Interview by Noah Davis (@noahedavis). A freelance writer living in Brooklyn, Davis has written for The Wall Street Journal, New York, and Sports Illustrated.
Todd St. John is a master of many trades. At his HunterGatherer studio, the Oahu-born, Brooklyn-based designer/animator/filmmaker effortlessly jumps between mediums for clients including MTV, The New York Times, and Nike. In addition to the film and design work, there are beautiful products such as a stunning wood grain skateboard and the mind-bending Dali-esque Pink Floyd tee shirt.
In his Gowanus studio, St. John talked to Complex about balancing it all, how his unusual business model became trendy, and his recent focus on product.
In high school, I was actually more interested in music. But I think design appealed to me because you could contain a lot of these different mediums within it.
You do all kinds of things. How do you label yourself? A designer? An animator? A filmmaker? Or maybe just a creative person?
I always struggle to have a short answer for that. I don't worry about it too much. I tend to think that there are some ideas that run through all of my work. Instead of doing a lot of different thematic things all within one medium, I'm actually fairly focused on some of the ideas I deal with but I try to extend them across many mediums. Instead of slicing it thinly one way, I'm slicing it thinly the other way.
Like vertical integration vs. horizontal integration?
Yeah, that's kind of the thought. A lot of times, I'll finish something, look at it, and think of other ways that it manifest itself elsewhere.
Did you focus on any discipline first?
I'm trained as a graphic designer, but it wasn't the first thing. When I was a kid, I did a lot of animation. My parents sent me to camps. In high school, I was actually more interested in music. But I think design appealed to me because you could contain a lot of these different mediums within it. Once I started working in design for a couple years, I tried to add on to it here and there. I started with a wide variety of interests, narrowed down to design, and then slowly started to expand out again. When I first started, we did a lot of products like tee shirts and pillows as well.
HunterGatherer has been around for about 10 years. Why did you start it?
Before this, I had been working at MTV as an art director, and I had also been doing a lot of product stuff. They were almost two different worlds. When I left MTV and went full-time on my own, I wanted some place where all that stuff could exist together. It was going to be partially client and video and partially product.
Has that plan worked? It seems like HunterGatherer is your public-facing brand, while you say that your personal site is for more experimental stuff. But really, it's all you.
It's kind of evolved. When it first started, I put it all under HunterGatherer. The studio is still small but it was really small, so it made sense for it all to be there. Then it got bigger and things fit less well, so I broke it off a few years back. Initially, there was a lot more product, and I feel like it lurches over the years. For a few years, I might concentrate more on animation and not do as much product, and then it will switch back.
You just do your thing and it's automatic. Teaching forces you to articulate what you're doing, why, and how you're doing it.
Did you see yourself as a businessman?
I haven't ever though of myself quite that way, but inevitably that's a big part of what you do. You are running a business. But I also like that. I intentionally ended up with a studio where I come into work. I actually really like working with people. I wouldn't like it if it was just me doing my thing, and every few months I would put on a show. That really wouldn't be that much fun for me. It's designed in a way that works for me.
Does dealing with the non-creative side get frustrating?
Whenever we've done product stuff, in your head it's like you get the idea, you get it made, you sell it, and it's great. In reality, 5% is designing it and the rest is getting it made and dealing with logistics. It takes a lot of drive to get it done after that first little creative part is finished.
What stuff have you done recently that you're particularly jazzed about?
There have been a couple of animations that are coming out in a few months that have been fun. I actually have been gearing a lot more back toward products. There are a few projects I can't go into because they are not fleshed out, but basically, I've been working a lot more on product designs. Some are with other people, and some are on my own. It's about getting enough of those things to a point where we can put something together.
Will that be a store or a website?
Probably somewhere in between the two. There are a couple things right now that I'm working on with other people where they will have a hand in producing or something else. I'm also working on some other stuff that will be more handcrafted.
What's one way that the design world has changed in the past 10 years?
When I first started the studio, the idea of having something that was partially client and partially product-based seemed like a bit of a strange thing to do. I would have to explain it to people. I think now it's not strange to people.
Are you still teaching as a graduate critic at the Yale School of Art?
I'm not still doing it. I did it up until a year and a half or two years ago. I taught video and film to grad students. It was something that I never thought about doing, but that I fell into largely by accident. It was interesting. One thing that happens when you work with yourself is that you don't always have to articulate what you're thinking about. You just do your thing and it's automatic. Teaching forces you to articulate what you're doing, why, and how you're doing it. That was really good. You step back not just from what you're doing but what the whole world is doing.
Did that make you a better designer?
Yeah. It knocks you out of your rut. You have to be in a conversation.
Portrait of Todd St. John by Scott Albrecht.