You Are Beautiful HQ: inside Matthew Hoffman’s Chicago studio
Ever since we heard that Matthew Hoffman was moving his biz into a one-stop-shop space last year, we’ve been dying to check out his new digs. When it comes to seeing the inner workings of one of our favorite art operations, we’re not ashamed to admit we’re nosey, and our (lack of) patience paid off. For this installment of our In the Studio series, Hoffman let us snoop around his Windy City studio, dubbed You Are Beautiful HQ as a shout out to his wildly popular, internationally appearing, multifariously manifested public art project by the same name. He also answered a baker’s dozen of our burning questions concerning the magic that goes on behind the curtain, just how he’s made such a major impact, and how he keeps the creative productivity cranking.
YAB HQ hosts all kinds of cool workshops, openings and studio tours. Today? Dress up your own You Are Beautiful wood boards. Next Saturday? Take your YAB decorating skills to alternative surfaces—totes, duffels, shirts. You can keep an eye out for upcoming events over here. The retail storefront is open daily to the public, so pop in and peek around even if you can’t make it to something more formal. And for those of us regrettably far from the fine city of Chicago, this In the Studio spotlight will satisfy curiosities while supplying some educational inspo alongside Hoffman’s perfectly contagious strain of positivity.
Hoffman’s editions are always heavy-hitters with our collectors, offering a variety of simple, life-affirming phrases in the form of lightweight wood carvings. We're cooking up something new with him for our (twelfth!) anniversary next month, so stay tuned. In the meantime, peruse pics of his space and allow him to make a strong case for considering the pocket tee a sartorial studio staple. — Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
The studio (lovingly called YAB HQ), is in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago. It’s our home base, with a retail store & gallery in the front that’s open every day. Behind a few sets of doors is our studio where we make all the small and large installations—the secret toy shop behind the toy store. We make everything in house, besides the stickers & a few items that we have printed elsewhere. The building is at an intersection along an angled street, making the shape of the building a triangle. The smallest point is the back of the building, and we call it a funnel. Material is loaded in through the back door, gets worked in the studio & spreads out, before going out front onto the floor to shine.
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
Please don’t make me choose! I love all my children equally.
What I can say, is that having the right tool for the job is key. You can often use a tool to do something it’s not quite designed to do, and end up with a moderate-to-poor result. Whereas, the right tool would have done it perfectly without the chance of error. But I sometimes fall into “there’s no job too small, to buy a big tool.” So you have to balance that the tool has practicality over time, and will pay for itself as an investment.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
My favorite item of clothing is a black pocket tee. Never underestimate how amazing it is to drop a few screws into that pocket. I rarely don’t wear one, but if I don’t, I instinctively put screws into where the pocket should be, they hit my chest, and they fall to the ground. Outside of that, I generally get a new pair of pants and shoes, and watch them quickly turn into grubby items of clothing you can’t wear into the public. I always say I’m going to keep separate clothes, but it never fails that I’m at the studio for a workshop or tour, and think I’m going to quick spray paint this one little thing. The shoes are now misted for life.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
One thing I splurged on was speakers throughout the building. I love to always have music playing. Since Spotify came out, I’ve listened to Deep Focus mix just about every day since. (I realize this is many years). It falls into the background, and just helps you zone in. It’s more for the quiet introspective times—you can’t hear a thing in the shop anyway, once all the machinery starts up for the day. Hopefully it doesn’t get old for everyone else, but it’s just so comforting for me. Occasionally you’ll hear someone unknowingly humming along to a song in the mix.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
I normally crank the AC (or heat in the winter), make a quick cup of coffee, and survey the scene. I first check if there are any emergencies for the day, then what’s up for the week, and what’s coming along soonish that we will really regret not being more prepared for. I then make a short and simple cross off list for the day, pulling from the weekly list or the monthly calendar. It feels so good to cross off everything at the end of each day. It has taken me a LONG time to make realistic goals. That alone has helped my mental well-being so much; to be able to break that feeling of not being able to get anything done, and be able to say, “look what I accomplished today.”
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
I tend to work in spurts. I feel like this is always the way I’ve worked, but it also seems like lots of things seem to be due at the same time. I generally get hyper focused on something and attack it—either until it’s done, or unless I hit a roadblock. Then I’ll take a break on it, get some advice, find internal clarity, and get back to it. Our retail store is open 11am-7pm everyday, and I try to be there 9am-5pm M-F, but it normally gets extended. We often pull 13-hour day stretches when it gets to crunch time. We’ve never missed a deadline, which I’m very proud of. But there’s nothing worse than “no rush”. If a project gets that label, and I’m not excited about it, there’s a 100% chance it will never get done.
Your work runs the gamut from large-scale installations to all sorts of affordable art and design objects. Is there a particular medium you feel anchors your art? Anything you're eager to explore more?
I’m always excited to try new things, and take things further. Every large installation we do, I try to incorporate something completely unknown, to keep expanding what we’re able to accomplish. That might be researching every material under the sun, late night youtubing custom structure building, or making small test sections, to see how we can be even more effective.
To me, it’s what the piece says over anything else. The message is always the most important thing, because that is what I’m most invested in, and what has the power to do the most. The materials are important, but solely a means to deliver the message.
I love how grand statements in public can unexpectedly be a part of people’s lives, and make a lasting difference. They’re open to absolutely anyone who comes across it. I also love how creating small, affordable objects can enter people’s homes & lives, and they get to experience these things every morning when they wake up, or after a long day at work. I literally couldn’t imagine a better life.
The scale of your operation is super impressive—you are beautiful is an international phenomenon! What advice do you have for artists and designers looking to make the same sort of widespread impact with their work and message?
Haha, you’re too kind. I really give the community all the credit for how far the you are beautiful message has spread. I call myself the custodian of the project. I keep the lights on and the floors clean, but the power is in the human interaction people are having with the message. I couldn’t be more humbled. We’ve distributed over 5 million stickers, and we’re just getting started.
My advice is (unfortunately) pretty simple. Just make something, and put it out there. Don’t spend months or years talking about it (sure everything takes thought), but push it, shove it out there. Don’t worry about it being perfect or pretty—heck, live up to the fact that it’s crude and messy and imperfect. Get it out there, and see what the reaction is. There’s a saying “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” You literally cannot predict what’s going to happen when you put your ideas out into the world. So do it quickly, repeatedly—listen & learn, and do it again.
The only other thing I’d mention is to fight for what you believe in. You have to have a stubborn determination that will make you unstoppable. It’s like if you start banging your head against the wall, if you do it long enough, you’ll eventually get through the wall. And that determination will help you do all the unsexy, mind-numbing, boring, behind-the-scenes work that MUST be done in order to be successful. I, and the entire team at YAB work very, very hard. It’s not easy. And yes, we have a lot of fun (we got a grill this summer!), but we know what’s at stake, and are willing to put the hard work behind making this dream become a reality. Sooooo ... that’s a long-winded way of saying: never ever give up for what you believe in.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
I always say over-perfection is procrastination. So I’ll make sure something is impossibly perfect, far beyond what’s expected. Maybe it’s a stunning internal structure of a piece (that will be covered up & never seen), or a flawless final finish of paint, without a single spec of dust. But there’s a “good enough” model, that has saved my life. In every circumstance, there’s a quality that might not be perfect, but good enough, and that quality is different for every type of project. But if you keep shooting for perfect, it’ll never get out the door.
I have a four foot circle with hand cut wood type hanging in our shipping area that says “SHIP NOW”. Just get it out the door, it’s good enough.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist and how’d you get there?
My background is being a tinkerer. I was always taking apart old tvs or radios with glass tubes in the back. Getting shocked, and accidently catching things on fire is how I learned what to do, and what not to try again. I had a small woodshop in my parents basement (I know, I was so popular, right?). I didn’t really know how to produce anything, it was more the journey than the destination.
It wasn’t until my senior year in high school, when I took a course in graphic design, that it all clicked. I learned how to use an SLR camera & make my own prints, I learned airbrushing & stenciling, and I got my hands on an Apple computer for the first time ever. By the end of that year, I had declared my major as Graphic Design. That class opened my eyes to so many things. You don’t know what you don’t know, and I’m still trying to learn every day.
How do you get over creative blocks?
My first step is to slam through them. If I work hard enough, if I stress so much that I’m completely miserable, I feel like I can power through. Occasionally that will work, but most of the time it’s better to pause, & take a breather. Then I talk to the team, text a friend, and sleep on it for a night or two.
If it’s an idea, I’ll bring in 3-5 phrases & quickly one or two will be a front runner. If it’s physical (like how in the world am I going to make this?) I’ll make a small scale mockup of the piece, or a small section at full size. Just doing something to move things forward. It might not solve everything, but will get us one step closer, which is all I need at that moment.
What do you like best about 20x200?
I love the democracy of it, how affordable it is. Everyone deserves to have access to incredible & meaningful art, and this model is a great way to provide that to people. It also is a wonderful way for artists to become a part of peoples’ lives all around the world. Who knows who might be adding your piece to their walls? And they might have not come across your work in any other way.
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
I’m likely not the best person to ask this—we worked out of my house & my 2 car garage for the last 5 years (3 of those years was only a 1 car garage). I loved it. I loved that I could be home when my son got out of school, I loved that I could wake up at 6am and literally start working that second. I loved that if I couldn’t sleep, I’d just get out of bed & go work until I was too exhausted to do anything more. I loved that there was no overhead, (in fact, it’s a tax write off to have your studio in your house). Keeping things as lean as possible is very important for staying stable. I didn’t love that it was all-consuming, and that I could never get away from it. I didn’t love that boxes of merchandise spilled into the house, & projects spilled outside of the house (and I know my neighbors didn’t love that either).
But whatever your setup, it should be dedicated for that. It should have its own room, or its own nook. It should stay set up all the time, and not need you to tear it down & set it up every time. For me, every single tool in the studio is ready to go. You walk up to it, use it, and keep moving. If you have to pull out an extension cord, find a vacuum, or move stacks of wood away first, that’s only going to slow you down, stress you out, and hamper creativity. Prepare & be ready, so when that moment strikes it can all flow freely.
The 411 on Matthew Hoffman
Matthew Hoffman is a Chicago based artist and designer, whose public works have been exhibited internationally. His ideas and work have been included in Good, the New York Times Magazine, and Ready Made. He has been published in books by Gestalten, Droog, and Taschen, and was featured in a segment on the Oprah network. Matthew has created large scale public installations for the City of Chicago, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, Albright Knox Gallery, as well as companies like Facebook, Zappos, Groupon, & Cards Against Humanity. There are close to 30 outdoor installations currently up in the Chicagoland area. Outside... of large public works, You Are Beautiful is a small but mighty team that creates art & design edition objects to interact with your daily life. These items & custom work are available directly through their online shop, as well as museum stores such as LACMA, MASS MoCA, Mattress Factory, and online at UncommonGoods. Matthew is the custodian of You Are Beautiful, a project to better the world in little ways. The message has reached every corner of the globe, with over 3 million stickers shared by the community. The hope is for us to share uplifting thoughts with each other.