John Malinoski

Photography by William Godwin

April 29 2015

John’s students, who respectfully refer to him as, “Malinoski,” often cite his classes as turning points in their design education; from a purely aesthetic discipline to an all-encompassing, mindful way of living. In 2012, John—along with his wife, fashion designer and professor Kristin Caskey, and their longtime friend, architect Camden Whitehead—cofounded mOb (Middle of Broad), an interdisciplinary studio for graphic, fashion, and interior design students and teachers working for nonprofit and community organizations.

We visited John Malinoski and his family at their Richmond home, a tall, narrow, copper-sided farmhouse designed by Whitehead. As snow fell outside, we conferred with their poodles, Tulip and Edith, and talked to John—over donuts—about work, life, and the future of graphic design.

Are there early memories or experiences that have had a lasting impression on you and your work? What was your childhood like?

I think there are a lot of things that you don’t realize until you get to a certain age because you are just too busy fighting against establishments and general conventions. I think it’s all about that. In certain ways, it’s all linked back.

My parents stressed resourcefulness because there wasn’t a lot of money. My dad was a public school teacher and coach. My mother was a librarian. Living in a very small area, not making much money and being a family of four children exhausted things. Instead of getting a new bike, we bought used bikes and stripped them down as far as they could go and rebuilt and sanded and repainted them.

We had a big old barn that was full of stray pieces of wood. And you built a box, and you put a plank across it, and it became an airplane. And when you were a little bit older, you’d put wheels on it and try to go down the side of the hill, which was pretty steep. I never got more than ten feet down that hill.

Since she was a librarian, our mother always stressed the importance of reading. She probably took a lot of the banned books from the ‘60s and ‘70s off the public shelves and brought them home for us to read. So at an impressionable age, I was reading Vonnegut, Updike, Catch-22, and a lot of science fiction. It was very influential, I think. It was a good way to escape a very small town that averages 205 inches of snow a year. Think about that.

My father coached football, basketball, track, and baseball. So thinking about all the bright colors, the stripes of uniforms, the numbers, the typography; it’s all there in my work now.

You’re going through adolescence and early adulthood and you are just rebelling against all of that, and you don’t realize how deep-seated it is in you. And then it starts to come out, and you encourage it, and kind of wish you had observed it a little bit earlier in life.

That resourcefulness from a young age can be seen in your work, where you pull scraps and bits and make something new out of them.

Yeah it’s very Appalachian. I grew up in the northwest tip of Appalachia. You do as much as you can with as little. The figures in one of my posters are made of materials found on my bicycle commute. They were cast-offs, the worst kind, coming from rough places; a cigarette box in a puddle.

I have some St. Francis in me, very Catholic, non-Catholic, in a way. I like dealing with the same characters as Tom Waits; the Mickey Rourkes of the world. I’m not afraid to go there. I find it fascinating. There’s something about picking up an object, rescuing it from a puddle, taking care of it, and then it becomes art. It’s really precious in a way. Going from nothing to something great, exalted.

How did you move towards graphic design?

I wasn’t able to be steered into graphic design because it wasn’t that well known as a profession and there wasn’t a lot of encouragement. No one around you in a small town was saying, “Yes, you can go make posters,” you know

I remember visiting my older sister in Rochester for the weekend. My mom gave me ten dollars to buy something special in the big city and my sister took me to a department store downtown. They had this huge rack of posters. Big posters, like A0s, European size, and I bought three or four posters. I didn’t know what they were; I just wanted them for my wall. They were all modern posters. One was by an Israeli designer named Dan Reisinger, another one was by Al Hirschfeld, the guy who did all the Broadway drawings, caricatures. The weird thing is, when I got to RIT, I took a class from a visiting designer from Israel and she’d happened to study under Reisinger. There are all these kind of weird connections.

You have said that posters are your favorite objects.

Not much graphic design will grab your heart and twist you. It’s really quick and short-lived, and posters are usually for an event or something that deserves such merit. It’s also the scale. It’s more personal, a pedestrian act. I always think it’s such a positive sign of city health if there are big posters out, which there are in European cities, and people are out, walking around their city and taking advantage of just the walk or being informed about what is going on.

Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?

The ideas come to me and then it’s a matter of recording them and sometimes it’s a dream. One of my posters involves a tulip singing. I actually had a dream of two tulips French kissing, I don’t know why. It was probably some impetus from the day. You have to remember those things because they don’t just come out of nowhere. Probably most of these things you forget, especially dreams, that’s what I want to remember. I made a sketch of the tulips and then revisited the sketch, and it became a poster.

I like to ride the bus. I see so many things on the bus. I hear so many things. You listen to the stories, you look out the window, you see things. You can’t do that when you drive, I’m usually tense. My bus drove past a CVS and there was this woman carrying a big, stuffed, animal fish, like eight feet long. I don’t know why. Is she returning it? Why is she going into the CVS?

I don’t even care, but I saw it, so it becomes an image.

In your sketchbook?

Yeah, instantly wonderful. I haven’t used it for anything yet.

But it’s there.

Right, it’s there. It’s recorded. I can go back to it if I need it.

A good friend of yours, Camden Whitehead, designed your house. How closely did you work with him?

Close, but not too close. Kristin and I wrote him a poetic paragraph about the house and drew him a very simple box with a triangle on top of it. We felt like it was important. We talked about what we liked about houses. This is a very Virginia house, if you think about the proportions, the layout, the width, and the ability to let air go through.

All of your best projects are for those clients, who have a lot of faith in you, give you a lot of liberty, and let you try things and make mistakes. We agreed early on that it’s his house. He knows architecture very well, let him do it, let him be.

He gave us the plans and we said okay. Maybe in hindsight we would have said a few things differently, but not really.

In your own design work, what is it like working with new clients?

It always starts with intuition and trust. If it’s not there, then you don’t work for them. If they are saying, “I want what you did for…” that’s a red flag. It can be awkward, especially in the beginning. Mutual friends are encouraging many of my clients, so you know they come from good people. You have to have faith in that, but I think you also just have to risk it, and wing it a little bit, and try to be very creative in the proposal states.

But it’s not just about the objects you make; it’s also about how you orchestrate the process. What you say, and how you say it at a certain time, and what you show along with it. Maybe it’s just an attached image that might seemingly have nothing to do with the process early on.

As a professor and an independent designer you do a lot of projects within the Richmond community with small businesses and nonprofits. How do you get some of these clients that wouldn’t normally place value in design to understand the importance of the work you and your students can do for them?

With mOb, we’re upfront with the clients. We say, “If you want traditional design, go to traditional designers. We’re not going to charge you anything. These are kids. They’re a little crazy. We want them to be a little crazy. They probably make more sense in some ways. This is why you’re here. They are going to mess up. It’s not always going to be perfect, but hey, that’s what we’re all about. If you want something really polished, go somewhere else.”

That sounds like a unique learning experience.

The bureaucratic world that I live in can get very annoying. That is meetings, agendas, reports, briefs and syllabi, and expected outcomes and measured outcomes, etc. So I just try to do these things in a very creative way now. If they want a syllabus, then I make a syllabus, and it looks like pages in my sketchbook. I think the students like it. It makes me feel good about making syllabi. There are no rules on how to do it. An unconventional project brief sets the tone for a project. If it’s gridded, flush left, rag right, 9 over 12 something, beautiful paragraphs, how are you going to get away from that in the process?

But if it’s a combination of that and imagery and kissing tulips, it says something to the kid that there’s tolerance here, it’s all right. If he can dream about such romantic acts and put it down and use it, then he can go back to his imagination. I think that’s really important.

Those other things just aren’t working for me. They don’t work for me. They make me very uncomfortable and annoyed. Don’t be around me if I have to write a traditional report. I’m ugly. We’ve got to try those other things.

I’m getting old. I’ve got thirty years left. That’s a third of my life. I want to try other things.

One of the most interesting aspects of mOb is its interdisciplinary nature, how it blends together three different departments.

“Interdisciplinary” is a term brought up meeting after meeting. We have to be interdisciplinary. We have to do this. Boundaries are collapsing and we need to let this happen but we get too protective of our turf. I think, especially in education and academia, where there is great interest, this needs to happen more. It’s risky and it’s kind of crazy and it’s kind of weird, but it’s kind of fun.

You seem to teach and look at design as a way of life rather than just a trade.

Yeah, I think to work at a certain level you just end up doing that, you can’t really turn it off. You address it in all of your life’s choices and you’re always evaluating, being critical of it and thinking about it.

How has design education changed since you were in school?

I think resourcefulness is one thing that has changed. With the younger generation, they don’t have a lot of this because things like music and art and design are the first things to get slashed from budgets. They don’t come in with a certain kind of inventory of skills and conceptual abilities. That’s not to say they can’t get them, but they don’t have a lot of prior experience. We don’t make as much anymore, and this is not to fault students. This is a sign of our culture. We talk so much about making things it drives me crazy. There are so many meetings about what we’re going to do, rather than the dedication to say, “Let’s just go do it.”

We talk about digging a hole, but nobody ends up digging the holes. But that’s the Digital Age. How much time is spent responding to emails or going to meetings or on Facebook? It’s become an accepted part of what we do.

Is there any school of thought that you associate yourself with or identify with?

Modernism because of my education and who my teachers were. They were really hardcore modernists near the tail end of modernism because postmodernism was just starting to occur visually and verbally in my world in the ‘80s. So I was torn, being taught by these guys that had direct linkage to places like Bauhaus and Basel, Switzerland.

At the same time you’re a kid and you’re looking for your own rebellion and you’re listening to Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello, and The Clash, and Sex Pistols. They are anything but modern, they were fighting that. There was a conflict between what I wanted to do on Friday and Saturday nights and the other language I was being taught.

That makes a lot of sense. Your work is very simple, it’s kind of restricted, but it’s also very playful at the same time.

I try not to combine anything greater than a half or a quarter of a circle and a square. It’s a big step if I go from a square to a rectangle. I just really try to limit it as much as possible. It’s playful. Yeah, why not? I think of my travels overseas, befriending European designers—that’s one of the things they taught that was fun. Especially when it makes for a better life. I think it also has very dark meaning too. I don’t think it’s just simple and cute kid stuff. One of my design friends explained it to another designer. He said, “The nice things about John’s work is that it’s so simple, but it’s so dangerous.” I hope another layer of meaning exists.

You’ve focused so much of your work on community and urban renewal.

I think it should be important to everybody. I think that’s actually the toughest challenge that design has in front of it. Maybe that’s where all of our best and brightest should put their effort. How can we make a better place for all of us? And in doing so make design—from the park bench, to the park, to the way we cross the river, to the way we read things—just better?