On a recent visit to Covington's design firm BLDG Refuge, the lower floor contained scattered in-progress projects and pieces from past work. Of the former were 8-bit foam renderings of classic arcade characters, most with a Greater Cincy twist and heavy on Super Mario references.
That's for Bitland, an installation that runs Oct. 10-13, BLDG's contribution to BLINK, the popular light and art experience that will cross the Roebling Bridge into The Cov this year. (You can check out the in-real-life video game world next to 19 W. Pike Street, across the street from BLDG, which is at 30 W. Pike St.).
But, as evidenced by their maximalist space filled with odds and ends (fake moose head wall hangings, concert posters, racks of cool t-shirts, art supplies), BLDG, which does graphic design and identity branding for a diverse set of clients, has a lot going on. The firm recently grew after acquiring Over-the-Rhine studio We Have Become Vikings in August, which brought their employee count to over 25. Specializing in graphic design, print, interactive, illustration and motion graphics, WHBV has worked on projects and campaigns with Northern Kentucky University, the Art Academy of Cincinnati and Landor, as well as several other local and national clients.
After touring its three stories — the first a storefront, the second a meeting/hangout/production spot and the third more of a hip office space complete with dogs and a skylight — I sat down with Jason Snell, founder of WHBV, and Andy Cluxton, BLDG's director of communications, to chat about the merger and hopes for the future.
CityBeat: I wanted to ask how the merger between BLDG and We Have Become Vikings came to be?
Jason Snell: Basically, just knowing all the work that BLDG has done for years. We competed for stuff in the past and it's one of those things where something came through my door — a pretty big project that I was like, "There's no way I can even do this with my smaller team," and I hit up (Jay Becker, BLDG's president) and said, "So man, what do you think about tackling this together?" As we started on that relationship, we worked slowly on what that looked like, what that could be. But with that Ohio River between us? It had to stop. We had to bridge that.
If I was going to go somewhere, I wanted to be with like-minded folks and to be able to actually bring my team along… which I've invested a lot of time into. The whole team here (at BLDG) was pretty, pretty down with that. So I think, for the most part, it's been pretty — there's always going to be new processes and things like that — but I think we're aligned to have a pretty big future.
Andy Cluxton: These guys have brought so much production weight in-house; when you can take a design from the computer screen to the real world — and (do it) confidently — that's a big thing.
JS: I really think there's something about building a team out. For me, for so long, it's always just been me on an island. Vikings, I always wanted that to look like it was 25 people did the work… but then there are stressors with that. You don't get those weekends back that you filled up and having a kid and the constant struggle of keeping doors open and paying bills — that stuff starts to take weight. Even looking at what these guys are doing and the breadth of work. And, really it came down to just seeing Jay work his magic. I've never seen a guy hustle and close deals (like him).
I always wanted a Jay at Vikings, I just never could never find them. So I was like, "Let's go with (BLDG)." And this space is just this huge playground that everyone's continuing to add to, which is really exciting.
CB: Can you touch on any future projects or upcoming projects?
JS: I'm not sure what's allowed to (be talked) about and what's not at this point, which is really fun, too, right? We have a couple of really big sexy projects that, I mean, some powers of the world have tweeted about. (Laughs)
AC: It just goes from many ends of the spectrum for us, because right now we've got guys out painting murals on basketball courts and then there (are others) painting a giant 45-foot-mural at (the corner of 5th & Madison Ave.) But then at the same time, inside these walls, we're doing T-shirt production. And then upstairs, we're doing branding for everything from the City of Covington to Everything But the House. So it's a very wide spectrum of things going on.
JS: I don't think there's any creative shop in town that is nimble enough to be able to turn on a dime, and not only fabricate the designs in the real world, but also continue to do that at a pace that's really amazing. When you see some of these big holding company agencies that take years to get things passed through — because there are so many middlemen in-line there — I think a lot of that, even when the clients come in the door, they leave that at the door, which is really cool to see people get excited with. You walk into, really, an art museum here, which is pretty cool.
For more info, visit bldgrefuge.com.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity