Cover Story: Powers Behind the Powerhouse Factory

Cool posters, cool art, cool artists

Sean Hughes

Cool Issue 2005

Arbiters of cool know it when they see it, especially when they're making it. The trick is not to act like it, not to be a postmodern poseur of style without the stability of substance.

The pop culture landscape is as crowded as a sports arena in a hurricane with mediocrity being passed off as art. But Mike Amann, Pat Jones, Lesley Smith, Ben Nunery and Clay Brunton — the former graphic design students from Western Kentucky University comprising Covington's Powerhouse Factory Design (PHF) — are out to change all that, one beautiful poster at a time.

In a three-story former tobacco warehouse-cum-department store turned dry goods store that was once an upholstery shop, the young artists have turned a two-year-old printing business into a one-stop graphics shop with a first-floor gallery and retail shop, the Powerhouse Print Depot; a second-floor work space with computers and hand-built machinery; and a third-floor loft living space where Amann, 25, Nunery, 26, and Brunton, 24, all live.

The second floor is furnished with bookcases jammed with source materials for images, several screening tables, drying racks and a large-format printer all on a paint-splattered floor. PHF is tucked neatly between old-school hardware stores, bars and other storefronts on Covington's Pike Street that looks like a Technicolor Mayberry.

The building once belonged to Amann's parents, and he bought it and did most of the rehab work himself.

"It was a shit hole," he says. "The third floor had holes in the ceilings.

I ripped the ceiling out and got a face full of tobacco. They were going to sell it as a shell. We talked about how cool it would be, instead of competing with each other, to work together."

The artists are that rare breed of the much-ballyhooed creative class. They were trained at, work in and return to their clients that which they love — hip, bold, well-designed, hand-pulled posters laden sometimes with an insider's knowledge of music and popular culture that's never condescending or cooler-than-thou.

"Sometimes we'll notice some things about the band or read something," Nunery says.

For example, Nunery says he put a lawn mower in PHF's Black Keys poster because "fans know (guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerback and drummer Patrick Carney) met working at a lawn service. That doesn't mean anything to the average person."

Think of their trademark two-color, 9-by-24-inch rectangular posters stapled to telephone poles and tacked to the walls of seedy bars around town announcing gigs for De La Soul (festooned with an early '80s break dancer) at the Mad Hatter or Interpol (with the Afroed black girl in bright blue) at Southgate House that not only catch your eye but also end up rubber cemented to your own kitchen wall, and you've been bitten by PHF's design.

Like stair stepchildren in the same family, each PHF designer eventually graduated from college, taking outside jobs while working PHF's mojo until each could afford to be brought into PHF's fold full time.

"It's always been our goal to just be working here," says Jones, 25. "Ben just signed on full time. Until now, he had to hold down an outside design job. We hired (him) instead of taking a pay raise."

Smith, 24, is the final of the five partners still balancing her duties at the studio with an outside job. She's a graphic designer at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"This is my night job," she says. "It's really nice to sort of leave the corporate world and come here and do good design work and hang out with my friends from college."

Late on this Thursday afternoon, Smith, on her way to an appointment, is dressed in the separates of young corporate America while the four guys are barefoot or wearing flip flops, weathered T-shirts, shorts, jeans and overalls. The care-free environment isn't free. They hustle so every day can be like casual Friday.

"Our corporate clients pay the bills that allow us to have this underground aesthetic," says Jones, who numbers the Freedom Center, Procter & Gamble, the Contemporary Arts Center and Huff Realty among PHF's corporate design clients.

Meanwhile, the bands that have benefited from the collective's graphic interpretations rank among the brightest in modern music. The Greenhornes, Bright Eyes, Interpol, North Mississippi All Stars and Black Keys are listed among a four-page e-mail of all the musical acts sporting PHF posters.

The Powerhouse Print Depot officially opens Friday, the night of CityBeat's Cool Issue Party that the PHF crew is hosting. The shop will sell framed and unframed PHF prints as well as contemporary art prints from other artists, shirts, hoodies and toys.

You'll know cool when you see it.

POWERHOUSE PRINT DEPOT holds its grand opening at 8 p.m. Sept. 16 at 30 Pike St., Covington.