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The Dinner Series

James Victore's week of brain exercises feeds meaningful thinking

by Karen Day in Design on 21 May 2012

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In sports they tell you that to become a better player, you have to practice against people more talented than you—demolishing your opponent each time will never lead to increased skills. This advice holds true in the creative realm as well, and one of the great graphic designers of our time, James Victore, is inviting a handful of budding designers to come play with him. Never one for convention, Victore began hosting a week-long workshop in his Williamsburg studio last October as a way of challenging up-and-comers to see design through his eyes while giving them a "set of wings" so they can continue to grow.

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Victore calls the immersive experience "The Dinner Series", partly because each day ends by sharing a chef-prepared meal with a special guest like Stefan Sagmeister, Gary Hustwit or George Lois, and partly because Victore and his small team will stuff you full of valuable design fodder. Curious about the intimate training session, we recently spent a day observing—and learning from—Victore, who graciously allowed us into his studio on the fourth day for a hands-on review.

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Over a healthy breakfast Victore and his group of five discussed the previous day's events, which included lunch in Manhattan with Esquire's design director David Curcurito and dinner with illustrator Jessica Hische. Victore doesn't hold back on introductions, and in addition to the dinner guests, throughout the week the group also received surprise visits from pioneering designer Josh Davis and the duo behind the industrious start-up Grady's Cold Brew. Victore surrounds the group with people who will enlighten, adding to the series' seemingly twofold programming: discussion and application.

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His provocative style extends from his own work to how he encourages others. Although a professor for many years at NYC's School of Visual Arts, Victore doesn't claim to take an academic approach. "All I know how to do is spur thinking on," he says. "I don't teach design because I don't know how to." Referring to his role as a content generator over a graphic designer, Victore focuses more on the statement made than the aesthetics behind it. The exercises he challenges the group with revolve around this ideology, each tasking them to expand their thinking. "We want to stretch your brain and hope it doesn't return to its original shape," he explains.

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For example, after a sage talk from Victore's sole graphic design assistant Chris Thompson—who advises participants to not "rush to a solution", and to play around with the idea like in improv acting because "if you're not moved by your work no one else is going to be"—Victore asked the group to tell a story in three pictures. This is what he calls "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow", an assignment that draws from filmmaking, where the same story is told in different ways by mixing it up and making the audience see something new.

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One of the clear advantages of learning in Victore's studio is his ability to be spontaneous. Before the students could finish their "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow" projects he remembered Saul Steinberg's "Country Noises", a set of visual representations he made for The New Yorker in 1979. In minutes Victore has found the archive and passed around photocopies for everyone to consider. At another point in the afternoon he put on a Jack White song that exemplifies "barbed" writing—a Robert Frost term Victore stands by—later he pulls down a book by revered poster artist Henryk Tomaszewski to demonstrate a point. He pulls you into his world while encouraging you to be yourself.

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Some people will take $6,000—the cost of attending the week-long salon—and go on a holiday to forget about client work, deadlines and demanding bosses. A handful of young designers have instead opted for learning from Victore, and they all tell us it is worth every penny. "He creates an atmosphere that is true," explains one student, adding, "it's coming through his heart".

The next Dinner Series takes place 16-20 July 2012, and there are still open seats. Those with more limited time can also sign up to attend "Take This Job Love It", a one-day event held in NYC this September that will focus on bucking the status quo, a favorite pastime for the rebellious designer. Information on these events and more can be found at the James Victore website, where you can also pick up a copy of his book "Victore or, Who Died and Made You Boss".

Images by Karen Day.See more photos from The Dinner Series in the slideshow below.

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