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Sometimes getting locked out of your apartment can lead to a change of a lifetime. Just ask Dave Plunkert and Joyce Hessleberth of Spur Design in Baltimore. Hesselberth and Plunkert are a rarity among two-person communications partnerships. Married for 20 years and in business together for 19, they are true equals, with boundaries rather than roles. As cofounders of Baltimore design firm Spur, they do not divide their responsibilities between account management and creative direction. The artistic vision of one does not dominate that of the other, nor does either one’s work dominate the portfolio. Hesselberth and Plunkert succeed as a team because they are as different as they are alike. He enjoys collage, she prefers hand-rendered drawings for children; his work can be satirical and avant-garde, hers can be whimsical and bright; he is voluble, she’s more introspective.

Discussion strengthens their work, but they work independently. Says Plunkert, “Sometimes we take each other’s advice and sometimes we don’t. We regard each other’s opinions equally. We’re in charge of our own work.” Says Hesselberth, “I value Dave’s opinion greatly, and he values mine, too. But at the end of the day, we make our own choices.”

The story of their romance tells us all we need to know about why they succeed as business partners. In early winter 1991, 22-year-old Dave Plunkert locked himself out of his Baltimore apartment while taking out the trash. Standing outside in only red sweatpants and a T-shirt, he remembered that his colleague Joyce Hesselberth lived nearby, so he walked over to ask if he could wait inside her apartment until his roommate got home. A few hours later they were sharing lunch at Alonso’s, a neighborhood favorite, discovering they had more in common than they realized. He had no wallet, so she bought lunch. Later that night, he returned the kindness by inviting her to dinner.

And so a story about being locked out became a story of being let in. The couple began living together in 1993, married in 1994, opened Spur in 1995 and had their first child, daughter Madison, in 1999. Twins Emma and Jacob followed in 2004. They rarely take work home, reserving that time for family and relaxation. Their story offers an example for those who work with intimate partners or friends. It illustrates how an equal partnership can enrich our work—and our lives.

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Like many boys of his generation, Plunkert was a superhero fan. He sketched them for pleasure, and after high school, he sent some unsolicited sketches to Marvel Comics. They sent him a rejection letter. Still, his parents encouraged him, supporting his education at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), a liberal arts school in West Virginia, an hour outside Washington, DC.

There he met instructor Michael Neutzel, a “good, kind nut,” in Plunkert’s words, whose passion for design inspired him. Recalls his former professor, “At the time when Dave was in school [1983–1987], the academic climate was right for a graphic design student. We offered a well-rounded liberal arts education, a balance of classes in the humanities, science and math combined with classes in a traditional art department—painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography and a lot of art history. From the first class Dave attended, I knew he was serious about design and had natural ability and focus, rare for an incoming freshman.” After college, Plunkert landed his first job at a Baltimore design studio called Graffito.

Hesselberth joined the same studio after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1989. Like Plunkert, she hadn’t studied illustration. It came to her through practice. Meanwhile, their employer’s fortunes ebbed, and soon both were looking for work. She joined a small studio that focused on emerging interactive technologies, and he began freelancing as an illustrator. Their paths diverged—until the morning Plunkert locked himself out of his apartment. Then serendipity took over.

If you look at Spur’s portfolio, the first thought that may come to mind is, “Two people did all this?!” They did. And they do. The portfolio is loaded with projects for national newspapers, magazines, publishers and arts and educational organizations. The couple’s artistic philosophy is identical: Concept is king. Style and technique, they insist, must support the idea, not the other way around. But where do those ideas come from? Among other sources, they come from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) illustration practice program—he teaches a poster course and she teaches a children’s-market course.

While Dave’s execution is obviously beautiful, we’re most impressed by his thinking. Even when we think we know what we want, he’ll surprise us with a concept we were not expecting.”—Eric Skillman, the Criterion Collection

Says illustrator Whitney Sherman, who is director of the program, “Not every illustrator or designer has the ability to work well in both disciplines. It takes a hybrid way of thinking and crossing boundaries. MICA’s MFA program in illustration practice requires students to reexamine and reinvent the illustration paradigm. We offer them an environment where they can break perceptions and rules by taking advantage of new technologies while considering social needs and artistic perspectives. Joyce and Dave are artists, designers, illustrators and successful business owners. Their hybrid talents speak to the heart of what we are doing at MICA.”

Peter Morance, art director at the New York Times’ Science Times, says he’s attracted to Hesselberth’s ideas and image-making skills: “At Science Times we illustrate many abstract ideas, so the first quality I look for in an illustrator is the strength of their conceptual thinking. Joyce and I have worked together on a monthly column about children for years. While I was attracted initially to her style, it’s her conceptual power that keeps our collaboration going.”

Eric Skillman, designer and art director for the Criterion Collection, shares a similar admiration for Plunkert. “Since we’re working with the greatest films in the world, we don’t need to hard-sell them,” Skillman says. “Sometimes we have an idea of what we want and simply look for someone who can execute that idea beautifully. Other times we look for a collaborator. While Dave’s execution is obviously beautiful, we’re most impressed by his thinking. Even when we think we know what we want, he’ll surprise us with a concept we were not expecting.”

In 1998, Hesselberth and Plunkert purchased a 10,000-square-foot cinderblock building in the old factory community of Hampden, three miles north of downtown Baltimore. The building was a shell; today, it is a creative dream space. Spur rents out 4,000 square feet and uses the rest as a combination studio-workshop-gallery. Spur hosts many gallery shows, exhibitions that are integrated with their work at MICA. The 2013 show Brilliant featured work by MICA students participating in a London study-abroad program. Other shows include 100 Heads for Haiti (2010), in which 100 artists donated drawings to raise $10,000 for Doctors Without Borders, and an exhibition of Harry Campbell’s work late last year.

Plunkert designed most of the studio’s furnishings, including the workstations. Local steel artist Wayne Koscinski collaborated with him on a whimsical floor-to-ceiling security gate fashioned from old steel bedsprings and other metal objects that separates the gallery from the studio. Behind it, a large mural features pop-eyed portraits, archival photographs and artifacts common to Plunkert’s collage art.

Few sketches are really mistakes. They’re unformed ideas. You start with ideas and build toward resolution. You let ideas play out.”—Joyce Hessleberth

The neatly organized, capacious workshop is filled with flat files, samples and large wooden molds that Plunkert collects as well as a “morgue” of yearbooks, magazines, photos and old paper ephemera for his work. Center stage is a monument to print craft: an 800-pound, 100-year-old Potter Proofing Press from the Hacker Manufacturing Company of Chicago. “The space allows for experimental projects to be started and abandoned as necessary,” Plunkert explains.

Process is important at Spur. And they say the best ideas come from sketching with a pencil and tracing paper. Plunkert and Hesselberth are palimpsests. Behind every finished work are ghosts of their mistakes, erasures and ideas. Whereas technology makes these invisible, pencil and tracing paper, they point out, do not. Hesselberth believes sketching concepts gives the artist freedom to make serendipitous errors. “Tracing paper is very erasable,” she says. “Computer comps can make a concept look like finished artwork. This can mislead a client. A sketch is just an idea, not something set in stone.” Plunkert adds, “A sketch also invites the client into the process.” And for both designers, sketching helps allay the fear of failure. “Few sketches are really mistakes,” says Hesselberth. “They’re unformed ideas. You start with ideas and build toward resolution. You let ideas play out.”

Although the couple shares an artistic philosophy, they diverge in their use of media. Hesselberth is involved with numerous projects for children using smartphones and tablets, including developing software such as PrestoBingo Colors, launched last spring.

“I admit, I love the tech side,” she says. “We’re opposites here. While Dave is working on the Potter Proof Press, I’m developing apps.” But the concept still comes first. “The way content is presented needs to shift according to the format. We can incorporate sound and motion into everything now. But we have to decide where it’s appropriate: Does it support the content? Is it just another bell or whistle? If content leads the decision-making process, then technology can support ideas without overwhelming them.”

Plunkert considers technology a means to an end. “The Potter Proof Press lets me print large woodcuts faster. A computer lets me color, retouch and flip an illustration faster. I know I can shape type into a dog with Photoshop, but I’m not interested in doing that.”

Hesselberth, in turn, is not a collage artist. “Most of the textures I use are hand-painted. If I want to incorporate a texture from nature, I photograph it myself. I also incorporate a lot of textiles that I collect into my work,” she says.

And though they share an appreciation for the simple forms, wit and idiosyncratic colors of such men as Seymour Chwast and Paul Rand, and look to masters such as Alexander Calder and Pablo Picasso, they draw from different muses. She likes Charley Harper, Mary Blair, Lane Smith, Calef Brown and James Yang. He prefers George Grosz, John Heartfield, Jack Kirby, Brian Cronin and Gary Baseman. “Like a lot of artists, I draw influence from the work I like. I don’t consciously put it into everything, but it seeps in,” says Plunkert.

The most important influence on their work, though, may well be their children. At the end of the day, they ride home together to hear their news and draw pleasure from their experiences. Their children also inspire the couple to experiment. “I’m in awe of how our kids draw, and really of how all kids draw. Everyone draws as a child, but there is a point in life when most grow afraid to try, or if they try, they preface the attempt by saying, ‘I can’t draw,’” Hesselberth says, “and that can lead to fear of failure. Our kids remind me that we all possess the basic ability to make great art. We just have to be willing to let go of our fears.” ca

Matthew Porter is a writer, critic and creative consultant who lives in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia. His company is PorterWrite Design Consulting.

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