Kelsey Elder

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I understand the world in systems and that’s why I love cars. So, a car is like a system of parts that all come together and make something that works and runs and progresses society. In a similar way, graphic design is parts that come together to communicate an idea.

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Moving to Detroit, one of the big things you see here is an emphasis on industry versus a human scale – industry standards​ versus a quality of life. It’s most noticeable through the city planning. Even through city planning, the city is set up on spoke and hub access, not sidewalks.

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Because of this emphasis, you get results of things like strip malls and endless amounts of corner-store-front signage. And I’ve always documented signage. I’ve always loved signs, every since I was a kid – the neon. I think there’s something so sincere about just needing to sell your product.

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I’ve been working on a typeface- it used to call it Vacancy, I now call it Varnish. It’s really rooted on hand-lettering I found on specifically used car sales lots and auto repair shops along Woodward Avenue in the 21 miles between Detroit and Pontiac. And so I always worry about that line between me coming in and looking at these landscapes where like I’m a trained designer, but I do think it’s the most beautiful shit out there.


Strip malls and store front signage are examples of authentic American contemporary graphic design; the way they are entirely communicative, and reacting to current cultural conditions.  But I also want my work to be able to show people that beauty of those things. Like I distinctly remember when I was in fourth grade and getting glasses for the first time and seeing neon and seeing neon letters for the first time and being able to read what they said.


I think my aim for the language is to make you literally feel the rust and smell the gasoline. I want to use the language to place you in the car, but also to be able to recurse back and critique itself. There’s a lot of sayings in lowrider culture that are very estranged and extraordinarily misogynistic – something I never realized before coming here. I’ve been specifically interested in, like the fetishization of the car and the language that occurs in the subculture. And​ also, like the false semantic-wax that a 1970’s polyester-suited salesmen puts on a used car to make it sell-able. That false glossy wax, that veneer, that varnish – it’s like the automotive equivalent of strip mall storefront signs to me.

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The vinyl specifically cut and designed to fit a space to me is important. In car culture there’s a saying, “paint’s not dead.” And by that, I think people are commenting that there’s sort of a commodification of not only lowrider culture, but car culture in general… Think about the Fast and the Furious franchise. There’s a move in the industry towards kits and highly purchasable modified parts for your car versus individualized one-off machined parts. A move towards broad accessibility. So, wrapping your car in vinyl instead of painting it is an example of the commodification, while directly referencing the ideas of veneers and varnishes… So to me, vinyl is important because it speaks to sort of like the consumability of whatever. I use specifically automotive vinyl… It’s Oracal 6510 that’s usually used on emergency vehicles, it’s highly reflective and fluorescent.

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For me, it’s sort of about the experience of driving. I’m less interested in going really fast then the aesthetic decisions and manipulations of the car. The frame of the car has work done to it to allow it to literally rest on the ground; so it’s physically as low as it can go, which is sort of the goal of lowriding.

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By taking an object of mass industry and highly decorating it and fetishizing it, it sort of becomes a subversive performer in the landscape itself. Driving and flipping switches, it’s a way of defining social space as your own. When we cruise and meet up in strip mall parking lots, it’s a way of taking ownership over the architectural remains of that industry emphasis – lowriding and GTG’s turns these spaces into a space for community. Strip mall parking lots and signage – that’s what often is visually surrounding us, in a very basic way. I can’t help but see lowriding, graphic design, and typography intrinsically linked. I think typography sort of subverts the landscape it’s in, too.

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Kelsey Elder in conversation with Clare Gatto

Documentation Harrison Moenich

Image of car supplied by Kelsey Elder