Freshly Laundered 030 / Jen Mussari


Jen Mussari is a lettering artist, designer, and illustrator who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. We asked the coolest gal around to chat with us about her background and how she made the transition to full-time creative work. Read on for the full interview.

CB: Give us some history, did you go to college? What did you study? How did you get into lettering?

JM: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia going to car shows with my dad and listening to punk music alone. I got really into doodling band logos on my notebooks and just…never stopped! When I got to high school I started putting my (really bad) art on the Internet, and found a community of people from all across the world who encouraged me to keep working and get better. This is where I learned that there are entire colleges just for art, just about lost my young mind, and focused on building a portfolio. I got into MICA in Baltimore, and had complete culture shock when I moved there. I learned so much about how to see and think. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I really do credit my art school education with the way that I arrive at visual solutions to problems. When I was attending art school, I was making fine art almost exclusively, even though I never stopped drawing letters. I snuck into an Illustration class that I didn’t have the prerequisites for that was taught by Joel Holland. When I saw the work that Joel was doing, something clicked for me: I realized that I could have a career exclusively drawing letterforms. Whitney Sherman then waived all of the credits that I didn’t have so that in my second semester of my senior year I could change my major from Fine Arts to Illustration and still graduate on time. These two saw something in me and I couldn’t be more grateful that they led me in this direction. I took off running and haven’t stopped since.


CB: That’s awesome that someone saw your talent and helped put you on a path to developing it. Right now you’re a freelance illustrator, what did you do right after graduating?

JM: Right after I graduated I moved to San Francisco to try and continue growing my freelance business off of the momentum I garnered in school. Things didn’t go so well there, actually. I never felt like I fit in that city, and also needed to work a retail job part-time in order to afford to live there. Now, I actually really value the things that I learned while working retail; and I also believe that if you’ve had a really crummy job at some point you are going to be better off for it. I learned so much about how to deal with entitled people, how to talk people down from irrational anger, and how to manage client relationships from being an in-store personal shopper at a women’s clothing store (believe it or not!) My peers who have also had jobs in retail, restaurants, call centers, etc. are noticeably better freelancers because of it.

It didn’t take long for me to get restless in California. After a year and a half, my apartments rent was about to be raised by $800 a month and I got the hell out of there. Brooklyn bound, I had no idea what was ahead. But I was very ready for it.


CB: People tend to look down on retail workers, thinking they don’t need skills to do the job, but I believe every person would be better at interpersonal relationships if they had to work some sort of retail/service industry job in their early life. So, how did you find your footing in Brooklyn? You seem to be surrounded by a great community of people!

JM: I found my community of friends in Brooklyn largely through the internet. My husband and I were staying in an Airbnb rental in Cobble Hill in 2012 to check out the neighborhood, and he tweeted about it. This guy that he had chatted with via Twitter before invited us out to dinner with his friends. That guy was Cameron Koczon, and we became instant buds. When we moved in, Cameron introduced me to all of his pals, who quickly invited me into their lives. New Yorkers have been nothing but inviting and kind to me since the day I got off the plane from SF. Three years later, my community feels like family and about 20 of us share a five-floor townhouse in Gowanus as our workspace (formerly Studiomates in DUMBO). Most of us are freelancers, some of us work for companies remotely, and some of us are small self-started companies. We have in common an appreciation for hard work and a love of rooting for each other. I’ve been invited onto some of my favorite projects because of the people that surround me, and that is how I came to be a part of the lovely freelancer family Ghostly Ferns!

Throughout all of the adventures I’ve had in Brooklyn, I really feel that my most wonderful real-life friends have also been internet pals. Sometimes New York City can be exhaustingly social, and the internet gives us an outlet for social expression that is safer for introverts. I have friends that I talk to daily on Twitter that I haven’t seen in years. Yet they still feel close to me because we share things with each other regularly.


CB: The internet can be such a positive force in finding new friends and creating a sense of community when you first move somewhere. I used twitter the same way as your husband when I moved to Pittsburgh and now those same people are my core group of friends. It’s because of one of them that I work for CB! How has your career as a freelancer evolved over time? I know when we first met you, you had a part-time gig working for Tina Roth Eisenberg. How’d you make the leap to full-time freelancing?

JM: Having a part-time job allowed me to take certain risks with my freelance career as it was starting out, which is generally the hardest time to take risks. Since I had another source of income, I could be selective about the clients that I worked with and build a portfolio that I was really proud of. My part-time job working for Tina mostly included managing Studiomates, a co-working space that she operated in part with the amazing folks at Workshop. It was a great job because I got to maintain a feeling of community amongst really wonderful people who I admired and respected, who then in turn came to respect the work I was doing as a freelance illustrator. But it was tough, at times, scheduling both a part time job and a budding freelance career. I knew that my goal was to become a full-time freelancer, and I went for it in March of 2014 when I was confident in my clientele and the monetary savings I had accrued. They say you should have at least three months’ rent in your bank account before you make drastic decisions! I wanted to be prepared and do it the right way, and I’m glad that I did. Work has been consistent since then and I am feeling very good about where I am today!


CB: You were so smart to save up before going out on your own! A lot of people forget that step and then end up having to take on work they don’t love just to put food on the table, so to speak. How’s the future looking? Is there anything you’re doing now that you’d like to do more of? Any new skills you want to learn?

JM: Ironically my future is full of studying the past! I am currently doing lots of research into the history of Lettering as an industry to figure out more how it informs where we are today. Lately we’ve been seeing a massive resurgence of designers and artists who specialize only in hand lettering (instead of generalizing in type design, lettering, graphic design, and illustration, for instance), and I have been doing careful study into what this means for the future of my industry. I would love to live in a world where lettering will continue to be as popular as it is today. So I am trying to get back to the roots, reading the words of and studying the works of masters like Doyald Young, Robert Bringhurst, Herb Lubalin, etc. This really helps me to gather meaningful context to where we are in the history of the industry of design. As for a less literary future, I'm getting back to my roots with drawing as a medium and am focusing on experimenting with mark-making on some personal work. I find that keeping my drafting brain challenged makes for better work that I actually put out into the world; even if it doesn’t see the light of day! Art History is definitely my comfort zone, so I try to keep in practice by drawing from the Masters when I can. My favorite draftspeople from the past to study are Kathe Kollwitz, Edward Hopper, and Henri Matisse.


CB: You can’t move forward without looking back occasionally, right? Thanks for chatting Jen!

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard of Jen Mussari before, you can follow her on twitter, instagram, dribbble and check out her amazing Squarespace website here.