By: Casha Doemland
16 years ago, the streets of London were pasted up with unique and eye-catching prints – one of an outline of a woman with simple features and pink lips against a bright blue background with planes and the other, a female centaur underneath London College of Printing in a custom font. There were no names, no signifiers outside of the college’s name to identify who had done the work. It was just a seemingly endless, non-stop flow of artwork that covered walls across the city.
One night, the anonymous duo papering the streets with their artwork stopped for a quick snack, and they stumbled upon what appeared to be a derelict building. Of course, they made the executive decision to cover the entirety of it, doors included, with their prints.
Two days later, the headquarters of Dazed—formerly known as Dazed and Confused Magazine—reached out for a meeting as a woman from one of their classes who was interning at the magazine, discovered who they were – Jonathan Kenyon and John Glasgow, founders of Vault49.
Vault49 started as a street art team during their last year at university in London when they met. Over the course of six months, the two collaborated on a series of pieces, as well as screen-printed 600-700 designs in their free time, all of which were posted throughout the streets of London.
After they wall-papered the offices of Dazed, Kenyon and Glasgow were featured in three separate issues, and that resulted in partnerships with major companies in the United States.
“All of sudden, VH1 was flying us out to the US for their Diva Duets campaign for the year,” shares Kenyon. “MTV was flying us over to a do a whole bunch of stuff, and we ended up doing all the display windows for Express. So, we originally came to the US for one 3-day trip and then spent the next nine months trying to figure out how to move here.”
That was only the beginning. More and more interesting projects out of the states worked themselves down the pipeline, and Kenyon and Glasgow were having a superb time. In February 2004, they left London and opened up shop in their first studio apartment in New York where their office doubled as their bedroom.
Three years later, they found the courage to invest in a separate office, but as the company expanded and the number of employees increased, a larger space was required.
Vault49 currently has 36 team members, and together they work out of their Flatiron District 6,000 square foot office just blocks away from Time Square. The space is equipped with two conference rooms, both of which have custom tables constructed out of a series of silkscreens paneled together, a massive sign on a glass wall reading “Make Your Mark,” as well as the company’s name displayed in neon.
And while the square footage of their workspaces may have changed dramatically over the years, their love for printmaking which they discovered at university has never waned. In fact, it only makes sense that it would become a focal point of their work and even their office.
“We’ve always had a printmaking studio in every office,” says Kenyon. “Even when we were working from a second bedroom, we had a separate studio that had the letterpress and printmaking equipment. That’s the real heart and pulse of the studio. No matter what, that always remains.”
Heck, it’s even one of the guiding philosophies behind the studio’s work, where they foster creativity and a craft-based culture. Every employee, regardless of role, learns the ins and outs of printmaking.
“We want all of our team to feel connected to the core of what we do as an agency and to understand our roots,” shares Kenyon. “Vault49 began as a street art collective, dedicated to dirt, ink, and manual production processes as part of the creative process. We are real people pouring our lifelong passion into all we do, and all we touch. Leaving the studio with paint under our fingernails is a good day.”
The second guiding principle behind Vault49 is checking your ego at the door. “This is something that’s sort of stayed true from the beginning,” adds Glasgow. “We knew we couldn’t collaborate unless there was respect for each other’s opinions and creative processes.”
The third? Don’t be a dick. But that’s more of an overall rule for life.
With these three guiding principles, Kenyon and Glasgow have created a company culture based on creativity, craft and respect. To guarantee it remains that way, and their team is happy, the founders send out anonymous Q&As to check in and ask questions like “why do you turn up for work every day?”
“By far the best response we got is that they turn up for work to spend time with the people here and their colleagues,” shares Kenyon. “Second, is the quality of the work they’re doing, but the most important thing is that they like turning up and having fun.”
All of this starts with the way Kenyon and Glasgow run their company. In the back corner of the office is their 15th-Year Wall commemorating the company’s anniversary. Equipped with various typographies made in-house, their staff can win such gems from the wheel of prizes like a helicopter tour of New York, an iPad, a toilet plunger, and bus fare.
But it isn’t all just cake or presents. There’s a real, office-wide focus on creating good work, and that starts with transparency—not only with the team but with their clients. “We strive to create an environment that’s full of positivity,” states Kenyon. “We work with clients who we can be direct and honest with from the beginning, and we’ve found a lot of success with a no bullshit and no politics approach.”
49 Minutes and Creative Labs are two of the studio’s unique strategies that focus on teamwork and fostering creativity between everyone in the office.
49 Minutes pauses the entirety office for, well, 49 minutes, and asks everyone in the studio to ponder how they should approach a brief. When the time strikes zero, everyone is to present their ideas. Often, a few will be similar, but it serves as a jumping off point for how they might execute a project.
With Creative Labs, in particular, that extends to the client and inviting them along for the journey, with the office space transformed into a series of workshops and classes. “Vault49’s DNA as craftspeople uniquely positions us to provide authentic and exciting experiences that can communicate a brand’s vision of creative inspiration to its various audiences: internal, trade and consumers,” adds Kenyon.
Looking to help shift Bailey’s Irish whiskey and cream into the Premium Treats category, they did one such Creative Lab.
“As Baileys positioned itself to re-recruit its core offering, we needed a platform that would create theater around the brand, bringing to life visually the steep change that the brand needed to achieve,” states Kenyon. “All relevant stakeholders were gathered in a warehouse in NYC to agree upon this new creative expression for the brand and ideate how that impacts their innovation pipeline. This time it was specifically for gifting activations.”
For two days, they hosted a series of talks and classes for pottery, screen printing, typography and more in between meetings, all of which inspired 30-40 feasible pipeline activations in line with the new Brand World positioning and treating strategy.
But what’s great is that marketing directors and creative leads are working together throughout the entire process, creating an open environment where ideas flow and epiphanies come. It makes sense for a company built on creativity, craft, respect and the happiness of their employees and clients, which is the perfect formula for exceptional work.
The team is regularly updated on growth objectives and revenue targets, fully aware of the numbers surrounding each. They also understand the importance of creating an open, fun, and creative environment, hence the aforementioned anonymous surveys, an annual retreat that’s taken during the work week to not take up the team’s free time, and little things like Summer Fridays and Yay Days- a celebration of an employee who excelled.
“We’ve become a family, a home away from home where lifelong friendships have been formed,” says Glasgow. “We’ve created a great culture and an open environment, not only from a creative standpoint where there are no egos, but where everyone’s opinions, time and passions matter.”
LA-based and Georgia-bred, Casha Doemland spends her days crafting poetry and freelance writing. Over the last two years, she’s been published in a variety of publications and zines around the world. When she’s not nerding out with words, you can catch her watching a classic film, trekking around the globe or hanging out with a four-pound Pomeranian.
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