David Babbitt is a graphic design artist based in Chicago, IL. He studied industrial design and fine art at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, after which he focused on sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He became involved with the Wax Trax! scene in the 80’s & early 90’s through graphic and design work with Interzone, the merchandising company founded by Bill Meiney and Mike Nash. He became the Art Director for Touch and Go/Quarterstick Records (he claims that Visual Psychologist would also be an appropriate title) in the 90’s and continues to work with them. I may have once watched him subdue a couple of fake ninjas on a dance floor in England with the greatest of ease.
(left) David Babbitt, (right) David Babbitt, again.
Tell me about your artwork and how you have turned it into a career.
I took my first art class in high school. Sitting in on art study hall to hang out with a person I fancied. I clearly remember sitting at one of those long heavy wood tables chatting as we worked on our projects. Next to me was Nic, he was drawing his usual skulls and demons. He announced to us all that someday he was going to do album covers. In my mind I thought “I have a better chance of that than you do.”
I trained in mechanical drawing in high school and went to college for Industrial Design. It was there I started leaning towards sculpture and fine art. The focus at the fine art end of my output was usually on figuring out issues that defied conventional explanation. Large constructions that the observer could move though was another focus.
The business of art and needing to make a living pushed my own fine art to the background. Using those sensibilities and technical know how I carved out a career helping other artists.
What are some stories from your career that stand out to you?
I got to meet and work with many people. Working closely with them was always a pleasure. When people would come in I could be with them while the creative process was going on. This was always rewarding. Though sometimes exhausting because of the long hours. 12-14 hour days and through the weekend were not uncommon. I would come in early and make edits and realize directions so when the artists would show up we could move forward. These private moments of connection are the best, yet private stories.
What do you consider your biggest achievement?
Without a doubt, it is the great person my daughter grew into. I like to think I had some influence on her.
As my career goes, a high point would have to be while working with John Schmersal on the art that would be Enon's High Society, we were talking about covers we liked. Both of us were grooving on the Sparks record covers. Mainly photographic, witty and to the point. I knew Ron Mael was responsible for the art direction, if not the execution on all their covers. So on a hail-Mary I shot an email to the company that was putting out their records at the time, asking if Ron would consider working with us to create the album art for the record we were working on. Minutes after sending the email I forgot about it. Maybe a month later, the phone in my office rings and Ron Mael is on the other end. I was starstruck! It was Ron Mael from Sparks. He called me! I stumbled with the sounds that, when correctly sequenced, create words. He told me how touched he was that we had considered him for this. His said work on the graphics for his records is something he was proud of, and in all his years in the music industry no one had approached him to do art work. He apologized for the late response and said if he wasn't busy finishing Young Beethoven he would have loved to work with us. At this point in the call, I assumed he had said his piece and that would be that. No. He wanted to chat; what was Enon like, what was Touch And Go all about, what was the scene like in Chicago. It was like talking to Jason Noble, calling to talk for 2 minutes about work and an hour about life. I floated the rest of the day. Another would be the Naked Raygun CDs. When the job came down the pipeline it was meant to be a straight reproductions of the LP jackets. Jay Castaldi and I separately made impassioned proposals to expand the packaging to include photos, testimonials, ‘free stuff,’ flyers and other memorabilia. Thirty to forty people stepped up to help. It spoke volumes about the Chicago scene. On a side note, not much original artwork existed so those reissues are in effect suburb bootlegs.
(left) Hey, It’s David Babbitt (right) And once more, David Babbitt.
What is an experience that you feel you learned a lot from?
As trite as it sounds, I learned the most from teaching. I taught Aikido and Laido for over ten year until my knees gave out. These are non-competitive martial arts in a similar mindset to Tai Chi. The lessons learned didn’t have to do with martial arts but rather communication and creativity. Which In turn applied when working on art especially with a group of people.
What did you draw from in your designs for Glassworks?
Ben gave me some photos, a bunch of illustrations, and a letterform. These elements were enough to communicate a vibe. The bags Ben preferred were raw craft paper bags. This focused the direction even more to the point where the elements asked to be where they ended up. Ben and I are both fans of music so peppered throughout the brand there are nods and outright homages.
What role does coffee play in your life?
Before I ever had a cup I loved coffee ice cream or as the fancy ice cream stores called it mocha. Those days outright coffee was unpalatable but the seed was planted.
My first year of art college we had to take basic design and color classes. The head of the department, Chuck Vansen, told us at the beginning that the projects were designed to take a long time at a sustained state of high concentration. Gouache on board applied with a perfect hand. These projects required two late if not overnights a week. At the beginning of each semester he would caution us about the use of coffee while a cup was sitting next to where he was standing.
The student lounge was full of people with coffee and cigarettes. One morning after an all-nighter I tried a cup. It was too bitter, hard to get down. Some sugar helped that. Within a year I was off sugar and onto cream. The cream made large amounts easier to stomach.
After school my coffee use was occasional, social. Then this coffee shop opened on my walk to work. A Detroit transplant opened it a few months after I started working in the neighborhood. The staff working at Beans and Bagels was as much of a reason to go in in the mornings as the coffee was. Beans was truly its own scene. I am still friends with many of the employees now scattered across the country.
During the Beans and Bagels years I made the switch to Decaf. Yes, it doesn’t normally taste as good but as I aged the effects of caffeine on my system increased. But because of all those years popping in for a cup in the ritual was ingrained. At first the kick was why I drank coffee now the caffeine fights back as the roasts become better and better.
Beans and Bagels sold to one of their employees and became Spoken. It was here that I had my first cup of espresso. It was ESP Espresso served with a side of seltzer water.
I will still indulge in a full on coffee from time to time. And when I do I try to get a good coffee. Glassworks Coffee.
Check out David’s work at http://jdbabbitt.com/