ometimes it’s hard to explain what we do because it’s still evolving,” says Philip Valois, designer and co-founder of Reptiles+Rainbows, a multidisciplinary design studio he began in early 2013 with designer, art director and life partner, Carla Morales.
Valois and Morales operate out of their Oakley home where they’ve lived since 2006, when they moved to Cincinnati for little more than an unpaid internship at Lightborne waiting for Morales, a recent Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate at the time. Since then, they’ve carved a niche for their signature cute but creepy design aesthetic by involving themselves in projects both big and small — assisting on commissioned collaborations but also crafting self-driven visual “experiments.”
The first time the duo met, 15-year-old Valois was passing out flyers for a Punk Rock show, and he dropped a bag of M&M’s while crossing a street in Providence, R.I. Then-16-year-old Morales, who was in town for RISD’s pre-college summer program, helped him pick them up, and her future husband and collaborator offered her some candy straight off the ground.
Although many probably had to do so in college, most designers aren’t typically those who look to get their hands dirty in the process of art creation. However, that is exactly the kind of thing that Morales and Valois enjoy.
“We get caught up in it,” Valois says about their commitment to being a part of the fabrication process. And hand dip-dying T-shirts or screen-printing directly onto the metal backs of buttons are the kinds of things that keep them pushing the proverbial envelope on experimental design.
After they moved to Cincinnati, Valois finished his graphic design degree at Northern Kentucky University, which he says felt was more effective at setting him on an established path for a job than figuring out something new to do. However, he admits it also taught him about setting limits and breaking them when necessary.
It was quite the opposite experience of what Morales had at RISD — a balance of influences that likely assist the two in pushing their artistic instincts but remaining somewhat practical in their aesthetic endeavors.
“When I was in school, no one ever limited you or cut you off,” Morales says. Her instructors actually prided themselves on not teaching any computer program. “They thought, ‘You can learn that on your own or take a class for it on the weekend. You’re here to learn art.’ ” Which meant that she had to take lessons in her free time to learn Photoshop and Illustrator — programs most employers would expect holders of graphic design degrees to already have a working knowledge of.
But Providence (and its connection to the D.I.Y. culture of underground artist collectives like Fort Thunder and Dirt Palace) remains a lasting influence on the two. It taught them both a lot about being self-initiated.
Music and their involvement with bands over the years have also been crucial in helping to create the R+R design aesthetic. In college, Morales was a member of Neon Vomit, an all-girl Pop-Rap group (with token male DJ “Beautiful Swan”) that served as an outlet for the designer to create clothing, props, flyers, album covers and various handmade iterations that are all essential to the branding process.
Valois was also in several Punk bands (and currently shreds guitar for Temple alongside fine artist Jimmy Baker and fellow graphic designers Jason Snell of We Have Become Vikings and Brandon Hickle of Southpaw Prints) and he nostalgically reminisces about record assembling parties and the hand-printed flyers made for underground shows that were all over his hometown growing up.
Individually, Valois designed the exhibition catalogue for Keith Haring, 1978-1982 (a show that stopped at the Contemporary Arts Center, among other museums), Rock posters for bands like Crystal Castles and Best Coast while working at Powerhouse Factories and, three years ago, landed a job as designer for skateboarding company Alien Workshop — an opportunity that he says was “like a dream come true” for the longtime skateboarder.
Morales, who has handmade more than 600 Fancypacks — part decorative accessory, part functional bag — now only does so for custom orders and by request. She had to quit doing them because she could no longer afford the investment of time and didn’t want to outsource the production.
Morales also served as visual director for Brazee Street Studios for more than three years, helping with all creative decisions regarding the overall brand for the glass studio and even teaching glassmaking toward the end of her tenure with the organization.
Together, the two have done book design for Blue Manatee Press, creating layouts for the small local children’s book press, illustrating hand-drawn type for book covers and engaging illustrator friends like Andrea Kang and Nathan Jurevicius of the Scarygirl comic series to collaborate on the ongoing series of projects.
With R+R, the two designers try to balance their instincts for totally self-initiated projects and work they do on commission.
R+R began on a whim and a genuine interest in playful visual experimentation. The resulting brightly colored bug-eyed snake has become a common design element in R+R work and might be an apt summation of their two visual languages: Valois’ interest in the imperfection of the hand drawn line and Morales’ penchant for kawaii color.
Inspired by an entry in Valois’ third grade class writing prompt journal in which he wrote, “the most beautiful is… reptiles and rainbows,” the two hand sewed and stuffed the colorful snake and then made an alphabet out of it.
Despite not knowing what the future might hold for Reptiles+Rainbows, Valois and Morales hold a very flexible attitude.
“In reality, I think things are gonna change and our minds are gonna change about how we want to do it,” Phil says. “I’m not going to sell myself short on one pipe-dream for the other.”
For more information on REPTILES+RAINBOWS, visit reptilesandrainbows.com.