The Genteel
May 30, 2020


(Photograph courtesy of Generic Surplus)

The act of creation is, at its core, an act of fusion. Whether it's visual arts, music, film, words and, yes, even fashion, creating something from nothing rests largely on one's inspirations, not just on the whims or by-products of momentary bursts of so-called genius. Inspirations, in turn, are created through the intersection of different artistic worlds and their governing elements. Almost nothing is truly "new" since there is always a precedent; much of what we wear, for example, alludes to or recycles from cues that originated before it.

I had a tough time getting in touch with Steven Harrington, the Los Angeles-born, raised and based artist whom I've admired from another coast since I came across the work his design firm, National Forest Design, created for the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2010. (The firm also designed a commemorative book about the annual Tennessee festival, released this year.) He's a busy man, tapped into different outlets of the art and fashion worlds, sometimes making him hard to figure out aesthetically, let alone pin down physically.

But he's worth it.

Harrington is one of those uncommon masters of fusion I'm referring to. It's not the simple act of creation that makes his work "artistic" or "interesting," but rather his conscious approach of drawing upon the inspirations of his collective works in other areas of his career. For him, everything is a story, every story has a visual, and every visual informs a narrative; it's cyclical.

(Photograph courtesy of Generic Surplus) 

Through his client-driven design work at National Forest, a firm he also co-owns, Harrington is connected to a creative commerce that reaches audiences who, unlike me, might not go in search of the person behind the product. Through his work as an artist, exploring mediums from digital print to sculpture, he's able to come full circle and unleash another side of his personality that doesn't exasperate what he does commercially, but rather complements or harmonises it. Last year, Harrington exhibited in Tokyo, and last week, retailer Target commissioned him to produce six "colossal" billboards to display around downtown Los Angeles in honour of the Grammy Awards.

This spring, this maestro of mediums will debut a new collaboration with footwear brand, Generic Surplus, creating the "Harrington" desert boot for men (available nationally) and his own line of apparel called The Times, co-designed with National Forest partner Justin Krietemeyer. In fact, when we finally speak, Harrington is busy promoting this latest endeavor to buyers at The MAGIC Marketplace tradeshow. What better opportunity to talk about fashion and the art of collaboration?

Paul Aguirre-Livingston: Why did you decide to partner with Generic Surplus?

Steven Harrington: While out shopping one day, I met someone from the Generic Surplus family who also ran a small clothing store in a suburb of LA. My girlfriend was wearing a t-shirt that I had designed, and this guy recognised my work, and we immediately started sharing interests within music and design. A week or two later, he sent me an e-mail asking to collaborate, and I just jumped at the chance.

PAL: Have you participated in many partnerships with fashion brands? What was the process like?

SH: This was something really new and exciting and I loved being able to build the product from the ground up. When companies come to me, it's always interesting work, but when I put my name on something as an individual, I like to know the company is in line morally and ethically with my own. This particular partnership just seemed to work so perfectly, and Generic Surplus has been extremely generous by supporting me as an artist, like sponsoring an art show of mine later this year.

It's about being out in the world, that's where I find inspiration. Trying to engage in the human experience.

PAL: You say "morally and ethically," and sometimes I feel that's the last thing on an eager artist's mind, especially since great opportunities tend to blind everything else. What does that mean for you?

SH: I like to know that a product a company is creating isn't a piece of crap that's going to fall apart in about a month. Let's face it, there's a lot of product out in the world that doesn't do much or last long. I like to know that a product is well made and aesthetically pleasing - true craftsmanship, you know? I also like the idea of being able to speak to a wider audience, and the pieces produced by Generic Surplus can be basic or stark but they have perspective, and they're accessible. It's not just a graphic on a t-shirt. Less really is more. 

PAL: So how would you define your perspective and aesthetic as an artist? Do you have a look, or a feel?

SH: I function as both an art director and a designer, and then as an artist. I run a design studio and we're constantly working with a bunch of clients. It's problem solving and coming up with creative solutions for them. This challenges me in ways that doesn't always happen when I'm alone. Through my private artwork, it's me as my own mind, so it's a balance between the two.

My own art, for example, is a self-dialogue, and allows me to create a new voice. You can get placed within a niche really quickly as a graphic designer or artist, and my personal work is a new means of exploring and speaking visually. I get to discover new ways of visually thinking, and I can make more art or bring that idea to client work, and the two end up informing each other.

PAL: Let's talk about the inspiration. I know you like the music of Bill Withers, what else inspires you?

SH: It can be many types of things. I've recently found that what's been the most important for me is to get out of the studio. I mean, I'm constantly working on art projects or design projects. Within the creative process, you can spiral into creating forever. And you end up making art about art. It's more important to get out of the studio. I know it sounds vague, but it can be skateboard lunch breaks down the street to the liquor store or a trip to Paris. It's about being out in the world, that's where I find inspiration. Trying to engage in the human experience. Those simple experiences are where I draw a lot of my influences and perspectives.

PAL: At the opening of the Generic Surplus video for your collaboration, there's an anecdote about your love of the archeological "crystal skull." Tell me what that's about.

SH: Generic Surplus is really into supporting me, and as soon as we started collaborating on the actual shoe, I also started presenting thoughts on projects I was working on outside of the collaboration. I've been working dimensionally as a means to explore, so I had shared a few ideas of sculptures I was working with. The owner of Generic Surplus turned me on to the Discovery Channel show, Ancient Aliens, which looks at a bunch of artifacts found over the last 1,000 years or so. And the crystal skull was one of the topics on the show. I was familiar with pop references to it in Indiana Jones, and through [British artist] Damien Hirst's work. I found it fascinating how this legend has influenced art and film, so I just ended up researching it for a while. 

PAL: And then you buried them in the desert?

SH: Well, Mayan philosophy says that once the skulls are all discovered, we'll understand human civilisations, and cults around the country have popped up for this thing. They haven't found them yet, so I decided I would fabricate this piece, bring it to the desert and bury it as an art piece, as an art experience. It's a gift back to the earth, a quirky skull with its tongue out. So we buried it and Generic Surplus sponsored it, and the whole project worked right in with the boot, and we turned it into this really sincere look book concept.

Steven Harrington


PAL: On the lip of the Generic Surplus shoe, you've placed the emblem "You & I," which has sort of become your trademark.

SH: It's kind of turned into this personal stamp, originating from something I created years and years ago that spurred on all of these conversations. So I just kept it around, and there was something that resonated with audiences, and it became revealed to me bit by bit. A lot of the time with my work, I'm creating this dialogue and having this contact. And yet, with everything we buy and sell, with our system of commerce, we almost feel separated from the objects - we're so far removed. What person made or touched these phones we're talking on right now? Our vegetables - who's planting them? We're separated from the creation of the things that make up our lives.

That logo speaks about you and I talking right here on the phone, and the logo speaks about the very direct relationship between the consumer or the audience and myself; there's not this massive factory behind me. You know where it comes from. It's like one degree of separation. They know it's me that touched them, and made them. It's really rare today.

PAL: So then how would you define the relationship between art and fashion?

SH: I definitely think fashion is a form of art. It goes back to the creation of artifacts and working with sculptures, and creating these future artifacts for future generations to enjoy and ponder. Fashion very much fits into that realm. Think about any experiences you've had going to a natural history museum, for example. A lot of the things you'll find include fashion pieces of that time - moccasins, dresses and furs. And right next to those displays are paintings, drawings and pottery. I view fashion very much as an art, and they inform each other. I want to be able to look back, and say, yeah, this thing stands the test of time; it's still a really good piece of art or clothing.

(Photograph courtesy of
Generic Surplus) 

PAL: I loved your Bonnaroo work, and I heard you're also doing some work with Coachella [the Palm Springs musical festival] this year.

SH: Yeah, we're heading to Coachella with Generic Surplus. We've been working with this desert theme; building these stories I've had in my back pocket for a while. Now, the entire collaboration is translating as a project with The Ace Hotel brand. During Coachella, we're doing a little pop-up store/gallery during the weekend. I'm also creating and installing a permanent mural on the hotel grounds, so it's going to be a big celebration for art and fashion. 

PAL: And what about fashion, is there more of that on the horizon for you?

SH: Yup, with the new clothing line. [National Forest] has been working with brands for so long, so why not do it ourselves? It's an extremely humble beginning, with a small apparel brand of t-shirts that we designed ourselves.

PAL: And the name is "The Times"?

SH: The name is a play on the phrase, "these are the times" or "the good old times we've had." The present is constant, and it's easy to treat things as fleeting moments.

Right now, the whole thing is in its incubation period; we're exploring different means, and how we want to develop things since the product is very abstract, not related to any one sub-culture like surging or an action sport like skating. Hopefully it'll become a lot tighter, but let's give it some time.



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