Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata

Published December 19, 2019

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 01

Crystal Zapata’s work resists flatness. Even encountered boxed into a phone screen, it is kinetic and playful—you can almost feel the textures. 

Born and raised in Chicago, Zapata works at Normal, a small design studio that caters principally to cultural institutions. Local clients include the Museum of Contemporary Art—Normal contributed to the visual communications for Virgil Abloh’s recent retrospective—the Pitchfork Music Festival, artistic duo Luftwerk, Volume Gallery, and others. Her practice outside Normal includes the design of graphic apparel and a posters—her gig posters for monthly dance party Bricktown Sound are particularly inventive, stretching the idea of what actually constitutes a poster—but also stretches into illustration, sculpture, fabric and textile, movement, and more. 

When we met at her apartment/studio earlier this summer, Zapata explained her fluid approach towards creative disciplines and her current fixation on materiality.

Adam Wray
Crystal Zapata

I'm always interested in hearing about people's early aesthetic experiences—touchstones that you can remember from childhood that might have some impact on the way you express yourself visually today.

I've always been really fascinated with ordinary things. I was actually thinking about one today: Babybel Cheese. I was so enamored with the fact that it came in wax. I had never seen anything else come in wax before, and as a material, it was interesting to me to have to take it off of the cheese and peel it. It was really satisfying to me.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 02
Zapata's Logan Square studio.

It's the most perfect comestible. 

There's nothing else like it. I actually sculpted something out of it. I collected the wax and sculpted something out of it and then cast it in plaster. I was just so interested in the properties of this material, the fact that it came on this thing that you could get at the grocery store, that it came on a food that I liked to eat, that I had a relationship with it outside of the material itself. Thinking about it now, makes a lot of sense with the way that I approach work. I like using the things around me. I like being honest with my environment and trying to reuse materials, even if it's in a really small way.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 03
Recent Poster for Bricktown Sound.

What does it mean to you to be honest with your environment?

Lately, I’ve been... I wouldn't say jaded on graphic design, but I'm feeling a little exhausted. I've just been looking around me when I walk down the street. Look up—is there a weird shape in the clouds? Is there a weird texture on the wall that could be made into something? I think it's just easier to take your environment into consideration. It's more exciting that way, too, to use these things that you see every day and present them in a way that people haven't seen before. 


It positions the artist as less of this heroic figure that creates something out of nothing and turns them into more of an interpreter. Channeling your environment. It seems like a gentler way of creating.

I like that word, gentle. It's demystifying making things. I think that art in general is this very mysterious thing, even for me. I don't understand it all the time. I think I rarely understand it.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 04
Recent Poster for Bricktown Sound.

The art you make or the art in the world?

Other art in the world. It's difficult to understand anybody's intentions with making something that isn't explicit, you know?


It's a shame that people think that unless you "get” art, you can't properly appreciate it. I don't know why that is. I guess it's the way we're taught to interpret things in school. Like, you read Macbeth and if you can't explain what the metaphor means, you get a C. We take that into the art world. I sometimes have a hard time interviewing visual practitioners, because if you wanted to talk about your ideas, you would talk about them, or you would write about them, but you make art, instead, or you dance. I feel sometimes like I'm forcing people to…

Apply meaning. Articulating your ideas is really hard—trying to do it in a way that isn't writing it or speaking it.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 05

The way you were just talking about your process lately made me think about the work that you do for the Bricktown Sound posters, which are, at this point, only kind of posters. Sometimes it's a bag. It seems like a space where you're really able to follow intuition.

Bricktown has been a really formative client—a space to just try things. There really are no stakes because the two women who I make the posters for always accept it and are excited about it, too. It evolved with my interests and my attentions, which is cool to look back at and realize how much I've changed or my interests have shifted. I can't imagine not having that space at this point, because it informs other things that I do, too. It's helpful to have a prompt or parameters of some kind as a graphic designer, but still have a project be very open-ended.


Could you could give me an overview of your practice more broadly?

My practice ebbs and flows between disciplines—I’m really just trying to dip my toe into as many as I can. I appreciate when people have a singular focus and are really good at one thing, because I don't feel that way about myself. I'm interested in graphic design. I'm interested in making objects. I'm interested in sewing. I'm interested in drawing. I try to not put limits on my practice. I'm just trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 06

Because you're trying so many different things, I imagine a lot of the time you spend creating for yourself is spent learning. Do you have a learning style that travels between these disciplines? Or is it totally different each time?

I think I just have to spend the time, honestly. The process is very much trial-and-error with everything. It's all experiential. I'm a visual learner, and I also like to learn the properties of certain things, learn the properties of materials. I think that’s really integral to learning any craft. Sewing, you have to understand the way that fabric works in order to work with it. Graphic design, you have to spend the time to understand what balance and composition looks like. I don’t think that comes naturally for most people, but is learned through trying it over and over again and just feeling it once it's finished. 

My boss always talks about graphic design as being a negotiation of space. I really love that phrase because I feel like it can be applied to so many different disciplines. Dance being one of them, it's a negotiation of space as well. The body, words—I think it's all related. I stopped dancing when I was 17, but I still feel like it has informed my work, my understanding of spatial relationships.


Do you have any specific techniques that you rely on when you’re stuck on a project?

I really wish I did. Now, like I said, it's using my environment, trying to look at things in a different way. I think my equation now is just like go for a walk or open a drawer. Can you print on something weird? Is there a puddle in a cool shape that can help you? Reaching a point of aesthetic satisfaction has become harder and harder for me lately. I'm trying to figure out how I can make design work about photography or about materiality instead of the act of designing something on the computer. That's what I look to when I'm having trouble.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 07
Album Artwork for Resavoir

Is reaching a state of satisfaction important for you in the work you do?

Yeah. I think that's what it's all about for any artist. How you decide when something is done—the internal voice or the thematic goal. If it's not about the theme, then it's about the instinct, I guess. Not to make it into a binary, but I think for me I'm, like, "Okay, well, does this look good yet?" If it doesn't, then that means I have to keep picking at it. If it does, then I can stop. Usually I have to sleep on it before I can make that decision.

Sometimes you work on something for eight hours, and it's something that's very, very simple or could be very simple, and at the end of the night you're like, "I think this could be it, but I feel so fucking crazy right now that I can't decide." Go to sleep. Wake up. You have to sleep. Two days is the minimum time I need to do something.

Negotiating Space With Designer Crystal Zapata 08