Annica Lydenberg of Dirty Bandits is an accomplished art director, lettering artist, illustrator, and mural painter. Her work both defies convention while working across an array of mediums. We love Annica’s work because it combines two of our favorite things—typography and illustration—elevating the written word through artful and unexpected play. And, where some designers run from feeling, Annica embraces it, brings it to life, and shares it with the world.
Can you tell us a bit about you—where you come from and how you got here?
I am a lettering artist, illustrator, and creative director. I paint murals, make art about feelings, and love storytelling. I studied fine art in school and learned utterly useless things like Quark Xpress and Macromedia Freehand in my design classes. Design was always my first choice for a career. I wasn’t a fine artist who was looking for a way to make a living. I did web design stuff when I graduated because Flash was a thing back then, and I really enjoyed making stuff move. Then, I started doing hand lettering about 10 years ago and studied at Type@Cooper
to learn computery stuff. I also practiced sign painting at New Bohemia Signs
and took lots of workshops for non-computery stuff. The influence that fine art had on my design career was not planned. I started painting murals with friends, it was a way to incorporate three things at once that made me happy—being outside, creative, and social.
How did you discover art? Was there a moment or event that set you on this path?
My folks are excited by culture, so I was exposed to a lot as a kid. We went to museums and galleries often. I didn’t see my parents spend money on anything really, but they did always buy work from their friends who were artists. This also meant we had a lot of artwork in our house made by people who I knew, making it all the more interesting.I don’t know that I had an ah-ha moment of sorts. I always liked drawing. I was a shy, timid kid and spent a lot of time alone doing that. I wasn’t alone because I wanted to be necessarily. I was just an only child. I always hoped to be doing creative things with other people which is why design, as opposed to fine art, seemed like a more desirable path.
"I love the idea of turning trash into art, turning objects and surfaces that have been left behind into something special."
If you could organize an event—dinner, show, party, barn raising—with five artists, who would they be and what would happen?
Is it terribly uncreative if I say I just want to hang out with the cast of the documentary Beautiful Losers
? Specifically Steve Powers, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and Geoff McFeteridge. I love all the overlap that happens there. When I was a kid I used to think that great artists were one in million so it seemed absurd that they would just happen to know each other. I guess I thought great work was created in a vacuum. As an adult I see how people feed off each other, support each other, connect each other, and elevate each other so there is often a crew of greatness. It’s beautiful and that movie has a crew that I would like to hang out with.
As for what we’d do I would say we’d go paint an abandoned building. I love the idea of turning trash into art, turning objects and surfaces that have been left behind into something special. Being away and out of the public eye when creating with other people I think gives a lot more freedom to play, work however feels good for you, and not worry that people passing by will be taking and posting photos of your ugly process.
What ideas define the way you work? How would you describe your process to an outsider or brand? Is there a moment in your process that defines your work?
Research! I am not a happy accident kind of person really unless I’m planning on looking for accidents. I love researching themes, methods, and styles. Things that exist in my head before I take pen to paper tend to be stronger. I love the research phase, I make mood boards for my clients, but also for my own projects. I set aside time for experimenting with materials — physical or digital — and that’s often where the plan solidifies.
My favorite book, actually there are two of them, is Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, by James and Karla Murray. It has entire New York City blocks from one end to the next folding out in these amazing gatefolds. They cover all the boroughs and were shot mostly in the early 2000s. Back then, there were a lot of old storefronts with long histories so the styles and fabrication types span many decades and are an amazing source of inspiration for my lettering.
When you think about your work, what emotion are you looking for? Are there certain ideas that you hope shine in every piece?
Humor and empathy. I think about these things constantly, and I hope they come through in everything I do in my personal, professional, and creative life. My default state is puns, curse words, and encouragement.
Who are your favorite people to work with and why? Is there a way of working that attracts you to them? What’s their vibe?
I love painting with my buddy Nev (@dis_satisfied
). He and I have different approaches, different attitudes but similar styles. He comes from a street art background, growing up doing graffiti, and is a more talented painter than me with tons more experience so I always learn something. I come from a design and sign painting background. He’s surly on the surface and kind down deep and if you’re painting an all pink wall he’ll sing “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world” all day long.I have had the pleasure of working on a few larger jobs that involved production companies and that has been so freaking rad! It allowed me to be a part of something so much larger than my own capabilities. I did a project that was for Lean Cuisine years ago where I hand-painted 240+ scales that were beautifully installed on a giant wall in Grand Central.Recently, I worked on painting these cool fabricated stairs for a one-day Adidas event. And most recently, I painted 15 whiskey barrels for Hudson Whiskey that were installed in a large pyramid-like formation in Manhattan. All I did was brainstorm with clients and paint. Production companies really allow you to create outside the box.
When you create artwork for a brand, what are you trying to achieve? What do you need to know? What should a brand avoid when they work with you?
I guess the hardest thing is when someone has preferences, but they are too scared to share them from the beginning. Say what you want! I can take it. Of course a creative wants to hear, “Do whatever you want” but rarely do they really mean it. Guidelines aren’t a deterrent, they are totally welcome part of the challenge.
What brands, in your opinion, use art to elevate their meaning and importance in our lives? Is there an example that stands out in your mind?
I did a job with Adidas and Kamp Grizzly a few years ago where I was asked to paint an installation. Art direction was given for a huge one-day event to celebrate the launch of a new line of female activewear. It was a fantastic job from beginning to end. The final experience was meant to use art to evoke female empowerment. There were several production teams involved, so much support and a wonderful balance of providing art direction and still leaving room for me to do me. The final experience was so much more than just an ad in a magazine. I was also paid actual money for my work, not the promise of exposure, like some companies unfairly will ask artists to consider. It’s hard to know sometimes when a brand is using an artist to elevate their stature versus compensating an artist. I was thrilled with the way Adidas approached me and worked with me as an artist.
There are other brands that I see aligning themselves with artists, but it’s hard to know when it’s been mutually beneficial and when it’s been exploitative. You see a lot of this with street art in particular. Brands, like H&M, shooting catalogs and advertisements in front of murals that they did not commission to help give their brand the right street cred. You paid that model for their visual likeness, yet you don’t pay the artist for theirs. It’s very upsetting. Some people see it as a nuanced issue, to me it’s pretty straightforward; artists create art for the enjoyment of the public, free of commercial implications. You cannot force an artist to align themselves with your brand by using their work for free. Just no. You want their talent and their craft, you pay for it. It doesn’t matter if it was created outdoors or indoors. What a sad world we would live in where art had to stay behind closed doors.
If you could work with any brand, which brand would you choose? What would you do with them? What does the dream outcome look like?
I grew up with a father very dedicated to corporate social responsibility. It was imparted on me at a young age the importance of supporting companies and brands with a mission for social good. So as a result, I’m particularly interested in working with B Corps these days. Companies are evaluated on their dedication to all their stakeholders; employees, local communities, the environment, suppliers as well as their stockholders. What they are doing is impressive to say the least and it’s important to me to highlight those companies that are doing good in the world and in their field.
Types of industries I’d really like to do more with are consumer goods, whether it’s packaging or a retail experience. Food and beverage are top of my list. I would love to do a whole series of content and stories for sharing over social media. Social media is a platform so perfectly suited for storytelling that doesn’t require huge ad budgets for TV spots or magazine ads.
What’s your dream collaboration with a brand of your choosing? Who does it involve? Where is it unveiled? Why does it exist?
Working in collaboration with a client, I’ve always wanted to create a series of stop motion videos with my friend Catalina Kulczar
. She is a very talented photographer and such a pleasure to work with. I love the final result and I kind of love how labor-intensive it is. We started doing some of these for fun in a series we called ‘You’re Doing a Good Job’.
Also, I want to paint a food truck. I really want to paint a food truck.
What was the biggest surprise in your career?
I was surprised that showing more of myself as a human (not my vocation) did not mean I wasn’t taken seriously as a professional.
In fact, it got me more work.