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Artist of the Week - 2006-06-07 - Jan Uretsky
Jan Uretsky
Jan Uretsky - Artist of the Week
read the full interview here

Real name  : Jan Audun Uretsky 
Born in
: 1960
: Male
: No, we split up some time ago
: US
: New York City

: A.B in English Literature, Vassar Collage,
  B.A. In Communication Design, Parsons School of Design, 1986

Designer since
: 1986


:  I have my own little design firm. Uretsky+Co. "Uretsky" that's me. "+Co." that's my cat. I do all the designing, my cat takes care of in-house entertainment combined with general interference. Uretsky+Co. Started up in 1990, before that I had a company for a few couple of years with a partner.
I also have a teaching gig (senior level graphic design) one day a week during the fall and spring semesters at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I do that for love, not money. Well actually I do design for love not money as well most of time. Shit, I forgot about the money part!  Uh oh!    ;-)
Uretsky+Co. Is housed in a room in my apartment overlooking Bleecker and Broadway in downtown Manhattan. Pratt has a campus in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Past Clients: Just to name a few

- March of Dimes
- Def Jam
- Tor Books
- GLAAD center for media studies
- Human Rights Watch
Favourite FOEM/EY track

: Oh, being a member of the FOEM crew I would never answer this directly!   ;-) But I will say (with total honesty) that FOEM/Electronic Youth 13 is the best one yet... I think it's awesome, both in it's breadth of styles, and it's depth of musicality.
Favourite FOEM/EY producer

: Oh there are so many talented folk who are part of FOEM, how could I
possibly pick one out? And again, I'm being sincere...


clck clickk kcilc


Check a selection of Jan´s works here:

william orbit artwork NYE 2004  zoom in!


FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Jan, thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule to talk with us. You’re going down in the books as our very first interview with a designer! So let’s start from the beginning… how did you come to be designer?
Jan Uretsky: Well, let's see... I grew up in a house that was filled with art, and where art held a central place (my dad is a painter, and he taught art on both the high school and collage level for most of his life). I spent much time when I was a kid drawing and painting, but when I was mid-way through high school I decided I wanted to be... A poet! So rather then head off to art school I went to a Vassar (a liberal arts collage), yet after about one semester I realized that I wasn't a very good poet, actually I sorta sucked, yet I really enjoyed being there and studying literature (and philosophy), so I stuck it out knowing that I wasn't going to pursue a career in writing. After that I went to Europe for about 6 months, then came back to NYC and had a couple of jobs that made no sense to me. This is when I figured out that I wanted to be a graphic designer. I sat down and thought about my strengths and weaknesses and came up with the following phrase "I want to find work that combines the visual and the verbal" and when I thought about what that meant it turned out to be graphic design. I then applied to Parsons and studied in the communication design dept.  After graduating from there I 'fell into' working for myself and have basically been a solo practitioner since (with a staff gig sprinkled in here and there (for instance at DefJam... That being a *whole* other story...)
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: DefJam… I bet that’s an interesting story. Tell me more about that.
Jan Uretsky: Well... I am usually pretty open and specific, but in this case I think I'll have to stick to generalities. Let's just say that Def Jam was just a tough messed up place to work for any number of factors, mostly having to do with egos, the egos of everyone from the presidents of the company (you can figure  out who I am speaking of) through to the artists we had to work with, the marketing department, right on down to the creative director and of course ending with my own bruised ego. Bad work, bad intentions, impossible circumstances, lack of trust... I am not a particularly star-struck person, and certain industries float on a sea of people who are willing to sacrifice all kinds of things just to be in the presence of celebrity. I understand the phenomena of the whole celebrity thing from an intellectual standpoint, but emotionally and at heart, I just don't respond.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Fair ‘nuff… well at least you have an impressive client to put on your resume. So tell me a little bit about what has influenced you as a graphic designer.

Jan Uretsky: Hmmm, well that’s a hard question to answer succinctly. I truly see design as part of life and therefore there are many influences. These influences extend from (obviously) other designers, right through fine art, music, various authors, and the built environment around me. That being said I would say that some of the seminal influences on my design process, what really changed my approach about 14 years ago (and saved my career, by changing how I thought about design) were the magazine Émigré, Cranbrook (both the work/philosophy that was coming out of it's grad program at the time and the friends I made with some of it's graduates, like Scott Santoro of Worksight, here in NYC.). The early to mid 90s was a time in graphic design of tremendous ferment and discussion on a world wide basis, and if you had your ears and eyes open, you couldn't help but be influenced on some level. *I was*, on a very profound level.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: It’s great to see you have such a wide array of influences and inspirational sources. Now, let’s back up a little bit... What was it that made you decide to go into graphic design as a career?
Jan Uretsky: Well, like a lot of designers, I initially wanted to find a way of using my artistic and visual creativity within a context of where I could make at least a little bit of money. But truthfully I am graphic design now for many more reasons then money... This may sound trite, but I just love the whole process of designing, which believe me is a good thing, since I've been at it for quite a while now!
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Every artist, no matter what field of the arts, must have a solid process in which to bring a composition into being. I have to agree that, I love everything about the process of composition… especially refining the technique over time. So what would you say is the best design you’ve ever done?
Jan Uretsky: That is hard to say. I like almost all the work on my site [], with the usual website caveat that I need to update. Sometime over the summer I will add a 'new work' section...
Of course as you can see that I have done both 'commercial work' and more 'personal' work (which you can find in the 'sleeves' section of the website). And I end up liking them for (at times) different reasons. With the design work I do just myself, I am able to explore more freely, to try things out on a "what if..." basis. Like a personal lab experiment...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: That’s always a great way to test the waters. While graphic design is (of course) your primary domain… are there any other areas of the arts in which you like to express yourself?
Jan Uretsky: I do have a 'secret life' as a painter. I've been working on a series for about 8 years now... But I paint 'for myself', not with any gallery shows in mind... I sort of split my creative life between the 'public' (which is my graphic design) and the 'private', which is my painting. But I don't in any way prioritize one over the other, or think that one is a 'higher form' then the other. In fact I hate it when 'fine art' is seen as some kind of 'higher form' then graphic design... Oh I could on and on about this. But I won't.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: I agree. They’re just different. I’ve noticed that there seems to be a common theme within the paintings you’ve given me of a grid-like pattern as the focal point of the composition. What was your inspiration and your thoughts behind that theme?
Jan Uretsky: There was something that I read many years ago that Jasper Johns said has really become germane in my thinking about the process of painting. I am badly paraphrasing here, but when he was asked why (in his first breakthrough paintings) his motifs where such 'mundane' things as flags and numbers, he replied that by basing his paintings on them he could 'address other issues'.  Although my painting has undergone some major changes on a formal level, I have always worked in series over the past 22 years, where I take a motif as 'my given' and then work on variations within that motif... The series I am currently working has the motif of that grid-like pattern. I've explored it in various ways... plus I like the visual and emotional implications it seems to have, even if I view it abstractly.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Now that we’ve gotten the gist of your career, let’s move on to learning more about Jan the man… these next three questions are really just three different modes of the same question… What is your favorite kind of music?

Jan Uretsky: That is really hard to say. I have wide and eclectic tastes. I just finished listening to the new 'best of' collection of Rotary Connection. Now I'm listening to that Gnarls Barkley thing (which I think is going to get pretty over played soon, I just know I am going to start hearing some of these tracks in hip clothing stores...). After that I think it will be the last album that the producer J Dilla did before he died. But earlier I was listening to FOEM/Electronic Youth 13! So there you go...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: What about fine art?

Jan Uretsky: Well I guess the artists that have influenced my thinking the most at various times in my life are (in no particular order) Jackson Pollack, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Terry Winters, De Kooning, Eva Hesse, Duchamp. etc… oh, that does sound like a slightly trendy list! ;-)
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: And, of course (how can we forget), graphic design?

Jan Uretsky: This is the hardest. There are so many insightful and talented designers out there, I don't even know where to begin. But I as I said previously, Both Émigré and the work coming out of Cranbrook and Cal Arts (especially from the mid 80s to the mid 90s) totally changed my
thinking about graphic design’s place in the world and my own process and approach to it. I think if I hadn't discovered this work I would have stopped being a designer sometime around 1989-90. I really had to become engaged in a way that wasn't cynical, and they helped lead me there...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Is there anything that you’ve read, viewed or heard recently that really moved or inspired you… be it a book, poem, film, song, whatever?

Jan Uretsky: I just finished reading a collection of poetry put together by the former poet laureate of the US, Billy Collins, called  "180 More (extraordinary poems for the everyday)" Not sure if I like the subtitle, but the collection is really strong. Before that I read another book of poetry "The House of Blue Light" by David Kirby. I guess I've been on a poetry kick of late. The poetry that I connect with these days is one that is based in something concrete in the world we live in. it can get a bit 'abstract', but that connection needs to be the link.
The best film that I've seen in the past couple of months is a re-release of a Jean-Pierre Melville film from 1969 called L'Armée des ombres, (Army of Shadows). It's a very bleak movie about the early days of the French resistance during WW2. It's beautifully filmed and controlled. It manages to build tension without any of the usual pyrotechnics or clichéd action tropes...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: *laughs* Well I could take this into a totally different tangent talking about the clichés in films today but from a comedic point of view… that is a cliché in itself so I won’t go there. ;-) So now that we know where you came from, let’s look a little bit into the future. What are your aims in life?

Jan Uretsky: Whoa, these are tough questions. My aim in life… Well, I guess (and I mean this seriously) to do my best, to do my best within a moral and humane context. To always try. To always find a way of remaining interested and engaged.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: I have to admit, I’m curious… how would you classify your overall philosophy?

Jan Uretsky: Generally speaking, I guess I am an existential humanist. And an atheist
with a sense of fate...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Oh goodo! I have another existentialist brain to pick! ;-) So who’s your favorite existential philosopher? Sartre perhaps?

Jan Uretsky: Well of course Sartre, but I guess perhaps more Camus... but I also 'almost'
minored in philosophy (there where a couple of courses I avoided, like Logic, which I would have had to take to do an official minor) when I was at Vassar, and had the amazing experience of immersing myself in various philosophers from Plato right on through deconstructionist folks like
Foucault and onto Gadimer. Actually Gadimer and the 'New Hermeneutics' was my big thing in the end.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Ah, see… there’s where you’ve lost me. I took philosophy last year at a community college level, so no deconstructionists for us. I am, however, planning on minoring in philosophy when I get to a decent university. By this point, most people probably have no idea what we’re going on about so I’m gonna move on… Are you active on any internet groups or forums?

Jan Uretsky: Oh the only other board that I am active on at the moment is 'Mix of the Week' []. It's not as active as it used to be, but it's very low key and friendly and I like that. I am way past wanting to argue and stir up shit online. I was already tired of that shit 14 years ago!
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Wow, back in the days when the internet was in it’s infancy with basically just Usenet and AOL. Oh but I bet people really knew how to bitch back then! ;-) So how did you come across our fine lil’ community here?
Jan Uretsky: Sitting up late one night, following links from one music site to another...
I found FOEM and posted right there was a request for a designer, I emailed
in and said "I'm your man..."
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Crazy! Sometimes it’s just that easy. Great to have you on board!

Jan Uretsky: Thank you.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: So what do you like most about FOEM?

Jan Uretsky: I think it's rare to find a place that functions the way FOEM does. That
truly benefits all of us who are members in every way. It's both relaxed and
totally professional, and to think it's free as well...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: So uh… *whispers* what do you have planned for the FOEM website?
Jan Uretsky: Ah... that is a secret! But I promise it will be cool...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Let’s talk politics for a moment.

Jan Uretsky: *sigh* Do we have to?
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: *laughs* Don’t worry, I’m not gonna ask who you voted for or anything like that. What do you think of the contemporary commercial music played by radio stations?
>(oh I'm open about my voting habits, I held my nose and voted for Kerry the >last time around (I utterly and totally loath Bush and company), but this time >around I have the feeling that I can't go down the whole 'lesser of two evils' >road again. So maybe some third party candidate I can truly believe in? Whoa >that's idealistic of me ain't it? ;-)

Jan Uretsky: Anyway... I cannot think of the last time I listened to a commercial music station. Here in the states so many commercial radio stations have become so formatted and controlled that there is never that element of surprise that catches your ear, that unexpected juxtaposition that makes you go "ummmm". So instead I download mixes off of the web, off of various sites. There are some truly amazing producers/DJs out there who put up amazing stuff for free up on the web. That's where I get the fission I used to get years ago from the radio.

FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Last political question, I promise… What do you think about the uprising of netlabels and the conflict between them and the commercial music industry? And what about the classic “Napster Debate” on music piracy?
Jan Uretsky: Well obviously I believe whole heartedly in netlabels, I am part of the FOEM crew!! But I don't see why there really has to be a conflict. What I think the conflict comes down to is money. The commercial music industry has been 'in trouble' (i.e. losing money) for a long time now, long before netlabels even existed, so I think blaming netlabels (and the web, and piracy etc.) is just the commercial music industries latest scapegoat for their own troubles and lack of imagination.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: What are some of the things that you’re a fan of that people might not expect? And are there any other interesting quirks about you that we should know about?
Jan Uretsky: Let’s see….

Good Japanese Anime
Adult Swim (late night cartoons on cable here in the US)
Repeats of the X-Files (but I think I've seen all of them by now...)
Good science fiction
Some tracks by certain artists that most people gag over...
(example, the song 'late for the sky' by Jackson Browne, yes... I know.
Don't even say it...  ;-) [FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: *bites tongue*]
Baseball, I love baseball... I am a huge NY Mets fan.
Flowers and plants, I have just planted Geraniums in my window boxes for the
Bird watching (my mom loved it, I inherited it)
My total devotion to my cat Rosie (she turned 11 in March!)
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Oh!!! I have to ask then… what are your favorite animes?
Jan Uretsky: Off the top of my head...
Cowboy Bebop
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex (first season)
Paranoia Agent
FK (FuriKuri)
Oh there's more, but I've only had one cup of coffee this morning.
Ghost in the Shell (first movie)
Almost all the work of Miyazaki (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds/Castle
in the Sky/Spirited Away etc. etc.)
Grave of the Fireflies
Millennium Actress
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: I knew Cowboy Bebop had to be somewhere at the top of the list. I particularly liked the movie for that. And of course… Spirited Away is a total masterpiece. So do you have a secret wish you’d like us to blow the cover on?

Jan Uretsky: My secret, secret wish is that I could sing. Just to be able to hit the
right notes and carry a tune. That would be very nice.
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: And just for the hell of it… have you ever been arrested and why?
Jan Uretsky: I was arrested for writing graffiti when I was 13 years old. This was in Central Park and the guy who was supposed to look out for the cops, well didn't... When they where taking me to the precinct to get my JD (juvenile delinquent) card, the cops kept on saying things like "you write graffiti because you hang out with too many blacks, right?" and I was thinking "you fucking racist shits" . But I was too intimidated to say anything...
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Wow… you hear so many things about racism amongst cops but I’ve never heard it said so blatantly. That’s just wrong in too many ways. Well, let’s end the interview with our favorite philosophical question… Being an artist can be a frustrating job in which we all have times of inspirational drought. How do you handle these mental blocks and what do you do for inspiration?
Jan Uretsky: Well this is an interesting question, one that I need to often address when I am teaching. I think that inspiration is a great thing, believe me, but within a professional context you can't depend on it or wait around for it. Thankfully, like many processes in life, you can learn to not depend on it. Usually when I am starting a design project, I put down on paper in words what the project entails. I then just try and start to think what it is about, both in terms of the aims, the philosophy, the scope. I try and think also about it in formal terms. At the same time being the somewhat 'post-modern' designer that I am, I also think about what I want to "say" as well...
On a more basic level when I am feeling blocked, I just go and look at books (design, art, etc.) Go to museums. I take walks and try to relax, the more uptight you get, the more you can't think... I get some of my best ideas while riding on the subway!
FOEM/Jonathan vanAtom: Well Jan, thank you so much for your time and everything you’re doing for FOEM. Have the best of luck with your career and hope you’ll have killer amounts of fun in life!

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