Designers’ Inspiring Collections

When you visit a yard sale, what’s the one thing you look for among the discarded junk? What special item can you count on receiving from your best friend each holiday? What artifact do family members bring you from their travels near and far? In other words, what do you collect? Odds are, you collect something. In a poll of Forum members, 83% of designers said they collect at least one thing (usually more), from toys to thimbles to teapots. Designers seem to be predisposed to collecting objects, likely because of their keen eye for details and deep appreciation of aesthetics. Collecting keeps creatives engaged, sharp and inspired by their daily contact with this treasure trove they’ve curated piece by piece and grown to love. The sum is always greater than its parts. Below, feast your eyes on the prized possessions of five fellow designers and learn how their private collections fuel their creativity. Hopefully, you’ll be inspired to go out and find that next addition to your own cherished collection.

John Sayles Collects Vintage Enamel Kitchenware

John Sayles, Sayles Graphic Design, Des Moines, IA;

What do you collect?
Anything that’s not tied down, as long as it’s well-designed.

How/why did you start your collection?
I saw one enamel bowl and bought it because it was well priced and I liked it. Then I realized they made different patterns, colors and designs, so my interest grew exponentially.

When did you start your collection?
I guess I started seriously collecting when we began our studio. From the beginning, my partner, Sheree Clark, and I have done a lot of traveling to see clients or to speak to groups, and we make it a point to plan the trip around our collecting mania. We might go in a day early, or ask our hosts to give us a list of antique stores and thrift stores on the way in from the airport.

How large is your collection?
Huge! In some cases I have five or six of the exact same thing. If I find it later—in better condition or at a lower price—I buy it. I view it as a sort of “dollar cost averaging.” And anyway, the collection really is everything in my environment. There are things in our studio I loved and bought and then didn’t have room for at home, so I brought it in to display and enjoy at work.

What’s your favorite piece/the crown jewel of your collection and why?
The one I am going to find next week is always my favorite!

How does your collection, or the act of collecting, influence your work?
I think it helps keep my eye sharp and detail-oriented. When I walk into a junk store, I can spot a good piece amidst the junk. Most times, I even know who the designer is.

Do you collect anything else, and if so, what?
Oh boy, where do I start? My house is done entirely in Danish Modern. I collect Knoll furniture, Blenko glass, vintage clothes, Western shirts and boots, dinnerware, small glass items, pottery and flatwear. My patio furniture is even vintage. When you walk into my house, you either get it or you don’t. But even if you don’t, you remember it!


Kevin Rej Collects Vintage Metal Lunchboxes


Kevin Rej, Raise Studio, Decatur, GA;

What do you collect?
Vintage metal lunchboxes from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

How/why did you start your collection?
My obsession with metal lunchboxes began innocently enough. In the early eighties, I would peruse yard sales and thrift stores, looking to reclaim lost treasures from my childhood. In exchange for a few dollars, I’d return home with a boxful of KISS albums, lunchboxes and scary clown paintings. Within a few months, my kitchen was filled with lunchboxes, and I was hooked.

When did you start your collection?

How large is your collection?
Currently, my collection is comprised of 208 lunchboxes and occupies an entire wall in my office at Raise Studio. It includes both the first and last metal lunchboxes ever produced: Hopalong Cassidy (1950) and Rambo (1985).

The demise of the metal lunchbox began in 1971 when a concerned group of parents decided they could actually be used as weapons in schoolyard brawls. With petitions signed, the parents marched to the Florida State Legislature and demanded “safety legislation” be passed. It was soon enacted, and other states followed suit by banning metal lunchboxes from public schools.

Today, lunchbox collecting is a serious business. Many vintage lunchboxes sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In December of 2003, a mint Superman lunchbox (manufactured in 1954) sold at auction for $13,000.

What’s your favorite piece/the crown jewel of your collection and why?
“The World of Dr. Seuss” lunchbox, in mint condition, produced in 1970. Theodor Geisel himself created the artwork on this box. It is masterpiece indeed.

How does your collection, or the act of collecting, influence your work?
For me, my collection represents the golden age of branding and consumer product marketing. In addition to collecting dust, my “Mountain of Metal” serves as my visual archive of exceptional brand development.

Lunchboxes exemplify my earliest interaction with consumer products. For example, KISS, Dr. Seuss, Disney and Evel Knievel were all brands that monumentally influenced my childhood. In the mid-seventies, the rock band KISS was a formidable, fire-breathing marketing blitzkrieg unlike any other. In my early teens, I came to the realization that KISS embodied the perfect marriage of marketing, graphic design and advertising hype. This, without question, influenced my decision to pursue a career in communications design.

These lunchboxes remind me to remain cognizant of the profound relationship that consumers, especially young consumers, can have with their favorite brands. Three decades have passed, but I still derive inspiration from the intoxication that I felt in 1977, enamored with the latest “Star Wars” toy packaging or KISS album cover.

Do you collect anything else, and if so, what?
Pez—over the past two decades, I’ve collected more than 300 Pez dispensers, manufactured in such exotic locations such as Slovenia, Austria and Vermont.

Cats—I’ve got five. Before we were married, I had two cats and my fiance owned three. So needless to say, after our wedding we lamentably joined the ranks of those “crazy cat people” that you see in the news.

Guitars—much like cats, whenever I find a dirty, homeless guitar, I have to adopt it. I’ve got nearly a dozen guitars, and I can play all them with the proficiency of a preschooler.

Brian Sooy Collects Vintage Typewriter Tins

Brian Sooy, Brian Sooy & Co., Elyria, OH;

What do you collect?
My curious obsession is vintage typewriter ribbon tins. The tins are miniature works of typographic and iconic art. Some are round, some are square. Some are cardboard, but those don’t qualify as tins.

How/why did you start your collection?
I’ve been collecting Mid 20th Century office desk items: I have a streamline-style Swingline stapler, a streamline-style scale and a few other things. At some point, I was given a tin by someone who knew that I collected these things, and my interest has grown from there. As I started researching the tins, I became interested in the typography, the iconography and the colors. The designs are of a wide variety and quality, with some excellent Art Deco type and design elements. The tins certainly reflect the design vernacular of their time, growing more simple and graphic, and less ornate and decorative, over time.

When did you start your collection?
About two years ago. My most serendipitous find was a tin that contained about 75 quill pen nibs—with my handlettering and type-design background, one can never have too many nibs. That’s the tin that started my active searching and buying of the tins. It’s an inexpensive way to collect something of typographic and artistic interest. I found that particular tin at a vintage bicycle and motorcycle show in the little town of Bucyrus, OH. These shows have swap meets with every type of junk one can imagine, but occasionally something nice shows up.

How large is your collection?
My collection includes about 115 tins (which include some paper boxes), but there are about 90 unique tins. I display the best tins on a 3-by-4-foot cobalt blue porcelain tabletop that I rescued from the trash in our neighborhood. The tins stick with the aid of magnets (it’s a nice addition to my office). The rest most likely will find a home on some galvanized steel for display. Some of the tins have ribbons in them still, wrapped in cellophane. When they’re displayed in a large group, the mass of them becomes an interesting tapestry of color and finishes.

What’s your favorite piece/the crown jewel of your collection and why?
My personal favorite is the Herald Square tin. It’s energetic, it’s vibrant, it’s very well-designed. It’s almost majestic and triumphant in its design, proclaiming “I contain a typewriter ribbon!” If you look closely, the color or brand typewriter is stamped on the top.

How does your collection, or the act of collecting, influence your work?
I see a theme in my collecting: typography, calligraphy, industrial design objects, fine art. My work at Brian Sooy & Co. is very type- and icon-oriented in many respects. The identity work I do, type designs commissions, the design communications work that I do are all influenced by the things I collect. The miniature works of typographic art, color combinations, design elements and succinct icons on the tins become part of the visual reference that I’m always looking at. Type designers tend to look at minutiae (the tins are full of details), and as a graphic designer I tend to favor the minimalist and simplistic. Distilling a design to the space of a tin reflects economy of means, a design principle I learned about from reading Paul Rand’s writings.

I wish I had some significant insight about the influence of the tins, or any of my collecting, on my work. I see design themes, I see design elements that are used by different manufacturers (in particular, a gazelle and a hunter are common themes). I see theme and variation (early branding through design) throughout a line by a single manufacturer. There are several World War II-inspired motifs and brands (Allied Glagship and Battleship). The dragon, a common motif in Chinese culture, covers a silk ribbon tin. There are conceptual and thematic aspects that are fun to explore, and I use what I learn in my design work.

My type design work for Altered Ego Fonts ( also benefits! I never grow tired of looking at type and lettering. There are letterforms I find on the tins that suggest or inspire new letterforms and design in my work.

The eclectic nature of my collecting, and the act of collecting, are influenced by my personal interests, which I think is genetic in my family. My father inspires my broad and eclectic interest in collecting—and pulling things out of the trash! I’m fascinated by the merging of technology and design during the period when the tins were made, when the Wassily was designed, how the streamline style was applied to objects like a hand stapler. The tins also have a variety of finishes that can be inspirational for executing on paper with ink and foils. The color of my Rainbow ribbon tin matches a Pantone metallic swatch. Perhaps I’m not the only one who has been inspired by these.

All in all, I can’t point to specific influences, but over the body of my work, the interests in collecting influence perhaps more how I think about a project or solution than specific elements within the solution.

Do you collect anything else, and if so, what?
Fountain pens are my new obsession. There is a robust group of collectors and sellers, and pen collector shows areheld annually all across the U.S. It seems like designers and lettering artists celebrate the arcane: tins, pens, paper clips. My latest addition to that collection is a Bexley Blue Ice Scheherazade, a limited-run pen (about 12 made) with an expressive 2 MM nib (slightly broad-edged). I correspond with Tim Botts, a calligrapher and designer from Chicago, and we enjoy handwriting our correspondence as opposed to e-mail. He inspires me with his handlettered envelopes and handwriting, and I reciprocate with my impatient hand.

Other collections:
Electric fans: the fans that were created before safety laws made the cages with small openings too small to stick your finger or arm through, with sinuous curves to the lines of the cage and power cords covered with cloth. (I have several of these, banished to the garage due to lack of room.)

Original Art, with an emphasis on two areas: calligraphic and Christian-themed fine art ( The centerpieces of my wife and my collection include a limited-edition silkscreen broadside by Hermann Zapf, an original Marcus Uzilevsky (, and several pieces by Sandra Bowden (


Clifford Stoltze Collects Record Albums

Clifford Stoltze, Stoltze Design, Boston;

What do you collect?
Album covers and other types of music packaging.

How/why did you start your collection?
Initially, I started buying albums because I wanted to own the music. I still buy lots of music, but I’ll only buy vinyl if I like the artwork; otherwise I buy CDss or download from eMusic.

When did you start your collection?
When I was about 11.

How large is your collection?
Over 1300 LPs and even more CDs, although not all of them are noteworthy for their cover designs.

What’s your favorite piece/the crown jewel of your collection and why?
It’s really hard to say which one is the crown jewel, but here are a few of my favorites:

1. Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (original import version)
A graphic design masterpiece by the late great Barney Bubbles (aka Colin Fulcher, 1942–83), a design genius whose album art from the late 1970s and early 80s was highly influential, although he wasn’t particularly well-known since he rarely signed his work.

2. Lonely is an Eyesore, 4ad records compilation (limited edition version)
An early extravaganza from the prolific modern master Vaughan Oliver.

3. The first 7 Roxy Music LPs Box Set
Brian Ferry’s intelligent, provocative and stylish band brandings make for great individual sleeves, but are really amazing as a series.

4. Duet Emmo, Or So It Seems
One of the few covers ever designed by the legendary animators The Brothers Quay, whose aesthetic and typographic title treatments were influential on a host of designers, including Vaughan Oliver.

5. Section 25, Always Now
An early example of Peter Saville’s work for Factory Records. The cover takes its cue from a Berthold type specimen page, but it also is a prime example of the stylish historicism that made Saville’s post-punk covers stand out in a sea of new-wave noise.

How does your collection, or the act of collecting, influence your work?
My love of album art was the reason I decided to study graphic design in the first place. Now my collection is inspiration not only for my music packaging projects, but for all sorts of print/interactive work. For instance, an annual report for a financial holding company was designed to resemble a Blue Note jazz cover.

Do you collect anything else, and if so, what?
Local contemporary art and Mid-Century furniture.




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