Style Meets Substance: A Visit with John Kneapler
Sitting down to lunch with John Kneapler, one of New York City’s top graphic designers, one thing is clear. He’s nice. Not who-do-you-know-who-will get-me-ahead nice or brooding artist nice, but genuinely nice. And after almost thirty years in the business, that’s not easy.
Working out of an unassuming loft space on 19th Street in the heart of Chelsea, Kneapler and his team of two associates create the visual identity for some of the nation’s most prestigious companies and nonprofit organizations.
As an extension of his creative vision, Kneapler’s paintings are also gaining acclaim. Gay power couple and mega-philanthropists David Bohnett and Tom Gregory discovered Kneapler’s large format works in the Hamptons and chose his "Approaching Series" as the inaugural installation for their recently opened Gregory Way Gallery in Beverly Hills.
Kneapler’s successes seem to ebb and flow as seamlessly as his abstract brushstrokes - and are equally as colorful. A longtime member of Out Professionals and a New York City resident since the Ed Koch days, he has seen the city’s gay community
transform and reinvent itself countless times.
And through it all, he’s had a smile on his face.
From Potatoes to Pantones
Kneapler grew up in Florida, and like many gay youths struggling to find their identity, considered himself "very creative and artsy." As a child with seemingly boundless energy, he competed in gymnastics, but his unique visual perspective was slowly emerging and a trip to New York City sealed the deal.
It was there, among the billboards, storefronts and quirky characters of the early 80’s, that he realized he could simultaneously create art and make money. So after a brief stint at Florida State University to appease his parents, he applied for a scholarship at Pratt Institute, got it, and off to New York he went.
Kneapler capitalized on some connections from his Dutch roommate and designed the logo for a Holland-based potato seed company. Before he knew it, the 22-year-old was crossing the Atlantic to set up shop and travel throughout Europe, implementing the branding and marketing for the company.
He loved Europe and the modern attitudes toward homosexuality and creative expression. "I was introduced to a new friend shortly after I arrived in Amsterdam," he shares, "I told her I was gay and she said, ’That’s fabulous! We’ll have a big party.’ People were very accepting and cool. Artists were respected. The whole country is behind creative ventures - they love creativity and it was rewarding. That’s what David and Tom remind me of - they’re very supportive of the arts."
Kneapler returned to the States a few months later and worked briefly for Clairol. "I didn’t like the corporate environment," he shares, "20 million people and just as many opinions." So he started a small design firm out of his apartment. The fine arts would be pushed to the back burner for many years. His parents thought he lived a sheltered life and discouraged his expression through painting. Kneapler says their opinion was, "You want to paint? Paint the bathroom."
An Edgy Sensibility
In the meantime, John Kneapler Design has since become one of the most in demand design studios in the city. Past clients include MoMA, Citarella, the James Beard Foundation, and the Food Bank For New York City. The list goes on and on. He jokes, "We’re not angry designers. We’re very approachable and care about the design, generating work that is clean and sensible, but with an edge."
Kneapler has always seen the gay community as an integral part of his business model. He has been a member of Out Professionals virtually since its inception, served as President of the organization for five years and is still an active member.
"It was very instrumental in the beginning of my career," Kneapler shares, "We couldn’t even call it ’Out’ back then - it was the New York Advertising and Communications Network. It was during a crisis time, during AIDS, and you couldn’t be out, but the mentality has changed."
Today, Out Professionals has more than 1,000 members, 6,500 email subscribers, and offers monthly networking and professional development events as well as a free online job bank and member discounts for services and cultural happenings.
Bright Strokes, Big City
In spite of his design studio’s success, there was an integral part of Kneapler’s creativity that was not satisfied. That changed in less than a year. "I didn’t paint for twenty years," Kneapler confides, "but then my parents passed away within three months of one another and I started painting frantically and I haven’t stopped. Nobody could tell me what I could or couldn’t do anymore."
For years, Kneapler has painted at the Art Students League of New York. Founded in 1875 by artists and for artists, it provides a nurturing environment for creative exploration, although Kneapler admits to a strong visual identity that has been with him since childhood.
"I’ve always had the same color palette, a powerful brushstroke, and an energetic, strong hand. Color combinations that are not in the norm, but always work for me. They juxtapose one another. It’s my own unique interpretation. Wild colors. Emotional colors. My paintings are open and free and happy. I am not a dark, depressive painter, which is why I think my work seems to be more successful outside of New York City."
If the Gregory Way Gallery show is any indication, the "Approaching Series" may have new incarnations: several painting sold on opening night.
House of Style
Kneapler’s strong aesthetic can be seen in all aspects of his life. His home is filled with contemporary accents and warm textures, featuring Biedermeier woods juxtaposed with modern glass, lots of books and color accents. He is a fan of Thad Hayes’s interior design and the architecture firm B 5 Studio.
On the radio he’s tuning into Adele, an interesting choice considering that the vocalist considers her style as "heartbroken soul." Perhaps lunch with John Kneapler might lighten her mood.
To see more of John Kneapler’s design work, visit:
To see more of John Kneapler’s paintings, visit:
"The Approaching Series" is on display at Gregory Way Gallery through March 12, 2011.