Many people know Mark Smith from his work at Nike as Creative Director of Special Projects for Nike Innovation, where he's been instrumental in the designs of the Air Yeezy, the Air Raid, the Air Moire, the Air Jordan 20, the Air Jordan 23, and many more of your favorite sneakers. Most recently, his designs have brought Jordans to the golf course, as seen on the feet of golfer Keegan Bradley, and he made custom Air Jordan 3s for Drake to wear in Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video.
Like most great designers, there's an intriguing, inspiring story about how they ended up making products that seem ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives. In the case of Mark Smith, he's always been a visual artist, whether he's making acrylic paintings, clay sculptures, laser-cut wood pieces, or simply illustrating. Naturally, as we found out in our interview with him, his nights making art have informed his days designing shoes, and vice versa.
We spoke to Mark about the various kinds of art he makes under the name HEDCHEQ, ahead of a to-be-announced fall exhibition titled "TYPEFACE." He tells us how his work has gotten into the collections of Tom Sachs, DJ Clark Kent, and others, in addition to his opinion of all the sneakers and sneaker-inspired clothing on the runway during this spring/summer 2015 New York Fashion Week. Keep up with his art on Instagram and learn the advice he has for aspiring artists below.
Your dad is a printmaker and your mom is a bookbinder. How did your parents encourage your artistic upbringing?
My father just gave us blank sketchbooks, pens, and pencils. It was the time before digital media, and we only had four or five channels on TV. There was great music back then, too. We would just sit around and draw; he would teach us stuff. We never felt like we were being pushed into it or anything, so it was fun.
Has HEDCHEQ always been working alongside your career as a designer? Where does the name HEDCHEQ come from? Is it a persona? Does it symbolize something?
HEDCHEQ started as an idea. I was either going to be a shrink or an artist, a designer, a musician, or something like that. In college, the parallels for the name were art and psychology. I realized I was more messed up than any patient who would walk in, so I decided to do art instead.
Art has always influenced my design, and design has always influenced my art. The day and the night life have basically fueled each other all the time. It's a 50/50 mix, and I'm super fortunate to work at a place that actually encourages whatever creative thing that I'm doing.
They've always supported it. If there's an art show, they come out. The boss shows up and enjoys it, sometimes even buys stuff. In the mid-'90s, I was playing in a band. I remember one night, Mark Parker, the CEO, was on the stage floor with a big, old video camera recording the entire thing. They’ve always encouraged my efforts.
As soon as I learned all of the rules, breaking them is the fun part—creating your own new rules around typography.
When did you get into typefaces? How did that inform the title of your upcoming exhibition, "TYPEFACE"?
When I was a kid. In school, you learn the alphabet. You learn it by repeating and drawing it over and over.
But I was fortunate, because my parents always had really great books. They had these old, hand-written books and manuscripts from the 1600s around the house. I just visited my dad over the weekend, and he reminded me of this guy named Edward Gorey. Gorey was a great illustrator and storyteller who did limericks and rhymes. We grew up on that stuff. He handwrote everything. I loved his typography, but I didn’t know it was typography at that point. It was just really cool writing. Somehow that just locked into my brain.
As soon as I got into school and started doing design at Art Center, and even before then, learning typefaces was really important. It was before computers. You had to draw each letter of the typefaces and learn the ascenders and descenders and so on. I really enjoyed it. As soon as I learned all of the rules, breaking them is the fun part—creating your own new rules around typography.
How did you come up with the "TYPEFACE" concept to have ceramic heads and then bring in other mediums, as well as typography?
It was more of an assembly of things versus saying, "I'm going to put a show together." It was almost like I found out I was doing it instead of going into it saying, "I'm going to do it." Two years ago, we went to Europe for my parents’ anniversary. As we were going through, I was really inspired by the ceramic—all the over-sized sculptures that had lasted over time in the middle of these old squares that stood over and told the masses to be good. From 10 feet below, the heads are actually larger.
Then I started looking at sketches and asked myself what I wanted to create. I realized I had been doing typefaces on characters for a while. Putting it into three dimensions was the next step. The name "TYPEFACE" was just putting them together: type and face. I didn’t come up with the name until I was going through a redefinition of what I wanted to do.
That's when I put my first and last names together. My mother is a booksmith, and she rebinds old historical things—that's a smith. My dad is a printsmith, and he does everything regarding printing. When I realized what I actually do, I learned I was a marksmith; I make marks. As soon as I put MARKSMITH together as a single word, then "TYPEFACE" came out of that.
I entered Art Center in the advertising department, and I got halfway through it. But then I realized, I didn't want to do the ads for these products. I wanted to design the products I was doing ads for.
How do you choose the subjects in your portraits? You’ve depicted well-known people like Marvin Gaye, Einstein, and Marilyn Monroe, but are you trying to be in dialogue with other artists who have depicted them?
I like recognizability through abstraction. I try to take the distance read of a person, like the familiarity of somebody or an iconic image. When you walk into a room, you might see it from 10, 15, or 20 feet away. It's gotta be recognizable and photographic. As you get closer and closer, like when you go to touch it, I don’t want to have any recognizability. It's almost like a real human. You think you recognize who they are, but when you get really close, they're all pretty messed up and made up of random parts that you might not recognize as that person individually. But when you assemble all of the pieces together, you become who you really are. When you see something from a distance, and it's recognizable, but then you get up close, it's an assemblage of individual parts.
The reason I like recognizability is because I like old movies better than new movies. Old movies have smarter dialogue; they had to be a little more clever in getting a point across. It's fun to play with recognizable, historical icons. I just think they were class. There was a time when men wore suits, and ladies were ladies. Then there's a bunch of darkness underneath it all that I try to explore.
I think Marilyn is a perfect example of that.
Yeah, when you get up close to that one, it's a real mess.
You posted a "perspective notebook" on Instagram from your time at Art Center. Do you collect a lot of your notebooks? Do you use them as references, or do you often take your old ideas and adapt them?
First of all, a notebook is a notebook. It's an assemblage of thoughts and things that happened during that time. It's almost like a journal. I can look through the journal, and it's my life. I can see where I was, and there are even notes to myself and to other people, telling me either to "do this" or "don't do that." I just don't throw those away.
That particular notebook is very different from anything else I’ve done, because it's very technical and tight. It's precise. I remind myself that I can do that stuff by looking at it. Sometimes I teach younger people how to exaggerate through perspective, which is a holistic, symbolic approach to everything. I usually pull out the Perspective Notebook to give a little life lesson on perspective through drawing.
What kind of work were you making when you were at Art Center? Were you focused on going down the path of becoming a designer? Or were you just focused on just creating, in general?
My first degree was in advertising in San Diego. I entered Art Center in the advertising department, and I got halfway through it. But then I realized, I didn't want to do the ads for these products. I wanted to design the products I was doing ads for.
Halfway through, I switched over to product and graphic design and packaging. I was still doing fine art, drawing, painting, and defacing public walls with some sort of art. And then I started actually getting hired to do that stuff and making money. It was really nice to get paid to draw. This was definitely "before computers" or what I like to call "B.C." I was in the right place at the right time, to be hired to do storyboards in Hollywood for TV shows, theme park rides, movies, and stuff. I got paid, and I could finish out school, which was nice.
At that point, I was also building guitars, doing ceramics, painting, and drawing. It was all one thing, as far as I'm concerned.
Things changed a lot, especially working with Tinker. He would look through my sketchbooks, and I would look through his. One day he said, “I want to see you take some of your drawings and make your product like that.”
What have you brought from your art practice into your career as a designer and vice versa? Where do they connect? Is it all the same thing for you?
I really tried to keep things as separate as possible for a long time. I felt like my job at Nike was to do product and to design for a public company. They weren’t paying me to be artistic. I wasn’t going to work for them so they could pay me to do my thing. I was really respectful of that.
Things changed a lot, especially working with Tinker. He would look through my sketchbooks, and I would look through his. One day he said, “I want to see you take some of your drawings and make your product like that.” I was like, "Are you sure? 'Cause it's some pretty dark stuff. There's some pretty gnarly stuff." At that point I was doing pretty heavy stuff. He said, “Absolutely. I've never seen anything like it before.”
When I put the two together, it sparked a different approach, and the worlds merged. Always my art is influencing my design work, and my design work is always influencing my art. There's no separation now. There's no "go to work" and then "come home" with a time difference. It's all one continuous time—creative time. I would say that whatever I’m working on at home ends up bleeding into my style at work. Its pretty trackable.
They’re all the same ingredients, whether you're working on footwear, apparel, graphics, design, illustration, ceramics, music, production, or video. You could speak to a film producer or an architect or a sculptor, and without knowing what they do, they’re all going to use the same terms that are applicable to their discipline.
At work, even just the other day, I was laughing because as I was walking down the halls, I saw some of my work in the executive offices, like for four or five people.
How has your art gotten into the collections of people like Michael Jordan, DJ Clark Kent, and Tom Sachs?
I just give my stuff away, and they can’t throw it away! [Laughs] I meet a lot of people through work, but we connect through creativity.
For instance, Tom Sachs was working with Mark Parker, and he told Tom to meet with me. We sat down on a couch for four hours and just talked. We realized that we were kindred spirits. He was really concerned about doing a project with his antithesis—a big corporation. He's Mr. Art guy. His style is a middle finger to everybody who has everything and is big and huge. We connected on an artistic level about telling stories and doing things that were not corporate. Then he realized that we would get along on this work project really easily. He trusted me, and I trusted him, as artists. I was interviewing him, and he was interviewing me, but we were just doing it through a conversation. We would show each other our sketchbooks and stuff that we were working on. Somehow we ended up trading art all the time, which is how he ended up getting into my stuff and vice versa.
With MJ, it was just by the pure fact that if he sees something, and he likes it, I know what to do. If it's work-related and he likes it, I know what to do, and if it's art-related and he likes it, I know what to do. It's really cool to walk into his office and see a huge print that I just sent on a whim. Next thing it's framed in his office, because it spoke to him. With each person it's a connection through creativity; I don’t really market anything.
At work, even just the other day, I was laughing because as I was walking down the halls, I saw some of my work in the executive offices, like for four or five people. My KISS collection was bought by a VP. There are four or five VPs who have come to my shows and just purchased the pieces; they didn't have to, they wanted to. For instance, I didn't know that Eric Sprunk is completely into KISS, and the next thing I know, my painting is hanging up on his office. It's just funny.
I don't market it. I'm just telling the story on a gallery wall.
The Jordan 20 is a great example of an unintended result...having them all there together but then starting to put them in all different directions and using the laser to keep true to their detail.
Your bio says that you gravitate towards unintended mistakes. What are some of the best mistakes or accidents that you've made creatively?
Unintended results are usually at work. If I'm going down a path, and I'm trying to solve a problem or tell a story, I do more of a dump where I'm taking elements from all around. I put them together and see where I am.
The Jordan 20 is a great example of an unintended mistake. I had been doing print graphics for an assemblage of icons. But I wasn’t planning on doing that. I was looking at how to tell these stories through icons, not words. They were all really organized. There was one for a "first car" and a "high score," and I had about fifty of them.
Then I started asking for other people's input, in terms of graphics. I was wondering how the hell I could put them all together, and then it just hit me. The unintended result was having them all there together but then starting to put them in all different directions and using the laser to keep true to their detail. That was not intended; it just happened. It was really late at night and definitely on my own time. It just sort of came out.
The next morning, I came in and put it on the table, and I just hadn't seen that before.
Some of the other stuff is in music. I love playing wrong notes mid-way through something, so I can just resolve it. It's almost like a head twist or a misstep on the dance floor. It's funny. I always look to comedy or humor to inform. What we make is stuff people want, not what they need. So I figure if you want something, you have a little more leeway to play with it.
Like you were saying with film and the way it used to affect us culturally, where do you hope or envision the world of art and design is going? Especially now since kids may be using iPads instead of sketchbooks.
I like all the technology. What's happening in film with 3D cinematics and the "virtual world"; I love that. I love the real art stuff. I love what my parents do, as well. I like how they keep the old world alive. However, what I found really interesting is how we can slam all of those things together—old and new.
For instance, the term "graffiti" doesn’t apply anymore to what the old generation expectation of it was, which was tagging words. It's a high art now. What I like about it is that it's temporary; it's gonna get painted over. I think there's so much time and dedication that goes into it. I'm very inspired by how that world has come together.
It's storytelling. I was just speaking to graffiti artist Toz of the FleshBeckCrew (FBC) in Brazil. He has found a way to be positive about what he does. He inspires kids and works in schools, but he's also one of the most respected guys on the street. He's a great example of bringing his own personal, cultural stories together, through his characters, and bringing them together with modern technology.
My kid is studying video game design. We have these conversations about where it's all going, whether it's that you put a chip in your head and then everything is in 3D and alive. A game won't just be about shooting up, you'll be able to create everything in the world.
Learn the rules in order to break them. I want to know why things worked in the past, so I will always study the masters who represented a story, like great etchings and paintings of the past.
How do you think streetwear has positively (or negatively) influenced what's showing up on the runway, especially this NYFW S/S '15 season? Do you think there's anything particular about this moment in fashion that has made way for sneakers' increasing appearance and influence on the runway?
I think fashion is always looking for "cool" to slam into whatever seasonal "story" they have conjured up. And some sneakers will always be cool.
When you designed Tuxedo Dunks for Narciso Rodriguez's shows in '05 and '06, did you feel like it was a risk at the time? How did that collaboration happen, and what made it super stealth?
I was fortunate to work with Narciso on his runway footwear in a way that allowed us to just put together the right look, minus any product marketing or "expectation"-related distractions. We had the opportunity to keep things very fluid and focused. The stealth was just in getting it all done under the radar and seeing the finished results accent and support the direction of Narciso's line.
The tuxedo dunks had enough "range" to fit the breadth of his line. We were able to stay directly connected throughout the entire process and kept it fluid. We had a lot of fun.
What advice do you have for young designers?
Learn the rules in order to break them. I want to know why things worked in the past, so I will always study the masters who represented a story, like great etchings and paintings of the past. You might look at it and think that it's just a portrait, but then you start looking deeper into the background and there's social commentary. There are historical facts coming to light that people maybe didn't want to come out. It gets camouflaged in a beautiful image that people recognize as a portrait.
So I say learn that stuff and get really good at it. If you're gonna do portraits, you gotta get the eyes right or you're screwed. You can be really good at the rest of it, but if the eyes aren't right, I just have to look away.
Learn the eyes, learn the rules, and redefine them by doing your own thing. Most of all, draw. Keep drawing.
Are you allowed to say anything about the shoes that Drake is wearing in the "Anaconda" video?
That's where my day and night life come together. That was funny, because we actually made those shoes for another event. We delivered them to him overnight for that event. He asked us if we had anything special, and Reggie Saunders (Jordan Strategic Initiatives Director) reached out to me, so I showed him something, and he was like, "Holy crap, that's really cool." And then we were watching and watching the next night, and they didn't show up. We didn't see them. What he wore actually ended up making more sense.
Next thing I know I'm getting a link from like 12 different people, no words, no description, just a link. I clicked on the link, and I'm at work, and I see Nicki going off. I was like, ok, cool, but I had no idea why they were all sending it to me. Then I saw at the end of the video, the minute where Drake's wearing the shoes. I didn’t think anyone would notice the shoes, because I didn't, but it was cool to make them for him. At first I thought that maybe he didn't like them, because he didn't wear them at the one event, but then I guess he liked them a lot to wear them in that video.
Lenticular film is something I've been playing with at work a lot. You'll probably see a lot more of that coming up soon.