Victorian typography. Sleek Art Deco architecture. Millennial vibrancy. Where the Cincinnati cityscape tends to be a pastiche of industrial and post-industrial aesthetics, designer James Billiter has an eye for capturing the historical moments that comprise the whole.
His current exhibition at Covington’s Pique gallery — which moonlights as an Airbnb — focuses on the architectural makeup of the Greater Cincinnati region. Of the prints you’ll find hanging in the lobby, many distill a neighborhood or landmark to a typeface and a head-on illustration of the building against a solid black backdrop. The defunct-but-beloved Marianne Theatre represents Bellevue, the city’s name inked in the same boxy letters that top the marquee. Carew Tower’s city block seems to jut out of the frame as Gatsby-esque fonts display the structure’s specs: “completed 1930, 49 floors, 574 ft.”
Each of these prints is uniformly inked in shades of black and gold.
“I think the colors unite the Victorian and the Deco era,” says Billiter, pacing the gallery in a pair of custom-made Vans that feature his own drawing of the Cincinnati skyline. “I try to use interesting inks because I love the process of printmaking. Sometimes in everyday graphic design, it’s all about digital printing, where you’d just have this interaction with the office printer, but they print 11 x 17. I love going larger and getting really experimental with the ink choices.”
That experimentation often goes beyond color and texture — many of Billiter’s prints are directly connected with their real-life counterparts. The ink used in his Fountain Square print was mixed with water scooped straight from the fountain itself. And each print of “Cincy Beer City,” a boozy tribute to the Roebling suspension bridge, contains the remnants of a flight of beer.
Warning: Licking the print is ill-advised.
“That’s the interesting thing with printmaking,” Billiter says. “Each one you receive is both a duplicate and an original.”
Billiter’s larger pieces almost resemble infographics, supplementing images with educational text. A map of Ohio, which isn’t hanging on the wall but is included for sale, pairs round, iconic images with fun facts about each. Kewpee Burgers’ cherubic mascot towers over Lima, a giant buckeye sprouts from Columbus and an almost obligatory cheese coney bridges the gap between Cincinnati and Covington.
You could picture it hanging in a classroom, radiating childlike curiosity and ’70s nostalgia.
“It’s like when you were young, there were moments in school that could really strike a passion in you. This one’s inspired by that,” he says. “And I went back, and I did all these labels around things that were in Cincinnati. From far away, you see Ohio and these colorful emblems, but down below you can live with the print and learn new things about your state.”
Billiter’s not just a native to Cincinnati — he’s also a native to design. Growing up in the ’80s, he’d watch his mother work on commercial art of her own. She worked in the age of paste-up design: Photoshop’s craftier predecessor that required artists to arrange vinyl letters and shapes on a sheet, rubbing them down to paste the work together. The sheet would be photographed, duplicated and then distributed.
“I’m not sure if it’s nature or nurture, but my mom and I have this thing where we both go into tons of detail,” says Billiter. “Once we get into a groove, we’re almost obsessed. We can keep going.”
You can trace Billiter’s meticulous style back to 2004, when he animated a TV spot for CityBeat’s Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. The camera floats through a shadowy cityscape, sneaking through apartment windows to reveal an actor rehearsing his monologue and a band mid-practice. For a short, goofy ad, there’s an impressive amount of detail taken to flesh out the short flashes of metropolitan backdrop that appear between cuts.
This early work doesn’t just hint at Billiter’s penchant for condensing as much digestible information as possible into the canvas — it also may have subconsciously sparked his preference for black and gold.
“I made the whole cityscape just for about one second of the actual commercial,” he says. “I had to get that overall ‘wow’ factor. But once I got into it, I really loved that escape. The passion kind of leaves a mark on your soul — even down to a color palette.”
In Pique’s back room — just outside the bedroom that guests can rent — Billiter displays his laser-cut pieces.
A cream-colored replica of Music Hall’s Rose Window sits above the fireplace, while its miniature twin hangs on the opposite wall. A tiny cityscape spans the latter cutout — a paper piece made to simulate looking out at OTR from inside.
His bas-relief woodcut of the skyline is the room’s best offering — smoky and multi-layered, it’s a sculpture you can’t help but imagine climbing into and permanently occupying.
Budget-conscious art fans who’d like to take Billiter’s work home with them can take solace in the gallery’s prices. A large portion of the prints can be purchased for $10 to $30, which Billiter says helps make his work more accessible. (Prints are available for purchase at billiterstudio.com.)
“I couldn’t afford artwork when I was starting out,” he says. “It was intimidating. By being a printmaker, I could create an original piece that’s affordable in different sizes. If I can make a piece that’s $15, that’s something that a college or high school student can afford. And to break down the intimidation of owning artwork, I’ve made my artwork standard frame sizes so someone could go to a store and buy a frame the same day.”
James Billiter: Selected Works 2004-2009 will be on display at Pique (210 W. Pike St., Covington,) through May 31. More info: piquewebsite.com.