For artist and designer Geoff McFetridge, clean presentation is the result of deep rigor.
Words by Jamie Brisick | Art by Geoff McFetridge | Photographs by Julien Roubinet
Light / Dark
When Geoff McFetridge was a student at CalArts in the 1990s, he passed through a set of double doors to get to class every day. In neatly stenciled letters, the door on the left said COMMERCIAL and the door on the right said ART.
The students who were paying attention were being asked to make a choice. McFetridge was definitely paying attention, and very consciously did make a choice. With one hand on each door, he passed down the middle. And it’s made all the difference.
“Geoff is so thoughtful and intentional,” says Spike Jonze, who first worked with McFetridge 25 years ago at Chocolate skateboards and has since worked with him on nearly all his films. “You can see it in his fine art, in how intentional every line is. But also, when we’re working together on projects, I just love the discussions with him. He’s always trying to understand it from inside of the feeling. Graphic designers are so much about what’s visual, but with Geoff, first and foremost, it’s about what it feels like.”
“He’s one of the smartest, most intuitive people I’ve ever met,” says Chris Malloy, who’s collaborated with McFetridge on Patagonia projects over the years. “When you have an idea for a concept, he’ll give you 50 iterations. Then he’ll walk you through every single one of them and tell you where each came from, what that inspiration was, and what he thinks the audience will feel. He’s super gentle and quiet and insightful—and he’s a good listener.”
“Geoff’s really good at being collaborative, and also at taking the reins and doing what he wants,” says Vans global marketing manager Nolan Hall, who’s worked with McFetridge on a variety of projects. “He puts a unique perspective on things we see in our everyday lives.”
I’ve had my own experience with this. I knew McFetridge a little, shared mutual friends and interests, and followed him on Instagram. One day he posted a drawing of a human hand alongside a feral and beastly hand, the two connected by a pair of handcuffs. At the time, I was having a bigger-than-usual fight with my own id/ego/superego. I messaged him saying how much I loved the drawing, and he wrote back asking for my address. A week later, it showed up in the mail. I got it framed and hung it above my bed. Not long after, I was flipping through an old magazine when I came across his Pepsi One logo. The design had mass-market appeal, yet the human-beast drawing seemed to speak solely to me.
“How does he span such a range?” I wondered.
“This is sort of the brains of the operation,” says McFetridge, pulling out sketchbooks stacked atop a pristinely organized desk. “Everything starts in the sketchbook, often with thumbnails. The book doesn’t know which is which, so literally something from one project might become a part of another project. The goal of the studio is a building up of knowledge where one thing informs the other thing.”
McFetridge and I are standing on the second floor of his two-story studio in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village. Across the room, Jesse Sanes, McFetridge’s sole assistant, works at a computer. On the walls hang his large-scale paintings, one of which is a turquoise cutout of a couple dancing Matisse-like on a matte-black background. I ask what he means by “the studio.”
“Having an art practice,” he says. “It’s the ongoing project. The studio doesn’t care if I’m doing art or design. I learned a long time ago that having a studio was the perfect way to balance any of those questions I might have of ‘Should I be doing that? Is this selling out? Is this useful and moving me forward?’ It’s just all coming through the studio.”
Clad in chinos, a tee and denim work shirt, a beige beanie, and a white mask, McFetridge speaks emphatically, with lots of hands. He’s vascular and vibrant-eyed. He shows me watercolors from a trip to Montana, sketches from a visit to Zarautz for the Vans Duct Tape Invitational, and drawings for something called the “caucauphony of individualism” [sic]. We talk about his many hobbies: surfing, skateboarding, skiing, running, and cycling. I mention my favorite bike store, Golden Saddle Cyclery in Silver Lake. “I did all their logos,” he says. That’s the thing: He’ll do Pepsi One, he’ll do Whole Foods, he’ll do Apple. Then he’ll do the mom-and-pop gig. He points to a page of small thumbnails for his forthcoming music video for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Matt Sweeney.
“I spend a ton of time developing form,” he says, “because I’m a believer in form. So I’ll draw this however many times until I might feel like I want to paint it. Then I’ll scan it, choose the colors, refine the form. Then I’ll take it to the next stage, which is going downstairs. It’s design process, the equivalent of readying art to go to press.”
Growing up in suburban Calgary, Alberta, McFetridge had what he called “vivid, fully immersive experiences.”
In one, he saw the world upside down. In another, he looked in the bathroom mirror and saw himself with no skin. In yet another, he was the letter T.
“I was in the alphabet. And it wasn’t like I was in the alphabet—I was the letter T. It was a nightmare. I was standing in the middle of the room with my arms out, saying to my parents, ‘I’m a T!’ and they were calming me down and putting towels on my head. I had to give up my identity as a human and become a graphic, a letter.”
The younger of two brothers, McFetridge started skiing when he was 3 and skateboarding when he was 12. He’d been drawing for as long as he could remember, and the skate world only piqued his visual sensibility.
In high school he made punk and skate zines, drew on skate decks, and designed T-shirts for bands. That led to paid gigs designing skateboard and snowboard graphics.
In 1993, he graduated with a B.A. in commercial art from Alberta College of Art. Later that same year, he moved to Southern California to attend grad school at the venerable California Institute of the Arts.
“I went in thinking I was going to learn about design,” he says, “and I made garbage design. But I was indoctrinated into being conceptual, [learning] how to speak about work, how to be criticized, and how to be abused. And I learned the most valuable lesson of all, which is, ‘It doesn’t matter what things look like.’ At CalArts, I learned how to think.”
After getting his MFA in 1995, he went back to designing skate and snow graphics, albeit with conceptual underpinnings. “It was like, ‘Can I have a thought and have it be expressed visually in a way that I’m not ashamed to show to my friends?’” he remembers.
McFetridge’s career took off when he became the art director for Grand Royal, an irreverent, all-over-the-map magazine founded by the Beastie Boys. That led to jobs with Milk Fed, X-Girl, and X-Large, as well as animation for film and television. “I had the realization that design is the way I talk,” he says. “Everything that I needed to say, I could say with design.”
Skating a halfpipe in Topanga Canyon in the late 90s, he met the super-hyphenate Takuji Masuda, who introduced him to surfing at Malibu on a Herbie Fletcher–shaped longboard. As a seasoned skateboarder and snowboarder, he took to it easily.
“I was never exposed to mainstream surfing,” says McFetridge. “The first surf movie I saw was Morning of the Earth. I’m beyond the shortboard/longboard rivalries. That’s the good thing about coming to surfing late: I just don’t care.”
By the end of the twentieth century, McFetridge was living a quintessentially LA lifestyle, with lots of surfing, skating, and skiing. In 1999 he did graphics for Sofia Coppola’s feature directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides, and Jonze’s first feature film, Being John Malkovich. In 2001 he had a solo show, The Rock Machine, at ultra-chic Colette in Paris. Mainstream clients started banging on his door—Nike, Gap, Stüssy, MTV, Hewlett-Packard, The Standard Hotel—and have been ever since. In 2013 he did the graphic interface and much-loved LA Metro map for Jonze’s Her. In 2018 he did animation for the Amazon series The Real Thing. Last year he worked on the Apple Watch, Saut Hermès, and a couple of projects with the musician Pharrell.
The flip side of being hugely in demand is that you can lose touch with what you’d be doing if left to your own devices. As Martin Scorsese famously put it, “Do one for them, do one for you. If you can still do projects for yourself, you can keep your soul.” McFetridge’s maxim might be “Do all for you—just make them think you’re doing it for them.”
“In the early days, I was taking work out of my sketchbook and delivering it to clients,” he tells me. “It was a trick. I wasn’t messing with these clients; I was actually giving them more than they ever asked for. It was always going to be personal.”
McFetridge’s work was exhibited in the seminal Beautiful Losers show at Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati in 2004, and he’s a thoughtful and articulate presence in the film of the same title. In 2011, he and skateboarder Lance Mountain designed a skate ramp installation for the Art in the Streets exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The artist Craig Stecyk tells me there were skaters riding it at the show’s opening, and that the flying boards nearly took off heads. “Attending politicians and social titans scrambled in survival mode,” says Stecyk. “And their response to the inherent danger constituted the wholesale deconstruction of both societal and institutional methodologies.”
In 2016 McFetridge won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Communication Design. In 2019 he was awarded the AIGA medal for “deftly relating design to time-based considerations—film titles, music videos, envisioning of AI—and vibrant sculptural forms, and for welcoming graphically-charged outsider/street subculture into the mainstream conversation.”
“The way Geoff has combined his commercial graphic aesthetic with fine art and conceptual art is astonishing,” says Trace Marshall, who recently did a podcast with McFetridge for Brothers Marshall Radio. “He can take the most complex ideas and portray them in the simplest line drawings, with a single stroke of a pen.”
Flipping through old sketchbooks, of which he has hundreds, McFetridge talks about drawing and his undying devotion to it. I’m reminded of the Zen maxim: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
“Whether it’s surfing or skating or backcountry skiing,” says McFetridge, “I like to do the things I’m not good at. Partially because it’s something new, but also because it might take ten tries, and you do it on the 11th try. I have no interest in the trick I can do every time; that starts to disappear on you. And I think drawing is like that. I can definitely have a day where everything I’m drawing is bad. And it’s actually sort of magical, like, ‘Wow, everything I’m drawing is bad today!’ Then you come back from lunch and it starts coming together. I guess I like process. I like that you’re making stuff along the way. To make paintings, I have to make 40 drawings. There’s this trail that’s like a memory.”
McFetridge takes me through a stack of boxes filled with previous work. Wrapped in folders is the evolution of projects, from first sketch to final product. “When you sell a painting, they go away. So part of my documentation is that you have this process, which is the most important part, that you get to hang onto. The reason I draw when I travel is I know that by drawing it I’ll always remember it. Which is not the same as taking a photo. Drawing is how I hang onto things.”
We talk about designing stuff for brands versus making paintings and drawings for exhibitions. I ask if he wishes he could solely do fine art. Without hesitation, he says, “No.”
“Once something’s developed, it comes downstairs,” McFetridge says, leading me to a spacious room with a painting space at the far end of it. “The idea is that I can come here and not be thinking anymore. I mean I am, of course, but it’s more mechanically. Upstairs, it’s ideas. Like, it can be anything. Down here, it’s more problem solving, technical stuff.”
Standing amid drafting tables and canvases and paint and screens and machines I can’t identify, I make the obvious surfboard connection: Upstairs is the shaping room and downstairs is where the airbrushing, glassing, and sanding takes place. Skateboards lean in the corner alongside a slick fixed-gear bike. Paintings for his upcoming show hang on the wall. Everything is well organized, as is he. It occurs to me that he’s implemented design into his art practice, which is to say that there’s none of the shaggy, brooding, absent-minded artist about him. He’s fully present, empathetic, accessible. His many spinning plates are shelved neatly in his brain the same way they are in his sketchbooks and in his studio. I get the sense that he could give a fantastic TED Talk.
McFetridge lives with his wife and two daughters in Los Feliz. His days start early. He has breakfast with the family, gets outside and does something physical—bike, run, skate—then hits the studio “from about nine to five.” Much like his tour of the space, his mornings are dedicated to creative work and his afternoons are more mechanical. He refers to his studio and work process as an “ecosystem” and says, “I procrastinate by making work.”
I ask if there is a project he’s most proud of.
He mentions the logo for Joel Tudor’s Duct Tape Invitational. “I had the opportunity to do something for somebody I admire and who is a big part of my understanding of surfing,” he says. “But the most important project is running a design studio as a conceptual art project.”
He leads me into his painting studio. Taped to the wall is a large sheet of paper with three teenage kids painted on it. Clad in loose-fitting clothing, they look like skaters seated on their boards, but there are no boards underneath them, just blank paper.
“The paintings come easy,” he says, “but they come out of everything I know. They utilize all my skills, they’re the apex of my thinking, and they’re also sort of quiet.”
On an adjacent wall hangs another large-scale painting, this one a triptych of a girl carrying what looks like a dog or a cat or maybe a wolf. In the first image she holds the animal the way you’d hold a sleeping child. In the second image she appears to be pouring love into the animal. In the third image she seems to be disappearing into the animal. I’m reminded of the drawing that hangs on my bedroom wall.
McFetridge notices me studying the painting.
“I realized a long time ago that if you root it down,” he says, “everything’s about how we get along with ourselves, which is the same as how we get along with each other. Everything’s about human relationships, about explaining how we get along.”