One of our favorite local artists and entrepreneurs is the ever so industrious Sean Starr of Starr Studios. A few reasons you already know who this guy is: The Bookish Coffee sign on the square, the Jupiter House remodel, the fresh face of Bullseye Bikes and the interior branding of Royal's Bagels... not to mention our very own We Denton Do It logo. Sean has been hard at work making Denton a more beautiful place by bringing back the old school technique of hand sign painting. We applaud his work not only because it's insanely cool, but because he has a heart for our very own community - taking on the commitment of improving Denton by helping out small businesses locally and focusing on their needs with the same dedication he shows to the national brands he works with.
What brought you to Denton - where did you live before - how long have you been here?
STARR: Initially family brought us here. I grew up in South Texas and over time my family all settled in the Metroplex. I have two sisters that live here in Denton as well as my nephew and his wife. In addition I have two brothers that live in the DFW area, so everyone pretty much settled in this area and that's what first got us considering moving here.
I started Starr Studios in San Francisco, in the Mission District, in 2005. Then Kayleigh and I got married in 2008 and worked together to really get it going. In 2010 we moved the studio down to the mountains outside of Los Angeles to try and simplify things, but we ended up busier there than we were in San Francisco and were doing most of our work in Beverly Hills which required a lot of commuting in L.A. Traffic, which wasn't any fun.
We came to visit family in Denton in November of 2011 with the mindset that we might move our studio here someday and decided to just go for it when Joey Hawkins, who owns Jupiter House Coffee, offered us some workspace. I had met Joey in 2007 while doing a cross country motorcycle trip after I stopped a while in Denton to visit my sisters and we have worked on projects with he and his wife Amy ever since.
How did you get your start in sign painting?
STARR: Initially working with my dad. My dad started a company called Starr Custom Paint in San Antonio back in the 1980s. I came to work for him when I was in my late teens and we did custom design and paint work on everything from brand new pick up trucks to airplanes to Willie Nelson's tour bus. That was all pre-computer and we did every stage of the process by hand.
My dad was Ukrainian and an ex Golden Gloves boxer from Cleveland, so I learned his work ethic which was pretty amazing. I still have not met anyone who worked as hard as he did. He passed away about 15 years ago, and by that point we co-owned and operated the business.
I accepted a job offer at a sign shop in Seattle after he passed away and spent several years working with vinyl and digital signage, which I really hated but it taught me some really great computer as well as organization skills, so I am glad I spent that time. The shops in Seattle I worked at wanted nothing to do with paint, so I spent time painting at home. When I moved to San Francisco from Seattle I decided to start Starr Studios and was determined that we would focus on hand painted work and design.
Sign painting has now turned into full on branding for you. Tell us about that transition.
STARR: This is kind of a peculiar question to me. I have never really seen there being a difference between sign painting and what everyone now is referring to as branding. Throughout history, the sign painter was the guy doing what is now referred to as branding. Business owners relied on the sign artist to create a memorable visual image that created an atmosphere that represented the business' values as well as drew clientele in from the streets. We created the vibe. We are still doing that same thing, we just create in a way that allows for the use of our designs in digital media as well as physical.
We have been branching out in offering more comprehensive design for our clients over the last three years which has led to a working relationship with some of the best in the business and that has been exciting. In 2010 we started working on a variety of projects for the Gap and that's when I first met Mathew Foster, who was one of the co-founders of the Official Manufacturing Co. in Portland. Mathew and I really hit it off and have worked collaboratively ever since. His studio is now based out of Los Angeles and serves clients out there and we have teamed up on several branding launches.
Mathew and I are currently in the process of launching a collaborative agency we have named Shop Class. Mathew started at industry giant Wieden+Kennedy back in 2006 so he brings a really unique perspective and skill set to the mix. Shop Class will allow Mathew and I to work together on a regular basis with clients while maintaining our individual studios. We will be working on full branding campaigns that have an emphasis on hand craft and authentic design. We are also going to be very selective with who we will work for with Shop Class. We are both pretty focused on doing work that amazes far more than trying to build some mega-agency. Starr Studios will continue business as usual right here in Denton, we are just spreading our wings a little with Shop Class.
FOSTER: Branding as it is talked about these days has a lot of unnecessary mystique and jargon attached to it. Sean already explained the essence. It's creating the vibe that attracts you to some thing or some company. This is all in the efforts of being able to tell a story, and to tell it well. Some of the most inspiring devices that tell great stories to me are ones that have long been in the trade of sign painters throughout history. It all has to come from a place that is true: you look at a project and step back far enough, and use the tools that work best for you - that's what I think we're hoping to do with Shop Class.
What fuels your interest in the creative culture of Denton?
STARR: Denton has got the “it” factor. It has wonderful energy, creatively. I think as it grows from its adolescence it is going to really develop its own micro culture that will be centered on the Creative Class and we are excited to be in the ground floor of that with a bunch of strong creatives that are organizing and are poised for growth. I am starting to see Denton attracting the attention of some of the creatives from other parts of the Metroplex. Combine the creative energy with the lifestyle here in Denton and its really shaping up to be an awesome city for anyone making things.
Sign painting got its start far before the introduction of modern technology. When you first started working with a computer alongside painting, did you struggle with having to do graphic design or website design, or did it seem like a natural transition to go from a paint brush to a computer mouse?
STARR: I had, and have, mixed feelings about it. It has been a great tool to help with productivity and to keep things current for our clients, but I have mixed feelings. I still insist on starting every design with a sketch on paper with a pencil. I really don't think you can have real soul in your artwork if it doesn't at some point pass from your heart to your hand. I know there a lot of people doing amazing work that is all digital, but the soul comes through the hand to the paper.
You've done jobs for everyone from Bookish Coffee to the Gap. How do you maintain a good balance between local jobs and national clients?
STARR: We love working locally for a wide variety of reasons, most of which is being able to see on a weekly basis how our projects are working on our clients behalf. Its very rewarding. Our larger clients like Gap and Sony typically have insane deadlines we are working with and when that happens we just burn the midnight oil and make it happen. Most of our clients understand that we are a small, boutique studio and they give us flexibility with scheduling which we really appreciate. When we get hit with a high profile project and have to hustle to get that done, our local clients have been very understanding and patient and we really do appreciate that.
FOSTER: I've been working on an essay that will probably never see the light of day calledThe Robin Hood Business Method. To make a decent living, it's difficult to avoid the large corporate client jobs - even though they usually have a crazy infrastructure to deal with, the deadlines are insane, and there's often corporate brand guidelines to stick to... There's a balance to find between these guys and the smaller, local folks whose budgets are much smaller - but who trust you so much more and allow you to truly guide their design and brand in a positive, holistic way. I see it as two bank accounts: one is street cred and the other is money. You want healthy balances in both.
A lot of people have compared you to Ron Swanson from the television show Parks & Recreation. Have you ever gone to a restaurant and asked for all of the bacon and eggs they have?
STARR: If more people had Ron Swanson's awesomeness the world would be a better place, so I am fine with the comparisons which have been non-stop since Season 1. As regards the bacon and eggs, although I have spent most of my life eating meat with an extra side of meat, Kayleigh and I went full on Vegan a few months back and have no intention of ever going back to my carnivorous ways. Take that stereo-typers...
When you first set up studio space in town you were officing out of the bottom of Jupiter House. For more space, you recently moved into a new studio over by Mr. Frosty's on 377. Tell us about the new space.
STARR: Our new space is the studio we always wanted to build. I am an avid collector of anything old school sign painter, and have been collecting for years. We had hoped to someday put together a studio that resembled an old 1940s sign shop and I think we have gotten there finally. Its a wonderful space to paint as well as design and conceptualize. It very much invokes the feelings of working with my dad years ago.
We have tons of natural light, plenty of space to work and I absolutely love it. We loved being under Jupiter House, lots of good energy going on but it was just too small for us and I need to have natural light. Our neighbor has roosters, which is just another bonus.
What's your favorite way to spend an evening in Denton?
STARR: Walk a couple blocks from our house on North Austin to have a beer at Oak Street with some friends and play some dominoes, then walk to Green House for some dinner and drinks on the patio before walking a half block back home.