Designer Nate Duval: Beyond the Merch Table

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Designer Nate Duval: Beyond the Merch Table

Nate Duval had been designing concert posters for a few years when he got a particularly high-profile commission: the opening date on Phish’s first tour since the Vermont band had ended a five-year hiatus. As an added bonus for Duval, a Massachusetts native, Phish was kicking things off at Fenway Park in Boston.

“Growing up in Massachusetts as a lifelong Red Sox fan, it was almost surreal to have that be my first Phish poster,” says Duval, whose poster depicts a Boston terrier framed by a baseball diamond and wearing a Red Sox jersey, with the band name arcing overhead in a version of the team’s typeface.

It’s one of an estimated 400 concert posters that Duval, 33, has created over the past decade for acts including Wilco, the Black Keys, Spoon, Alabama Shakes and many more. He has also designed band T-shirts, album art and beer labels for breweries, and done illustrations for book jackets, the apparel company Patagonia, Whole Foods and Sweet’n Low.

“All these rock posters, they started off as an artistic release from my day job after college and they eventually turned into giant business cards that allow me to keep doing what I want to do for a living,” Duval says.

There were actually two day jobs after Duval graduated in 2004 from Syracuse University, where he studied advertising design. He moved back to western Massachusetts, where he grew up, and went to work as the in-house designer for Blue Q, purveyor of what Duval calls “artfully designed gift products,” in Pittsfield. Much of his role there involved working on the back end of the business, photographing products and creating sell sheets for them. The year he spent with the company was instructive.

“I learned that making and selling things was a possibility for a living,” says Duval, who left and took a part-time job to get by while he pursued his own work. He started making posters and fliers for the Northampton, Mass., concert promoter Iron Horse Entertainment Group. He also began designing posters for bands in the area, which at the time included the alt-rock group Apollo Sunshine and, a little farther afield, Boston jazz-fusion trio the Slip.

Eventually, he did a poster for a Decemberists show in Northampton, which led to more work through the band’s management company, and then for other acts—enough that Duval was able to quit the part-time gig.

He’s stayed plenty busy since, estimating that he averages 50 posters a year, along with other projects, while running a business that has reduced the amount of time he gets to spend on actually creating art to just a day or two a week. “I’m a one-man show, so if you order something from my website, I’m the one who packages and ships it to you,” Duval says.

His full dance card stems from two main factors, he says. For starters, he works fast, finishing most of the posters he designs in a single day, which he says his clients appreciate. Also, rather than honing one distinctive look for his posters, he works in several different styles. “I thought that would open more doors,” Duval says. “If people don’t like your look, then they’re not going to hire you.”

In addition to the old-timey baseball look of his Fenway Phish poster, Duval has dabbled in geometric patterns, psychedelic swirls of color, surreal illustrations like a cactus in Western duds playing guitar (for the Arcs) and strong, simple images that include a vintage-style microphone seen close up against the background of distant seats rising toward the ceiling in a packed theater (for the Punch Brothers).

“Nate is a very perceptive music fan, and he has a very good understanding of how an image relates and sort of captures a feeling that music evokes,” says Benjamin Levin of Tony Margherita Management, which represents Wilco. “He’s very good at representing a feeling of the music you hear.”

Duval first designed T-shirts for Wilco, and has since done some 20 posters for the band over the past six or seven years, usually building on a concept provided by Levin, Margherita and Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy. Both sides say their collaboration is fruitful, with Levin calling it “a well-oiled machine.”

“The relationship I’ve developed with Wilco is really special, because I was into them from way back,” Duval says. Liking a band’s music is a factor he weighs when deciding whether to take on a project. “If I just have no connection with the music at all, I’ll pass,” he says. “I’m busy all year and trying to force something to work, it just doesn’t make sense.”

As Duval’s catalog of posters has grown, his work often makes its way to music fans with jobs in other, unrelated fields. Sometimes those people are looking to hire an illustrator. “You never know who’s buying these things,” Duval says. “They inevitably open doors I could never open on my own.”

That’s how he ended up designing a series of labels for Southern Tier beer when the craft brewery near Buffalo, N.Y., introduced a line of four Belgian-style beers starting in 2013. Co-founder Phineas DeMink had bought several of Duval’s posters without realizing they were by one artist until he noticed they had the same signature, says Nathan Arnone, brand manager for Southern Tier.

“We dig live music, we have huge speakers in the brewhouse, people listen to music all day, so for us to find Nate and have him be available to work with us—and do a series, too, not just a one-off—that was just a cool tie-in,” Arnone says.

Even as Duval takes on non-music projects, he doesn’t lack for poster commissions as more bands have begun to consider them essential merchandise items. “It took a while for larger bands to catch on, and these days, they’ll make a poster for every show they play,” he says. “It’s become almost as normal as having a T-shirt in the merch booth.”

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