Derek Brahney set up his studio in Brooklyn after working freelance for a few years as a way to officially separate his commercial work from his artistic practice. “I had gotten to the point where I could finally (barely) afford to rent a small studio space, which felt like somewhat of a milestone,” Derek explains. So when he acquired his new studio he decided to celebrate the fact and name it New Studio, of course.
This name is also a sly wink at the notion of appropriation, however, as Derek – who works across conceptual illustration, installation and product design – pulls from a multitude of references aiming to always work “in a new way, or frame a new perspective, or combine two old things to make something new.” The idea of re-contextualisation is central to his practice – even the New Studio logo is appropriated from the top left corner of the graphic on Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes.
The majority of the work that Derek produces is for editorial purposes, mainly for The New York Times Magazine’s First Words column which is a series of essays “on what language reveals about our moment”. However, he also works across sign painting, set design, packaging, industrial objects, drawing and even sells merchandise through New Studio that upholds the tongue-in-cheek nature of the studio’s ethos.
New Studio’s imagery is diverse in its execution and medium but always the result of some lateral thinking on Derek’s part. It functions as a visual hint of what can be expected from the accompanying article, providing a “lightbulb moment” when you read the specific word(s) that makes the connection clear.
When working on a project, Derek gets an early draft of the piece which he will read over a few times, paying attention to any key phrases that stick out to him. “Often, I’ll get a fleeting image of something in my mind right away – similar to those tests where you are given a word and you’re supposed to say the first thing that comes to you,” he explains. From there, he works backwards – starting with what he feels could make an iconic image and then seeing if there is a way to “subtly add, subtract, subvert or otherwise introduce a conceptual element to it.”
After roughly sketching about five ideas, Derek will present to the art directors and editors: “Despite my best efforts, I never know which one will get picked up and so I have to make sure I can execute any one of them within around 24-48 hours.” This might involve sourcing and ordering props, building something that takes an entire day, manipulating stock imagery in Photoshop or working with materials he already has. “As I work using both real objects as well as fake, heavily manipulated imagery, I always try to give the end result a certain quality that lies somewhere in between, and allows suspension of disbelief,” he explains.
We caught up with Derek and asked him to explain the thought processes behind some of his favourite images.
“The political pieces have been the most interesting to work on for obvious reasons. You are forced to look at both sides of any issue and try to understand the complexities around it, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that may be in this day and age. For this one the word that struck me immediately upon reading the brief was ‘preserve’. I decided to freeze an American flag in a block of ice, which can be interpreted either as being stuck in the past, or the fear of change.”
“The pop up window is a pretty familiar image in the digital world, so I liked the absurdity of being confronted with one in the form of a physical object. I cut out a piece of plywood, traced the graphic and painted it. Tracing ended up being a big mistake because the lines ended up too straight and perfect, and it didn’t really look enough like, well, a scam. So I then had to go back and paint over parts, sloppily redo them, spill paint, chip the corners and bang it around to make it look more suspicious. This was painted and photographed in the span of a day.”
“As much as I enjoy making a detailed, more labour intensive object or image, sometimes a fun game to play is figuring out the smallest gesture that will have the most impact. In this case it was just removing a letter. For this I made a plain tissue box out of card stock, and added the graphic digitally. A few people asked if they could buy these, so I’m making a run of printed boxes to sell.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.