Dan Ibarra and Michael Byzewski are well positioned to make a statement about their place in the Minneapolis (MPLS, if you’re hip) design scene: Two floors above Nate’s, an 80-year-old men’s clothing store and its rusting neon sign that has admonished Minneapolitans for generations with “Fashion First.” It is an appeal Ibarra and Byzewski take seriously. These guys are all about fashion. The Aesthetic Apparatus aesthetic is more life choice than look. Think JCPenney brown corduroy rather than Versace patent leather.
The Aesthetic Apparatus studio lies in the heart of MPLS’s happening warehouse district. Among these dark and weathered buildings toil the MPLS creative superpowers: CSA, Duffy, Fallon, Design Guys, Carmichael Lynch and Wink, to name a few. And these old buildings are tricked out to boot. People take indoor living seriously in this city of long, dark winters. Through brightly lit office windows, many interior spaces are transcendent. You can almost smell the fine coffees brewing in the well-appointed staff kitchens. You can imagine a Barovier&Toso chandelier beckoning guests to come enjoy the warm buttered comfort of a Vitra sofa.
Then there’s Ibarra and Byzewski’s less prepossessing, let’s call it Retro Ghetto or Slasher Fabulous, studio. One arrives at Aesthetic Apparatus feeling lucky to be among such imagination. One leaves feeling lucky to be alive. Gone are the Herman Miller lounges and Noguchi floor lamps. Bamboo flooring? That’s for children. Let’s strip the floors down to cold concrete. This isn’t just any MPLS studio—this is the set of a slasher film with inky gore splashed everywhere: walls, floors and ceiling. Skeletal drying racks rattle at the touch. Army issue desks sit grim and gray. In the center of the room, the American Eagle silk-screen press hulks. This is the hardware of the workingman. Dependable, young Jonathan Schuster answers the single office phone with aplomb—and low batteries. Then the design connoisseur spies the pièce de résistance: the bathroom, where screens are emulsified, stripped, scrubbed and dried, where long black rubber gloves hang over a tub stained black by goo, where walls weep long, dark tears of dried red ink. This isn’t interior design—this is state’s evidence.
Beyond workspace, of course, personal history also helps define Ibarra and Byzewski. Like many MPLS design notables, their roots tap the grain-filled Great Northern Plains, where principle, practicality and plaid intersect. Neither man came from a background that allowed for languid summers by the lake reading poetry. But they did come from educated families whose intellectual interests allowed their young men to pursue artistic interests without question or taking out the belt. They look back upon those years fondly.
Says Ibarra, “My parents both had advanced degrees. But I barely made it out of high school. My grades were too low to get into the state university where dad worked, so I went to Madison Area Technical College. I thought I’d end up repairing eyeglasses or something.” Ibarra’s gift of gab, radio voice and storytelling skills helped pull him through. Family history helped, too. Still, his Venezuelan-born father’s native language never took. “He might’ve used it to say things around me that I wouldn’t understand,” Ibarra says. As he grew older, Ibarra’s interest in his heritage bloomed. He toyed with the idea of moving to Venezuela until a relative there told him his Ibarra name could be unpopular with the Socialists and his U.S. passport might put his life in danger. He chose MPLS not Caracas.
Byzewski’s youth was perhaps more vivid and less surreal. Raised in the small town of Christine, North Dakota, just outside of Fargo, his father was a prosthetist and his mother worked in the medical field. They nurtured their son’s artistic inclinations. His grandfather, C.P. “Buck” Brodahl, had a big influence on him too. A sign painter after WWII, then later a display artist for a department store, he ended up as the chief graphic artist for the Home of Economy in nearby Grand Forks. “Simple, not flashy, is how I would characterize his design vocabulary,” recalls Byzewski, “and he instilled this principle in me. I wish I could talk to him now.”
Unlike his business partner, Byzewski did well in high school where he graduated near the top of his class of eighteen. “I like to mention that the one art class that was offered to me in high school was taught by the shop teacher,” adds Byzewski. He then entered the highly regarded design program at Minnesota State University in Moorhead—the same program that educated Haley Johnson, Jeff Johnson of Spunk Design Machine, Scott Thares of Wink mpls and Sharon Werner and Sarah Nelson of Werner Design Werks.
After college in 1998 Byzewski took off for Madison, Wisconsin, for an internship at Planet Propaganda. It was there that Byzewski and Ibarra met. It is also where Ibarra met Kelly, a graphic designer who would later become his wife. “My first memory of Dan was an incident that made it clear we shared a lot in common,” says Byzewski. “We had the same sense of humor. We liked the same kind of music. We started hanging out at the local music scene together.” This led to their first collaborations as screen-print poster makers. Initially, it was a creative diversion, suggests Ibarra of their poster-making, “Because cross-dressing was too damn expensive.”
Kevin Wade of Planet Propaganda was never bothered by their work outside the studio: “If their moonlighting affected their work at Planet Propaganda, it was in a positive way. My partner Dana Lytle and I always challenged them to push as hard or harder on the client work as they would on their own projects. And for the most part they did. Once things took off and they started getting recognition for the AA work, the writing was on the wall. They’re both pretty entrepreneurial, and you could see them dreaming and scheming about blasting off on their own. We didn’t want to stiff arm them.” Ibarra and Byzewski left Planet in 2002 with only $2,000 in their pockets. They managed to convince a bank to lend them $6,000 for computers and a silk-screen setup. They rented a little white house in St. Paul where Dan, Michael and Michael’s wife Holly lived and worked. From the beginning, they got by on the posters. “Through the years,” recalls Ibarra, “all our posters were, and still are, sold through our own site. They sell online for $20 (cheap!), $5 at shows (holy shit! cheap!).” Getting the work was quite straightforward. Explains Byzewski, “We’d search the club schedules, call and ask if we could do a poster. They’d say, ‘We have no money,’ we’d say, ‘We know,’ and then they’d say ‘OK, then, call the band’s manager in L.A. or New York.’ The band manager would ask, ‘You any good?’ We’d tell them yes, and then it was ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
While they make it sound like anyone could do it, talent helped. Over time, they built a great reputation in the area for cool posters that motivated die-hard fans to buy and crowds to come. That’s about all the bands and clubs care about. So the more successful the posters (a.k.a. telephone-pole marketing), the more big clubs and famous acts came to Ibarra and Byzewski to design posters for them.
They relocated the studio to MPLS in 2004. I ask about their plan. They look at me like I am speaking Martian. “Business plan?” says Byzewski. “Yes, the plan is to have no plan.” I ask Ibarra to explain the company name. “At the time we were making posters with Kevin Wade for his band P’elvis. When we started making posters on our own, we thought they should be associated with Michael’s music zine Readyset... Aesthetic! So we tagged ‘Apparatus’ onto the back of that name to suggest the manual labor of screen printing. It was always intended to be part of a larger thing. Then the poster-making became the largest thing—then, the only thing.”
At any rate, the guys have plenty of work and beer to keep them going, even if the work is not the kind that makes you rich. First of all, it’s labor intensive. Each color “pull” takes up to an hour to dry. “You print in layers,” explains Ibarra, “so you have to set up, say, the blue screen, line it all up, then print all the blue first and let that dry. While the blue is drying you set up the red, line it all up, pull all the blue printed sheets off the rack, print on them all over again until you’re done.” Even with their ’60s American Eagle vacuum lock silk-screen printer (“our secret weapon”), a three-color poster can take an entire afternoon to setup, print and dry, not including the time to conceive the artwork, make the vellum films and transfer them to nylon screens. Now, multiply that by an average print run of 200.
While silk-screen posters are to Aesthetic Apparatus what The Whopper is to Burger King, it is not the only thing the guys can do. They also do scads of book covers, print materials, CD covers, beer ads, logos, toys and “therapy tools for schizophrenics…OK that’s a lie.” But perhaps their greatest accomplishment—outside the hygiene kit for Blue Q and Steve’s House of Charm—is their design of Burger King’s royal crown. Really, the one you’ll get now if you ask. “That crown is an icon of American childhood. Its cultural relevance led us to the job. I’m not sure there’s another job for that client that we would’ve considered doing.” Have it your way: Pick one up at your local Burger King.
While Aesthetic Apparatus has steady business, neither Ibarra nor Byzewski take it for granted. With children in the mix and other responsibilities, I ask the pair if growth has ever made them think differently about their free-spirited approach. “Not really,” says Byzewski calmly. “Sure, when you have a family, money issues crowd in, but having new responsibilities has not changed our work. People come to us because they like our approach. They don’t ask us to be something we are not. We’d be incapable of it anyway.”
On a related subject, I ask Ibarra if he thinks Minneapolis has influenced how they think and create their artwork. In a rare serious moment, his response was thoughtful: “Midwesterners tend to be practical people. The history of the region’s art and craft is not a story about classic beauty or intangible value. Instead, it is more about resourcefulness and purpose. Here, art needs a purpose to go to work: Artwork is for a dime store, a design needs to hold the door open, a photograph dresses up a beauty magazine. That’s why I keep so much of that kind of stuff around here. I reference it all the time. To us, art should be tangible, collectable and stackable. Design is work, not merely self-expression.”
The final morning of the visit, we meet for one of those oversized Midwestern breakfasts that made America great and obese. Afterwards, I take another look at some posters. I find myself drawn again and again to the one-of-a-kind test prints. I ask them if others find such prints irresistible.
“It’s funny,” Ibarra says, “we spend weeks on a poster and sometimes it’s these test prints and overprints that are the most interesting things we make. I see it as a testament to the power of nature, mistakes, happenstance, the things that the human mind can’t conceive.”
“It is,” states Byzewski, “random beauty. That is what people like.” “Randomness that you created,” I add, “because you choose to do this kind of work rather than...” “...The kind of shit that sucks the soul out of you and leaves you feeling suicidal,” Ibarra concludes.
Leave that stuff for the guys across the street. They’ve got bigger bills to pay. ca