Poster Children

A basement print shop in St. Paul creates bold propaganda for latter-day rock

The exposure table and spray booth (where the screens are rinsed) are tucked away in an adjacent laundry room, the spray booth consisting of an old laundry basin, a livestock feed bin with holes drilled in the bottom for draining, a clothesline and shower curtain hung from the ceiling beams, and a power sprayer from Target. The whole setup, Ibarra says, probably didn't cost more than a few hundred bucks. An old, built-in pantry along the wall serves as a handy storage space for screens. What they're doing "just proves that if somebody really wants to do this, they could do it with very limited resources," Ibarra says.

Aesthetic Apparatus was formed while Byzewski and Ibarra were working together at Planet Propaganda, a design firm in Madison. Ibarra had been fooling around with screen-printing for a while, and Ibarra had played in bands during his college years. The combination of the design chops they picked up at Planet Propaganda and their shared interest in music led to a sideline creating posters for a local band, P'Elvis.

"I guess I just realized at some point that I liked making posters more than I liked being in a band," Byzewski says. "I certainly never thought I could make a living doing it, which may yet prove to be true. But really what makes us do this is first and foremost a love for the music. A lot of the bands we work with mean the world to us, but nobody beyond our own little community knows they exist. It's nice to be able to play some role in supporting and promoting those people."

The decision to relocate to the Twin Cities was governed by the same practical thinking that governs Aesthetic Apparatus's design work. "We knew that we needed to be in a bigger city than Madison, but we wanted to stay in the Midwest," Ibarra says. "So our choices were basically Milwaukee, Chicago, or the Twin Cities. Chicago already has a really big design community and a bunch of great poster artists, but we sensed that there was kind of a void here. We knew that there was a large music community here and lots of places to play, and there weren't very many people doing poster work."

Aesthetic Apparatus had been in the Twin Cities only a few days when the two had their first stroke of good fortune. "Right after we came to town, I met this guy who runs a small label in St. Paul, Motorcoat records," Byzewski recalls. "Motorcoat Dave introduced me to Eric Westra, who did promotional stuff for First Avenue. A week later we started doing posters for them, and it's just kind of taken off from there."

Aesthetic Apparatus has a casual deal worked out with First Avenue that allows them to produce hand-numbered, limited-run poster editions promoting club shows, and then sell their work at the gigs and at

"That's really one of the best parts of all of this--selling posters at the shows," Ibarra says. "You get so much great feedback, and it allows us to meet people who really appreciate what we're doing. We've made so many connections from just sitting behind the counter selling posters."

Aesthetic Apparatus depends on those connections. All their business is drummed up through word of mouth. The enthusiastic response to Ibarra and Byzewski's posters is a testament to their ability to capture some essential quality of a band while retaining a recognizable style of their own.

"You like to get some guidance from the people you're working with, if only so you have some parameters," Byzewski says. "There are a lot of poster artists out there who just do their stuff and slap a band name on there, but it's really more of an advertisement for them as an artist. But as designers, our goal is to promote the band first and foremost. They're supposed to be the focus."

"For us the whole differentiating factor is whether a poster is appropriate or inappropriate," Ibarra adds, and points out that the distinction has nothing to do with fussy morality. "We can love a poster and be really proud of it, but if the band doesn't have a positive reaction to it, then it feels like we haven't done the right poster."

The hallmark of the best Aesthetic Apparatus posters is their relative austerity and sharp focus. Ibarra and Byzewski favor bright blocks of color, free-floating images, and bold typography. Even their busier, more layered posters are relatively clean in comparison to the work of many peers.

"The simplicity of our posters stems from the fact that when we were starting out we really didn't know how to print very well," Byzewski says.

Ibarra agrees: "We definitely have to work cleaner and faster. If we exceed three colors on a poster we're like, 'Holy crap, how are we ever going to get this printed?'"

Ibarra also sees the work of Aesthetic Apparatus as essentially Midwestern. "I think our inclinations are to be subdued and tasteful," he says. "We're not trying to shout. We come back to simplicity again and again. That doesn't mean there can't be much going on, but you want to avoid dissonance at all cost. People think that because you have this big surface you should cram lots of stuff on it, but ideally our designs would work just as well as a postcard-sized image."

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