An Interview With Cave Party

Emily Reile, Julie Roche, Alexandra Roche & Annie Wang are the designers behind Cave Party, an independent design collective, dancing on the knife edge of design and fine art. Individually they’ve made impressive starts to their careers, landing internships with great companies and producing work for clients including Urban Outfitters, Apple, MSNBC, Harvard Business School and Topman. But when it comes to their non-client work they have even greater ambitions.

Cave Party would like to redefine our relationship with graphic design. They’ve been working hard to celebrate the ‘female’ in ‘female designer’ and to make their mark on the American contemporary design world with work that features subtle feminist undertones and unapologetic aggression. We recently sat down for a chat with Cave Party, heard ‘Black Swan’ being used as a verb and picked their brains about life as young female designers.

RB: How did Cave Party begin?

Annie: It’s been about two years since we coined the name and have been together. Cave Party started recreationally for us to make work that satisfied our desires, just kind of do stuff that we want to do. We’re bombarded with a lot of strict project briefs so we wanted to make work just for ourselves. The way we work is really organic. If someone thinks of a project we’ll support it and go along.

RB: Your work blurs the lines between art and graphic design. Do you deliberately play with this blurred definition of where fine art and design starts and ends?

Annie: We took installation classes, performance classes and traditional fine art classes. It bleeds into the way we design and how we think about the content for a design.

Alex: So much Cave Party work is non-commercial so it lives in the in-between space. The Complacency is Death poster was something that we said as it needed to be said. It wasn’t functional or just aesthetic, it was this thing we had to do which wasn’t a design brief.

Annie: I remember when I was younger, it was a motto I took on because I think it is really easy as a graphic designer and an artist to become really complacent with your work and I think it becomes very dangerous. At the time when I made that screen print, we were all noticing that there was this standard of what was ‘good design’ in our group of peers. I just wanted us to keep pushing ourselves, kept moving forward. It also stems from us being fairly competitive, so that crazy just spilled over.

Emily: Another work we did was ‘We Are Coming For You’ which was really ominous. That feeling of competition or complacency was there to keep us motivated to say ‘we are going to do this, this is our year’.

Annie: Have you seen the film Black Swan? For the end of 2010 I was screaming, “We are going to Black Swan 2011, it’s our year!”

Alex: We realized that anger is a great motivator, not that we’re super angry ladies, but we noticed this plateau of life and things that frustrated us, so it became a positive for us and started the fire to do something about it. Anger is the thing that makes change for us. We’re using it to turn the negative into a strong and forceful positive.

RB: Do you think the contemporary American graphic design industry has a ‘boys club’ feel to it? Is it part of the reason you formed the Cave Party collective?

Alex: It’s something that we noticed at school and it’s permeating the more we gain experience. At work it’s male dominated, and when you see things that are getting a lot of press it’s mostly male designers. There isn’t a lot of publicity for female designers, they’re just not talked about as much. There was an article in Good magazine asking this and after that article there were a lot of men who came out and said, ‘it’s not a boys club, there’s just a lot of men who are…better.’ Or things like, ‘I have a design show and I need to fill it with ten designers, and I can fill that all with men so why should I invite women?’

Annie: There are plenty of female designers and art directors out there but female designers aren’t as vocal about self-promotion and getting out there. If there’s a design panel, it seems like there’s always one woman, the token female designer. There are a lot of different female design voices that aren’t being heard.

Emily: It’s a really curious phenomenon. The Good article wasn’t harsh or shaking it’s finger at male designers, I think it was asking a question a lot of people had. It was surprising the strong backlash, it surprised me and made me sad because it’s an obvious fact that nobody in design wants to address.

Annie: The backlash confirmed that it was needed. The more people were upset by this question the more you realised we needed to be upset.

RB: Are you ever cautious about being labelled as feminist designers? Do you think there is a negative connotation?

Julie: It’s something you do want to be cautious of, we don’t want to fall into the trap being labelled ‘angry women designers’ because I don’t think people will take you as seriously, they see us as one giant cartoon, which we wouldn’t like to think we are. We’re designers who are women, but that’s not all we are, you have to be cautious.

Emily: We choose to be called ‘female’ designers. We could just be called ‘designers’ but it gives the connotation that being called a female designer is like a negative, like somehow you don’t want to be associated with the phrase ‘female designer’ because it’s lesser. So for us, wanting to be called ‘female designers’ brings the positivity and power back to the word. We’re proud to be female designers. We understand it influences the work and reasons we make our work and is part of our process.

RB: There seems to be a strong use of black comedy in your work. Do you see Cave Party’s design as darkly funny?

Annie: A lot of female designers create work that is very feminine, we respect that, but there’s an onus too. As a woman designer do we get the ‘cute’ projects because we’re women? Is there design that is too feminine? That’s a whole different issue but we’ve tried to amplify these expected tropes to the point of comedy. We use a lot of glitter, of pink, of cute colours that we wouldn’t use in our professional work because we don’t want to be pigeon holed into being specifically ‘feminine designers’. Cave Party allows us to use fun female orientated materials in a way that’s dark and funny.

Alex: We get to be decadent and over the top which adds to the comedy of it, we indulge in the ultra feminine and take it so far that it’s not feminine at all and it becomes weird and critical of it at the same time.

RB: If you could tell your designer self something about the industry 5 years ago what would you say?

Julie: I should have experimented a lot more with my designing and making, I would have tried a lot more. I would have explored every area of interest in fine art, I was pigeon holing myself and would have opened up and tried different projects.

Annie: Don’t be afraid to make ugly shit! I think that’s important, make ugly, ugly stuff.

Alex: I think you have to make ugly stuff before you can make good stuff!

Annie: Professionally you might never get the chance to try or make unconventional or work that’s not considered aesthetically pleasing.

RB: What juicy bits of advice can you give to designers and artists. Any tips and tricks?

Julie: Hire a professional to document! When you’re documenting your work, as good as you think you are you’ll load it on your computer later and feel you wasted hours. Hire a friend whose a photographer, or trade, and get them to document your work! I did my own thinking I could and I am humiliated!

Alex: Julie mentioned trade, I think people are realising more and more that they have a very specific skill set that is valuable. So if there’s anything you want as a designer, ask to do a trade for skills, everyone I’ve encountered has said yes when asking for a skill trade, ‘I’ll give you all this if you design my business card,’ works. Don’t be afraid of taking work that doesn’t pay but isn’t free!

Thanks to Cave Party for allowing us to pick their brains. You can find more from Cave Party on their website or visit Emily, Julie, Alexandra and Annie’s own websites for a look at their professional work.