Spotlight: Designer Alan Hopfensperger

Apr 24, 2015


1) Tell us a memorable story of yourself when you were a kid. It can be funny, surprising, warm and fuzzy, whatever. Just make it a good one.

I have very strong memories of living in Dayton, Ohio between the ages of 3 and 5. I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and Dad moved the family five times by the time I was 6. He worked with a home building company that was growing, and they sent him to the new territories. My mother recalls moving to one city, and Dad coming home from the first day of work saying they were moving again. The final move was to Cincinnati after I had just turned six, but I LOVED Dayton, so it was rather traumatic for me. That was at a time when kids freely and safely roamed. In Dayton, I walked myself the three or four blocks to kindergarten, alone. Nowadays, someone would probably call child protective services. Out of nine children, I was the only one who caught the art bug. It revealed itself early on, and I could not get enough of any art or craft kit, project or activity. I would spend hours on some invented project—time would literally stop. In Cincinnati, we lived next to an abandoned apple orchard, through which a small crick meandered. I can recall on one summer day, a group of us followed it for miles and came upon a sunny waterfall dropping off a large, flat blue slate, into a shallow pool. At the bottom of the pool, I found the cleanest deposit of white clay. I remember pulling up the clay and letting it dry in the sun on the slate until I could take it home. I used it to model a sculpture of my pet cat, who I named Zeus. That was my first experience working with clay. Zeus was an orange long-haired tabby, named after the Greek god. We also had a black cat named Zorba (the Greek). So we had night and day cats. Although, truth be told, when we named Zorba, we were trying to remember the name my Aunt had for her cat when she lived in New York City. That cat turned out to be Zaba, which was short for zabaione, her favorite Italian dessert. In searching for that name, we came upon Zorba and decided that actually fit better. We also had a wonderful mixed-breed dog, named Ruff by my oldest brother when he was but five. She often accompanied us on our expeditions around the area. She was usually covered in ticks and briars and thistle, and was a mess because her fur was, well, rough.

2) Give us some background about your maternal grandmother. How did her cultural heritage impact your family when you were growing up? How does it influence you today?

My maternal grandmother came to America with her parents at the age of 4 from Poland, then occupied by Russia, at the turn of the twentieth century. They spoke Polish at home, and by emigrating so young, she grew to be as American as anyone else. As one of her grandchildren, I know very little of my Polish heritage, except for a few Polish family names. She married a man who was born to Polish immigrant parents, and I am told they spoke Polish to each other, but English to their children. So it seems they followed the path of Americanization, by letting go of cultural attachments and embracing their new country. I have a strong interest in discovering ancestry on my mother’s side, because that connection was lost for some reason at my grandparents.

3) Another grandma prompt—talk about the same grandma’s career at Michigan State’s library, how it brought her to Vietnam and what happened to her there.

Among the societal changes resulting from WWI were greater opportunities for young women, and my grandmother took advantage of them. In the ’20s, she pursued her love of books and earned a college degree in library sciences. She also met and married my grandfather. He had worked in coal mines while pursuing studies to become a high-school music teacher. His instrument of choice was the violin, and he conducted the school orchestra. Both he and my grandmother were members of a string quartet. Wherever they lived was within walking distance of a library, and my grandmother always found work there in some capacity. They lost jobs and a home during the depression, and moved about Michigan until finding work again as a teacher and librarian. Unfortunately his unexpected death when my mother was 6 led to the most significant impact to the course of the family. It occurred at the start of WWII, not because of the war, but due to a tragic home accident. Grandma packed up the kids and moved to her in-laws, where she worked in wartime factories. I suppose that means she was a Rosie. An application to Michigan State University soon led to her settling in East Lansing, Michigan. Grandmother was able to raise her children as a single parent during the mid ’40s and early ’50s, working at the campus library. In the mid ’50s, Michigan State University participated with the United States in nation-building efforts in Vietnam, prior to the conflict there, during the Korean War. My grandmother applied for and was transferred to Vietnam for four to five years, where she set up libraries and trained personnel (my mom, her youngest, had just turned 18 by then). Of course everyone sent on nation-building efforts were eventually declared spies and kicked out. My Dad would occasionally refer to her as “my mother-in-law the spy.” Many of the people she worked with in Vietnam were killed because of their association with the U.S., and this made it difficult for her to discuss her time there. She returned to MSU and retired years later at 66 as Head Reference Librarian. While she was away in Vietnam, my mom and dad met, married and had my oldest brother. When my grandma returned, she had a whole new family. Eventually my parents had nine children, and that is a whole ‘nother story. My grandmother’s story motivates me to live a life that will contribute its own remarkable story to the family history.

4) Before you got to Curiosity, you spent 11 years working independently, largely in the art licensing industry. Talk about your experience during that period and how it eventually led you here.

During my most recent 11 years of independent practice, I worked with a few design clients and pursued art licensing. During this time, I designed packaging graphics for the largest manufacturer of affordable gift baskets, Wine Country Gift Baskets, in California. They take a product and repackage it to fit within the aesthetics of a basket collection. I was credited by their Director of Design for helping them stay ahead of the competition, and was told it takes a special talent to coordinate a design that fits within a grouping of products. Over the years they have grown and now have full-time designers doing this work. It was early into this time that I first met Matt and Vicki, and had some wonderful experiences on a few projects with WonderGroup. In addition, I had many other great opportunities that included work with the Southern Ohio Diocese of the Episcopal Church and The Jean Robert Restaurant Group. I also gave a helping hand to colleagues at engage321, with logos for clients such as Elegant Fare and Yellow Springs-based YSIX. My work in art licensing advanced my art-making skills. Early on, after locating my first art licensing agent, who represented my portfolio to manufacturers, one cat drawing was licensed for reproduction on kitchenware in England and Ireland, and earned enough income to encourage me to pursue more art licensing. This culminated in an image being licensed for production as canvas wall art by national retailer Cost Plus World Market. As opposed to design, which is fee-based work, art licensing is all speculation. Meaning, income is only earned as a royalty on art that a manufacturer has licensed for reproduction on product that they in turn sell to retailers for resale to the public. It is a hungry, volume-based business. Licensing art is like a newly hatched sea turtle: Only a few make it across the beach to the ocean, and once there, only a few actually grow to maturity. So there is a lot of work done that never sees the light of retail. My working model was the Phoenix Creative Co. in St. Louis. They are a full-service agency that had an art licensing arm represented by the best rep in the business, Courtney Davis. Recently, the licensing group has separated to become its own entity, now called Artly. I made it a point to stay in touch with Matt off and on over the years, and when I decided to pursue full-time employment, I met with him for referrals, and quite frankly, for practice talking with agency folks. I was like a newly hatched sea turtle, swimming in an unfamiliar ocean, again.

5) What is your favorite movie genre to see in a theater, specifically?

Whatever is the summer blockbuster. My favorite movie theater experience was seeing Crush Groove in the little dive theater across from where I lived in NYC at the time, on the Upper West Side. The theater had seen better days and was a shadow of its former Art Deco self. By the time we got there, the seats were nearly all taken and so we had to sit in the front row. The audience was so active! The floor bounced as feet stomped to the music, and people were in the aisles dancing. It was truly like being in surround sound full immersion. I enjoyed the audience more than the film.

6) Brownies, cookies, cake. Rank them and explain your reasoning.

Cookies are first. Mom made enough Christmas cookies for an army, because, well, with nine kids, she had an army to feed. While she always said, “everything in moderation,” truth is that babies and cookies were the exception. I soon learned all the holiday cookie recipes, and to this day make a few at that time of year. I simply love chocolate chip cookies. Cake is second because each of us always had a birthday cake, even when there were three birthdays in August, AND my brother was born on Christmas Day. We had birthday cake and ice cream on his Christmas Day birthday. My mom took up cake decorating as a hobby, and she never skimped on icing. Brownies are last because I prefer my chocolate concentrated in bar form or as chips. All other chocolate things seem to dilute the flavor and taste bland to me in comparison.

7) Where would you spend an extended vacation?

My ideal vacation is a chance to explore and experience another’s world or culture. I’m not so much the resort/cruise and do-nothing kind of vacationer.

8) What are your top 2 pet peeves?

1) Having to come up with a single answer to what is my favorite, ideal, most of anything—because I tend to find a little something to like about nearly everything. This aversion started way back in childhood with, “What is your favorite color?” and “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I still don’t have an answer!

2) Complainers and those who don’t want to listen to my complaints.