Liz Burnett looks the very picture of the Dallas business-person as she picks me up for a day at Matchbox Studio. Casually chic in her black Chevrolet Suburban, with the essential knowledge of where to get the city’s best coffee, she has urban style to go with her design chops. And between her and Jeff Breazeale, her partner at Matchbox, there’s always something surprising peeking out, from Burnett’s love of the outdoors and hunting (the Suburban is for her dogs) to Breazeale’s slyly subversive wit.
They’re both Dallas transplants, Burnett from rural Arkansas and Breazeale from Andover, Massachusetts (“Townie,” he dryly observes). Yet they’re right at home in a city that’s known for combining muscular business acumen with disarming, even folksy charm. They’ve managed to assemble the most desirable—and durable—client list in the city, the state and beyond. The question is how.
It clearly isn’t lack of ambition that’s led Matchbox to 20 years of success. But you only have to spend a little time with the principals to know there is more to their passion than the desire to succeed. On top of their raw talent is their commitment to deriving joy from the creative process, achieving work/life balance, building lasting relationships with clients and community, and forming a professional family built on integrity and respect.
There’s talent in abundance among the nineteen-strong Matchbox staff; the same could be said for any number of their peers. But the difference between studios that stand the test of time and studios that don’t is a delicate formula, expressed in personal relationships and sound business sense. The Matchbox formula has staying power.
Make no mistake: Matchbox Studio is a design firm with a smile on its face—a fact that’s not lost on its list of sought-after clients, some of whom have worked with this Dallas studio for nearly its entire history.
Everything may be big in Texas, and Matchbox Studio’s home city of Dallas may be known as “Big D,” but Burnett and Breazeale started small, in a tiny room in Burnett’s home. Entering the room, Breazeale’s nephew said, “This place is so tiny, you should call it Matchbox.” So they did.
Burnett and Breazeale had met and become friends while studying design at Texas Christian University. They didn’t link up professionally right after graduation—Burnett went to Eisenberg And Associates in Dallas, and Breazeale worked at VSA Partners in Chicago—but in hindsight, that they’d eventually share a studio seemed almost inevitable.
As Burnett describes it, “When we were in school, Jeff and I always said we’d have a studio together. I know, everybody says that. In our case, we made it happen.” But first, she ran the idea past her father. “He told us partnerships never work. Then we went and did it.”
The name stuck. And so did the partnership, which thrived on a recipe that combines urbanity with approachability. Today, the studio’s work is as sunny and surprising as the funky, sleek 5,000-square-foot space it calls home in Dallas’s historic Deep Ellum warehouse district.
The Matchbox touch is more a process than a look. “We’re focused on this being a place where every one of us likes to go to work,” says Breazeale. “This was never a point on a business chart or a formal goal. As we got bigger, it’s the one thing that never changed—we aim to have fun at what we do. For Liz and me, our job is to bring out the best in our people. The atmosphere here is encouragement. As leaders, our attitude has to be positive for us to be creative.”
Minimalism is not for Matchbox. “We’re not trying to ‘out-cool’ the next guy,” Breazeale explains. “We like to think our work has impact, but not through a setup and a punch line. We don’t do zingers, but we do like a wink and a nod. We’re not going to do work that’s passé in a couple of years. Our key elements are fun, energy and surprise. It’s design that entertains and moves people.”
Matchbox may be a model for a design studio in our eclectic era. The partners happily acknowledge that the firm doesn’t have a signature visual style. Instead, the work ranges freely, from cheeky, in-your-face graphics for BrainDead Brewing (“the only art we’ve ever done that the client has tattooed on his body,” observes Breazeale) to chill, urban minimalism for One Uptown, a Dallas development. “We take a lot of pride in not having a style,” Burnett says. “We’re thrilled when people say they knew we did a particular project—especially if they say it doesn’t look like anything they’ve seen from us before. When we come up with a concept or construction that works especially well, we don’t repeat it, no matter how often we’re asked.”
Among those who have followed the arc of Matchbox through the years is Don Clampitt, owner and CEO of Dallas-based Clampitt Paper, a regional paper distributor with 22 locations in five states that celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016. He praises Matchbox as both client and supplier and describes the studio as a “bright light” in the industry… and not just in Dallas. The Matchbox personality, he says, is “professional, with a lot of fun thrown in.” Clampitt also respects that work/life balance is a priority at Matchbox, a fact that’s clear to those outside the studio—clients know the Matchbox staff doesn’t stay late. Breazeale says, “We go home to our families at 5:30. When that’s the expectation, you find a way to get the work done. Except for that one guy.” (More about that guy later.) “Our families have celebrations together. My father is amazed at our time-off policies. We’d like people to be so charged by the experience here, they wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”
And it all works. The elegant, deeply nested invitation that Matchbox created for Clampitt’s Invitation Only event is proof, Clampitt says, of the designers’ ability to “take a good idea and make it better.” The event was a customer-centered adventure that would take guests through a world of invitations created through the years with Clampitt Paper, with examples drawn from the distributor’s voluminous archives. For the invitation, Matchbox designed a series of enclosures—matryoshka-style—to express the theme in a way a design audience can appreciate: conceptual, tactile and physically engaging.
“In any large market, there are tons of invitations competing for the creative community’s attention,” observes Clampitt. “Matchbox knows what’s going to capture people’s attention and get them to respond. Like any good invitation, this is one you have to hold in your hands to believe. People don’t RSVP nowadays, but for this event, we had more than 200 responses out of the 250 who got invitations … and many of those people brought their colleagues. We had a packed house, and I fully credit the invitation for that.
“The designer on the project was Zach Hale,” Clampitt continues, adding, “Zach’s got what I call ‘good design blood’—his father is creative director at Fossil Group.” Hale, who has since been named creative director for Matchbox, is “that one guy” with carte blanche to stay late at the office. (Did he need a note from his family?)
FROM THE OPERA HOUSE TO THE MIDWAY
Nowhere is the versatility of Matchbox’s approach more evident than in their branding for a steady roster of opera companies: Dallas, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Palm Beach. Jennifer Schuder was chief marketing officer and director of outreach with the Dallas Opera when the string started. “I remember when there were just three of them in the studio—Liz, Jeff and Josh [Bishop, now interactive creative director],” she recalls. Over the next nine years of working with Matchbox, Schuder says, she never saw the studio’s work with other operas as a conflict—on the contrary, she says it was a benefit. “As their knowledge of opera grew, they became more effective at talking about it with wider and wider audiences. That was good for business for us.” She sums up the Matchbox touch in a way that echoes Clampitt: “In the work we did with them, every project we brought in, they took and elevated the creative appeal beyond what we’d thought of.”
The concepts Matchbox developed for the opera were envisioned to enable expansion into additional pieces and further evolution. Schuder says this is especially important because opera work requires more than marquee posters and program graphics. “For example, opera companies stage ancillary events—performances in parks, bars and schools—to familiarize audiences and widen their appeal. Matchbox always builds in extra layers of detail, where you can pull the overall visuals apart and use different elements for other events or other purposes. As the amount of pieces we needed grew, the cohesiveness and the layers of their designs grew.”
After ten years with the Dallas Opera, Schuder is now senior vice president of marketing at the State Fair of Texas, which Matchbox left its mark on for the first time in 2016. It was an extensive mark: media placements last year exceeded 6,500, with 500 separate ads. Matchbox designed all the promotional and collateral materials except radio and TV placements.
“The fair was a tradition for Matchbox before it ever started working on the project,” Schuder says. “Matchbox is right down the street from our grounds, and it’s always had a fair day, when the whole studio comes out. So it already had its own ‘family’ tradition. What we’ve focused on together is helping the millions of people who attend start their own Texas State Fair family traditions.”
That’s a mission drawn right from the Matchbox playbook, Schuder says, because it’s about conveying the fun of the fair’s experience. And it’s a big experience, she notes, with 277 acres of attractions and 110 events going on at any one time. “The energy they brought to everything, the bright colors, the textured illustrations layered with photography—it makes you feel like you’re walking down the midway, smelling the cotton candy.”
Towering above that midway every year is Big Tex, the fair’s 55-foot-tall cowboy icon (he’s literally an icon—the fair’s URL is BigTex.com) and the one attraction every fair-going family wants their photo taken in front of. In 2016, the fair’s theme was Celebrating Texas Agriculture, and the center-piece of Matchbox’s suite of materials was a screen-printed poster of Big Tex himself, illustrated by Hale. The poster’s visual elements—chunky, folky imagery in a limited palette of bright primary colors—are evident in web graphics, animations, souvenir cups, programs and countless other items.
“Did I ever guess we’d put a chicken on Big Tex’s head for our theme art?” marvels Schuder. “No. Matchbox always knows exactly when and how to push it. But I also appreciate that when we need to do 500 ads, there’s a process and a plan to execute that. Matchbox is a studio with a right brain and a left brain. Very few creative groups, even large agencies, can match that.” ca