When newlyweds Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell moved to Boston and opened their own design company in 1979, Tom was a photographer and Nancy was a graphic designer. But soon the boundary between their separate disciplines disappeared. Today, the integration is virtually seamless. Their work is particularly intriguing in that it applies cubist theory to contemporary materials and surfaces.
Nancy earned a BFA in graphic design from Cranbrook Art Academy and an MFA in graphic design from Yale. Tom holds an MFA in photography from Cranbrook. Both Nancy and Tom currently teach in the graphic design program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island, where Nancy is a full-time associate professor and Tom is part-time faculty.
E.R.: What were the circumstances that brought the two of you together?
N.S.: That’s our favorite story. We met on my first day at Cranbrook. Tom was a second-year graduate student in photography and I was one of a handful of undergraduate students in design. He spotted me walking toward the dorm, clutching my American Tourister luggage. Having just come from a large state university, I felt sure that if I put the bag down someone would steal it. I think he felt sorry for me, so he came up to me and said, “Cheer up, it will get worse.” That was how we met, 25 years ago, in 1975.
E.R.: When did you begin to collaborate on projects?
N.S.: We were together for a couple of years before we tried to work together. He seemed so far beyond me. He was 25 and I was only 19. He knew everything and I didn’t know anything. He even gave me books to read, in the hopes that someday we could have intellectual conversations together. We didn’t begin working together until I graduated from Cranbrook and went to graduate school at Yale and got a commission to design the Yale Symphony posters. Every few weeks, I’d have to make a poster. If Tom wanted to spend time with me, we would have to work together. After we began working together on the posters, we realized it was really fun.
E.R.: Nancy, why did you choose Yale for graduate school? Why not continue studying at Cranbrook?
N.S.: I had come to Cranbrook with a background in industrial design and had had such freedom to study various design disciplines there. I decided to go to Yale to get a really hard-core education in graphic design.
E.R.: What factored into your decision to open a design studio in Boston?
T.W.: Nancy and I really wanted to stay on the East coast. We considered moving to New York, but we had some friends from Cranbrook who were in Boston. Boston seemed more accessible to us since we were transplanted mid-westerners.
E.R.: I recall the name of your studio then was Skolos, Wedell + Raynor. Who was Raynor?
T.W.: Ken Raynor is still a very good friend of ours; I grew up with him from about eighth grade on. He was at the University of Michigan when I was an undergraduate, and we always hung around together. He came to Cranbrook our last year, and when we moved to Boston I asked him to come and assist on photo shoots. After he graduated, we invited him to move to Boston and become a partner and he stayed until 1989. At that point he and his wife Laura had two young children and decided to move back to Michigan to be closer to their families. He was lucky because he left just as the recession hit.
E.R.: Before the recession, the 1980s were a time of lavish budgets. Who were your early clients?
T.W.: Our first client was Boston Acoustics. One of our friends from Cranbrook was designing their loudspeakers and helped us make that connection. We were fortunate to work with them for 10 years.
N.S.: Another friend, who had been a painter at Cranbrook, ended up as an art director at Houghton Mifflin. She helped connect us to Little, Brown; as a result we ended up designing a lot of textbook covers and marketing brochures. Still another friend helped us get work from Digital Equipment Corporation, and eventually we also worked for Wang, Prime Computer, and others.
E.R.: Primarily high-tech firms?
N.S.: Yes, that’s why our work started looking really high-tech; it grew naturally–I like to think organically–out of the subject material we were dealing with.
E.R.: Your style has been referred to as “techno-cubist.” What does that mean?
N.S.: That term was coined by Mike Hicks, who wrote an article on our work for EYE magazine. I thought it was cool to be called a techno-cubist because I’ve always looked toward the cubists for inspiration, in terms of creating really dynamic three-dimensional space.
T.W.: The term also refers to fragmentation, which is a 20th-century development. We tend to fragment a concept: multiple viewpoints are represented, if not literally, then conceptually.
N.S.: Our work captures the time it was done in. Especially now, looking back on that 1980s work, I can see how it has a certain buzz that was in the air at the time.
E.R.: Do you have a philosophy of typography in your design?
N.S.: I think it’s so important to understand the basic principles of typography, but after 20 years of working with type, one day you realize you’re old enough to finally make some of your own discoveries, and you can finally throw those rules out the window.
E.R.: Do have any favorite fonts that you rely on continuously?
N.S.: The best thing about the early 1990s was the proliferation of typefaces by so many good designers. Zuzana Licko is one of my favorite type designers and I am so grateful for her fonts. They have such a range of shapes and personalities.
I’m not the sort of designer who uses only eight typefaces. The only thing that will keep me from using a typeface is if its personality is too strong for a particular piece. For that reason, I’m often attracted to san serifs with a little bit of a twist, like Meta, Rotis, and even Avenir.
Because we design so many posters, I’m able to choose letterforms based on their shapes and architecture. A typeface like Serifa, with bold slab serifs, can really activate a poster because of the way the verticals and slabs activate the perpendicular edges of the page. Other times, type is chosen for its shape or texture, to harmonize with an image. Depending on the qualities of the image, the type could be intricate, like Garamond, or as simple as Futura.
E.R.: You were once quoted as saying that one key to your partnership is that “we do unfinished works and combine them.” How do you communicate with one another?
T.W.: Almost by mental telepathy. Sometimes when we lecture together, people have commented on how hard we must have rehearsed–even though we hadn’t rehearsed at all. This describes the way we work together. We don’t rehearse; we just start working. I have the peculiar ability to draw upside down, which helps when Nancy is sitting across from me. But the real difference between us is I tend to work in real-time, what’s happening this second, and Nancy tends to plan ahead and work in another time zone.
N.S.: You know, a designer has to plan.
E.R.: So you’re not spontaneous?
T.W.: No, Nancy is not spontaneous, but as a photographer, I am. However, that’s the perfect combination. The rule is that Nancy has the final say on design and typography issues, and sometimes color, and I have final say on photo issues, film emulsions and lighting.
E.R.: How about image generation, the concept behind the image?
N.S.: That can go either way, although most times it’s Tom’s idea. He’s Mr. Concept.
T.W.: I like storytelling, and Nancy is very good at forming those elements into a system that makes them accessible. Into this structure I can add narrative elements that I think are necessary symbols.
N.S.: If you look at any of our pieces, they each seem to have a different balance of power to them. We just talk back and forth, asking each other what we think about each idea. We often use collage to generate ideas.
E.R.: Of all the work you’ve made together, what is your favorite project?
T.W.: The house, of course! No actually, it isn’t the house. Our favorite project of all time is our marriage. It’s our life; it’s what we do every day. The greatest project is our relationship.
N.S.: Our work is the material evidence of our relationship. We must get along really well if we can make something that is harmonious. I like looking at our work because it is evidence of our relationship. That’s what I like the most about it.
T.W.: It’s the only encoded message we send out to the world.