An Interview with Nick Misani—Type, Style, and Freelancing

My parents were both jewelry designers, and I think that was influential, not necessarily because it taught me to think visually at an early age - which it did - but it forced me to rebel against my upbringing.
— Nick
Photo by Ahmed Klink 

Photo by Ahmed Klink 

 

Interview with designer and guest writer Melissa Delzio

 

“It’s my first real day of full-time freelance,” Nick Misani says with nervous excitement. I congratulate Nick on getting out of pajamas on day one. “Well, half out of pajamas,” he admits. “I’m still just coming to terms with being accountable for my time and staying on schedule.” Nick is fresh from a three year stint working at Louise Fili Ltd, and before that, Penguin Random House. His book design, lettering and packaging design work is varied and strongly references historical design movements, which he says Louise helped impart. An Italian American, Nick was born in Italy, studied in Japan, and finally found his way to New York City and to graphic design. 

My interview with Nick covers the winding path of this Young Gun’s career, his inspiration, thoughts on having a style and his hopes and fears for the future of his career. 

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Melissa: Your work is very worldly, what influence does travel have on your work?

Nick: One of the things that is inspiring beyond just travel is the expectation of travel. I recently started this personal project that is travel centered, and it came about because I didn’t have any vacation days to use. I was in a really small studio. I would reminisce about past trips or think about trips I’d like to take.

When I do travel I try if possible to switch off and just enjoy where I am and see what comes. I remember an instance when I was working at Penguin, I was working on a book cover design and I happened to be in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico had nothing to do with the book, but there was some lettering I saw on a building. I wasn’t actively looking for inspiration, but it happened naturally and that is the best thing. I find when I am actively looking for something I can’t find it.

Melissa: And how did you end up studying in Japan?

Nick: I grew up in Italy, our high school system there is a five year system. In the fourth year, there was an option to take that year remotely. Nobody seemed to want to go to Japan, that program wasn’t available, so I had to go through an American school to get that to happen. I stayed after the school year was over and worked there awhile. My high school was specialized in architecture and industrial design, but when I was in Japan I was just focusing on the language.

Melissa: You’ve studied architecture and industrial design, how does that background support your current work, or does it?

Nick: It got me thinking about things structurally and visually from an earlier age, but I don’t think there is a direct correlation between the two. There was a period of time between when I studied architecture to when I arrived at design when I studied music in college. When I moved to the states I was a classical music major. Because of that buffer, I don’t see the architectural part and the graphic design part as one leading into the other. I do remember that I wasn’t loving architecture. There was a lot more tedium than I imagined, dealing with building codes and all that wasn’t interesting to me. I transitioned into music and I did that for awhile, but what really prompted the move to graphic design was that I really just wasn’t a talented enough musician to make it in that field, or I didn’t start early enough. I decided to explore another interest I had dormant for some time [design] and I ended up really liking that. 

Melissa: Your work references many different historical design movements. Do you have a favorite time period?

Nick: The studio I just left, Louise Fili Ltd. is really well known for this type of historical design. That experience has helped give my work a stronger connection to history. As far as periods that have a special place for me, I really love Art Deco. I came into my experience working for Louise really loving Victorian typography. It was on trend at the time, a few years ago, and I was seduced by the ostentation of it. Deco is a lot more paired back, it’s more about geometry. But there is a drama and glamor about it that I think is fascinating. I also really love Art Nouveau, which I hear is really popular on the West Coast, or at least in the San Francisco area. I used to hate that style because it reminded me of 60s psychedelic posters, which were influenced by Art Nouveau, just like 80s design was influenced by Art Deco.

There is this other time period that is a transitional phase between Art Deco and Nouveau called Wiener Werkstätte. That is not as played out as the other historical styles. It has the geometry of Art Deco but its a little bit softer. 

The Arts & Crafts movement with William Morris and Dard Hunter is also really fascinating to me, or anything before the 40s; that’s when I start losing interest. I really don’t care about 50s type, that whole atomic look, I’m not into. I can get behind some 60s typography (Herb Lubalin’s work), that over-the-top lettering. Louise worked for Herb Lubalin. Loise is a great in her own right. My excitement and desire to work [at her studio] was completely because of Louise and I didn’t even know who Herb Lubalin was at the time. As far as graphic design history in the states, Herb is very influential. Loiuse would tell Herb stories, just like you would talk about any other boss, and you forget that he was this amazing designer that books are written about. Herb was like a grandfather, his legacy was felt.

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Melissa: Do you feel like you have a style?

Nick: I think about this a lot especially now that I have my own studio. How do I differentiate myself from my old boss? With Louise our tastes and styles matched up from the very beginning, she is leaps beyond me, but our interests were overlapping. It was easy for me to do work that fit within her studio’s output. Now that I’m on my own, the challenge is to figure out which part of the that feels like me and what part needs to be changed so that I can claim it as my own. I don’t think I have a definite style yet, people have told me that I do, but I don’t see it. I would like to.

Melissa: Should designers have a style?

Nick: It’s a big debate. For designers that specialize in lettering and illustration, having a style is encouraged. In design it is somewhat discouraged. Am I just a letterer or am I also a designer, those are the murky waters I am navigating right now. I don’t really have an answer. I don’t know if I want to focus more on lettering and follow in the direction of Jessica Hische or Dana Tanamachi, also alumnae of the studio I worked at. Or do I want to go more towards branding and packaging, more similar to the work that Louise does. Louise has a very definite voice even though she’s not just doing illustrative lettering. On the spectrum of an “invisible” designer to one that has a recognizable style, she is more toward the recognizable style. I’m not entirely sure which is better, I am still figuring that out.

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Melissa:  Do you worry about committing to a style and getting pigeonholed with your fauxsaics project?

Nick: Totally. From the very beginning, before I even started the project I thought about that. I posted my LA fauxsaic because I was going to LA. It was a one-off. I found that I enjoyed doing it and other people really responded. I thought about turning it into a series, but I considered, do I really want to be the mosaic guy? Do I want to put myself in that corner. As the series has grown, it is still on the forefront of my mind. It has given me a lot for a personal project, it has helped me grow my presence online significantly. It has given me a bunch of great opportunities. But I do sometimes feel like, what’s next? How does this project grow beyond what it is. Does it become more experiential, environmental? Or should I move on to something else? I am really interested in the decorative arts in general, things like mosaics, stained glass, wood block prints, and these older crafts. My style might evolve, but my core interests will hover around that for awhile. Something that has that old craft look to it, but is reimagined in a more contemporary way.

Melissa: Italy, Milan specifically is a design hub, and your family has a background in design. What role did your upbringing and surroundings play in your career path?

Nick: My parents were both jewelry designers, and I think that was influential, not necessarily because it taught me to think visually at an early age - which it did - but it forced me to rebel against my upbringing. I gave that direction up to pursue other stuff, which created a more indirect and winding path towards where I am now. It contributed towards my diverse interests. Had I just gone into jewelry design I would probably have had a pretty clear, easy path towards that. My dad had a company already set up, that had his name already on it. But I really wasn’t interested, so I studied music and I studied architecture.

As the years have gone on, I have a more nuanced view of what my upbringing has given me and I am starting to appreciate a bit more what my parents have passed on. The closest I have gotten to jewelry design is designing a few enamel pins, which is pretty run of the mill for designers these days. I don’t exclude the fact that I might go back to something jewelry design-related in the future, but I think it will be well in the future. It’s hard to be flexible enough to change course within a career, because you feel you’ve invested all this time into it. Even now, I’ve invested all this time in lettering, if I wanted to do interior design all of a sudden, that would be a scary move. I hope that if that desire presents itself strongly enough, I would at least to some degree listen to it, or incorporate it into my work and let it guide me toward something new. 

Melissa: It’s your first day freelance, what excites you and scares you about tomorrow?

Nick: I’m mostly afraid that I’ll be really lonely and that I’ll get into bad habits and not be as productive as I could be. Now that there is no clear divider between my personal and professional life, I want to be able to create boundaries for myself. I want to be able to shut off and have a personal life. I haven’t been able to have that in the past because when I got home from work I had to work on my other freelance work. If I’m able to keep those boundaries solid, I think my well-being and my relationship will improve in a way that I haven’t been able to experience. I am currently looking into being represented by an artist’s rep, which is also new to me. I am thinking about how my work is going to have to scale to allow me to support myself. Bigger clients are starting to get in touch, and I don’t know how to price myself and work with them, so having a rep is a nice idea. You have to be able to market yourself in a way that is very different than it used to be. It’s no longer about entering in some competitions, getting in a few annuals and sending out some mailers. I can see how useful it can be to delegate some of this work of self promotion.

Instagram and social media is fickle. If you start to get too sales-y or influencer-y that turns people off. Authenticity is very important as it producing work. Hopefully I will be able to keep up.

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Catch Nick at WeMake Celebrates on October 13.
October 14 Workshop: Learn the ins and outs of historical lettering design with a focus on Art Deco typography.