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Behind the Scenes | The Look Maker

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You might not know Chris Bilheimer's name, but you’ve probably held his work in your hands. The designer has been R.E.M.'s art director since 1994, and he's been the creative force behind all of Green Day's releases since 1997's Nimrod. The albums he's designed have garnered combined sales of more than 30 million copies and have received three Grammy nominations for packaging.

How did the road to rock stars start? In 1989, Bilheimer was a 23-year-old student pursuing an art and painting degree at the University of Georgia. In the small town of Athens, it was no big deal to run into Michael Stipe at a bar called the Globe or at the 40 Watt Club, a popular music venue. He eventually met Stipe through a mutual friend at the end of R.E.M.’s Green tour, and after a life-changing road trip (see opposite page) he was hired by the band full-time. So while his friends were washing dishes in restaurant kitchens or pulling pints of ale to make ends meet, Biheimer was hanging with one of the hottest bands on the planet. When it comes to college jobs, he hit the lottery.

His fortuitous friendship and talent led to a 20-year staff position that was a springboard for an impressive career. Since then he’s worked for dozens of bands, including Nirvana, Weezer, Beck, and Smashing Pumpkins, and has designed for comedians David Cross, Sarah Silverman, and more, as well as for film and television posters and campaigns.

To create the merchandise, Web design, and packaging that surround a new album, Bilheimer spent years flying back and forth to Los Angeles to camp out in the art department of Warner Brothers, and work with other major labels, among them Dreamworks, Capital, Geffen, and Interscope, creating the array of items like billboards, canvas banners, stand-up cardboard CD holders, and window clings (as well as other crazy stuff like View-Master cartridges and random inflatables) that would announce a new album. The industry has changed a lot since the intimacy and immediacy of those days. “Now it’s pretty common for me to design an album for a band I’ve never met,” he says. He admits he misses some of the ephemera, and the crescendo of a project, but that nostalgia is tempered by a lack of waste. “It's a bummer to see so much paper and plastic end up in the garbage,” he says.

Bilheimer and his wife, Hillary, moved to Austin three years ago. She was determined to learn the art of creating handmade shoes. Through six degrees of an album cover that Bilheimer designed, they met Joshua Bingaman, the owner of Helm Boots. That led to Hillary becoming Helm’s brand manager and Bilheimer’s latest project of rebranding the boot company. “The boots that Helm has designed for the future are evolving the American heritage aesthetic into newer territory, and I wanted a design that would match that,” he says. “It should feel new and modern but with a classic foundation.”

Ultimately the artist sees himself as a problem solver. “Every job is a collaboration,” he says. “I’m a conduit for other people’s visions.” Chris and Hillary love Austin because it feels like “a big metro Athens.” After being in such a small college town, where everyone is abuzz with more or less the same cultural events, “I actually love the fact that a band like the Pixies can blow through town and we don’t even know about it.” p. disbrowe

Best Michael Stipe Moment “There are too many to count, but one is in 1993. I flew to L.A. and met up with Michael and we drove across country back to Athens. We spent five days driving and meeting people and taking photos. It was on this trip that we saw a bunch of old road signs that inspired Michael for some T-shirt designs. After the trip, I was hired to design the shirts, since I had seen exactly what he was talking about and that led to my full-time job. In Utero by Nirvana had just come out, and we listened to it the entire trip. On cassette.”

Credits

Photography by Leah Overstreet

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