Thumbs raw and screaming, eyes red and bulging… keep swiping, there’s Instagold somewhere in that there stream. Hours pass, poorly lit #icemanpour photos pile up alongside the same-same-but-different and the generally unimpressive. Suddenly, a flash of colour, a bold pattern catches the eye. Is it? It is! It’s a Stillwater Artisanal can release! INSTAGOLD! It was all worth it. We’ll be eating tonight, kids. (Ed. - Seriously, click that Stillwater Artisinal link and browse the labels for the next few hours)
In the countless hours I’ve spent wading through the Instaswamp in search of the finest can designs from around the world, certain breweries have proven themselves time and time again to be a cut above the rest. Take Aslin Beer Co. or Stillwater Artisanal for example: Nary a dud among them, these two brands consistently blow me away with their can labels… and they produce a lot of them. Both breweries are beloved by their fans for the quality of the product they sell. Their devotees know that not only are they getting phenomenal beer, they’re also picking up a limited edition collector’s item, an objet d’art.
In this two or three part series (haven’t decided yet) we talk to Mike Van Hall of the Committee on Opprobriations, the artist behind both Stillwater and Aslin’s mind-blowing label design. Mike’s story, his attitude, and his approach to design are truly inspiring to me. The time and consideration that has gone into every answer is testament to his dedication to his craft. I’m extremely grateful to Mike for having put so much thought into this and am incredibly excited to be able to share this with you all.
So, without further ado, read on for part 1:
Hey Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your incredible work! Let’s start from the beginning here… You made the unusual transition from lawyer to artist rather successfully. Could you tell us a little about how that came about?
It came about because of fear. I was working in-house and our small team had just finished a decent-sized deal to sell the company. It felt like a pretty big accomplishment and a meaningful step in my legal career. But while we were working on the deal, one of the guys had a heart attack, and he was around my age. He survived but putting the two things side-by-side, for me, it just didn’t make any sense to continue on that path. The risks and rewards didn’t match up in any rational way.
In the year that followed, I helped out my friends at Unknown Union set up a food project they were creating in Cape Town. Working with a bunch of creative people on a creative project in an awesome city...I just realized that I had been ignoring my artistic nature. I grew up with a love of drawing, but left that behind during college to do something that seemed more responsible, career wise. The enjoyment and feeling of fulfillment I got out of that Cape Town project, as challenging as it was, confirmed that I should refocus myself toward art and design. And that it was possible to be successful at it.
The problem was I had to start again from nothing. I knew I had an artistic eye but that was about it - I was out of practice and didn’t know anything about the tools of the design world. So I did two things in the lead up to my last day as someone else’s employee. I sharpened my artistic eye by reading design books and watching all kinds of documentaries. Second, I spent some time each day learning and practicing how to use some design software.
My hope was that I could smoothly transition over to art without missing a paycheck. I tried to ensure everything I did made business-sense too, which seems wrong at first if the goal is creativity. But my thinking was that I could be more creative by having a solid infrastructure and plan to give me freedom. So I set everything up with all my boxes checked and introduced the committee on opprobriations. It generated zero attention.
I love the Committee on Opprobriations brand – Am I right in thinking that it’s just you? What made you decide to create a separate entity for your work?
That’s awesome to hear - especially because I don’t make it easy for people to figure out what is going on.
The committee on opprobriations is my anonym, which I use randomly and inconsistently in place of my name. The reasoning is all over the place, but it is partly a response to the culture of Internet celebrity, or celebrity in general.
During the inception of COO, I was resigned to the fact that, for this thing to work, I would need to participate in social media, something I never really enjoyed. To the degree it is even possible, I wanted to do that on my own terms while also protecting myself from being subjected to Silicon Valley’s schemes. The COO anonym makes me feel like I can maintain some bit of humanity and preserve an offline life that isn’t in servitude to my online life.
Just as importantly, with the anonym I have cover to morph whatever it is I do as an artist. I consider myself, broadly, to be a contemporary artist and that requires a lot of freedom to be reactive and not get mentally stuck in a certain style or medium. I made up the word “opprobriations” and so I can define what it means now and can change that in the future, if I desire.
From what I understand, the Single Hop Project was sort of your first foray into this world of craft beer design, how important was that project to you, looking back?
The Single Hop Project was defining for the current form of COO. It was actually my second attempt at getting COO going, but yeah, it was the first effort that focused on beer.
The initial version of COO did not have any context, which made it overly difficult to understand from the outside. That lack of context also made it very hard to produce satisfying art from the inside. Doing a print series seemed like an efficient way to introduce myself as an artist and then maybe I could recognize the path for COO while building out the series.
I focused on something interesting to me for the series so it would be easier to generate ideas. My whole life I have enjoyed the culture of booze and food generally, but beer specifically, so beer made sense. I had no plans of doing beer labels at all then, I was just satisfying my own curiosity and trying to build my art and design career.
Hop varietals proved to be the perfect vernacular to get things rolling for COO. At the time, calling out hop names was just starting to become important in beer marketing and people outside the industry were realizing hop varieties mattered. At the same time, I felt like there was a big gap for beer fans in that all the visuals looked frilly and botanical - generally Old World. That stuff didn’t have a great connection with the ethos of the new American breweries that were shifting the beer world back then.
In the end, it worked because the project provided an easy way for people to digest and understand the big world of hop varieties, and to celebrate their favorites as they learned more. The Modernist style gave everything an unexpected flavor and made the connection to the new beer wave stronger.
All that said, I will be ending the Single Hop Project this year. I started the project in 2013 and Modernism has run rampant in beer branding since then. It has lost some magic along the way. For all the beauty of some designs in the beer world, a lot of the breweries are missing the point of Modernism and the result is just frivolous decoration. The Single Hop Project had meaning and I hope it was important to others too. I don’t want it to be lumped in with some of the garbage that is out there now.
Your work, particularly for Stillwater, reminds me of the work Kasper Ledet is doing for To Ol over in Denmark – not necessarily aesthetically, but more in the way you treat the can as an artistic canvas. It’s interesting to me that you have two incredibly successful gypsy breweries across the ocean from each other, both with really strong artistic “branding”, for want of a better word. Do you think there’s something about the gypsy brewery that influences this? Or is it mere coincidence?
I think the commonality you see is that beer companies of Stillwater’s ilk were built on a foundation of daring and experimentation. Initially they had the freedom to be risky because their version of beer making included fewer moving parts they could immediately control - no employees, no taproom to manage, no board members to campaign. These guys are also some pretty bold individuals who understood great marketing in a time when beer was growing fast, but wasn’t nearly as moneyed and hyped as it is today. Though I am not a fan of the word “gypsy”, they all followed their own path and that translated through to the whole identity for each company. For most, it remains that way today at the core, even while some of these guys got really big. The artistic branding is just one conspicuous element of that core.
I like Kasper’s work and, though we have never met in person, he seems to value the potency of texture and restraint in the same way I do, so I feel an artistic kinship is there. “Reminds me of…” is a frustrating phrase for an artist to hear though. My work is personal and mentally exhausting. I don’t think any artist in history is thrilled to hear that their work reminds someone of another’s.
A friend of mine recently called craft beer can labels “the new album art” and I’m strongly inclined to agree. Do you feel the same way?
I totally agree with the analogy in the sense that albums are a consumer product relying heavily on cover art to sell to the uninitiated. But you are usually buying the album for the music, not the cover artwork. For artists, the album cover is a venue almost as good as a gallery because a ton of people will get to see your work and it helps fuel you to produce great stuff.
The beer label is much more participatory than album art though. Except on draft, you necessarily have to hold the art in your hand or you can’t access the product. My big awakening was when I realized I could use the beer label as a way to reflect personality too - that made it possible to create real art, not just branded decoration. I began to think about designing to reinforce a sense of place or time for the person holding the beer. Drinking is already a super sensory act so I try use design to amplify that and make it even more memorable. It is a way of planting a seed that will trigger nostalgia 10 or 20 years from now. Even though the work is disposable, the experience can be memorable. While you are holding the beer can or bottle, you are projecting something about your personality, even if you don’t mean to be doing so. You don’t necessarily hold the album cover when you are listening to an album. You can barely see it when listening digitally. Beer labels are a chance for more intimate interaction than album covers, culturally and emotionally.
When I first started doing beer labels, treating the label as an artistic canvas, not just a place for branded decoration, was still a fairly novel concept. A few breweries really focused on it - certainly early Stillwater did. But mostly the art was just a brand support tool. Creating flagship beer brands for grocery store shelves really mattered then, so it made sense in a way.
Now offering endless variety is really important and selling direct is viable, so traditional branding rules don’t have to control anymore and people are going nuts. The label art has become so important because so much of the beer world is undifferentiated in a lot of other respects. The bandwagon beer styles, keyword-filled backstories and even the physical brewery spaces all kind of blur together. Label art may be almost as important as ratings - ha!
Thanks for reading this far! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview coming soon!