Finding Design Inspiration in Over-the-Rhine

Maya Drozdz and Michael Stout are a testament to the adage 'take opportunity where you find it.'  In this case, the pair of graphic designers relocated to Cincinnati and found artistic inspiration in the architecture of their new neighborhood, and have turned it into an opportunity to expose their work (and OTR) to the rest of the world.

Separately, and together, the pair previously lived in Brooklyn, Michigan, Indianapolis, and most recently in Boston where Drozdz taught design. Graphic designers by training and education, a move to Cincinnati came two years ago when Stout wanted to pursue a Masters in Planning at UC.

"Michael started looking at grad programs.  He chose Cincinnati, and I didn't want to stay in Boston by myself for two years. It was a very limited time frame and I thought it would be an adventure," she says.

And what an adventure it's become. "By the time he graduated we didn't want to leave," she says.  

Drozdz was born in Poland, and attended Cornell, earning her BA and her MFA in 2D Design from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Stout was born and raised in Indianapolis where he earned his BFA in Visual Communication from the Herron School of Art and Design.

"It's what we went to school for and that's how we met,"  Drozdz says.  "We found each other and became this creative partnership."

That partnership is 'VisuaLingual', a design and print studio that they conceived in Boston and relocated with their move to Cincinnati.  As a Midwesterner, Stout had visited the Queen City before, but this was Drozdz's first trip.

"After living in Boston for four years it was kind of appealing to live in the Midwest, where the cultural offerings and the creative opportunities were more accessible than in a city of a larger size," she says.  After doing some research, the couple ended up in Over-the-Rhine.

"We knew Over-the-Rhine was where we wanted to be. It was centrally located and we needed a walkable community," Stoudt says.  Drozdz agrees.

"As soon as we moved here we knew that if we were going to stay, this is it. I wouldn't want to live in any other neighborhood. I don't drive. I would never give up the urban existence. That's the kind of walkable life we want to be living," she says.

While Stout began school, Drozdz began doing corporate design for F&W, but the creative limitations made her quit and reassess what she was interested in. Ultimately, she says, inspiration arrived: "I wanted to do work that had to do with this place."
 

While VisuaLingual had its humble beginnings in Boston, the move to Cincinnati really stoked their creative fire and created an opportunity as unique as the new neighborhood where they settled.

"We really drew inspiration from our surroundings and I think that's what reignited and put us in a direction of making prints and products and things for the home. It was a new direction for VisuaLingual being in Cincinnati," Drozdz says.

They started designing coasters as Visualingual's first offering, taking inspiration from the Ohio River. Other early prints incorporated their new neighborhood's wealth of Italianate architecture.

"As outsiders we had a different perspective on the city - not the same baggage. Certain things that struck us about Cincinnati and Over-the Rhine. Things that are a little more obvious to us than someone who has lived here all their lives and perhaps took for granted," she says.

But it was a novelty product and design that put VisuaLingual on the map. Their ominously sounding 'seed bombs' began as a simple idea: to imprint their unique victorian inspired designs on a muslin bag full of wildflower seeds native to a specific area of the country. Affordably priced and imminently accessible, the "grass roots urban design" of the gifts found an early home with neighborhood retailers including Park + Vine. Owner Dan Korman says the pair offered something synergistic with his local green store that was hard to resist.

"We get a lot of inquiries to carry locally-made goods. Maya set herself apart from the herd, because she and Michael create wares that get their direct inspiration from our neighborhood and fit the vibe of our store, " he says. "[They] have a real knack for using their craft as a way to spotlight Cincinnati - and specifically Over-the-Rhine - through the eyes of artists transplanted from another city."  Outside's Terry Lee, who also was an early champion of the seed bombs agrees. "Their love of the area and Over-the-Rhine in particular, comes through in many of their designs."

Stout says their simple idea is more than meets the eye though.

"Seed bomb is kind of rooted in this idea of place and your environment," he says. "It's very grassroots. This was one little product that could actually,on a really small scale, empower you the neighbor to do something about your neighborhood."

And empower it did. The success of seed bombs in Cincinnati led Drozdz to make contacts in Chicago with other independent stores to carry their products. 

"It ended up with a life of its own," she says. "The store in Chicago promoted it as a stocking stuffer with the kind of press leverage we don't have."

Indeed, one year after introducing their Midwestern seed bombs, they were featured in Vogue, House Beautiful, Woman's Day, Frugal Bon Vivant, and Harper's Magazine, among many other publications, and they're now expanding the concept with seed bombs for other regions including the West Coast.  And their popularity is about to take another big step: the success of seed bombs in the Midwest attracted the attention of a buyer for Anthropologie stores. The national chain's order, in the thousands, will see seed bombs in their stores nationally. This means Stout and Drozdz are about to get very, very busy.

"We're quickly expanding our capacity, but staying rooted using neighborhood friends. We're also renting a larger workspace," Drozdz says.

Stout says it's been an accelerated primer in how to make a start-up business successful, and even better tale of incorporating your surroundings into your art work.

"It's been a great business lesson for us about how a product like this works on this grassroots do-it-yourself urban design level and can then find a market beyond just doing it for you," he says.

And that's good news, because the designs keep coming. Their most recent line of home accessories is entitled Flourishing, and bears the same distinctive hallmarks of Italinate architecture prevalent in some of their earlier designs.  Flourishing began with photographs the pair took of 19th century buildings in Over-the-Rhine, including the iconic Germania building at 12th and Walnut.  After digitally tracing the architectural ornamentation photographed, they created new patterns that are applied to products including ceramic serving pieces, tabletop accessories, linen throw pillows and table runners. Their process and the use of distinctive OTR designs makes each piece one of a kind, recognizable to locals but equally attractive to consumers who might have no knowledge of the neighborhood and it's storied architecture.

"There's a general interest in architectural ornamentation and Victorian era design. On the one hand, OTR lovers and architecture geeks would love recognizing the buildings that inspired the designs. But even if you don't know anything about the neighborhood you can still look at it with a fresh eye," Drozdz says.

In keeping with their art/design aesthetic, the line was unveiled in an exhibition at the historic Betts House in the West End. Entitled HOME WORK, the exhibit can be seen through April. Items on display can be purchased via VisuaLingual's online shop. Drozdz says designing products that reflect their affection for their new neighborhood is one way of contributing to the ongoing conversation about its history and development.

"What we're doing is a contemporary folk practice," she says. "The end result will delve deeper in to the specifics of the neighborhood but still going outside that to find other access points to the work. It's a slightly more sophisticated way for us to talk about the neighborhood. But also still expanding our audience." 

The pair has recently started working with the Contact Center to design storefront signage. Given their affinity for OTR, the pair says it seemed like a good fit to design something that would have a visual presence in the neighborhood and give back a little of that inspiration. 

But with the success of their seed bombs, and the new line, have they run out of ideas and inspiration from the neighborhood?  Drozdz doesn't think so.

"That was the beginning of us trying to expand the conversation and I want us to continue doing that," she says. "It's a very rich canvas. I really like the idea that our practice is becoming more and more embedded in this place."


Check out Visualingual's Seed Bomb progress here.

Photography by Scott Beseler

Maya Drozdz and Michael Stout

Germania detail

Design detail (photo provided by VL)

Seed Bomb (photo by Michael Stout)

Design homegoods by VL

Germania building at 12th and Walnut

Betts House in the West End