Patagonia's nature loving customers can add a Tahoe twist to their T-shirt wardrobe when basin artist Michelle Murdock's homegrown Sierra Nevada designs go live in spring 2014.
When the Tahoe City artist received an email from Patagonia's art department in May, she was surprised and eager to work with the outdoor clothing company. Product Art Director Chris Teig had seen her letterpress work on an Etsy website, and he thought the art would complement the Patagonia brand.
"I just randomly received an email, and he mentioned he'd seen my work. I was very excited. I'm a big fan of the company, and not only of their products but of their ethics as a business as well. I like that they're mixing old school letterpress with modern printing technology," Murdock said.
Images of rock climbers gripping a sheer wall or skiers shoulder-deep in powder might immediately come to mind when you think Patagonia. The outdoor clothing company is known for its high-quality products, killer use of photography and environmental initiatives. It's also recognized as one of the leaders in the outdoor clothing industry when it comes to fine arts and graphic design, Teig said.
"Patagonia for my world - the world of arts and graphic design - has, from the very get go, been very involved with developing relationships with artists. We have very high quality products and environmental standards and artists tend to like to work with us," Teig said.
Patagonia has an infinite need for fresh artwork, and Teig said the company will work with about 25 individual artists a season to design new graphics for T-shirts, accessories and other products. Teig immerses himself in the art world to discover those talents whose work fits the Patagonia ethic, attending art shows, browsing art websites like Etsy and perusing his email for artist referrals.
Teig said Murdock's work stood out because her letterpress pieces felt appropriate to the company's brand. One print in particular that read, "Lettuce Turnip the Beet," in bold capital letters caught his attention because he said natural, homegrown foods appeal to Patagonia's buyers.
The company commissioned Murdock to create two new, unique designs for a men's and women's T-shirt. The artist created separate prints of each of the Patagonia letters and overlayed them to make a vibrant piece of intersecting lines.
"It's hard to find artists that speak to the activities and aesthetic of Patagonia. This created a really interesting color scheme. It was a way to do a brand read that felt artistic," Teig said.
Murdock, owner of Quail Lane Press in Tahoe City, moved to the basin three years ago from Truckee. She stared her artistic career as an illustrator, but found it was difficult to make a living from the time-consuming drawings. She wanted to make original art that she could sell at an affordable price while still supporting herself, so she turned to letterpress.
Letterpress, or relief printing, involves locking an image into the bed of a press, inking it and then rolling paper against it to form an impression. At Quail Lane Press, Murdock hand draws and prints the work on an old-fashioned letterpress and then tints each piece individually with watercolor. It allows an artist to take various colors and letters and blend them to create different and interesting color combinations, she said.
One of her earliest prints depicts the Lake Tahoe Basin as it might have looked when explorer John Fremont first crested the ridge from Carson Valley. There's no U.S. Highway 50 cut along the South Shore, only familiar natural landmarks like the Upper Truckee River and Emerald Bay identified in a mystical, flowing calligraphy.
"A lot of my earlier prints were nature inspired. I have an interest in the landscape and I've always liked cartography. I often try and imagine this place when it was untouched. I aimed to show peaks and drainages, not roads. It lets me look at the basin and say, 'This is what it once looked like,'" she said.
When Murdock, who also holds a master's degree in environmental science from Yale University, started summer stream monitoring for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, she realized she missed a few drainage areas and wants to redo portions of the basin map.
While Patagonia continues in-house work to refine Murdock's designs, the artist still sells prints like the Lake Tahoe Basin at Riverside Studios in Truckee and online at www.etsy.com.
The art process takes about 18 months from design to a finished product, Teig said, and Patagonia designers will continue to rework the images for the T-shirts in the upcoming months.
But come spring 2014, take a closer look at that rock climber or skier's T-shirt. It might just have some threads tying it to Tahoe.