Today, we have the pleasure of catching up with well-known designer Christian Helms, of Austin-Based Helms Workshop. This little studio has gained a huge reputation in design circles, especially for the work they’ve done on a restaurant called Frank. This place is anything but clean and minimalist. On the contrary, it’s a feast for the eyes, bursting with rich typography, signage and vintage ephemera. Likewise, much of the work that Helms produces has a high level of grittiness and ‘handcraftedness’ to it, which is just up our street.
(Christian) – I actually majored in Journalism and Mass Communication in college, at the University of North Carolina. I grew up in a small North Carolina mill town, and I honestly didn’t really grasp that design was something you could choose to do for a living. I mean, there weren’t designers in Bessemer City, North Carolina. So, most of the design I saw was either crudely hand rendered or very plastic and manufactured.
I still really love hand-rendered signage made by non-designers. There’s an honesty and an urgency to it that’s beautiful. Inside the utilitarian intent there are unique quirks and visible choices that fascinate me.
I found design toward the end of college, and it was an epiphany. But I had no experience. I put myself through grad studies at Portfolio Center to build up a skill set and portfolio.
When I was a student at Portfolio Center, One of the associate partners from Pentagram Design (Kerri Powell) visited the school and did a workshop that culminated in a design competition— the winner was to receive an internship position on Michael Beirut’s team, and I was fortunate enough to be that guy. Michael is absolutely brilliant (not exactly a secret), and working with him was like a second education. Kerri and the team took me under their wing and I ended up doing a lot of stuff that was pretty rare for interns. I worked on a handful of projects with just Michael and flew to my first press check. The printer was in Kentucky and the piece was a massive sales publication for a luxury real estate project by Central park. The only instruction I got was “Don’t tell them you’re an intern, and don’t screw it up.” It was awesome.
People ask me ‘Why Austin?’. It’s funny, the answer to this question remains the same as when I first moved here in 2003, but the context has changed over the years. I had a brief stint in New York before visiting Austin for a creative conference, and I just fell in love with it. Manhattan wasn’t the right fit for me, and Austin was a remarkable contrast: warm weather, cheap beer, Tex-Mex, amazing music and lots of space.
I used to answer that question as a fresh new face in town, but now I’ve been here for ten years. I love Austin even more now than I did back then. I met my wife here and had a son. I’ve started businesses, and I’ve met some of my favorite people on the planet here.
As the city continues to grow I think we’re doing a good job of keeping our eyes on the things that have always made Austin unique and enjoyable. Outside of the Carolinas, there’s no other place in the country I love more.
We’ve worked for big multinational brands as well as small local places. The truth is the truth, whether you’re big or small. I think what we do best is finding the things that make a business different, and building a unique and compelling identity around that— in a way that feels personal and sincere.
I’m working on a case study right now that will land on the site with a number of others early this year. It’s just hitting the news cycle. This year marks the establishment of the ninth Trappist brewery in the world, and the first ever on U.S. soil. We worked with the monks on brand identity and packaging. It was an amazing experience, and we’re really excited to be part of a little piece of history. Beer history, even!
I guest-designed a boot for a local entrepreneur named Joshua Bingaman, who owns a company called Helm Boots. The similarity in name was a running joke with us. He’s gotten a number of calls intended for us, and we’ve even had a few folks show up at the studio, thinking it was their retail location.
One of the veins that I think runs through all of our clients is a real, deep commitment to what they’re doing.Whether it’s Trappist monks in Massachusetts, a theater chain out of Austin or a global brand team in Louisville, the clients we work with care. They’re not just moving widgets to increase revenue. They care about what they’re doing and invest in the brands personally, the same way we do with our work. I believe the public can feel that, and connect with it. We don’t get a lot of calls from big, faceless corporations.
Any area where you can differentiate yourself is an opportunity. If we can grab someone on the street and create interest or pique curiosity, and then deliver on that, we’re creating a valuable experience.
The sort of exterior signage you’re talking about is a chance to share what the business is about— not just in what the sign says, but in how it’s crafted. I want to push that a lot further in the future.
I grew up in the south, and something about the crude (but beautiful) signage I saw back there really stuck with me. (quoted by Diego Guevara)
Vernacular signage certainly plays a role in one way or another— just like any other touchstone that I’m fascinated by. I think it’s the same for most of us— it all sits there in our heads, waiting to inform the work when the time is right, and to find a home in a solution.
I think there has been a conscious shift over the past few years back to an understanding of the importance of craft. For a lot of different reasons folks are realizing that it’s better to know where and how something was made, and who made it. And that maybe instead of buying a new “whatever” every few years, it’s worth investing in one “whatever” that’s made to last a lifetime.
I’m sure design trends reflect that. But I think folks will always connect more to artifacts that feel to be made by a person. And that doesn’t necessarily tie to just one aesthetic. It’s bigger than style.
Standard Grit [a company that Christian co-founded] was a kind of experiment in getting back to a level of hands-on craft that I felt like was lacking in my life at the time, and an experiment in building a small business for my brother and sister-in-law to run with.
It ended up being more than they were ready to dive into long-term, but the exercise was invaluable. Collaborating with those two on limited edition textiles centered around typography and old southern vernacular was so much fun. It was great seeing how the phrases changed and took on new character once they got a hold of them. And it ultimately informed the work we did for Jack Daniel’s.
I’ll never be sick of telling folks about ‘Frank’. I love that place, and I love my partners. They’ve done an amazing job running the place and keeping it fresh.
We started Frank because there was a gap in the local market— there wasn’t anything like it in Austin, but at the same time the concept felt right at home here. And I’m a big proponent of designers using their abilities to build something for themselves, not just for clients.
Often it’s folks outside of design who inspire me – artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers. I love talking with creative people in other fields of practice, and finding parallels and differentiators in process, inspiration, et cetera.
Thanks a lot Christian for taking the time to tell us a little about your work and your town!