Q+A: Doug Cunningham and Jason Noto, Morning Breath Inc.
What do Kanye West, Queens of the Stone Age, and Adidas all have in common? They've all sought the inventive designs of Morning Breath Inc., a graphic illustration company based in Dumbo. We sat down with the men behind the art - Doug Cunningham and Jason Noto - to find out more about skateboard culture, their 20 year partnership, and the inspiration behind the 2019 Dumbo Drop design!
Tell us more about Morning Breath? How did you start working together?
Doug: We started working together back in the mid-90s in San Francisco at Think Skateboards, doing graphics. Right from the start our balance between design and illustration meant there was a lot to educate each other on and as we started working together we both started to learn more about each others superpower. We brought that together and we’ve been working together in the same way ever since.
Jason: When we were at Think, we started hitting it off and collaborating on designs so we kept it going from there. We've also got very similar taste in what we like so in that sense collaborating with each other is easy - we trust each other.
How has your design process changed since the early days?
Doug: At Think, we were really learning about the process. We learned a lot about printing since back then everything was being silk-screened. The shop where they printed everything was down the street so we would go down pretty often and see what was going on and really get a true understanding of that process -- we still incorporate that into a lot of what we do today.
Now though, when we work for a client, it usually just starts with a conversation about what they want. Often the execution is easier than actually coming up with what it is we want to do. A lot of times we get the freedom of, “You guys are creative, you can come up with something” but that’s a guessing game, like picking a number from 1 to 100. What is that thing? It’s not always easy to get to.
Jason: In the skateboard days we could do whatever we wanted so we made a lot of fun of things! Now, when we work for a client we try to figure out what we can't do. We used to do a lot of trial and error but now we know how to get to the solution for a client faster than we did 10 or 15 years ago. It took years of practice.
As we started working together we started to learn more about each other's superpower.
How has skateboard culture influenced your design style?
Doug: I don't know if we ever really planned on it, it's just that skateboard design was where we started. We often get asked the question “I really want to do skateboard graphics, how do I start?” and I don’t know if I really started out with that idea of it being where I wanted to be. You end up where you end up. I think that for us it’s a gift and a curse - part of it is that we started out on this kind of youth culture with our graphics and continued on after that but as we’re getting older the youth part is getting harder!
Jason: I think the one thing we’ve always noticed about ourselves is that there’s this group of people who fit into this grey area of graphics and a lot of times people think that they’re these artsy people but skateboard graphics is a more working class way of handling art and design. It’s the perfect outlet. It’s a world where things will happen. We fit perfectly into that world - the attitude is there. We enjoyed it because the work rules were non-traditional. It found us but we also found it.
our designs are about keeping it fun, keeping it interesting, and making people wonder.
Your client list is amazing! Are there any designs you're most proud of?
Jason: I think that over the last 20 years we’ve had different types of accomplishments for different reasons. There are things that are really high-profile: album covers for Kanye West, the Foo Fighters, and Queens of the Stone Age, or working with big-name brands like Adidas and Vans. These are all things we’ve accomplished. At the end of the day, we’re just two guys in a room trying our best to make a living but we’re a legitimately small business - we write the rent check and we take out the garbage. When you start you don’t think it’s what you’ll be doing in 20 years. You just get a studio, get a bank account and then you’re a business. No business classes, you just jump into it and pick things up. It’s just us so I’m really proud of the fact that for this long - and in today’s world - we’re getting out there and having people notice us. There are also personal things we’ve done which maybe no ones ever seen but we’re still proud of it. There are so many types of accomplishments that overall we’re proud of our work as a whole.
You've been in Dumbo for twenty years! How have you seen the neighborhood change? What are some of your highlights from over the years?
Doug: It’s a lot more tech-based now and I think along with tech comes with a vibe of less open spaces. Before, you had woodworkers and photographers with huge spaces and open floor-plans and things that are cool about that have been honed back into smaller cubicles and everyone with their AirPods.
When we were in 20 Jay we had a pretty good community of people. We had a guy next door who would start these misfit businesses - one time it was guitar strings, then it was selling bbq sauce but he’d come to us and ask for help with designing things. The photographer down the hall would shoot for us so we’d do some design work for him or his clients.
Jason: I think we’re the only people who still blast music in our studio. I remember we once threw a party for the Dumbo Arts Festival and people were skateboarding and smoking cigarettes in the halls - nobody cared.
Doug: I remember during late nights that we’d work, our window felt like a big screen showing off the lights to the city. Especially for me coming from California, it really felt like “Wow, I’m in New York now” just from looking out of our window.
You designed the 2019 Dumbo Drop graphics which we love! Tell us how you came up with design.
Doug: The Dumbo Drop design is a pretty common design format for us. It has collage, imagery, and typography. I think we tried to keep it strange but also for the kids so it's fairly safe! Also there’s a lot of play on the vintage aesthetic.
Jason: I think its something we're known for stylistic wise. For us, our designs are about keeping it fun, keeping it interesting, and making people wonder.
Doug: Our aesthetic is really about nostalgia. Some people view nostalgia as the enemy of creativity - that you can’t look back, only forward, but for us half of our conversations are about remembering things from when we were young. We compare notes about things we had in our childhood to see if it was the same and then you realize its universal. I think that's what keeps us going - a hint of nostalgia in our work but an understanding of what can we bring that's new to it and how do we make it fun.
Our aesthetic is really about nostalgia. Some people view nostalgia as the enemy of creativity - that you can’t look back, only forward, but for us half of our conversations are about remembering things from when we were young.
And finally, what is your favorite place in Dumbo?
Jason: I love Front Street Pizza. Those guys are great - they're as real as they can be and they treat you well!
Doug: I'd also say Superfine. It's a good, solid place where they know your face.