Bill McMullen: Pop Designer and Illustrator

When you walk into Bill McMullen’s renovated SoHo loft, you notice the abundant light, the sleek layout, and the Star Wars paraphernalia. You worry that you’ve stumbled into the den of a rabid Star Wars fan until you notice that everything is slightly askew. The stormtrooper helmet has a black samurai wig with blood trickling down the mouthpiece — the result is sci-fi meets kabuki — and the black canvas on the wall says “Font Wars,” not Star Wars. McMullen is a graphic designer. He doesn’t collect these items; he makes them.

Although he frets that he doesn’t have an “identifiable stamp” (“I’m on the fringe sometimes, so it’s nice when people notice my work”), you’ll find that his work is pervasive. He’s designed T-shirts, posters, album covers, and a ring. He’s even designed toys for Kidrobot, which has a store right around the corner from his loft. Though most of his diverse projects are connected by his love of music, his true lodestar is his “mix-tape philosophy.”

I noticed a lot of a.m. e-mails when setting up the interview. A bedraggled McMullen admitted that he worked at night, but he kindly sat down with me in the afternoon to explain the ideas fueling his work — past, present, and future. McMullen did five album covers last year, notably the Bad Brains Build a Nation CD, which was one of ALARM’s top-ten records of 2007.

“In the case of Bad Brains, that was actually produced by Adam Yauch from the Beastie Boys,” McMullen explained. “He contacted me to see if I’d be interested in doing it, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I’m a fan of the band, though not as big a fan as he is. He’s an enormous fan of them…We went with a very classic look where we resurrected a logo that they’ve always had, but it’s almost been delegated to a label logo on their records, which is a lion crushing a building, most likely the lion of Zion. I think it gave Adam an opportunity to put a look onto the band that he associated with the band, rather than some of their most recent covers.”

McMullen has done a lot of work for the Beastie Boys, whom he knows from his time at the Drawing Board, Def Jam’s art department. The Beastie Boys were at Capitol, but McMullen said that Drawing Board, set up by Cey Adams and partner Steven Carr, could take on outside projects.

From Hello Nasty onward, McMullen has built a steady work relationship with the band. “We’re working on Adam Yauch’s new film, a documentary about high-school basketball players called Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot. We did the poster work and now we’re going to start on the next phase — probably DVD art. It just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.”

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