A Safe Place for Unsafe Ideas: Dante Carlos Talks Shop with Use All Five

Dante Carlos is an independent graphic and book designer based in Los Angeles. Christine Jackson & Troy Curtis Kreiner talked to him about a few of his past projects and his future in LA.

Welcome back to Los Angeles! In addition to your independent freelance work, you are teaching at Art Center College of Design. Do you like it? Has your experience thus far matched your expectations?

Dante Carlos:

Howdy! Great to be back home. Teaching has been a pretty new experience, and so far I’m liking it. I’m generally drawn to any activity that’s challenging in some way, and being a novice teacher gives me a chance for that critical reflection.

I instruct a foundation typography course that’s all about structure and composition (think one size, one weight exercises), and co-taught a new class called Artist Books with artist Mungo Thomson last fall, which dealt with generating content and developing conceptual frameworks.

My challenge is in two parts. First, as a designer who works constantly with type, how do you articulate the why and why not’s of graphic design to someone who is beginning their own career? It’s like teaching someone how to tie their shoelaces for the first time: how do you get them started? The second is connecting those ideas with as many students as I can. They each come in at different levels of enthusiasm and understanding. Being an effective communicator is one thing, but reading and responding to students with some control is a new move I’m still learning, honestly.

My first experience teaching was with two friends, Joshua Trees and Yvan Martinez, who run a summer school called Booksfromthefuture. We encouraged learning by making, and finding unusual or serendipitous connections by producing sketches rapidly and reactively. This was something I’ve folded into my practice, and also an idea we threw in Artist Books with really awesome results.


You’ve lived in LA, SF, Minneapolis, and now back in LA. What’s changed since you were last here? What’s stayed the same?

Dante Carlos:

Definitely my view of LA has changed. I actually left in a pretty bad state. But after nine years, I moved back to the same neighborhood I left, and the city has me feeling more optimistic.

The biggest change I’ve noticed is the the art world exodus to the west coast, and how LA feels so much more intensely interested in contemporary art, now more than ever. The Hauser Wirth & Schimmel space in the Arts District is insane, and the lines outside The Broad are still around the block. The fact that they’re free to the public shows there’s powerful support for a particular kind of culture in the city, which is good; but we should find a way to fairly address other equally cultural concerns like housing and homelessness and traffic.

Otherwise, LA is still the handsome and tough city I know. Think nail salon graphics, strip mall signage, acres of unremarkable warehouses, LAPD junkyards, and a purple and gold sunset. Things I find really endearing about it, and wanted to come back to.


You worked at the Walker Art Center for 6 years; the Walker’s design output is quite prolific, producing collateral and identities for a vast array of events at the institution, and involving collaboration across multiple departments. What was your greatest takeaway experience from your time at the Walker?

Dante Carlos:

There were many! One was the opportunity to work with talented people working in many different mediums and formats, who were also my colleagues at the museum. To work at a place and a city where artists not only make art, but love and support the arts as well, is rare. Building institutions around this love is what we should aim for.

The experience also indulged my strong interest in contemporary art, seeing how different artists worked, and it really exposed me to a lot of weird ideas that result in beautiful actions and objects. Working in that space also made me realize that these learned disciplines we’ve created, like “graphic design,” or “visual art,” are hazier than we’re allowing ourselves to figure out.

Within the design studio, the strong emphasis on thinking was definitely influential to the way I work. Emmet Byrne, who comes from a line of wild and critical thinkers that have directed the department, demanded conceptual and visual rigor. He was a sounding board for my weird ideas, and helped me to parse through endless references to find approachable and provocative kernels.


How do you imagine LA universities and design communities working together? How do we prevent them from becoming their own islands?

Dante Carlos:

LA is full of these pockets, and given the size of the city, it’s something we’re always going to live with. But maybe instead of thinking of islands as remote locations, can we think of it all as an archipelago, where you can quickly hop from one location to another?

I heard something a long time ago about the traffic problem here, and how it’s caused by a culture obsessed with getting to its destination as quickly as possible. But studies have shown that if people stopped somewhere on the way to their final destination, it relieved overall traffic significantly. Could we think about it in the same way with the culture and artistic communities? Instead of finding broad actions or projects that try to bridge distances from one end of the city to the other, maybe try programs that start in places in-between these centers, in neighborhoods that might not usually have access to art or design and who want to have it.

It’s like taking surface streets instead of the freeway. You see a lot more, and there are opportunities to stop and check things out when you’re not zooming past each other at 80 mph. The problem is less the fact they’re so far away from each other geographically (and maybe philosophically), but more that they’re intensely concentrated in a few faraway spots.


3 years ago, you completed a book and exhibition called Art & Leisure and Art & Leisure. You described this project as a sort of expanded meditation on various “forms of distraction” and featured research and design that arose from your time outside of “work work”. Now that you’re an instructor, you [probably] now work outside of the typical M-F 9-5 structure. Has this changed the way you delineate time for “work” and “leisure”?

Dante Carlos:

Not necessarily. Having a full-time position made it easier to distinguish between those two modes, but “work” and “leisure” still are very much the same to me: I love to make things, and my making supports me to continue to do the thing I’m good at and happen to like.

But the relationship between “full-time” and “freelancer” come to represent a similar division. Which do we prefer: a steady income with benefits, or a broad variety in experience? This has become a relevant conversation now that the thought of a “gig economy” could actually be happening. Ideally, we’d live in a place where we could accommodate different levels of employment and labor, and not only survive, but thrive. In reality, we have a system that’s built on the notion that capital or recognition are deeply associated with usefulness and merit. More money and more followers means “better work”.

In response to that, Art & Leisure was a look at the activities outside of pure economic motivation. Things like science fiction, flying wrestling moves, myths about beer, stoner photography, Wikipedia link surfing, and mathematical knots. Stuff that I research in my spare time on the weekends. Even this narrow sampling of things directly outside of that world I call “work work” is rich with references and ideas and processes we can integrate into our own work. I like reading/watching things outside of design, and integrate what I learn into my projects. Labor is finite, while leisure presents a buffet of ideas to borrow.

Labor is finite, while leisure presents a buffet of ideas to borrow.

Last year, you joined forces with the Office of Culture and Design (OCD) to design a book called Filipino Folk Foundry (FFF). How did this collaboration come about? What did you learn that surprised you? What made this project important?

Dante Carlos:

Kristian Henson (who along with Clara Balaguer and Hardworking Goodlooking, design studio and publishing arm of OCD, published FFF) and I have a weirdly shared history: Filipinos who grew up in Encino, went to the same elementary school in Northridge and summer camp out east. Even our parents were neighbors in the Philippines! But we had never met before college.

Kristian approached me because we’ve always talked about working on a project about our shared heritage. FFF is part a broader body of work by HWGL/OCD that responds to the visual culture of the Philippines, a country that blends colonial histories from countries like Spain and Japan and the United States, and all the baggage that comes with it.

I lived in the Philippines for 12 years, so the subject matter was familiar. Manila’s insane traffic probably meant staring at jeepneys, taxis, and sari-sari stores plastered with words. Random phrases were rendered in effortlessly handpainted signs. These little bites of language are characteristically Filipino: humorous, slightly righteous, and very punny.

A BUSINESS WITHOUT A SIGN IS A SIGN OF NO BUSINESS is a particularly memorable example of wordplay Clara and her collaborators found in their research. The project also included references to other actions that respond directly and indirectly to the subject. FFF is a rigorous scholarly reader with broad ideas.

What really surprised me was the reaction and enthusiasm other people had for something that I thought was kind of mundane growing up. I heard at some point it was reference material for a class, which was great. FFF recognizes the work of this group of local Manila artists who used sign-painting as a way to earn money, which also happens to be an important contribution to Filipino culture.


You’ve spoken to the importance of reading when it comes to building inspiration in your design process. Which past reads have had a strong influence on you? Are there any you recommend?

Dante Carlos:

When I say reading, I mean it in the broadest sense. I read books and essays occasionally, but I’m absorbing many other things, from weird little pamphlets and ephemera, to random old websites on the internet, and even episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even stuff on YouTube which I show in class sometimes to get a philosophical point across. For example, this amazing clip from The Magnificent Butcher, where master Wong Fei Hong has some wise words: “If you are too obvious, people won’t take you too seriously.” He also defends himself with a brush.

One book I constantly revisit and reference is Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. It’s a primer on the history and practice of sequential comic art, and reading about techniques artists use to tell complex stories just using ink on paper has also informed the way I think about designing books and printed matter.

Other books I’m casually perusing: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, a sci-fi novel about a plan to save a galactic civilization from a 10,000 year-long dark age by creating the ultimate encyclopaedia; Endless Game, part of a series of stories by bara artist Gengoroh Tagame; and The Intelligence Agents by Timothy Leary, which is a paranoid mix of documents about Hollow Earth theories and expanded consciousness, at least so far.

An interesting book I’d recommend is Murmurs of Earth (Sagan, Drake, Druyan, Ferris, Lomberg, Salzman Sagan), especially since there’s been such a strong interest in the Voyager Golden Records lately. A nerdy insight into a dream project: sending messages etched in precious metals out into space.


Do you have any side projects you’d like to share with us?

Dante Carlos:

Safe Space is a series of one-night shows in Highland Park at a studio space I share with friends and collaborators River Jukes-Hudson and Stephen Serrato. We first had the idea last year when my friend Way Wza had a table at the LA Art Book fair.

She’s an amazing artist who runs a publishing/art practice called FIST. At the fair, her table made displaying her work a challenge, and we all felt like she needed more space. So we offered her our studio for an evening. She could show whatever she wanted to, and we provided support in making it happen. We also purposefully wanted to keep the show private-ish, only inviting friends, students, designers, and artists that thought would be interested in the work and would want to meet the artist. It was a great night, with space for the art, and an interesting group of people drinking beer and talking about the work.

It felt more intimate than a usual opening, more like a family gathering. And maybe that’s a reflection on the name, which refers to something I heard while working at the Walker, once described as “a safe place for unsafe ideas.” We just recently had a show for our good friend Sid Dueñas, and we’re currently coming up with more weird excuses to get together.

something I heard while working at the Walker, once described as “a safe place for unsafe ideas
hand drawing