The Made Shop was founded 12 years ago by Marke Johnson and his wife Kimberly, while Marke was studying architecture. “I started the shop as both a way to have a bit of fun being creative outside academic work and to help pay our way through school,” explains Johnson.
“Kimberly and I were actually in a band at the time…so we were doing a bunch of graphic art and design for it, which then naturally grew to include a bunch of other friends, musicians and bands. This sort of snowballed from a fun side project into what started to seem a moderately successful business,” he explains. After graduating during a recession in 2008, Johnson and Kimberly decided to take a year out and see what they could do with the Made Shop as a full time project. “Eight years later,” he adds, “I think it’s one of the best risks we’ve ever taken.”
The studio has since worked on album art for The Fray and Son Lux and posters and graphics for Joseph Gordon-Levitt film Looper, as well as packaging, ads and visual identities. The team now includes a project designer, art director and artist, and most of its projects involve building 3D sets or large-scale objects.
Artwork for Son Lux album Bones, for example (pictured top) was created using a pyramid of fluorescent tubes and exploding balloons filled with paint. For the cover for previous album We Are Rising, the studio photographed 28 smoke bombs exploding into the air. (The Made Shop has been working with Son Lux for around five years, and designed the stage show, props, merchandise, social media imagery, animated GIFs, drumheads and two promos for Bones). With identities for food outlets in Denver, it has designed glasses, signage, mosaics and window wraps as well as menus and branding.
“I think we end up approaching our graphic work a bit like architects or builders, and our spatial work a bit like graphic designers,” says Johnson. “For instance, if you look at most of our album covers, almost all of them come from some sort of crazy physical build, whether that’s wrapping an entire studio in white plastic [for The Fray’s Covers album, below], building the band name out of fluorescent tubes, or shooting off 28 smoke bombs and shooting the chaos from a forklift above, which we then reduce to a ‘flat’ 2D graphic image. And when we do three-dimensional interior spatial design, I think we’re more obsessed with things like signage, wallpaper, surface, way finding, and other ‘flat’ graphic aspects.
One of the studio’s most challenging projects was the video for Son Lux’s Change is Everything, made using a sheet of foam board, 200 push pins and 500 feet of rubber thread.
“For each frame of the video, we’d rearrange the pins, and then stretch the thread connect-the-dots-style around these vertices to create a sort of wireframe cage-like animation, which brought to life a number of lyrical themes from the album, like bones, armatures, structures and cages, but also a moment-by-moment freedom and change that creates life within those rigid confines,” explains Johnson.
“The process was painstaking even by our standards — and partway through we honestly were despairing and wondering whether it was more trouble that it was worth. But in the end as it came together it became one our favorite things we’ve ever made. And it ended up going viral and getting a ton of press and attention for the album, which of course felt really gratifying.”
On its website, the team describe themselves as “experts in making things we don’t know how to make yet.” Johnson points out that the studio is not built on a ‘jack of all trades’ approach – “we really value expertise” he says – but rather, looks to develop new ways of working by taking on commissions that the team will learn new skills from. Most of its projects are carried out in-house, but the studio occasionally works with a small group of collaborators.
“We do as much as we can in house while keeping our team as small as possible. I like this approach because we maintain a really strong control and focus by staying small and being really choosy about projects, but we’re not limiting ourselves from taking on larger clients or projects by making sure we have a trusted group of co-conspirators we can call on at any time.
“The flip side is, by working in this sort of ad-hoc way where we assemble and disassemble specific larger teams per project, we get to protect ourselves from having to take on work or clients we’re not particularly excited about just to maintain overhead on a large staff. We just sustainably support our core team — which means we each do specialise and have expertise in specific areas, but we also all wear many, many hats,” says Johnson.
Central to The Made Shop’s work is a love of craft and of working with physical materials: “You come at a material with an idea in your head, but it resists you in some ways, accommodates you in others … not only is that fun to think on your toes, but so often we find that the ideas improve, and the final piece has a certain weight — a trace of its making, a series of imperfections that just hits you a bit differently than it might otherwise,” says Johnson.
Alongside some self-initiated projects, the studio is now working on new film projects and has just finished working with the US National Football League. “At the moment we’ve got a pretty weird mix going on, even for us. On the one hand we’ve got some new crazy music video concepts cooking, and on the other, we just did some work for the NFL. …I can’t say much more about the project at the moment, but hopefully soon it’ll be all over the place,” he adds.