Downtown cool: the rise and rise of design studio powerhouse RoAndCo

Founder Roanne Adams talks branding, buttoning up and acid-trip sophisication.

When high-end fashion brand Honor needed invitations for the launch of its new SS15 collection – a Baroque-influenced 'good-girl-gone-bad acid trip' collision of inspirations – the luxury label turned to boutique firm and long-term collaborator, RoAndCo.

The female-dominated design studio powerhouse has been infusing its clients' brands with downtown sophistication since founder Roanne Adams opened the agency in 2006.

In the past eight years, the firm has become as famous for its career-launching work for fledging fashion stars like Abigail Lorick and Timo Weiland as for the elevated aesthetic that marks its branding for its larger, corporate clients. If there's one studio in the world that knows how to do acid-trip cool, it's RoAndCo.

The relationship between Honor and RoAndCo reaches back to when both were budding brands. As with many of the studio's clients, RoAndCo has helped craft the label's story from the very start. "Designer Giovanna Randall came to the studio with sketches of dresses and the dream to create a luxury brand that would feel as if it were an old world atelier revived for the 21st century," recalls Adams.

Working across print, online and in-store retail, the studio collaborated with Randall to transform her drawings into a high-end, fully formed brand, and in the years that have passed RoAndCo has gone on to provide Honor with every design service imaginable.

Clever collaboration

The studio's continued relationship with the fashion label represents the team doing what it does best: stop-in-your-tracks creative, through clever collaboration. Collaborative working is so entrenched in the studio's ethos that it's even part of the name.

"The 'Co' stands for 'company' and 'collaboration'," she says, adding that her most successful experiences have been collaborative. "Internally, we work together to provide insight and solutions. Externally, we bring in photographers, prop stylists, florists, set designers, musicians and anyone who can help us achieve the desired result."

Like any successful creative agency, a dedication to developing "new and exciting ideas" drives the New York-based studio's work. Where RoAndCo differs, however, is in the execution of this principle, as a mini-manifesto published on the studio's website indicates.

Point number two of 'The Five Things We Follow', stands out in particular: "Challenging and moving beyond what's already been done is just the beginning." This ethos underlines every new project the team takes on and, as Adams explains, is crucial for producing the level of work – "nothing short of extraordinary" – that RoAndCo prides itself on.

Take the studio's boundary-pushing branding for Creative Space, a Los Angeles-based brokerage firm that matches innovative businesses with unconventional spaces. Challenged to create an identity that would distinguish the client from traditional real estate brokerage, RoAndCo developed a bold visual system based on the concept of positive and negative space, using yellow, cut-out letterforms to represent vacant space that could soon be filled.

For the business cards, the studio laser-cut strategic sections from the logotype. "Our challenge was to find unconventional ways to connect to a creative audience," says Adams. "It was the type of concept that we felt would vibe with creative types, pushing them to examine the company closer and uncover its value proposition."

Typically, the team then took the concept further. "The signage we developed for spaces put up for lease was an all-encompassing wrap that criss-crosses over the facade. It's the kind of thing that would make a creative stop to take a second look," she says, "and just the type of design that disrupts the real estate market."

Masculine meets feminine

Point number four of RoAndCo's mini-manifesto is also revealing: "Old meets new. Masculine meets feminine. Capturing the balance is what brings our branding to life."

Giving 'old' ideas a fresh, contemporary twist is one of the studio's specialities, but how does this hyper-awareness of masculine and feminine energies inform its practice? "Balancing masculine and feminine is something I do in my life every day as a female creative director," explains Adams.

"I've always tried to avoid making something too feminine, seeking holistic balance even in the way I dress or act. A good example would be our work for Timo Weiland, which has a lot of emphasis on balancing masculine and feminine energies. His ethos and brand is heavily inspired by 'the dandy' – men who are able to wear clothes inspired by something feminine – and women who can rock androgyny. Sometimes that's what leads to the most intriguing look."

Timo Weiland branding. A bow tie acts as a container for the logo, while an oval – "a feminine shape", as Roanne Adams points out – houses the Timo Weiland monogram.

It's thanks to design sensibilities like these that RoAndCo has carved a name for itself – not only in New York's busy design market, but also on a global level. Clients come to the agency for a holistic service, certainly, but they're also attracted to the studio's high-end style, which they know will be catered to their own brands.

For Adams, it all makes sense. A four-year spell in Paris aged 11 first opened her eyes to the art world, and after completing school back in her native Connecticut she was accepted for early admission to the Parsons School of Design in New York.

She's spoken previously of how this was a time for experimental publication design, making friends in the fashion department and cutting her teeth through an internship at small, independent firm Honest.

Culture shock

Yet her first job out of school was at Omnicom-owned global consultancy Wolff Olins. She admits it was a culture shock. "At Wolf Ollins we focused on international clients, which created a breach in my connection to the amazing community of brands local to NYC. I'm so grateful for my time there, but it wasn't exactly my vibe," she says.

"[However] I learned how to work within the structure of a well-established firm, which provided a solid foundation for creating my own business and pushing myself to raise the bar. My standards are very high as a result."

When Adams set out alone, she wanted to create an environment that was a fusion of big and small, where she would be surrounded by people with similar aesthetics, interests and lifestyles. These days, she isn't as involved with the design process as she once was. Half her time is spent running the studio, but she's involved in every influential deliverable that goes to a client – and she's found creativity in the business side through the young, lean team of designers and problem-solvers she's built.

Having once declared RoAndCo to be the "antithesis of corporate", Adams admits that the studio is growing up. "We're still not corporate," she reflects, "but I think we've buttoned up, so to speak, and we're increasingly structured and process-orientated."

The fashion industry has evolved since the studio launched, too – and rapidly. Where RoAndCo once focused on how a brand lives online and across printed materials, e-commerce is now no longer an afterthought for clients.

"We've seen the demand shift to responsive brand and e-commerce design and digital marketing collateral, and in the past five years development in this realm has moved from fast to faster," she says, adding that the lifespan of fashion collections has sped up as well, with many of the studio's high-end clients producing upwards of five collections per year.

With an exciting roster of projects in the pipeline, RoAndCo is on a trajectory for growth. And for fans of RoAndCo's sophisticated blend of downtown cool, there's good news. After undertaking a "seemingly simple" project for AIGA/NY, Adams had an epiphany for 2015.

"We designed wrapping paper [and it] really made me realise how many more RoAndCo-designed projects I'd love to work on," she confides. "Of course, I don't want to give away too much…" For the next few months, the message is clear: watch this space.

Words: Julia Sagar
Photography: Steven Brahms

Read the full RoAndCo interview in Computer Arts issue 235, a special issue packed full of advice for making 2015 your best year ever.

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