Christine and Eric Strohl collaborate on just about everything—they’re colleagues, coparents, and co-owners of a tiny but mighty eponymous design firm called Strohl. Partners in life and business, the couple operates from a small, sunny garret studio on the top floor of their home in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights, which enjoys an unfettered view of Twin Peaks and the city nestled below.
In this small room, the Strohls do big things. They develop strategies and concepts for corporate identities, devise logos, and design the countless touchpoints that comprise a brand’s expression. Their client list is large and diverse, ranging from culture makers, like Dave Eggers’s 826 Valencia, to nationally known companies, like Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, One Kings Lane, Mattel and Levi’s, to tech behemoths including Google.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Once upon a time, in the late ’90s, Christine and Eric were art students studying graphic design at East Carolina University. Back then, they were secret rivals.
“We’re just really competitive, and he was really good,” says Christine. “I saw that as a benchmark—you follow whoever does the good work. So we just competed with each other fiercely. But not meanly.”
After taking separate paths for a year post-graduation, the two found themselves both living in Eric’s hometown of Winston-Salem.
“We just started hanging out,” Eric recalls. “It was sort of like, well, this is pretty effortless, and it makes a lot of sense.”
The two fell in love, and a year later made the inevitable move to New York City to test their mettle as creatives. Both started working for their design heroes, he at Eric Baker Design, she at Mucca Design.
“We just happened to do the same kind of work,” Christine says. “We both wanted to do fancy food packaging and restaurants, and then the publishing came along.”
Over the next four years, the young couple lived the way so many creatives in New York City do: working hard at their day jobs (which they loved), taking on side hustles to make ends meet, eating up the city’s art and grit in equal measure, and learning the nuances, tricks and foundational skills of their craft and trade.
Then IDEO came knocking. Eric was recruited as a service design strategist, and in 2005, the couple packed up their apartment and moved to San Francisco.
“Working for IDEO helped me see all these hidden things set out inside me,” Eric says. “Like strategy. I wouldn’t have called myself a strategist, although that’s what we really did at IDEO. Today with Strohl, there’s so much thinking about what we’re doing before we do it. It’s not purely an aesthetic exercise.”
“It helped us realize we like doing research,” Christine adds. “We like making systems before we start doing the graphic design. We like everything to have its logical place. I think that blossomed out of Eric working for IDEO.”
While Eric globetrotted and learned the ins and outs of design thinking, Christine served as Mucca Design’s West Coast office, leading and managing the studio’s California-based restaurant design projects.
Three years later, it was time for another change.
“It was always going to happen,” Eric says. “That’s just the trajectory; working for ourselves was something that we really wanted to do.”
With 20 years of combined design experience, Christine and Eric Strohl opened their doors for business as Strohl in April 2008, and the once-secret rivals became worthy colleagues.
“We like what happens when we work together,” says Christine. “The collaboration isn’t just in the strategy either—we pass files back and forth all day long. We’ve just found this natural match. What we do is better because of the other person.”
Eric agrees—“There’s nothing that we’ve done that I can think of that one of us can completely claim.”
The Strohls’ specialty and passion is identity and logo design, and their work is guided by three bedrock maxims: longevity over novelty; emotional connection; avoid the expected. These three principles come to life during the thorough design process the Strohls undertake with each client.
“We spend a long time direction setting with our clients, who are often the founders or C-level executives,” Christine says. “We want to make sure that they understand where we’re coming from and what we’re doing. Then we sit down and we really draw.”
“It always starts with lots of drawing. Fast and loose and messy,” Eric adds.
Before any scribbling begins, the Strohls first endeavor to see branding through their clients’ eyes.
“We have a system,” Christine explains. “When we go to meet a client, we lay out something like 150 to 200 pieces of paper with logos on them—not ours—just logos specific to their industry. Then we ask them: What do you see?”
“What’s modern to your client may not be modern to you,” Eric adds. “Or what feels fussy might differ. We learn a lot from that exercise.”
Then the Strohls return to their garret and get to work, referencing an eclectic collection of inspiration, from antique logo monographs to glossy art books to DIY zines, as well as a formidable amount of travel ephemera collected whilst exploring the world. “We especially like collecting and checking out the design featured on different countries’ currencies,” Eric adds.
“Christine and Eric are amazing to work with,” says Guthrie Dolin, a former coworker of Eric’s from IDEO. Dolin later became a client, hiring the Strohls to work on a number of independent projects over the years.
“They’re both fantastic listeners who ask smart questions that help to surface the critical aspects of every challenge. They seem to strive to deliver tailored solutions appropriate for the task and project, rather than promoting any particular style or design trend. They respond with great consideration to client feedback, and work tirelessly to integrate their input and perspectives into the final delivery.”
Even in their professional projects, the Strohls look for chances to feed and push their art practice. They get this chance by working with the cookie company Leckerlee, designing the holiday tins for its lebkuchen, a gingerbread-esque German cookie that is traditionally sold in decorative holiday tins at Christmastime.
“We’re given the opportunity to illustrate a new concept every single year. That opportunity never presents itself with commercial packaging or corporate work,” says Christine. “It’s an exciting and kind of terrifying opportunity to push ourselves as illustrators. It’s something that makes us grow.”
“I’ve been so impressed with the wide range of styles Christine and Eric can execute so beautifully,” says Sandy Lee, founder and owner of Leckerlee.
“We’ve worked on 21 tins to date, and I’m amazed when I look at the entire collection. Last year, I wanted to do a Japanese-themed tin because I love Japanese design. This wasn’t the most obvious choice for a German Christmas cookie company, but Christine and Eric took it in stride. They designed the Snow Day tin, which embodies the aesthetic references I was looking for, while fitting right in with the rest of the Leckerlee collection.”
Over their careers as designers, the Strohls have accrued a formidable list of awards and honors between them, including three nominations for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design (Christine) and judging the Type Directors Club annual Communications Design competition (Eric).
But despite their acclaim and prestigious client list, Christine and Eric Strohl don’t rest on their laurels. They’re always tinkering, experimenting with new ways to feed their imaginations, expand their artistic skill sets and discover new entry points into their creativity. Lately, that looks like new practices in screen printing and collage, and a recently completed DIY backyard deck off their kitchen. Their shared hunger for more input, more inspiration, more artistic rigor, and also more fun is encapsulated in a nearly six-foot-wide sign hanging on the kitchen wall. They made it together after a trip to Scandinavia. It reads “Fiskredskapsfabrik.”
“There was this beautiful sign up on this store with this ridiculous collection of letters, right all together in a lump,” Christine says. “We asked a friend what does this mean and she said, ‘Fishing tackle factory.’”
Eric picks up the story, saying, “When we came back, we thought, we should put something up in the kitchen. We remembered the sign and said, ‘Yeah, we could probably make that.’”
As their studio enters its second decade, the Strohls are charting exciting new territory, taking on work as design partners in new ventures, rather than working simply as hired guns.
“On these projects, we’re a voice in the room,” Eric says. “We get to make a lot of decisions about the experience design as a partner. We also get to show up more as artists and to let our creative voices come out. That’s when it becomes fulfilling, and really exciting.”
Whatever they turn to next, it’s certain that magical and powerful work will continue to issue from that little garret studio in Bernal Heights, thanks to the formidable combined forces of Christine and Eric Strohl. ca