Harsh Patel"I have a real talent for picking friends who are more patient and forgiving than I am."
Since making his introduction as the designer of The Blow Up magazine, and publishing house Free Association, Harsh Patel has brought his highly personal graphic sensibilities to collaborations with a shopping list of independent creative entities: fashion designer Rachel Comey, radio station KCHUNG and stores like X Marks the Bokship and Stand Up Comedy. Through all this he has created several limited-run mail order labels, including Sister, Clenched Fist, Zulu Demon City and most recently 3DX whose esoteric distribution systems of goods (and information) have quietly refused any norms of independent publishing. Once described as a “pathological outsider” Harsh Patel’s work defies the casual colonialism inherent to our culture industry, seeking instead a working model that avoids exploiting others or being exploited.
I’ve read a few times that you’re from Nairobi, and moved to the states when you were nine. How much do you remember about Nairobi?
Everything, pretty much.
What was that part of your childhood like?
Africa has a heaviness and a certain type of kindness that nothing's come up to since.
When did you leave?
When I was 9. We moved from Africa to Texas. The very southern part, the Rio Grande Valley. The South-est South in America. It's used to be mainly farmland, but it's all getting developed fast.
Your parents are originally from India, right?
Yeah, from Ahmedabad. I come from a few very distinct and very different cultures. Which isn't uncommon, for immigrants. You just accept it as truth that no one’s gonna have a clear idea of why you see things a certain way, or where you fit in, generationally.
And you don’t think people get Texas.
They get a distant, faraway sort of look when Texas comes up, yeah.
What are some of your first memories of culture?
I spent some summers in India when I was an kid, and we traveled around Kenya on holidays. My family had friends from all over, in a really natural way. My parents can reduce any interaction with any sort of person to timeless sort of concerns, in this style that's really Indian, African, and British at once.
What about mass culture? How did you engage with it when you were young?
TV, probably. Going up to Austin with friends in high school later on, to record stores we thought were cool. I was also in the habit early on of writing letters, which means that some of those experiences with mass culture are sort of half-imagined.
Who were some of these people you were corresponding with?
Up till high school, I was gonna be a cartoonist so I wrote to animators that I knew of. My best friend was really into golden era Disney, and knew it up and down. I knew the old cartoon divisions of other places like MGM and Warner Brothers really well. I could call out the production credits of a cartoon before they faded in, just to surprise my parents. The first books I asked them to buy me were about the animation studio systems, and biographies of people like Tex Avery. Then I just started writing letters to people who were in the animation industry proper. I would ask them questions and they were all cool about it. Peter Chung, the guy who made the Aeon Flux show, I remember he was really cool to me.
Were you the same about music?
If we made trips to go buy records in Austin I would go prepared, knowing what I wanted to get or writing or calling ahead of time to make sure that they set it aside for me. Then triple-checking the names and then figuring out how to write to those labels. Before I even moved there, I wrote to the record label Trance Syndicate which King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers ran. I just said “I live in this pretty small town, and I think I’m gonna go to college in Austin. When I’m there, can I do some kind of work for you?” They wrote back and said “Sure, just wait until you graduate ‘cause you’re writing to us a couple years ahead of time. But when you’re up here, look us up. It’s nice that you’re so into us.”
What were your earliest experiences with the internet?
They used to send floppy disks like junk mail, and you'd use them to get on the internet for free for a little while in the early 90's. I instantly started checking for stuff, usually music, to see what had made its way on there. Comparing it to its physical counterpart, feeling like it gave me something extra in my understanding or appreciation of it. Trading tapes by mail, by searching people's profiles for bands I was into, but couldn't just pick up. That's how I got into a lot of different music, pretty much the best avenue as it meant I was generally dealing with a very invested, true type of fan. The best tape I got back then was from a girl in Kentucky I found that way, and it ends up we have friends in common now. Making a few websites that were squarely graphic design experiments and finding other people who did. There were some really great websites back then, like Superbad, Red Smoke, Hell, Turux, and Jodi. All very hard to figure out, and with a real lawless frontier kind of spirit. Bradford from the band Deerhunter, he made some just "wow" stuff too, some of the best, I think. We did a couple of things together back then. The internet feels a lot more dishonest nowadays than it did early on, but, I still think that it's easier for people to be open by writing to each other and imagining each other a bit.
Why did you choose to study graphic design?
I knew I didn’t have the discipline to be an animator. I also knew that animation schools cost a lot of money, required time, and meant a very tough time finding work. Something about design, through seeing it applied to music, that interested me. I applied to the University of Texas in Austin. I had heard it was really good, and pretty selective, and could overlook your bad grades if your portfolio was strong enough. The program wasn’t called "graphic design", it was just “design.” The bigger idea of design, like furniture and buildings, too. They even had us make a teacup, and explain how you held it and what that meant. At the time, I was frustrated because I only wanted to make printed things. Later on, I am very grateful for it. Graphic design as a field has some of the most fucked up identity politics out there. People who seem to have no idea who they are. So starting out that way kept up the idea in my head that it's a social activity first. Anyone who's any good at it is a people person, loves people, understands psychology, understands society.
How did you end up moving to New York?
I graduated in 2004 and was living in a cheap apartment, doing freelance a few days a month, paying the rent, just hanging out. After two months, I had a moment of panic. You know, “Do I just keep living here? It feels like this could go on forever, I don't know if it's meant to be this easy.” I was wired a certain way about work and a future, and my imagination as to how to get those things was so limited I thought that the only places I could possibly go without a load of hassle were New York and L.A. Then through a friend of a friend, my name was put in a hat with some other names for some MTV work. It came along almost instantly, and they offered more money than I’d ever heard of before: actually a very typical amount for broadcast, but, beyond any conception I held, so, it gave me some fire. I did the work, hired some friends to help me, got paid, paid my friends, and used the rest of money to move to New York and continue working for MTV.
Did you like working for MTV?
MTV was a hallowed institution then, and one I always thought highly of. Considering how different it was when I was growing up, that sounds a bit strange now. I worked in-house there for a while, and there were some great people there, people I still talk to. Eventually though, that department changed. Some people left their jobs to start their own things, and, in the process, I kind of left. I had friends working in advertising, so I asked them about it. I was in this mode where I had to make money and I didn’t understand the city yet. It made sense to support myself that way as it felt like the most textbook type of graphic design, the easiest kind, design as service.
How did you end up working on The Blow Up?
When I moved to New York, I’d written to this guy Seth Hodes, who at the time was part of this group called Soft Gold. I liked their work quite a bit and showed him some of mine. Figuring he'd recognize my name, as I knew he'd also done work for MTV under the same people who had hired me. Within a month of being up there, I met him and he offered me the job of designing this magazine he ran with Matt Eberhart. People downtown liked and respected it. They entrusted me with doing a tremendous amount of responsibility, right away.
What was the idea behind The Blow Up? What were the goals?
I don’t know what Seth’s goals were, exactly. I know he put everything into it for sure. For me personally, it was the most simple way to engage with fashion and art at that time. That's all. I think the reason it was liked as a whole and not corrupt in my mind at all is because Seth and Matt really enjoyed championing the people and ideas they respected. They knew they weren’t giving anybody a meal ticket by publishing them. It wasn’t some way for them to get power over people. They were just glad to engage with this small community of people and have some kind of an artifact of that. It was a pretty hands-off process. They genuinely trusted everybody to do their own thing, and trusted it all to work together.
How did The Blow Up differentiate itself from the other magazines that were being made at the time?
I think it had a profound understanding of young people. It existed in a certain place where it put that kind of naiveté next to much headier art and philosophy topics without being the least bit cynical. Considering how young we all were, I guess I was 23 or 24 around that time, it was probably natural that it stood on its own in that way.
Didn’t you also work with Seth on ad stuff?
Seth and Matt were doing part-time work a couple days for an agency, writing copy and doing research. Stuff that was far beneath their real capabilities. Not that any of those clients, some of whom who were really big, got what the hell they were on about, anyway. I was just under the impression that the place we worked at was The Blow Up's own office until I figured out it was the agencies, which made sense, 'cause the magazine never had any money for anything. Those agency guys got used to me being there and threw me some little jobs. I helped them design pitches to get money from big clients. A lot of these pitches were successful, and became real things, which was surreal. For a little while, we were not only doing The Blow Up, but also daylighting or moonlighting or whatever doing work of this completely different stature and of this completely different nature. Seth didn’t like it and got out. Matt moved on to a better agency. I ended up staying in advertising for two years after that, just designing these sort of informational websites for Boeing's 787 plane. I’m just glad that it was two and not four, not five or six or seven...
That was why you moved to L.A.
Yeah. L.A. was really different as far as making money went, probably the opposite, but my girlfriend was here and I knew I'd benefit from the sudden isolation in West L.A. I was torn up from working so hard and so fast. I could feel it physically, too.
Can you talk a little bit about Free Association?
After The Blow Up ended, Matt called me asking to work on a small imprint he wanted to start. Books in a serial format, the titles influenced heavily by his schooling in philosophy. Usually long out of print. He correctly counted on them to be successful, and on being able to pay me for my work. We put out three titles really quickly under his direction. He also completely trusted my decision-making in terms of design with these things that were pretty new to me.
That Werner Herzog book Of Walking in Ice was a big success. It was also really beautiful.
I’m happy with it still, proud of what we did.
For the record, could you talk a little bit about how Rat Press ended up happening?
Brett Ratner saw one of the Free Association books and called Matt to say, “I want to do the same thing.” At first I thought Matt was screwing around with me, since he knows Rush Hour 1 & 2 are some of my favorite movies of all time, and that he directed those. He didn't know. Within a week of that call, Matt came to L.A. and we met Brett at his house. He wanted to put out forgotten texts about movies, with a few ideas as to which when he met us. We set this thing up for him really quickly. It was a very different kind of engagement because it wasn’t our baby. To this day, I have not seen a physical copy of those books. I remember reading them as I typeset them and thinking a couple were pretty interesting. One was a long interview with Marlon Brando.
Didn’t you get to spend some time with Robert Evans for one of the books?
Yeah. He’s a really nice guy.