The Official Manufacturing Company was founded in Portland in 2009 by Jeremy Pelley and Fritz Messenbrink. While the name may call to mind some sort of Dickensian industrial-revolution-era factory, it’s actually a modern design studio with a crew of four. Perhaps more than most design houses, the projects they undertake tend to be tangible rather than virtual – everything from huge industrial-style light-bulb letters to bonsai gardens – and, of course, plenty of creative signage.
This week, Jeremy has been kind enough to tell us more about the enterprise:
We just turned five years old on June 10th, according to our paperwork. We technically started working together before that by about a month or so, but we call that our anniversary.
My partner Fritz Mesenbrink and I first met at Wieden+Kennedy here in Portland back in 2005. He was working in the studio, and I was in an experimental school in the building called WK12. I graduated and didn’t get hired, so I was out of the building and wondering what to do with myself. Through my contacts and friends I had made, and a little dumb luck, I landed at Ace Hotel, as they needed an art director at that moment to lay a new foundation for the expansion of their brand. I worked there for the next four and half years. In the meantime, Fritz was at W+K for a couple of years, then freelanced for a while, until he landed the Stumptown Coffee Roasters gig. That put us back in touch, since Ace and Stumptown worked together frequently. After a little while of hanging out and working on the periphery of each other, we said, ‘This is really fun. We should start our own thing and make them hire us as a team.’ And we did. And here we are. And it’s still fun.
We are inspired by tons of people. We feel blessed to be in our community here in Portland, surrounded by tons of talented people we are lucky enough to call friends. We are inspired by the ‘unknown artists’ and designers out there that just made beautiful things that we find in old thrift stores and antique shops. Sagmeister & Walsh do consistently amazing work for sure. There really are too many to list.
You worked with Sean Starr on a project for The Gap.
Gap approached us to help them reclaim their image of being smaller, relate-able and cool. When they first started, they sold records and denim, and it was a very different feeling in their stores. They know that they have grown so big that they are somewhat irrelevant, and they wanted to reconnect with their customers on a human level. They had a plan of changing the overall flow and layouts of their stores, adding more human scale and wall space for art, so we were brought in to help tell their story through art moments and signage.
We did two stores for them: one in Glendale, California, and one in The Grove in LA. We also installed giant maps of the world we hand-made out of their own bags in several other corporate offices. We wheat pasted them to the wall. Hopefully they still like them, because they aren’t easy to get off the wall.
We also got to design a custom taco truck for them. Their idea was that they wanted to push their denim line, 1969, through taco trucks working with celebrity chefs. We pulled in Sean Starr and his team to execute hand painted signage and typography on all of our projects except the bag maps. They were incredible to watch and to talk with—Sean is the man.
How much of your work is for little local places, vs. multinationals?
It has changed a lot since we first began. At first, we had pretty much nothing but local guys, but we happened to be living in a city that was getting a lot of attention both nationally and internationally. What didn’t pay off financially at first tended to drive more and more jobs to us, so it all kind of balanced out organically. Now we know a little bit more about business and how to charge what we are worth, so we can’t take on the smaller projects as easily anymore. We have mouths to feed, so we have to weigh our decisions more carefully. In a perfect world, we have only a couple of bigger jobs at a time, and then that makes it possible to take on the right smaller clients too, both financially and schedule-wise.
More than other cities, Portland seems to have a network of designers who are very keen to collaborate. How did this come about?
Honestly, we have no idea how it happened, but we love it. We are friends with all of the designers and photographers and artists here in town, and it seems like the creative energy just flows around. Its a really exciting time to be living in Portland, and I don’t know if our company would have been as possible or as successful if we tried to do it anywhere else.
Some of your projects, such as ‘Spirit of 77’, involved a lot of hands-on construction work. Do you make a point of doing as much as you can yourselves, rather than outsourcing?
We definitely used to. When we were more of a ragtag crew, we would just dive headlong into a project, money be damned. We believed in the work and thought that it was worth it to spend a few months on a job that only paid a few thousand dollars. Clearly, we see the error in that approach now, and if we want to remain a viable, profitable company, we simply can’t operate like that anymore. We love building things ourselves, but now we do it for fun, not for jobs. We just aren’t set up for fabrication and manufacturing in the bigger sense. Our name is a bit of a misnomer in that way, kind of intentionally. I think it does make a difference that we know how to build things, though—it helps us make better decisions with the design of certain things along the way.
Well-made, considered and appropriate signage is critical for all business, in my opinion. We look at every decision as a brand decision. The materials you choose to use, the colors, the typefaces, the medium, the scale, the placement—all of it. It all matters. We like to say this: It’s easy to make things pretty, but it is harder to make things matter. We pride ourselves in making things that matter. Frequently, its that intangible feeling that someone gets when they see that something was hand painted or hand carved that is precisely what makes something matter. It could be the same design and same size ad placement, but machine made, and it might not feel as special.
We really love all of our projects, but one of the most fun was a couple of years ago when we got to work on the local horse track here in Portland called Portland Meadows. It was just great on every level. We were proud of the creative, the client was awesome, and it was truly a unique item in our portfolio. Everyone wins!
Most of all, though, we have been trying to refresh and update our own website. It should be launching in the next week or so, fingers crossed. We have grown and changed so much as a company that we feel like, while it has served us well and looks good, it just doesn’t represent us as we want to be understood anymore. We are super excited to get this update live—it feels like a real milestone for us as a company.
[Note: since this interview was conducted, the new website has gone live. Take a look.]