“My goal,” muses Brian Stauffer one warm December day as he pilots a 25-foot time-share Proline across choppy Biscayne Bay, “is to keep moving forward.” At 30 mph, the boat bumps mightily. “For me, that means moving deliberately. I might not be fast, but I move ahead, one step at a time.” He checks on his passenger. “Feeling seasick?” he asks. Affirmative. “Well, in a few minutes we’ll be in calm waters. Hang in there.” He pushes the boat to full throttle, exacerbating the bumps while hastening my torture’s end.
Physically imposing at 6 foot 6 inches and 250 pounds, Stauffer is hard to miss. His voice booms as he speaks of his passion for his life, wife, children and work. He has led a vivid life, swan diving off 50-foot cliffs, cold-camping and fly-fishing amidst Alaskan Grizzlies and diving wrecks off Florida. One could conclude that Stauffer fears nothing. Think again. Gail Anderson, then of Rolling Stone, once made him vomit in fear five times, but more on that later.
When Stauffer was young, his father, Joseph, a telephone line-man, and his mother, Bonnie, an art teacher, left the suburbs of Phoenix for the town of Prescott, Arizona (pop. 20,000). There, he found trees, hills and mystery. It ignited in him a lifelong interest in nature and discovery.
“It was wonderful,” recalls Stauffer, “small, safe and filled with adventure. You could cross the entire town in five minutes. Mom and dad let us camp overnight four miles behind the house where we’d explore old mines. We once found an old-style plunger detonator. Dad (who is an accomplished water colorist today living in Pasadena, California) would also build tree forts where we would fend off imaginary invaders.” Of equal influence was Stauffer’s mom, Bonnie, now assistant dean of the art school at Yavapai College, who cultivated in her son a spirit of freethinking and empathy, traits that would enrich his life and inform his work.
His parents were very involved in social work. One of their regular volunteer jobs was for a drug rehab center where they would lead discussion groups. “Often they’d take my sister Chris and me with them to these rehab centers and we would watch TV with these ex-convicts covered head to toe in prison-tats. They’d watch over us like we were their children. We were never frightened.”
These experiences brought to Stauffer the ability to see life through a different set of eyes, often of someone less fortunate and sometimes someone brutalized or dead. Empathy and insight help an artist discover essential truth. Asked about Stauffer’s capacity for insight, DJ Stout of Pentagram says: “I love illustrators--so don’t take this in a negative way—but sometimes the message gets lost in the delivery of the art. I think it is because of Brian’s art director/designer experience that he’s able to take a complex subject and turn it into a beautiful, succinct visual statement.”
This brevity is clear in his cover illustration for the Miami New Times illustrating a story of a serial killer who stuffed victims inside suitcases and tossed them into a river. It is evident again in his November 10, 2008 cover for The New Yorker concerning the election of Obama. Of the latter, Stout says, “That simple rendering of the light at the end of the tunnel for The New Yorker cover hit me like a freight train. It was memorable and more powerful than any 5,000 word essay could ever be.”
Françoise Mouly, long-time art director for The New Yorker, said that the cover actually anticipated the election because it went to production the week before, appearing November 3, the day before the election on November 4. "At the time, we were all hopeful and exhausted from the political process. We did not know how to articulate what we wanted after Election Day. Brian Stauffer’s illustration came to us. It succinctly expressed what we all felt: hope.”
In 1984, Stauffer followed sister Chris to the University of Arizona in Tucson. Like many middle-class kids, he worked several jobs to support himself through school. It took Stauffer five-and-half years to get through college but, he says, he learned some valuable lessons, not the least of which was the realization that beyond friendly Prescott lived a mean, dangerous and fascinating world.
Upon graduation from U of A, his professor, Jackson Boelts, advised him to get some real experience. Stauffer signed on with a small design firm outside Phoenix doing ads for a shopping mall. There he worked on every aspect of the job, from concept to paste-up to production to print supervision. “I hated it,” he says, “but I learned a ton.”
As an antidote to boredom, Stauffer teamed up with some other young designers to launch Zone, an underground arts and culture bi-monthly. It was his first real taste of deadline-driven editorial design and he liked it. The magazine won a lot of local acclaim. “We’d work in shifts, four days in a row, with very little sleep. We had a cot, we’d take turns sleeping. It was great.”
In 1992 the Phoenix New Times offered Stauffer a job as creative director. It was his first paying job as an editorial designer. It was a job that would change his life.
A FINE LINE
At the New Times, Stauffer saw how design is more than page décor. It could help bring about change if associated with an important story. Writers at the paper were known for their fearless reporting, unmasking and defrocking corrupt politicians, perverted priests and sleazeball businessmen. Stauffer’s job was to distill their stories into a single image that summarized the story and pulled in readers.
“I learned that design could capture imagination and drive readers to stories of significance,” remembers Stauffer. “But I also learned that inappropriate design could sabotage an important story if it trivialized it. There’s a fine line between distilling something to its essence and oversimplifying it. You have to be careful.”
Stauffer also had to read stories, create artwork, lay out spreads, supervise print and push it all out the door quickly. “I’d often write my own headlines to explain my concepts, but I rarely had time to sit back and enjoy my work. I loved the idea that you’d see your best efforts laying by the road covered in mud and tire marks a few days later.”
Stauffer liked the New Times, but not Phoenix. The publisher of the paper liked Stauffer’s work, and when he learned that Stauffer wanted out of Phoenix he offered him a job at a sister paper in Miami. Stauffer took him up on it.
Stauffer left for the Miami New Times in 1992. He remained there until 1996, working on projects that involved some of the nastiest people and some of the most gruesome murders. At the Miami paper he gathered critical acclaim.
Still, Stauffer considered himself a “graphic designer,” one who hired illustrators but didn’t do it himself. Then things begin to change. “My art budget kept getting cut,” he remembers. “And even though there were generous people like Matt Mahurin and Steve Brodner willing to work for the New Times for less because it was an instrument for social justice, I got tired of asking for favors. So I began creating collage illustrations juxtaposing found objects manipulated with Photoshop.”
Eventually, Stauffer decided to send some of these early illustrations to Edel Rodriguez, a family friend who was an art director at Time in New York City. Rodriguez replied by sending back a bunch of quality color copies of the same images Stauffer had sent him. He included this message: “Put this work out there and see what happens.”
Recalls Edel Rodriguez, “At the time, his work was mostly subtle juxtapositions, not as illustrative as it is today. But the ideas were concise and the images had impact. I began hiring him at Time and we ended up working together for ten years. Brian always could distill a complicated story into a simple and smart visual.”
Stauffer got his first big break in 1995 when Gail Anderson of Rolling Stone called him to create a three-quarter-page movie review of To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. It was his first illustration assignment for a national magazine—and it made him nauseous with fear. He threw up five times the night before the deadline.
In 1996 Stauffer joined Miami’s Pinkhaus, but admits, “After years of car bomb death threats at New Times, designing brochures about custom wheel packages for the Mercedes S-Class series just did not do it for me.”
His next big break came when he was offered a job as creative director at an Internet startup in Connecticut. It was 1997 when Stauffer joined Star Media and, like many others during the dot-com boom, he saw a paper fortune rise and fall in a matter of months. And like the Pinkhaus experience before it, the Star Media role quickly became unfulfilling. So he left, renting a 2,000 square-foot loft in the financial district, two blocks northeast of the World Trade Center, where he could focus on the kind of work he wanted to do.
No longer distracted by dot-coms and managerial headaches, Stauffer put his energy into illustration. On weekends, he and his wife Alina would stuff envelopes with samples and mail them out. Alina was pregnant with their first son. Life was good.
On September 11, 2001, Brian and Alina, then seven months pregnant, watched from the rooftop of their loft building as the second plane hit the South Tower. One of the plane’s engines flew over their heads and landed two blocks away. When the towers fell, office paper embedded in the small gaps between their windows and frames. They evacuated with their Chocolate Lab Chip to New Jersey, until they were allowed to go back.
Like thousands of Ground Zero survivors, they were traumatized by the events surrounding 9/11. Moving back into their home was not an option. “When I looked into Alina’s eyes, I knew all she wanted was stability. Ground Zero was not that. We packed up and moved back to Miami, toward family and old friends,” remembers Stauffer. Andrés, their first son was born in November 2001. Fourteen months later their son Julian was born. Now they had a family in Miami.
PEACE AND PROSPERITY
Today, the family lives in a seventies-era modernist home in South Miami not far from the University of Miami and Coral Gables. The Wright-inspired, white, one-story, flat-roof house is shaped like a horseshoe surrounding an azure swimming pool. All rooms face the courtyard wall through generous sliding glass doors. The yard is lush. It’s a scene that makes you envy Miamians—despite the murders, heat and humidity.
The boys romp and carry on. Alina manages the operations while Stauffer retreats to a small quiet studio at the rear of the property. The phone rings constantly. Jobs roll in, large and small, some well paid, others not so much. Stauffer works hard and has a lot to work on. It can be stressful. He says he sometimes struggles to keep his focus and maintain his temper. That 25-foot Proline fishing boat helps.
If the esteem of his fellow illustrators is any indication, Stauffer just keeps getting better, too. Illustrator Marc Burckhardt says, “Brian is one of the smartest image makers I’ve seen in twenty years: He creates art that respects intelligence while speaking to the emotion of the story. He’s been on both sides of the artist-designer relationship, which means he clearly and quickly communicates his visual intent.”
We are back on the boat, heading in. Stauffer slows the engine to a crawl as we pass beneath a huge bridge. We are in a Manatee zone. After safely clearing the area, Stauffer guns the boat, sending us racing over the tops of three-foot swells. The bumps return, but the ride will soon be over. We speak of family and friends, water and mountains. What more could two 40-something men expect from life? Is this as good as it gets?
“My mantra?” asks Stauffer. “Never peak. Improve yourself one step at time.”
We approach the dock. A red ski boat obstructs our path. Stauffer calls out to the dockhand for help. “Hey amigo, would you mind backing the boat in for me? That red boat is kind of in the way.” He looks at me and says, “I don’t do reverse very well, either.”
Never peak. Move forward. Never reverse. The essence of Brian Stauffer, in words. ca