Inside a darkened theater on South Lamar Boulevard in a dog-eared section of Austin, Texas, writer-designer-restaurateur Christian Helms is hosting seven of us for lunch and a movie. Helms wants to show off one of his most exhilarating clients, Tim League’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Playing is The Artist, the trophy-sweeping silent-film homage about the life and near-death of one artist brought down by his refusal to embrace change. Assigned to write about one of the hottest young stars in the creative industries, I find theatrical parallels in the choice of this popular film.
Sitting next to me are Helms and five young colleagues sharing more in common with the film’s upstart ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) than the silenced aging has-been George Valentine (Golden Globe winner Jean Dujardin). Scribbling notes in silence, I see what my role would be today. I look for another hook upon which to hang this story’s hat. On cue, she arrives, a real-life ingénue, in the guise of a barmaid serving up a rich plate of irony.
She saunters up to take our order. As she approaches, Helms orders a favorite, Fire Eagle American IPA by Austin Beerworks, a client for which Helms alone built from scratch a branding system, nomenclature, print promotions and a delightful website.
She gives the baby-face Helms a skeptical head tilt. “ID please,” she demands. In this cow town, it takes more than just a new and pretty face to get what you want. Helms hands over his driver’s license and, as our server checks birth date, then photo, then compares both to the beaming face in the dark, one can almost hear her eyebrows slam into the ceiling—and her eyeballs explode from her head. Christian Helms is 35.
CHRISTIAN UNDER RADAR
Helms is no golden boy, he’s married to Jenn (née Hatley), and the proud father of a baby-boy, Nuevo Hatley. Though Austin is loaded with creative thunder and lightning, Helms, through his many enterprises and interests, has created his own sound and light show. So, while it might be awkward to be asked for proof of age at a client’s store in the presence of a reporter, Helms is proof that a youthful appearance provides one advantage to a grown man: With the element of surprise, you can create an impressive storm.
Helms has operated beneath rock star radar long enough to improvise a career out of whatever strikes his fancy by applying his interests and talents under other names and guises. This has bought him the time to mature outside the glare and enervating effects of national media attention and local envy. Now Helms is ready for his close-up, even if he thinks otherwise, “I kind of wish Communications Arts had called me five or ten years from now,” he admitted with chagrin, “when I’d achieved enough to warrant this much honor and attention.” His Southern charm and humility are not cynical, as established pros around Austin-like Sean Carnegie, Dave Kampa, DJ Stout and Helms’s former boss Bryan Jessee of McGarrah Jessee—will attest.
To most, Helms is known for Decoder Ring, the Austin-based design-poster-specialty print shop. But its three founders shut down the Decoder Ring design practice so each could pursue their own interests. Helms now leads his own studio for the first time—Helms Workshop—where he is stretching his mental legs by putting into action a unique Austin custom: Here, if you don't (yet) know how to do something, you call in a friend for help. Austin is a town of cross-purpose professionals, where designers can sing, guitar players can paint, musicians can cook, shoe designers can make movies, songwriters can design album covers. “We Can Do That” ought to be trademarked as the town motto.
So, how did Helms, former journalism student and resident of North Carolina, get here? It all started with a young boy who was eager to get out of his conservative hometown.
CHRISTIAN AND THE MASOCHIST DRUGGIST
Bessemer City, North Carolina, lies south of the Southeast's financial capital, Charlotte. Founded in 1754, it was chartered as a mining city, named for the Bessemer process, the first successful method of making steel at a low cost. According to the city’s website, “Bessemer City is still in the mining business.” And it is still the type of small, conservative Southern town that creative young people like Helms long to leave.
Raised by parents who worked in local textile mills, he a personnel manager and she a nurse, young Helms never traveled far from home and says he wasn’t particularly popular in school, but he was raised right: He made good grades, worked hard, butted heads with his dad on occasion but always loved and respected his parents. “I worked at the town pharmacy soda fountain scooping ice cream. The pharmacist, who owned the place, used to push over dumpsters in the alley behind the shop then make me clean it up to instill ‘character’ in me. My childhood was only unusual in that small towns like Bessemer City are rarer now.” He recalls Saturday nights when his parents would relax with whiskey sours and listen to beach music. “I was happy at home, but parts of the town were steeped in some Southern traditions that made my skin crawl—like racism. I wanted to see more, and UNC-Chapel Hill, which my parents generously paid for, was my escape.”
In fall 1994, Helms entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's famed journalism school, which gave us Roger Mudd, Charles Kurault and Bill Moyers. It was there that he first realized “graphic design” was something you could do for a living; he’d always like to doodle and draw but never gave it a thought as a vocational possibility. Upon graduation, Helms looked into Portfolio Center (PC) in Atlanta, where he entered graduate school in 2001, on his own dime. There, his innate drawing skills, especially typography coupled with his geeky interest in advertising and type collectibles and other ephemera, coalesced into something far more practical: design skill.
CHRISTIAN AND THE EVIL GENIUS MENTOR
Michael Bierut entered his life in his final year at PC when Helms was selected for an internship at Pentagram New York. “I learned more there in four months than I did in all my previous years in school. All I had to do was listen and volunteer for anything without complaint, including picking up Paula Scher’s dogs’ shit in the intern's basement vault.” The hard work earned Helms privileges other interns had not, such as being sent to Kentucky to press check with the following advice from Pentagram’s Kerrie Powell: “Whatever you do, don’t tell them you’re an intern and don’t tell them you’ve never been to a press check.”
Returning to Atlanta, Helms’s star kept rising. Hank Richardson of PC suggested Helms travel at his own expense to the 2002 Creative Summit in San Marcos, Texas, certain that he’d win money and brass for the school trophy case. He did, sweeping first in numerous categories and pocketing a pile of prize money. The experience also introduced Helms to Austin, thanks to his Evil Genius Mentor (EGM) James Victore, whom he had met previously. The objective success at San Marcos convinced Helms that his abilities were estimable.
After turning in his trophies to Richardson at PC and getting his certificate for the deposit, Helms packed his bags and moved to New York where he would make the best-worst decision of his life: He took the first job offered. “Neither the job nor the city were right for me, which I knew deep down. It was an expensive lesson, but it taught me to always trust my gut.” One day Helms sent an e-mail to EGM looking for sympathy, Victore replied, “Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha...” for 24 screen inches. Shortly after, EGM relented and gave Helms his most memorable counsel, “You don’t need a job. You need a life. Go get one.”
Helms quit after two months, in June 2003, putting his possessions on the street and leaving for John Bielenberg’s Project M in Maine. Bielenberg recalls his first encounter with Helms: “Christian looked like a little kid. You wanted to hug him and bandage his boo-boos. He had no computer, just a notebook that he filled with drawings. I like to think that notebook has informed his work ever since.”
“That summer gave me time to think,” recalls Helms. “It made me realize that even if I couldn’t change the entire world, I could try to change one person’s world, beginning with mine. I needed to be in a place where I could grow. Art Chantry, who was there with me, suggested Austin.” Chantry also gave Helms a fateful phone number: Geoff Peveto’s, a poster designer, magazine publisher and printmaker with whom Helms would form Decoder Ring.
CHRISTIAN DOES AUSTIN
“If there is a common connection to all of this,” says Helms, “it is music.” Shortly after arriving in 2003, Helms landed a job at one of Austin’s most respected advertising agencies, McGarrah Jessee (Mc-J) [CA January/February 2011]. While toiling as a staff designer there, Helms met his future wife, Jenn, at an advertising mixer. He and Geoff Peveto would meet nights and weekends in a garage to create posters and such. This informal relationship led to Decoder Ring, to which they added a third partner and friend, Paul Fucik.
After two years at Mc-J, Helms left the agency to put his efforts into Decoder Ring, where his circle of friends and collaborators was expanding as rapidly as his good reputation. Later, Peveto would introduce him to Daniel Northcutt, now co-owner and operations partner at Frank, Austin’s red hot “artisan sausage” and music venue also owned by Helms and Peveto. Helms would also meet Erick Montes, his lead designer at Helms Workshop, who describes himself as “a guy who moved from Guatemala City to live in Texas and immediately became a Mexican.” Helms sought out people doing work they loved, including writer/director/producer Mike Wolfe of Austin’s Beef and Pie. Together they’ve written commercials and made videos for the likes of singer-song-writer Will Johnson and his band Centro-Matic. The unassuming Chris Billheimer, whose work for REM and Green Day has made him legend among the music industry’s design community, would also become a friend and collaborator.
While Decoder Ring no longer links Helms, Peveto and Fucik, Peveto and Helms are involved with Frank, which has expanded to a second store in Texas, with plans for another later this year. With all the new work at the Workshop and a baby at home, Helms, already slight of frame, might appear stretched too thin, but you will not hear him complain.
“I have absolutely no room to bitch. I earn a living designing for beer, music and hot dogs! Sure, it’s still hard work, but I get to do that work collaborating with friends and building new opportunities. I feel proud and fortunate in what each day brings, and Jenn and Hatley are the foundation of that. Some folks said marriage and kids can slow down your work, but I think it’s the opposite. Having a child reminds me to be guided by joy, wonder and exploration rather than fear, stress and dead-lines. It’s been amazing so far.”
DON’T BE A STRANGER
Helms’s story is the Austin story. The more time you spend in this town the more you see how unique it is. In a city of standout talents, Helms stands out, a weather system unto himself, drenching Austin with visual and writing talents through hot dogs, music videos, websites, logos, fonts, posters, restaurants, beer cans, wicked boots and God-knows-what-next. He is sweeping friends and colleagues along in his joyous torrent.
If you’re ever in Austin, look up Christian Helms. He’s never met a stranger and never had a friend he wouldn’t share. Most of all, he remembers that he once was a fresh, unknown face, too. And at the local cinema, he still is. ca