There’s no signage—no hint that this 170-year-old Charleston single house in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina’s buzzing Cannonborough neighborhood harbors a team of designers and brand wizards whipping up whip-smart looks for companies like Google
and MailChimp. There’s just Wiley, a black cat, lazing in the sun and a centuries-old patina of paint on the front door, a nod to the ever-unpeeling layers of creativity waiting on the other side.
This lovingly restored house is Fuzzco’s temporary southeastern headquarters while its new office is being built—its West Coast counterpart is in Portland, Oregon. But it could easily double as a set for a Kinfolk photo shoot (yes, it’s been featured). Weathered wood, marble countertops, Scandinavian-inspired chairs, mod lighting—the interiors are raw and textured, sleek and astutely edited; the ambiance a nonchalant mash-up of timeless and edgy, reflecting the yin and yang personalities of the award-winning design studio’s founders and creative directors, Josh Nissenboim and Helen Rice.
Nissenboim is ebullient, energetic and quick to flash a boyish grin; Rice is reserved and reflective, with an impish twinkle in her eye. He’s the daring cook; she’s the patient gardener. He’s the math major and chess wizard; she studied studio art and loves making things. “I’m spreadsheety,” Nissenboim admits; Rice, not so much, as her darting sideways glance reveals. And, somehow, it all works. Brilliantly.
THE EVOLUTION OF FUZZCO
Launched in 2005, Fuzzco and most everything about it, including its quirky name—the result of playing with words and using a domain search tool to scout out an “available six-letter domain name that was memorable,” says Nissenboim, who is still amazed it stuck—was more or less a lark. The company’s genesis stretches back to late 2004, when Rice and Nissenboim moved to Charleston, Rice’s hometown, after graduating from Macalester College. They had met as sophomores in French class and have been à deux ever since (they married in 2010). Like good liberal arts grads, they spent their early postcollege years doing a smattering of odd jobs. Nissenboim’s stints ranged from working at a software company, at the public library, in a liquor store and a brief, unpleasant experience running an upstart cab company. Rice waited tables, focused on her painting and worked as a studio assistant for batik artist Mary Edna Fraser.
All along, the couple used their self-taught design and computer development skills to do one-off website or logo projects. “Fuzzco was just another thing we were dabbling in, to help friends who needed a website or whatever. We had an old PC from college, and we’d take shifts on it, sometimes staying up all night,” says Nissenboim. “We loved it,” Rice adds.
Turns out their clients did too. Before long, they began entering—and winning—regional marketing and design competitions. Word spread around town, and more people approached them, including James Beard Award–winning chef Mike Lata, who hired Fuzzco to help launch his second Charleston restaurant, The Ordinary, in 2012. Their creative confidence grew, as did their business acumen.
“Figuring out the business side of things has been really fun,” says Rice, who credits Nissenboim’s business instincts for steering Fuzzco’s growth. In 2009, they had begun hiring a small team and moved into a new office. Fuzzco’s Portland studio, now headed by partner Ann Kaufman, opened in 2015.
From the outset, a spirited distillation of artistic whimsy and strategic discipline—Rice’s painterly eye spiked with Nissenboim’s quadratic equations—has been Fuzzco’s secret cocktail. “We’re constantly looking for our way of doing things, of distinguishing ourselves,” says Rice. Though she and Nissenboim are self-taught, they set high standards. “We look broadly, to the best of the best out in the world, for inspiration, and are always pushing ourselves to do our strongest work,” says Nissenboim.
WITH A WINK IN IT
Fuzzco’s creatives are known for producing work that “is playful and a bit subversive,” says Mark DiCristina, senior director of brand marketing at MailChimp, which has tapped the studio for projects ranging from webcomics to playing cards to web design and illustration work. “I ask for the weirdest, most creative stuff they can do, and they just go for it. What Fuzzco delivers tends to have a wink in it. It’s always something a little unexpected and a little surreal, which fits well with the MailChimp brand,” DiCristina says.
Perhaps this knack for intuiting a client’s needs and wants—even when the client can’t exactly articulate it—comes from how clear Fuzzco is about its own brand and culture. “Fuzzco is a point of view,” says Rice. “We are curious, hungry, optimistic, and dogged about making things better and making things that we would want to use.”
After trying out different staffing models, Nissenboim and Rice have honed in on the ideal team size for the type of highly collaborative work that they enjoy doing (about eight to twelve people per studio is the max; the Charleston and Portland studios work independently, but Nissenboim and Rice review the work being done in both offices). They’re intentional about taking on clients whose work they can get excited about and who are willing to take risks. That might be a global software giant or East Fork Pottery, a small but growing artisan outfit in the boondocks of western North Carolina.
Regardless of the project scope or client profile, Fuzzco brings to each its unique spark. According to Rice, Fuzzco looks for an interesting underlying concept and fresh, compelling perspective to drive the work. “There are these subtleties—you think you’re looking at something you might expect, but then there’s something else going on,” she says.
When email marketing automation firm Drip needed a rebrand, its chief marketing officer, Dustin Robertson, looked to Fuzzco. “They stood out—far and away—as the studio with the most creative chops,” says Robertson, who was familiar with the studio’s work for MailChimp. Tasked with revamping Drip’s brand strategy, visual identity, website design, illustration work and art direction for photography, Fuzzco anchored its design with an ellipsis-inspired “power-up” mark (think Super Mario Bros.), a zippy palette and lively illustrations. “In the conservative, sterile space of software, this is the boldest, most expressive brand I’ve launched,” says a pleased Robertson.
Similarly, the digital health analytics firm Evidation Health tapped the studio to infuse its brand with “Fuzzco’s refreshing sense of creativity,” says cofounder and president Christine Lemke. The brief asked for a brand identity that conveyed both science and innovation—but in an approachable way. “I expected all the normal stuff to come back. Instead, Fuzzco introduced this fuzzy electron mark called Eve, and we’re like, ‘Oh my god.’ They synthesized all the jargon and turned it into this character.” Plus, adds Lemke, “They somehow made it painless. They pushed us to uncomfortable edges, but made it fun. They put deep thought into getting to know our company personality and where we were headed—what could be possible.”
A SENSE OF BOUNDLESSNESS
When finessing the rebrand of East Fork Pottery for founders Alex and Connie Matisse, Nissenboim and Rice gave strategic input on repositioning the company and segued into becoming equity investors. “We understand the decisions and struggles that business owners face, which informs how we work with them,” Rice says. “We challenge their ideas of what’s expected and come up with a variety of ways to execute their ideas in ways they may not have thought of,” Nissenboim adds.
The Matisses appreciated that Fuzzco’s creativity extended beyond graphic design. “They approach design holistically. They’re boundless in terms of what they think about,” says Alex Matisse.
Back in Charleston, that boundlessness extends to Nissenboim and Rice’s shared passions for architecture and making cool things. “I think of us as design-based entrepreneurs,” says Rice, who inherited her love for old buildings from her architect father. She serves as the lead for their building renovation and design projects, including Fuzzco’s forthcoming live/work space in another historical Charleston building. They’ve created two small businesses to contain their tangential pursuits: Serious Buildings is the umbrella for their architectural projects and real estate investments, and Pretend Store is where Fuzzco designers partner with clients, friends and manufacturers to “create and sell things we want to see in the world,” says Rice.
Years before she signed on to head the studio’s West Coast operation, Kaufman was tuned in to the buzz around Fuzzco. “Those of us in the design world were always anticipating what we might see from them next,” says Kaufman, who comes from a brand strategy background. And now that she is part of it, Kaufman appreciates that what makes Fuzzco distinctive is simply “its people,” she says. “We’re encouraged to be super brave with our ideas and recommendations, and we see ourselves as collaborators with our clients.”
Nissenboim and Rice set the tone, but Fuzzco is the team: their combined imaginations, curiosities and talents. “If you’ve got good energy and work hard, and if you’re smart as hell and a little odd, that combination is perfect for doing great work, for being a great friend and for business success,” Kaufman says. That’s pretty much the Fuzzco recipe—blur the lines and blend it all up; add some laughter, boldness and a pinch or two of the unexpected. Put it on the sunny porch or the marble countertop, and Wiley or his fellow feline Geri (who, honestly, really run the show) will be the ultimate judge. ca