Dive on into a fantastically cute world with illustrator and designer Michelle Romo. Her brand, Crowded Teeth, has been featured on a variety of products for kids and adults alike from companies such as The Land of Nod and Japan LA, as well as in gallery shows and both group and solo exhibitions over the years. Get inspired with Michelle's work and experiences below!
Hey Michelle! Thanks so much for the interview. Let's start at the top: how did you get into art?
I’ve been into making art since I was a little baby! It has always been a big part of my life. My mom is a painter, and my dad is a builder, so someone around me was always making something.
I remember when I was 10 l would set up drawings and hand sewn items on the kitchen table and sell them to my parents when they got home from work. I got into drawing using a computer when I was 16. My mom was a graphic designer and brought home a fancy computer so that she could work from home. I started playing around in Photoshop and Illustrator and eventually got better at it.
What inspires you and your work?
A lot of my inspiration is from books and knickknacks that were around when I was growing up. On my Dad’s side of the family my grandparents had a kitschy vibe, and on my Mom’s side of the family my grandparents were sending me toys and snacks from Japan. I think I melted those two influences into my style, as well as just being influenced by friends and the universe.
Storytelling and humor also sneak into my pieces because of the nerdy things I like. I’m a Simpsons fan, and I love old video games.
Mary Blair is a huge influence. I've loved It’s A Small World since I was 4. I saw her art in storybooks and didn't realize who she was until I was older. She’s amazing. The Flaming Lips inspired me a few years ago just to spread a general message of love.
I’m lucky enough to work for The Land of Nod these days, and everyone I work with is inspiring and lovely.
Are you formally trained? If so, tell me about it! If not, how did you work up your portfolio for professional work?
I am not formally trained! I started learning by playing in Illustrator and asking my mom a lot of questions. Early on I gave myself projects, and I just went for it and started my own business. At the time I had no business starting a business—my artwork wasn't very good—but I wanted to be the next Paul Frank / Sanrio and was trying to figure out how to do that.
I had day jobs that made me better at the programs I wanted to learn. I did “graphic design” for a small copy shop, which was really just doing business cards and fliers for local businesses. I retouched headshots, I worked in a small print shop, and I eventually got a design job doing product development for juniors accessories and apparel.
Mostly I just drew the things I wanted to draw in my free time until eventually I got better and settled into a style that I felt was representative of what I wanted to put out in the world.
is your creative process like?
Usually it starts with an indecipherable sketch that only I can understand, and then a loose sketch in Illustrator to find out how the pieces should fit together. After that it’s just hours of refinement in Illustrator and Photoshop. I usually am working on a bunch of different things at once—some for freelance, some personal.
What programs or media do you prefer?
I work about 99% in Illustrator and some work in Photoshop. I also make things out of paper and wood which is either hand cut, or laser cut.
how long have you worked professionally?
Man -- TECHNICALLY? 15 years. About 8-10 less embarrassing years. 5-7 really great years that I’m proud of.
What is your typical workday like?
Before a few months ago it was much more loose. I was freelancing full time so I was setting my own schedule. Recently I took a position with The Land of Nod as their in-house illustrator. So now my day starts with them! I just wrapped up an activity book that will be given out at their stores, and also worked on their tour bus redesign. I also do some product development. So my time there is a mix of super fun projects.
Then when I get home I work on Crowded Teeth which has been on a little bit of a hiatus. Lately it’s a mix of answering emails, figuring out contracts, and making new artwork.
Right now I’m doing a push for a line of board books, thinking about my new collaboration with JapanLA Clothing, and working on a redesign for my webstore. There’s also just remembering what art shows I signed on to do, what freelance is coming up, and taking naps. I take a lot of naps.
What's your workspace like?
Mostly I just sit at my desk. It’s not very exciting. I like to put on awful TV or romcoms in the background when I work. The romcoms have to be organic—on TV, no Netflix. There have to be rules or I would just watch awful things all the time, haha. Somehow it helps with the work flow. I don’t have an explanation for this!
discuss your brand, Crowded Teeth, as an ongoing art project. What started it?
Crowded Teeth started out as “Yellow Toothpick”. When I was 18 I loved Paul Frank and Sanrio, and there was also a brand Yum Pop that I really admired. I saw what they were doing and was like, “HOW DO I DO THAT?”
I wanted to start by making t-shirts so I bought a heat transfer press, then upgraded to a 6 color screen printing machine.
I did that for about 4 years and also made handmade goodies. In 2004 my illustration style changed a little bit. I was having outside printers do my tees and started getting into doing trade shows. That’s when I decided to change to Crowded Teeth. It started as tees, and other screen printed items. I wanted to expand the product line and started having knit goods and metal jewelry made in China.
In 2006-2007 production and distribution became too much for me to handle on my own and I was in a weird place where I wasn't sure how I wanted to grow. I didn't like doing all of the business things (shipping, invoicing, customer service, etc.) but I wasn't making enough to hire anyone to help (or I didn't know how to properly ask for help?). In 2008 I decided to make the change to licensing. I figured I could do the artwork, and have people who knew what they were doing and specialized in production to make the products I wanted to make. I thought that since the art making part was what I was best at and what I wanted to do most, this would be a good direction to take.
Right now I'm settling into a place where I am producing my own goods again in small quantities, and also finding awesome partners to license my artwork to.
What are your plans for this year with your personal artwork?
My plans for this year are to go back to creating artwork. I did a big business push last year and focused on licensing. I really miss just making art for no reason. I just want to make things I like without an agenda. I think it will allow me to grow, and to make things that are a little more weird.
a merchandise/lifestyle brand, what’s your experience been licensing your work
to companies like The Land of Nod and Japan LA? How’d you get into licensing work
and where do you hope for it to go?
Licensing has been great! I wanted to do a big growth spurt with licensing last year but it didn't turn out exactly how I wanted. I feel like I am still learning about my brand and how it fits into the world.
I’m very fortunate to have really wonderful partners that make beautiful products. JapanLA, The Land of Nod, and Loungefly are all really great partners to have. I license my artwork to and have worked for all of those companies and they have been great partners and employers.
How do you manage your online shop?
Right now a third party manages and fulfills my merchandise. Before that I would buy product from my licensees and do fulfillment myself. Before that I produced myself.
I've always had my own web store! I thought of it like a project. I wanted to know the ins and outs of everything I wanted to do: how you set it up, how credit card processing works, what the shipping options were, etc. It was important for me to learn how to set up everything myself.
I've been so impressed by your gallery pieces and various event pieces you've created. Let’s start with gallery pieces: What are some of the shows you've been involved with? What media have you presented work in?
Thank you! I’ve consistently been in group shows at Wonderground Gallery, JapanLA, Leanna Lin’s Wonderland, Flower Pepper Gallery, Q Pop, and Spoke Art. I’m always happy to accept invitations to shows. Making originals is always a super fun process. I usually start by drawing the piece in Illustrator and then breaking it down and building it out of wood or paper.
I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple big solo shows. One at JapanLA and one at the Womb Gallery. The Womb Gallery show was the biggest space I’ve ever had to fill so I had an opportunity to make really big pieces which was fun. I built these 4-5ft pieces out of wood, I did some stained glass stuff and had a rug made. I also had an extra room that I filled with these giant printed cutouts so that people could explore a little Crowded Teeth city.
What other sort of events have you done?
I did the Licensing Expo last year. I went all out for it! I had that sculpture made, and I painted it by hand. The display is mostly product that has been produced by my licensing partners. It was to show off what I had produced in the past and try to find new partners. I really love doing display design. I want to spend more time building big installations.
You've worked in a variety of media (acrylic, glad, paper, wood) in addition to traditional and digital pieces. What media do you find most rewarding to exhibit and is there anything you haven't yet worked in you’d like to?
I really want to make a neon sign! That might be my next project.
Everything starts digitally, but I really love building things out of wood. I’ve always loved the look of wooden toys and so when I get to build things that way it strikes a certain nostalgia nerve for me.
Let’s talk about Cute Friends! What is Cute Friends? What are your plans for it?
Friends was an idea for a single-panel weekly comic. I wanted to try to
do a little more character development and storytelling. I started to develop
the characters' personalities but never got into making the comics. It’s sorta
on hold right now. I wanted to focus more on making originals and art pieces so
right now it’s just a side project waiting to happen!
words of advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Keep at it FOREVER! But remember to stop and enjoy nachos and romcoms and hugs from your friends. I think that it’s important to give yourself projects of the things you want to do—don't wait for people to give you projects. And if you really want to make anything it’s easier than you think; if you have questions someone can help you. Ask for help, be kind to fellow artists and humans, and enjoy the things you make.
Many thanks to Michelle for sharing her work and experiences with us today. You can check out more of her work and follow her around the web in the links below!