Cabinets of Curiosity

For designers who collect, the cluttered workspace is a library of inspiration.

The spectrum of graphic designers’ workspace preferences can be delineated quite simply: those minimalists with clutter-free surfaces on one end, and the great accumulators—passionate collectors who surround themselves with the stuff of life—on the other. The latter spaces function like the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wunderkammern or “cabinets of curiosity,” collections that represented the wonders of the natural and man-made world to an untraveled population. Like the taxidermied animals, shells, rare botanical specimens, and antique coins of old, the new collections are more than decoration. These artifacts and curios act as tools to the designer, providing a window from the studio into the larger world. Alongside a computer and a jar of paintbrushes are Hong Kong action figures, protest pins, Polaroid snapshots, fountain pen nibs still on the display card, vintage pulp novels, and fortune-cookie messages. A tumbleweed in Maira Kalman’s studio—picked up during a trip to the American South last summer—has found its way into the illustrations for her next children’s book. And Rob Cristofaro’s collection of surplus military equipment gave him examples of rugged clothing construction for a series of fabric dolls.

Each workspace reproduces its designer’s world in miniature, through both the items it contains and the way they are organized. Objects often relate to each other in an intuitive way rather than following any strict principles of reason: Kalman displays a pair of Comme des Garçons shoes next to an old-fashioned tin lard bucket; Milton Glaser has pinned a paper cut-out of an ampersand above a Korean fan, next to a large dried leaf from Hawaii. The items are not fixed and can be rearranged and moved at any time into ever-changing configurations. Kalman curates a table-top display for her current project and saves past inspirational objects in a highly organized system of boxes (with labels like “Mosses of Long Island”). “Usually when I’m finished with a whole set of things for a book or an assignment, I clear out the space and make a clean slate for the next one,” she says. “Ideally it’s blank for a minute—and then I start bringing stuff out or people bring me things. I want everything in my life to be completely insane but totally organized.”

Metropolis visited four New York graphic designers—Glaser, Kalman, Cristofaro, and Scott Stowell—who have transformed their studios into personalized founts of inspiration. The objects in these spaces speak to designers’ curiosity about the world around them and provide insight into the ways they think and work.


Rob Cristofaro
In 1999 Cristofaro, Tony Arcabascio, Tammy Brainard, and Arnaud Delecolle founded the Alife collective, a studio, gallery, and retail store. Unlike traditional graphic design firms, Alife conducts every step of the creative process from start to finish—from design to production to sales and marketing.

1. Combat helmet from Cristofaro’s collection of vintage military gear, which he uses as inspiration for his toys and artwork.

2. Jakuan action figure, one of the first production pieces for 360 Toy Group, designed by Cristofaro’s friend Jakuan El Haseem. The two are currently collaborating on a series of toys called the Surprise Pack.

3. Alife sticker with logo designed by Cristofaro. The studio came up with more than 300 logo designs in the month and a half before it opened in October 1999. “We ended up with something clean but easily recognizable,” Cristofaro says.

4. Action figure by Kaws, an artist Cristofaro has known for years through the graffiti scene. (Cristofaro started tagging when he was 15.)

5. Plasti-Kote spray can, part of a collection of vintage spray cans and markers dating to the 1950s. Cristofaro occasionally trades with other collectors but isn’t as obsessive as some: “They collect every can from every year and go across the country looking for them.”

6. Krink brand ink bottle. Cristofaro and his friend K.R. collaborated on the packaging and identity for a line of handmade inks.

7. Photos by Chris Glancey, a young photographer who approached Cristofaro and other graffiti artists for a school project reworking images of cigarette and alcohol brands that market to urban youth.


Maira Kalman
Maira Kalman is the author/illustrator of a dozen children’s books including Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of John J. Harvey and the forthcoming SMARTYPANTS (Pete in School). She is a cover artist for the New Yorker and the CEO of M&Co, a product line distributed by the Museum of Modern Art.

1. Fezzes collected from Morocco, Egypt, France, and American Masonic lodges. The first one Kalman acquired found its way into an exhibition and a book, Hey Willy, See the Pyramids. The IBM Selectric typewriter is used daily.

2. Rex tin lard bucket, bought last summer in Texas during a car trip with Rick Meyerowitz. Its shape, utilitarian aspect, and typography thrill Kalman. “How can you go wrong with Rex, which is so regal for a lard bucket?” she asks. “I’m happy as a clown.”

3. Zupa rubber-ball clock, which Kalman designed for the Museum of Modern Art.

4. Pair of red Comme des Garçons shoes, never worn, size 8 1/2. They’ve made an appearance in almost every project Kalman has done since she bought them three years ago.

5. Piece of Dada ephemera by Tristan Tzara that Kalman gave to her late husband, the designer Tibor Kalman, many years ago.

6. Grade-school reading card, a gift from Isaac Mizrahi that reads, “It looked like a little man.” It will appear in her next book, SMARTYPANTS.

7. The desk is a Blickman surgical table on wheels, obtained through Kalman’s brother-in-law, a surgical supply salesman. “Everything should be on wheels,” she says.


Scott Stowell
Scott Stowell is the founder of Open, a New York design studio that develops identity systems, motion graphics, and print and Web design for clients in culture and politics. Recent Open projects include the design of the PBS programs art:21 and POV, and a new identity for international activist organization EarthAction.

1. “Yes! We’re Open” sign. Open is the name of Stowell’s design studio, started in 1998. “I picked the name Open partly because it’s an everyday part of the visual landscape,” he says. “You see it everywhere.”

2. “We are all people,” a statement against war that can be read in different ways, designed by Stowell and Susan Barber for Blow Up, a photography magazine.

3. Message spindle, part of Stowell’s collection of old-school office supplies. The top message reads “9:40/yr. mom/pls. call back.” “I just don’t call my mom enough,” he admits.

4. Jerry Lewis Skate-a-Thon iron-on patch, a gift from illustrator Steven Kroninger, who shares Stowell’s fascination with the comedian.

5. Printout from the Political Compass (www.political, a Web site that asks questions about your political beliefs, then charts your position on a scale. Stowell figured out he is a left-wing libertarian.

6. Postcard from the restaurant Florent, designed by M&Co. in 1986. “Using clip art like that is no big deal today,” Stowell says, “but at the time it was earth-shattering.”

7. I Dare You motivational handbook. Stowell is fascinated by old-fashioned business manuals, which he finds “beautiful and pathetic at the same time.”

8. Business-reply card from Calumet Carton company, by Brand Design (now known as House Industries). “It’s the most beautiful reply card I’ve ever seen,” Stowell says.


Milton Glaser
Perhaps most famous for designing the “I love NY” logo, Glaser was a founding design director of New York magazine and is a founder of Pushpin Studio. He has designed everything from newspapers and magazines to restaurants and supermarkets. His children’s book The Alphazeds (Hyperion) will be out this fall.

1. Display card of fountain pen nibs, never used. Some of the tips are shaped like the Eiffel Tower.

2. Award from the American Illustrators Association in the shape of a Korean fan.

3. Sample cards of buttons, a gift from illustrator Jean-Michel Folon, who acquired them when he designed a print for a French button manufacturer. “They are fantastic,” Glaser says.

4. Maquette for a sculpture called Lady Luck, by Jordan Steckel, for an unbuilt casino project. Steckel worked with Glaser on the Trattoria Dell’Arte restaurant in New York City.

5. Gold-plated matzoh bread, a gift from artist Judith Harvest.

6. Model of the Teatro Massimo, in Palermo, Italy. Glaser designed all of their graphics and posters for the year 2000.

7. Prototype for Twergi, a toy Glaser designed for Alessi. The wooden figure collapses when you press the bottom.

8. Study model for the Rubin Museum, which opens in 2004. Glaser’s studio is designing the logo, hanging system, and signage. The museum will house a collection of 1,200 Tibetan tankas and sculptures in the old Barneys women’s store in Manhattan. “It’s going from Barneys to Buddha in a very short time,” Glaser says.

9. Study for an 18-foot-long gilded copper “cloud wall” for the Rubin Museum.

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