‘These Crazy Little Things I Do Are How I Give Back’: Penn State Alum Creating Artwork For National Audience
Portland-based designer, visual artist, and Penn State alum Brian Kappel’s work takes all sorts of shapes, and sizes and spans multiple dimensions. From completing work for the College Football Playoff, Nike, the mural in Paterno Library Starbucks, and starting his own design company, Space Monkey Designs, giving back to the community with his artwork has been one of the ways he’s stayed active as an alum.
Looking at his Portland-based studio or flipping through his portfolio, the choice of Penn State and a major in visual arts seemed like the clear choice now, but for Kappel, these choices weren’t always so obvious.
Kappel spoke to the influence that drawing and painting had during his early years in Central New York. Working with a landscape watercolorist growing up, painting and art overall became something that Kappel did well and was a long-term interest of his, something that eventually provided the inspiration for his major and future career.
For the family, attending Penn State was something of a tradition as both his mother and father graduated as proud Nittany Lions of the class of 1970.
“I was wholeheartedly saying as I was growing up, ‘No, I’m gonna be the guy that goes to Ohio State. It’s gonna be awesome,'” Kappel said of his college selection rationale.
Eventually, with some parental persuasion and a visit to University Park later, Kappel was pretty certain of his decision to land in Happy Valley.
Kappel wasn’t absolutely certain about his choice of major when he arrived for his first semester of college, either. Starting out in the landscape architecture major and eventually switching out to visual arts because there “wasn’t enough drawing,” Kappel’s initial reasoning behind picking landscape architecture was because of his summer job experience taking care of lawns at his local high school.
“In my mind, landscape architecture was the perfect fusion of working outside and getting a really good tan during the summer and drawing that I did all the time,” Kappel said.
Kappel admitted he might’ve been too shallow in his understanding of what a landscape architecture major entailed.
“I got in my first semester and went to my advisor asking ‘So when do we start drawing?’ and [the advisor] said ‘Wrong career.’ I went ‘Alright! Now I’m a visual artist,’ and my folks became even more worried about what the hell I was going to do after school,” he continued.
Once he made the switch, though, the change for Kappel was immediate, and he began to dive into doing his own work as a student at Penn State.
“In visual arts, you focus a lot on drawing and painting. I came from a very blue-collar… ‘If you want something work for it’-type approach,” Kappel said.
Even among his coursework to complete his degree, Kappel worked as a freelance illustrator for the Eberly College of Science. There, he hand-drew illustrations for their publications and picked up any other freelance work he could.
“The application of what I was learning was super important so I kept on doing that,” he said.
Kappel continued to intern with Nike in 1997, which was the first time one of his illustrations was available online.
“It lived in legend more than anything else,” he said. “Everyone was able to dial up on their modem and see what it looked like on Nike’s website.”
After graduating, Kappel moved to Oregon to start working for Nike right around the same time most companies were moving to digital environments to create their content.
“I had no idea how to work on a computer,” Kappel said.
He explained how, in his role with Nike, he went on to learn the basics of graphic design workflows and Photoshop set him down the path of designing apparel.
Kappel explained how his time at Nike helped his growth as an artist overall, being able to see how bits and pieces of design strategies could be used elsewhere in other projects. This included working in apparel graphic design, shifting to brand Jordan, and then eventually transitioning to Major League Baseball and college football.
Despite having what many would consider their dream job working with team sports at Nike, Kappel’s interest in exploring other areas of design led him down different avenues to grow his artistry know-how. He explained how he realized during a sales meeting with Nike there were so many avenues within graphic design that he never explored because of his experience as a visual arts major, particularly with how 2D designs interact with 3D space. This curiosity led him to a role with a retail architecture company.
In this capacity, Kappel worked on conceptual store designs for restaurants and cell phone providers where he learned how to take 2D designs into 3D spaces and make impressive guest experiences.
“That became my trial-by-fire introduction into the 3D world,” Kappel said.
Inspired by some of the work Nike was doing with laser engraving its shoes, Kappel also tried his hand at another firm with laser work, which eventually brought him down pathways he didn’t expect.
“[The laser] was great because when the PlayStation 3 launched, we were hired by PlayStation to go to the Super Bowl in Miami…and etch graphics [on the consoles] for celebrities,” Kappel said.
This experience inspired him to try cutting out his own work on the laser, which opened up his 2D artwork to many types of 3D applications.
Eventually, Kappel participated in his first solo gallery opening in Phoenix, Arizona, as a mixed-media artist in 2009. His laser work with “Artificial Agents” and “Cereal Killers” put a retro-furtive spin on propaganda posters and cereal boxes in a creative and unique way.
“It was a gateway to re-inventing what I was doing artwork-wise,” Kappel said. “Everything before then was watercolors and stuff like that.”
Since then, his work has been a mixture of connections he’s made from product creation and eventually event design that brought Space Monkey Designs to a national level.
Kappel spoke about what his experiences were like in working with the College Football Playoff for the last four years.
“We’d literally been given a blank palette,” he explained.
Kappel was free to create all sorts of one-of-a-kind design experiences for players and College Football Playoff VIPs. From creating the overall theme of an event to what elements of a locker room might look like, Kappel called on all elements of his professional career to put together event spaces that are truly unique.
“It’s a glorious mish-mash of everything we can throw at it,” he said.
From Penn State variants of Nike running shoes to laser engravings wallets, what folks might be the most familiar with of his work is the 40-foot-long mural in the Paterno Library Starbucks. Featuring the siren of the Starbucks logo and elements of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” the mural made out of laser-cut and painted wood features a quote from the novel: “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do!”
As Kappel explained, the project happened almost as the result of luck and perfect timing.
“The Starbucks mural was one of those galaxy-alignment moments,” he explained.
The mural’s expected installation date came within days of a formal college visit to University Park with his daughter Emma Kappel.
“Chalk it all up to serendipity, this is all happening,” he said about the overall experience.
“Bottom line is, I’m never going to donate enough to get my name on a building, so it’s like… these crazy little things I do are how I give back,” Kappel said.
Folks can view Brian’s work online at Space Monkey Designs’ website and can purchase reprints and originals through its online store.
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