Art Problems: Inside the Inspirations of Designer and Photographer Mo Neuharth
Mo Neuharth has a problem. Or is it that she enjoys a good problem? It may even be easier to say that she’s made a career out of solving problems.
The Detroit-based artist and designer projects an effortless blend of kindness and cool that makes her clients feel comfortable leaving a developing brand in her hands, or letting her turn their most important body of artistic work into the perfect handmade book. Maybe it’s her backstory: an Arizonian photographer-slash-drummer in an all-woman indie band who toured the country and decided that Detroit was the greatest city in America and wanted to help bring great, accessible design to the people who live and make extraordinary things there. Or maybe it’s her work itself: color-obsessed, flash-bright 35 mm photographs that feel like you’re being beckoned into a fascinating stranger’s very best memories, logos and menus that can make the newest business on the block feel like it’s been a beloved neighborhood institution for generations.
ALIVE: What’s your single biggest problem with the art world right now?
The boundary that exists between art and design. It’s something I constantly struggle with. I have a background in fine arts, and where I went to school, the college of art was separate from the college of design. We didn’t interact. We didn’t have any of the same classes; we were considered totally different career paths. Ever since I left school, I’ve been trying to erase that notion, to show through my work how design and art can be the same. That’s the goal with Art Problems.
There’s a theme of collections in your work: neat rows of vintage matchbooks, or Jell-O molds, or Technicolor donuts in a perfect grid. What inspirations are you collecting these days? I have an ongoing collection of old garden books, which was definitely an inspiration for my ongoing photo series “New Plants Coming Soon.” I started finding all of these copies of a particular magazine from the ‘50s and ‘60s in thrift stores. It’s called the The Home Garden, and it’s all in black and white. It has beautiful graphic design, beautiful photography. I just love them.
ALIVE: Your love for vintage, and especially the midcentury modern period of design, is so present in your work, whether you’re collaging with antique family photographs or developing a logo for a brand. But at the same time, everything you make feels contemporary and fresh. How do you marry vintage and modern sensibilities?
I love the idea of timelessness. I think it started with photography, with my 35 mm camera; I love how you can use the frame of the image to edit the world into the way you want to see it. By removing any context of time—any contemporary cars or building materials or signage, or anything you might recognize as modern—you can use the camera to create this sort of timelessness. I like to do that with design, too.
ALIVE: Art Problems started as an art press, but it’s grown into a full-fledged design and fine art publication studio that does everything from handmade books to branding, all with a very personal, often-handmade touch. Tell me about that transition.
I had been running Art Problems as a press for a few years before I moved to Detroit, and I really wanted to go full force with it when I got here. But what ended up happening was … well, I had no money. [Laughs.] It didn’t quite work out as I planned. I was like, “Man, who knew publishing handmade art books isn’t that lucrative?”
Then a friend of mine was opening a restaurant and asked me to design a logo. I’d only done a little bit of design work, but this was a huge thing for me—and I didn’t really know how to do it. I mean, I told her I did, but I didn’t. [Laughs.] Sometimes that’s really what you have to do. But I learned. I learned, and I did it, and that really opened a whole new world to me, and I’ve just kind of been self-teaching ever since.
I decided to rebrand Art Problems as a studio, because I didn’t want to limit it. I don’t want to just be a design firm, or just a logo factory. I wanted to be able to do design, but I’m still super-focused on printed matter. Every time I design something, it usually comes with some sort of printed collateral. The printed part is the end product. I love to still be able to do the tactile jobs.
ALIVE: Tell me about a typical workday.
I wake up and make coffee, and then I go in my garden and make sure that nothing is going incredibly wrong. Sometimes I get carried away out there; I’m pulling weeds, watering, seeing if anything has eaten anything, and how to amend that … you get the idea. I could spend so long out there and just get distracted by every little thing. I actually had to start setting a timer. [Laughs.] Like, 30 minutes of garden time! No more! Growing plants wasn’t something I was able to do in Arizona, so I’m a little obsessed.
But yeah, after that, I get to work. Right now I’m managing 10 to 12 different projects with different clients. Some of them are businesses and some of them are artists who I’m helping them to design posters or books or something like that.
ALIVE: And all your clients are in Detroit?
Right now, mostly, yeah. I’d love to be able to travel someday, but right now, I’m focused on the city. Detroit has so many people opening businesses and making art, and it’s important for them to have accessible design. I’m committed to being a part of that. I’m really dedicated to this place.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.