazy lines and they are actually captured and revealed as subject in the recent Spotting series by Jessica Labatte.

What’s your favorite thing about your city? Lake Michigan.

What was the last show you saw that stuck out to you? Last week I viewed the Charles Ray exhibition at the Art Institute. Layered statements, exquisite craft, masterfully curated. Enduring.

What are you really excited about right now? Beginning Act III of my career and not really knowing what it will be or how best to approach it.

Can you share one of the best or worst reactions you have gotten as a result of your work? The best and worst reaction was delivered in one comment by Chee Pearlman, who in the 90’s was the editor in chief of ID Magazine. For over a year the two of us would spend time on the phone covering all sorts of friendly topics. One day I asked Chee to critique my work. Her response was simple: “Your work makes smart people feel stupid.” She went on to say that I was a poet trying to do design who had a penchant for obscuring the access into which someone could enter my work. Patrick Whitney, the dean of the Institute of Design, publicly referred to me as a “form poet”. I hold it as a compliment.