Authenticity is an elusive brand value these days. Lately, everyone from multinational car companies to local organic juice purveyors want to associate themselves with the virtues of ruggedness, adventure, and “stayin’ wild”. Often, this amounts to nothing more than a new tagline and some strategically placed mason jars in the Instagram feed *. But if you want to see rustic in a more legit form, you’d be well-placed to check out the work of US-based Art Director Julia Blackburn. In her time, she’s collaborated with folks like Levi’s, MTV, ACE Hotel and Stefan Sagmeister to craft and curate some beautifully raw campaigns. Soaking up Julia’s aesthetic is like spending a week at remote log cabin in Oregon – it’s a breath of fresh, mountain-infused air. We spoke to her about advertising, “doing good shit”, and – of course – sex with robots.

Can you give us the skinny on your career so far? Where you started, and where you’ve ended up?

Yeah, so in the very beginning, as a kid, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. Maybe like a football game here and there but my sister and I always had to cover our eyes during the commercials. So we didn’t contaminate our brains or something. I never grew up wanting to be an Art Director, didn’t even know that job existed.


Later on I was living on a farm, making experimental films, working on a line of clothing when I heard about this ad school out in Portland called Wieden+Kennedy 12. Twelve students, everyone sharing credit for the work, and clients that were all ‘for good’ companies. It was advertising boot camp. Learn how to have a point of view. Don’t be a dick. Collaborate. Work hard. Don’t be afraid of what’s never been done. Fail harder. It was still “advertising” but it sounded so wholesome and interesting.


And then after W+K 12 I got to make some fun stuff at W+K, working on the Levi’s Go Forth campaigns for three years, the Girl Effect work, a campaign for Coraline the Focus Features film… Right now I’m a freelance art director which was supposed to mean having summers off to travel but so far that shit doesn’t happen!


Your curation for the ACE seems to me to speak to Hotel as Art Gallery. How much leeway did ACE give you in terms of what work you could procure? Was it fairly open-ended?


There’s something so exciting and somewhat daunting about a giant white wall staring you down. I think parameters are always a good thing. We made rules for the artwork: all black and white, everything had to be collaged or painted or wheat pasted directly to the walls, and artists had to be mostly UK artists. There wasn’t a giant committee micromanaging the pieces but we were pretty hard on ourselves. Also if you’ve never been the only person sleeping in a hotel currently being demolished, it’s quite an experience. I set up booby traps on my windowsill in case anyone tried to break in at night.


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Above – Blackburn’s curated art walls for ACE Hotel London. 


Your work on projects like Levi’s Go Forth and the Coraline film boast a beautiful hand-crafted aesthetic. So many designs go for that refined, rustic look but often it seems inauthentic. What’s the key to having a project turn out looking genuine in that regards?


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Above – Some of Blackburn’s weird and wonderful work.


The Levi’s type was invented at my messy desk where I had scraps of paper and photos lying everywhere and I happened to have a bottle of white out nearby that I grabbed and started writing with over the imagery. I made these crazy rays of white lines coming off some words that said “Go Forth” and Mark Fitzloff was like, yeah you know, that could be your tagline. We were working quickly, but with passion, and in that frantic spirit there was no time to overthink anything with the left brain, we just made shit by hand, with what was around, and it felt right. In the final ads we certainly crafted the type to look beautiful and everything, but never finessed it to the point where it felt “slick” or lost its humanity.


Coraline was a film made entirely by hand, so we knew we couldn’t cheapen their enormous effort with some crappy craft on our end. Some of it was a no brainer, the boxes we sourced for example were real beautifully aged boxes hand picked from ebay and antique stores. I think 99% of the time in advertising you would get custom boxes made with brand new wood but that just wasn’t the vibe we were going for. It was weird to get to make things super dark and scary, it’s usually a vibe brands want to stay far away from.

Also, tirade coming, but everyone wants authentic and genuine in a time where the internet facilitates heavy borrowing from what’s out there. I think making something new and forging new ground is the best way to be authentic and genuine and fresh. Less time on tumblr, more time daydreaming.


What are you working on right now? And what’s on your desk as we speak?


I’m working on secret projects, I wish I could share more. One’s for the Ace and one’s for a big brand that’s never done advertising before. On my desk right now is a kale salad, the Freedom of the Hills book, a loom and some hand-dyed wool, a rock from the cliffs of dover, a pile of W-2s and a lucky bottle of white out.  


Fast forward to the year 2034. What killer projects is future Julia Blackburn working on?


She is working on a campaign to remind people to practice safe sex with robots.    



*For a much more in-depth discussion on the modern brand’s current obsession with everything artisanal, and whether or not we’ve reached peak mason jar utilization, check out the wise words of Tim Geoghegan over on his blog.