All the Things, All the Time

Article by ben

Many interesting artists and organizations live and work in Houston, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it difficult to familiarize yourself with everyone and everything.


Well, don’t worry: We’ll help you meet Houston’s most vibrant creative people. We’re here to make introductions.


Today, meet Spindletop Design and Workhorse Printmakers.




There’s Jenn, and John, and Joe…but also Josh, which I learn when I greet Joe, whom I have met before, by accidentally calling him Josh, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever met his colleague Josh—not sure whether I knew a Josh worked there at all. (There is also Laura, so not everyone's name begins with "J.") Joe’s correction about his name is friendly (“Lots of 'J's, it’s easy to get confused”) but direct, and I recall a recent moment when somebody called me by the wrong name and I simply nodded, happier to ignore the mistake than to make my world incrementally more awkward in the pursuit of accuracy. But Joe, in correcting me, seems undaunted by awkwardness, wanting only to move toward precision.


Spindletop Design (a graphic design firm) and Workhorse Printmakers (a letterpress print studio)—both Houston-based—value precision. The three major players in the firm are the aforementioned Jenn, John, and Joe—or, more formally, Jennifer Blanco, John Earles, and Joe Ross. Through Workhorse, they have dedicated their lives to preserving print, in all its tactile glory, as a viable medium, making beautiful objects on letterpress machines—machines that look ancient (whether or not they are), almost like medieval racks and other torture devices. (They also do branding and website design, including the design of the very website you’re reading right now.)


In 2009, Blanco and Earles, the founders, debuted a stationery product line for Workhorse (then only known as Product Superior) at the National Stationery Show in New York (where they lived for many years). Although they met all the right people that year, they didn’t sign any orders—in part, because of 2008’s disintegrating U.S. economy and its effects on America’s largest city. Blanco and Earles felt that it might be time to consider new things, career- and location-wise, and what initially seemed like a failure was ultimately encouragement to discover what another city would have to offer. “When you first get to New York,” Earles says, “you feel exposed to a lot. But after a certain time, those great things can become limitations for you. Instead of being inspired by people and the city, there’s not enough room for you."


Earles and Blanco moved back to Houston in fall of 2009, during a time of rebirth for the city, as it began, says Earles, “to think of itself as a destination city” due to its economic opportunities and relatively low cost of living—results of avoiding the recession. “The food scene was expanding, the writing scene was expanding, and there were a lot of young people moving here who wanted to be involved in more things.”


Earles, who does not seem like the type of man prone to using car metaphors, says that Houston, for years before 2009, was “the Toyota Camry of big cities: reliable, but not particularly glamorous.” In contrast, “New York’s the Jaguar—it looks great, and it’s exciting, but when it breaks down, you’re left walking for a week.”


Now, in 2014, is Houston a Jaguar?


“It’s getting there,” Earles says. “It’s a Lexus.”




Soon after returning to Houston, Blanco and Earles met Ross, who was working at PH Design Shop (whose retail storefront recently closed) in Rice Village. “I met John and Jenn because we carried their stationery products,” Ross says. “We hired John to do illustration work for some projects with PH. We all three joined the AIGA board and later became friends.” The AIGA—the professional association for design—gave the trio greater access to the design community of Houston. (Blanco is Vice President, Earles is Director of Operations, and Ross is Director of Impact Programming.)


What was the state of the design scene in Houston when these three first got involved with AIGA? Ross, with a smile, is initially shy to say. But Blanco’s words sound like stones hitting the table: “As an outsider, it appeared bleak."


“With the AIGA," Earles says, "we have been able to focus on design advocacy—getting designers involved with community, while also showing the outside world that [graphic design] is something that’s here and valuable.”


Making connections—both within a community and with the “outside world”—is difficult in Houston, an expanse of sometimes random-seeming urban sprawl without a coherent arts neighborhood. Bridging the city’s geographical gulfs can be the hardest part of trying to forge connections between like-minded individuals. “Nobody was communicating with each other,” Blanco says of the design scene in 2009. “You might get wind of somebody doing cool work, but there was no interaction.”


Ross adds, “Houston has been, historically, a city of lack of specialization—especially when it comes to design. Everybody does everything, so everybody else is competition." This has yielded some bad blood between design firms in the city—but how does Spindletop/Workhorse feel? “Let’s just be cool with everybody,” Ross says.


As for battling the Houston sprawl? “I think we have a reputation that extends beyond our geographical location,” Earles says, “but it was really hard work.”


“Continues to be really hard work,” Blanco says.


In this brief exchange, something happens that shows the stubborn success of these people—the fact that they not only recognize how they still have to grow, but that, with Blanco’s word “continues,” they also show a willingness to push each other into more and more precise places.


“We’re friendly people,” Earles says, “but deep down, we’re very uncompromising.”


Blanco adds, “We need this work to be badass.”




If you visit Fat Cat Creamery in the Heights—a boutique ice cream shop—you’ll see one of Spindletop's earliest projects. 


“We were working on [Fat Cat] together,” Earles says, “all three of us, and that was the first project where it all came together.”


Ross adds, “It was the culmination of everything we like to do and everything we can do. And it was an awesome client that makes great ice cream. It was something we could genuinely get behind.”


“That was a project with very few compromises,” Earles says.


The notion of compromises—whether or not they’re made—brings to light another, potentially thorny question: What do Blanco, Earles, and Ross consider themselves? Are they artists?


Here, they pause, turning over in their brains the kind of question that maybe has occupied many late nights that this trio has spent together—a question that involves the sort of self-definition that people who spend their days as problem solvers, bouncing from project to project, sometimes want to avoid.


“I think we manage that tension,” Earles says, “by only taking on jobs that fulfill our artistic tendencies.”


Blanco’s answer is a little different, however. “John [who focuses on the letterpress printing rather than the design] is still more hardcore in the world of ‘fine arts.’ But design is different: There’s no pretense that you’re doing a personal thing. From the beginning, somebody is presenting you with a problem, and you’re trying to solve it.


“If I wanted to make art, I’d go make art,” she adds. “I wouldn’t do Spindletop Design.”




In its present incarnation, the firm has settled into a nondescript location across from a church in a residential portion of the Heights. Despite the presence of computers, the inside of the building seems to exist in a different era. Of course, there are the printing machines themselves, hulking things that, when working, call to my mind images of Charlie Chaplin getting stuck between gears in the now ironically-titled MODERN TIMES. But the building itself feels unfinished, even cluttered, in a good way. It seems like the kind of place where things happen, as though the speed of ideas and the desire to finish projects has left the space itself a work-in-progress. At one point, I glance at the ceiling’s wooden beams, behind which, sloping upward, appears to be black construction paper—an imaginative toddler’s approximation of outer space on a ceiling. “Spray insulation,” I’m told. “Painted black.”


When I ask them about their plans for future products, Blanco’s answer sums up their mission in the most succinct way yet: “We want to do all the things, all the time.”


For them, “all the things, all the time” requires a balance between the personal and the professional. “We do cool, self-authored projects,” Ross says, “which leads to client work, which leads to less time to do cool, self-authored projects.”


One of those self-authored projects is the printmaking the trio does for Brazos Bookstore during its banned books celebration, an event that Spindletop/Workhorse has participated in before, bringing a letterpress (whose original function, they tell me, was to proof newspaper) to the store and printing posters on-site. But for this year’s event (on Saturday, September 27), they’re planning something a little different.


“We’re trying to make [the poster] into this propaganda-style piece,” Blanco says. The posters will include calls to action—text that, when viewed through a bookmark with a 3D-style monocle (also made by Spindletop/Workhorse), will reveal, as Ross says, “secret messages.”


It’s an ambitious project—one that, to me, sounds suspiciously like art.


And in its attention to banned books and the obsolescent-seeming medium of print, Spindletop/Workhorse's mission becomes a little clearer: to preserve some piece of marginalized culture—to hold that piece up, to let the sunlight illuminate it, and to say, See? You need this more than you know.

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