Feature Friday #007 — Justin Van Genderen

It's another designer interview! Welcome to Feature Friday #007, our series highlighting some of the incredible people on Cotton Bureau. This week we have space design extraordinaire Justin Van Genderen. You can find him on Instagram and around the web. You can also shop his collection on Cotton Bureau.

Your space tees are some of our favorite designs on the site. So let's jump right into things with a hard hitting question. You get one shot: Who is your first spaceflight with? Virgin, Blue Origin, or Space X?

Ha! Good Question. Truth be told I am not much of a thrill seeker, so I guess if Blue Origin can send up 90-year-old William Shatner without much issue that may be the ride for me.

To be fair, Bill Shatner is immortal but ok, let’s get serious. What is it that draws you to space themed designs? Is it something that you’re personally fascinated by or is it just a subject that allows for maximum imagination when creating?

I would say both those are very true, I am endlessly fascinated by space/exploration/engineering, and I love the sci-fi aesthetic that comes along with space design. But what really got me started down this path was a curiosity in life's "big questions". Where do we come from? How is truth defined? What can I do as an individual to point consciousness in a beneficial/helpful way towards the values I hold in high regard? It all started with physics and led me to applications put forth by space agencies/companies. You did say let's get serious, right?

Well I was thinking more along the lines of let's-talk-inspiration not let's-contemplate-existence but this is so much better. While we're here, can I ask what you've discovered through your examination of these big questions? Not to get too personal but how have any answers you've found impacted the way you approach your work?

I find it fascinating to explore people's professional direction when it's so strongly guided by their personal journey. And that seems to be much more common in this field than in others.

I don't know that I've really come up with any answers to these questions, or at least any good ones - It's usually the questions that drive me. However, one discovery that has impacted my visual approach is a parallel I found between the great modernist designers of the 50's & 60's and the work of theoretical science/physics. Both, in a sense, are attempting to find a stripped down, beautiful, way to solve a problem.

With physics it comes into play with the search for a unifying theory between the ultra big (black holes) and subatomic worlds. With the modernist movement it is a stripping away of all that is unnecessary to communicate clearly and beautifully. So with my designs I am hoping to find a simple, beautiful way to communicate some of the fundamental laws of the universe... and of course make some bomb-ass-cool space stuff.

Now that makes sense. I think. Honestly the physics stuff is a little above my pay grade but I can definitely say mission accomplished for the bomb-ass-cool space stuff.

Let's continue with the subject of physics and how time doesn't exist and whether or not we're really even here (see: pay grade). What does the future look like for your industry? The art and design world has changed so much in the last few years. From COVID limiting event opportunities, the social media landscape, uh, progressing, and now AI becoming more mainstream. Where is design headed? Sorry, but at this point we've moved past the cupcake questions like 'why are we here.'

Ha, fair enough. Yes, the design world always seems to be in flux. With a field that is so dependent on technology and with technology advancing at incredible speeds, us freelance creatives are always trying to keep up. All of it seems very much out of our control, so my approach is to concentrate on what I do have control over, and that is my work. If every day I try to create something that makes me a healthier, happier person, that is what I try to concentrate on. All the other stuff, AI, social media, technology... I attempt to keep tabs on, but always with a playful interest, not fearful anxiety.

That's a super grounded outlook. And really it's the only way to analyze design tech without losing your mind. At this point the trajectory seems to be that advancements work as tools, not replacements. So let's scale it down to the human level. Chicago is obviously big enough that it can support every community. But what is specifically great about the local design scene there? Does the size make it more difficult to stand out or easier to be seen?

To be perfectly honest with you it's such a big city with so many different artists it's very hard to lump them all together. If there is one common thread it may be the blue collar, midwestern mindset of putting in the work. In other words, don't tell me, show me. Show me the work is important to you. Hone your craft. Put in the hours.

With so many artists it can be hard to stand out, but even on a local level I think the internet plays a big role in the exposure you get. There are a lot of talented street artists and screen printers in the area and every one I talk to has plenty of work on their plate, so it feels like a great city to work in.

There might be enough work on everyones' plates, but is there any deep dish pizza on them? I sampled 3 different pizzerias while in Chicago recently. Can't say I had high praise for any of them. Is deep dish pizza the most overrated food in the country or did I just have a bad experience?

You didn't hear it from me, but I tend to agree. I grew up on the east coast, and still favor the east coast style of Pizza. The deep dish???? Ehhhhhhhhhhhhh, at first you're like, wow this is so much cheese... I love cheese! But then you grow up and learn you should probably not mess with a good thing. Listen, Chicago has a lot going for it food-wise these days, but deep dish pizza??? Just not my thang, and apparently not yours either. Next time you're here let me know and I'll show you the good food places.

I'm absolutely going to hold you to that. And just so you know, next Chicago visit I'm really honing in on the Italian beef.

Alright you've been a great sport so we'll get you out of here on this one: What is next for you? Any cool projects you're working on now or maybe one coming up that you're excited about?

You're definitely in the right town for Italian Beef.

I've got a few projects going on right now that I am very excited about - I'm not sure if I can share details about them quite yet but they are all for JPL/NASA. I still have to pinch myself every time I get to work with actual NASA scientists on a project. Hopefully we will be done in the next few months and I can share all the good stuff we are working on. As always, I'll be creating new stuff surrounding any new scientific discoveries/news etc...

Thanks for talking with me about all this stuff, I had fun. Cotton Bureau is a great place to quickly get a tee up and available. The design of the website is bar-none the cleanest and most beautiful I have had the pleasure of using. Congrats on all the success.

Working with NASA definitely qualifies as a ✌️cool project✌️ in our book. We'll be paying close attention to your Voyager. And thank you so much for the kind words about CB! Designers like you make such a Deep Impact in this special community. Wishing you best of luck on your future Endeavors!

Ok that's all the space craft puns I can fit into one paragraph so we better end it there 😉