Stories from middle America

Matt Carlson

Photo via Mike DeKay for Grain & Mortar.

I certainly think one should have confidence in the work they produce, but if ego drives you more than authenticity, it’s usually pretty noticeable. So it’s always such a treat when really talented people also happen to be genuinely kind and gracious individuals as well. That couldn’t be more true when you’re talking about Omaha artist and graphic designer Matt Carlson.

I’ve worked with Matt on a couple of projects over the last few years. Most recently we collaborated on a set of limited edition prints for sale at the newly opened hutch store in Midtown Crossing. Fabulous to work with as well as an inspiring graphic designer at local studio Grain & Mortar, he agreed to do a little Q & A with me so I could introduce him to you guys!

midwest-made “Midwest Made” holiday letterpress coasters from Grain & Mortar.

COOP: Where are you from originally? Are you Midwest Made like your company boasts?

Matt: I am from Omaha. I’ve lived here all of my life. So yes, I am Midwest Made! My family has a lot of roots in the Midwest as well. So I guess it’s in my bones, baby! At Grain & Mortar, there’s this great sense of honoring these Midwestern values that we’ve grown up around or experienced from living in this area of the country. They (G & M) have been cultivating and crafting this really rich, industrial Midwestern aesthetic for many years, so it’s been fun for me to acclimate to that sort of vibe and experience how it permeates the studio and the work coming out of it. It’s pretty cool.

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COOP: What do you feel is the biggest difference between fine art and graphic design? It’s all art, but how does it feel working with a computer more than getting your hands dirty?

Matt: I think working on the computer is the biggest difference for me personally. I really have grown to love it, but for a while I thought that I would never get much out of it. Once I got to know the design programs that I now use everyday, it was a real lifesaver in terms of process.

I feel like I carry a strong background in drawing and painting into the design and illustration work I do, but yeah, the tactile experience of getting down and dirty with the materials is definitely gone. (For now at least!)

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COOP: How do you think you arrived at your personal style? Your illustrations and graphics have a fluid and somewhat quirky sense to them. Would you consider that accurate?

Matt: Probably just many years spent toiling away at different drawing and painting styles and experimenting with different materials. And being influenced from a young age by weird graphics and illustrations. Whether that be from skateboarding, cartoons, comics, pogs, streetwear, graffiti magazines, etc. In general, just a mix of ephemera from a lot of the subcultures I grew up on that had an influence on me. And I’ve always loved print… I just love paper and things printed on paper. So I get a lot of inspiration from found printed matter, and I think that has influenced my work in a lot of ways too. So yeah, I guess I would consider that accurate, that my work is “quirky,” but to me it’s just normal. I don’t see it as that weird, but I hear that a lot from other people, and I see where they’re coming from.

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COOP: What does your creative process look like?

Matt: Working in a design studio now, my creative process is a lot more collaborative and diverse in a lot of ways depending on the project at hand. Well, it’s a lot different now that I mostly work on a computer, but normally I try to force myself to do as much preliminary sketching as I can. Then I take a picture or scan it into the computer and start building out shapes and layers in Illustrator. Sometimes it feels more natural to just start designing on the computer and bypass any sketching, so that happens a lot too. I really enjoy texture and the surface quality of imagery, so adding that is usually an important part that comes toward the end.

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Limited edition prints styled by Birdhouse at hutch store. Photo via Dana Damewood Photography.

COOP: How did you arrive at the concepts for your limited edition prints featured at hutch?

Matt: Jessica reached out to me, and said she was looking for some local artists and craftspeople to create work for the new hutch store that was reopening in Midtown. I was really stoked about being asked to be a part but didn’t really want to show any old drawings or paintings at the time. So I thought it might be a great opportunity to do some screen prints.

We (me, Jessica, and Brandon) kicked around the idea together for a bit, figured out some of the logistics, and then I just started to think about the space and the type furniture and accessories coming out of the shop. That helped get the ball rolling in terms of style; sort of going for a more retro vibe that had some influence from midcentury modern graphics and design. I bounced some of my initial ideas off Jessica and just started working on the series. The idea for Still Life came first, and from there we crafted the idea that each poster would have the theme of “life” in it. We wanted there to be some overlap within the pieces, but collectively didn’t want it to feel so much like a “series.”

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COOP: Choose between these:

Beer or whiskey?
Matt: IPA. All. Day.

Leather or suede?
Matt: Leather

Punk rock or classical?
Matt: Classical

Pizza or hamburger?
Matt: Pizza. It’s just the best.

Money or power?
Matt: Definitely not power. So money!

Getting up early or staying up late?
Matt: Sleeping in.

That’s Matt Carlson from Grain & Mortar, everybody! Go check out his website at Plaid Mtn to see more of his fabulous work.

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Last weekend I made my way slightly south and hit up Kansas City’s First Friday events in their really rad Crossroads Arts District. I already thought Omaha needed a similar district (maybe develop Benson even more?), and now I’m one hundred percent convinced.

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Not my photo. Photo via Silly America.

The Crossroads Arts District has an interesting mix of galleries, pop-up shops, live music, complimentary booze and plenty of food trucks (including one with some funnel cake action) serving up the goods. And though I’m a lazy vegetarian (totally stole that phrase from Amanda), I was drooling, smelling whatever delicious meat scent was wafting my way from Town-Topic Hamburgers.

It was fun making my way through the lively streets crowded with an eclectic mix of people out supporting their community’s creative scene. I found the art a bit hit-or-miss (there was a lot to choose from), but there were a few artists and shows I found interesting.

I felt a little odd busting out my iPhone constantly taking photos, especially as a newbie to another city’s art game. But there were a few pieces I liked enough to brave the security guard staring at me while I clumsily attempted a decent shot.

Please enjoy my subpar photography skills.

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Brendan Cass. ‘Capri’, 2009. Acrylic on canvas. From Make Your Mark. 

Make Your Mark at the Kemper Museum featured artists from the Kemper Museum Of Contemporary Art’s permanent collection, and focused on the specific gestures and techniques employed to create their “signature mark.” I loved the color and movements in this exhibit. And I appreciated the concept that art, like other creative endeavors, is a lot about personal style.

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Also at the Kemper was a children’s exhibit from its Artreach collaborative program with the Center for Child Health and Development at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The program’s objective is “to provide opportunities for self-expression and communication through the visual arts.”

Children making art to feel good about themselves. Enough said.

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Sculpture by Ben Davis. Undergraduate thesis. 

Down in the basement of the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, I found an undergraduate thesis show of students graduating from the Kansas City Art Institute. Honestly, I thought it was some of the strongest work of the night. The room was a little gritty, and so was the art.

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Work by Peyton Pitts. Undergraduate thesis.

Overall, I really liked Peyton Pitts’ work. Her drawings and collages had a really cool tactile look and a crazy layered composition. They were a little like abstract puzzles where each piece alone had a little chapter, but all of them together told the entire story.

I’m looking forward to heading back to another Kansas City First Friday sometime in the summer. And hitting up a few Omaha and Lincoln Fridays as well.

“I’ve got a great idea. Let’s put our house up on Air BnB!” He was all but glowing, he was so proud of his idea.

I smiled, screaming inside. Do you know how much work that’ll take?! My fellow freely admits that he has trouble getting rid of stuff, while I dislike things without a place to be. Don’t get me started on duplicates unless you have a few minutes.

We do actually have a small guest room. It also pretends to be an office on some days and my closet on others. You might call it a junk room, and I wouldn’t correct you. We also have a loft, an open floor space upstairs that does indeed have a comfortable queen-size bed — as well as all of our holiday decorations, random computer parts, and my husband’s sprawling art projects.

As he was contemplating where we’d stay while we had Air BnB-ers in our home, my eyes were glazing over. We’ll need a quarter million Rubbermaid tubs, I’ll have to clean the fridge, our windows have never been washed… Then there’s the fact that we still have a lot of second-hand furniture (and not the cute vintage kind), and the linens on the guest bed are the ones I used in college. I was really into animal print.

Animal print guest room

Behold, my college aesthetic. Except for the dresser, which I painted myself when I was in high school.

Let’s just say that setting out a bottle of wine and some flowers are the least of our worries.

But I’m rolling up my sleeves. We had a chat about, okay, realistically, this is what it’s gonna take to get this very lived-in, rather second-hand home ready to be a hotel alternative. We’re doing this, you guys.

Of course, we’re also doing this with some help from Birdhouse. Jessica will — thank goodness — be stepping in with some pointers so I don’t end up sobbing in a corner somewhere clutching animal print.

I spoke to a college class last week about Birdhouse and COOP and my vision for both. At first I didn’t really know what to say, but as the students asked more questions, I realized I was consistently telling a story. The story of what I care about.

I care about exposing people to original art. I care about designing with vintage pieces full of history and character. I care about working with local makers and not taking myself too seriously. Those have been my guiding principles for the last five and a half years, in business and in my personal life.

When my friends at hutch were looking to scale their furniture store in a similar manner, with similar principles, it made a lot of sense for us to figure out how to continue to collaborate with each other.

Previously, hutch had exclusively been a vintage furniture store. Now they wanted to expand their offerings to include new, contemporary pieces and work with a lot of the local makers that Birdhouse has partnered with over the years. It sounded like a great opportunity for Omaha to have a highly curated and design-focused store. So when they approached us to stylize the individual room vignettes, mixing and layering pieces to create a more intimate and homey feel, we were game for the challenge.

After a lot of work and a lot of planning, hutch finally opened their doors a few weeks ago, and I’m excited about the feedback the shop has gotten so far from our city.

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The first complete room vignette as you enter the space. Accessorized shelves line the opposite wall. 

The space flows from one room vignette to the next, a layout that navigates people naturally throughout the store. Brandon and Nick (hutch fellas) were very cognizant of the need for that natural guidance. They also wanted us to alternate the functionality of the vignettes from living room to dining room and so on.

A particular challenge for me were several walls of shelves throughout the store that showcase loads of accessories. Ginger helped a hutch employee with all the visual merchandising. They killed it, thankfully. Before they got on it, I was just standing at those shelves like, “Huh?” Note to self: Merchandising is very different from styling.

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A combined living room and dining room vignette featuring Gus Modern furniture, a media cabinet by local furniture designer Roost Artisan Home, handmade table lamp from Roger + Chris, and art pieces by Nicholas Bohac, Kim Darling, and Sarah Rowe

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Matryoshka by Nicholas Bohac, Media Cabinet by Roost Artisan Home, and Jack lamp from Roger + Chris.  Kim Darling art pieces.

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The room vignette that guests pass through at the front of the store. (You can barely see the door to my office back by the exit sign.)

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Gus Modern dining table and chairs, Roost Credenza, Bend pendant light and stool, and Matt Carlson limited edition screen prints.

Though I’m incredibly excited about the end results, there were a few challenges to this job. The retail floor space is close to 4,000 square feet. That’s big, and at times it felt overwhelming. I also didn’t source any of the furniture or accessories. Basically, I had to take a giant box with pre-selected pieces and put a crazy puzzle together. Holy buckets! That was not easy. But I think it honed my skills substantially and forced me to trust my gut more.

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A complete blank slate to start out with at hutch.

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Sooooo much empty space to fill!

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I did help curate some of the original art in the space. These limited edition prints are by local artist Matt Carlson

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Art by Kira Nam Greene. Yellow couch by Gus Modern.

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Nicholas Bohac art, Kartel pendant light and table lamp. Vintage Bertoia chairs. 

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 The vignette as you circle to the back of the store.

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A group of Peter Cales ceramic and wood balloons hang from the ceiling in a large area in the back of the shop.

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Kim Darling art

Looking ahead, the fellas at hutch and I realized that it would be fun to designate one room vignette where Birdhouse will receive complete creative control. hutch carries some really great lines of furniture and accessories, and we’ll have access to new arrivals before they’re even on the showroom floor. I’ll be like a kid in a candy store: free reign to cherry pick all my favorites and put together a showstopper room!

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The largest combined vignette. Kim Darling large art, vintage dining set, and Nicholas Bohac art in the salon wall. 

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My favorite vignette. I am slightly obsessed with this pink Gus Modern couch and I can always support some gold lamp action. Art by Kim Darling, throw pillows from Ferm Living.

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Art by Kim Darling. Fig tree from Mulhall’s.

Along with stylizing the store vignettes, Birdhouse has a small studio office housed within hutch. We collaborate on events often, and I source a fair amount of their pieces, so I love that my clients can get a peek at them in-house. However, we aren’t their in-house designer — we’re more similar to a co-op of sorts. By piggybacking our services onto one another, we can continue to inspire and challenge each other to give Omaha an amazing resource for furniture, art and design.

All photos by Dana Damewood Photography.

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