Authentic Philadelphia through local eyes—renowned design duo Heads of State.
02/20/2014—In the early aughts, when Philadelphia natives Jason Kernevich and Dusty Summers kick-started their illustration house, The Heads of State, they never expected to produce posters for bands like R.E.M. and Wilco.
Nor did they ever expect to be lauded globally for their editorial illustrations, book designs, and especially their travel prints, which blend compelling contemporary vibes with mid-20th-century retro cool.
But over the years, the Heads of State boys have become rock stars in the graphic design world, and their work for the likes of The New York Times, Esquire, and Nike goes to show how far a handcrafted aesthetic can take creative innovators who set out to have fun.
Despite all the talent and awards, however, Kernevich and Summers will tell you that they’re just “hard workers” in a city where “they don’t have to take themselves too seriously.” And as much as the Heads of State guys love their brotherly burg, they also love travel, which has led to their newest venture: PilotandCaptain.com, which spins out hippish vintage travel ads and tags printed onto bags and apparel.
In that spirit of exploration, we gave the creative duo a Lexus IS and asked them to drive us around their version of unexpected Philadelphia—it’s a tour that yielded results that could surprise any visitor already familiar with the home of Independence Hall.
THE BARNES FOUNDATION
Jason: “This is a controversial, highly valued art collection with lots of impressionist paintings that used to be in a mansion out in the suburbs. They moved it down onto the parkway with the other museums, and I think that the architects who worked on the building are world-class. It’s a serene place to go. They kept the quirkiness of the collection intact. And it’s not just impressionist paintings, but intriguing metalwork, even door hinges—the good thing is that the collection has been re-created so that you experience everything in better light now, in a better location.”
VIETNAMESE MARKETS OF SOUTH PHILLY
Jason: “South Philly over the last few decades has had a huge influx of Vietnamese people, and there are about four or five city blocks of little shops, grocery stores, and great places for soup. Hitting this area is a vital part of my weekend. I love the wide selection of Southeast Asian vegetables and tropical fruits. I’ll buy lots of green chilies and papayas, all those fish sauces, the dried shrimp. Inside is an aisle dedicated to exotic spices, and you can head outside and get yourself a great banh mi sandwich or some of the best pho anywhere.”
Jason: “This is a really cool little bookstore. I’m always amazed at their selection. Living in Philly, you could miss something about New York or San Francisco, where you don’t have to work so hard to be exposed to great culture. In Philly you have to work a little harder, and this store’s art books, graphic novels, and antique books are wonderful. I just found something really unusual there, like books by the mysterious French illustrator Blexbolex. I also get these great obscure cookbooks that nobody normally reads, like one about Jewish diaspora cuisine in Italy. It’s an awesome spot for beautiful gift books, too.”
Jason: “There are a few of these coffee shops in New York and Philly, but I prefer the original Rittenhouse location (full disclosure: we’ve done work for the shop). It’s still very Euro, and it’s managed to stay that way because of where it is in Center City. Lots of French and Italian expats hang out there, and they don’t have Wi-Fi for customer use, so it never has a computer-lab vibe. It’s quite cosmopolitan, a great place to read a book and get coffee. I love its mismatched plates and cups. And there’s great people-watching.”
Dusty: “This is really underappreciated in Philly, and the space feels like a small collection in some classic European city. You get to see the casts from original Rodin sculptures, and it’s a quick hit—you can walk through it in less than an hour. But it’s awe-inspiring to see The Thinker and those giant monolithic casts just sitting there in your workaday hometown.”
Dusty: “I’ve been trying to be avid about building and repairing bikes for a while now, and this store down on Fourth Street is unlike a lot of the other bike stores I know. It lacks pretension. Whenever I go there, which is about five times a month, they’re more than willing to put down the tools and talk you through how to put on a headset or which will be the right tires. It’s a rare find, and it’s run by a lovely couple, who really care about their customers.”
Dusty: “Nothing could be more fun than this historic playhouse and playground, which was built during the late 19th century. Back then, creating a place specifically for children to play was a radical concept. The Smith family decided to shrug off convention. They built a 16,000-square-foot playhouse, with more than six surrounding acres, with one purpose: play. It has a basement filled with tricycles you can ride inside and a wooden potato-sack slide. What a beautiful idea.”
THE U.S. MINT
Dusty: “Most museums in the city are almost living history exhibits. Everything’s roped off, and that’s cool—I’m glad it’s all in Philly. But this is a true, working mint that creates most of the coins for the East Coast. You turn one corner and there you are on the catwalk above 70 machines that, for 24 hours a day, press pennies and dimes and nickels. You get to walk around and see the whole process. I like it because I can clear my mind in there. It’s definitely noisy, but it’s more of a constant din with coins falling—just background noise. It’s great motivation for people who make things.”
—Illustration by Heads of State