ginny branch stellinginterviewswhat's in your toolbox

what’s in your toolbox: dana tanamachi

by Ginny

Portrait by Kelsey Foster

The first time I saw one of graphic designer Dana Tanamachi’s massive lettered chalk walls, I almost spontaneously combusted with joy. Her 19th-century artistic-printing approach completely stirs my soul. Anyone who has ever tried to write with chalk knows it is no small feat, and yet she makes me strive to achieve that kind of precision when I write my to-do list on my chalkboard-painted door. Darn you, Dana, for setting the bar so impossibly high! I am pleased to show you a peek into the insanely creative and graphic world of Dana Tanamachi. Get ready to want to be her best friend. — Ginny

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson

Dana Tanamachi: My toolbox is pretty straightforward, I think. I keep it stocked with a few packs of dollar-store chalk (non-toxic!), old rags, a flexible sewing tape measure and a wooden yardstick. To the side of my toolbox are lots of swatches and small jars of chalkboard paint samples from Hudson Paint in upstate New York. They produce almost any color I’m in the market for. I’ve also got several pads of tracing paper going at once; I’m always sketching something, whether it be layouts or letters for my upcoming projects. And of course, at any given time, there is a giant stack of old type books piled on my desk.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel _____.”

Dana Tanamachi: It’s nice to hide out in my studio, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I enjoy listening to music while I work, but sometimes, silence is just golden.

Dana’s interview continues after the jump . . .

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now? This can be anything from blogs, books and magazines to vintage catalogues/manuals, etc.

Dana Tanamachi: I love looking through old photos of Brooklyn in the online image archives from the Brooklyn Public Library. It’s fun to be inspired by the rich history of this beautiful borough.

I’ve also become enamored with the work of my new friend Pete Vogel of Nutmegger’s Workshop in Portland. Pete hand-paints beautiful vintage-inspired signage.

And finally, I mustn’t forget Steven Heller and (my boss) Louise Fili’s newest book titled Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age. It’s been described as “a veritable festival of rare and unknown scripts between flexi-covers,” which it truly is! The images found in this book are from Steve & Louise’s joint collection of vintage type specimens, book covers, sheet music, labels and ads that they’ve been collecting for over 30 years! The amazing cover alone (lettered by John Passafiume) is reason enough to buy it. How could one not be inspired by such a book?

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Time management is often one of the biggest obstacles for creative minds. Do you have an agenda book, and do you make to-do lists?

Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson

Dana Tanamachi: I seem to keep most things organized up in my head, but earlier this year, my friend Marie could sense the increasing difficulty for me to do so. So, she bought me a planner! It’s a really simple little white one from Muji that helps me keep track of upcoming jobs, deadlines, meetings, etc. I don’t open it every day, but it’s a relief knowing that the big things in my schedule are all penciled in! I also scribble stuff in these little notebooks from LilCo Letterpress whenever I’m on the train or meeting with clients.

5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Dana Tanamachi: My magical power would be to answer emails instantly — and without typing. My computer would automatically read my mind and respond accordingly!

6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist/designer?

Dana Tanamachi: The best advice I ever received was to practice self-forgetfulness. Take some time each morning to remind yourself that the world does not revolve around you. How can you serve someone today? What words of encouragement can you offer? Look for those opportunities and take them.

My personal advice for young artists/designers is to start building a collection of resources and inspiration that is not from the internet. Step away from the computer. Go to the library, bookstore, vintage shop or flea market and have a browse. Make a nice afternoon of it. Find something that speaks to you — you’ll know when you find it! Too much of the work that is floating around online right now looks exactly the same. Social networks can be great for dispersing information and for widening your visual library. But they can also cripple your creativity if you don’t take what you find and do something different to make it your own. Let’s try to strike a good balance!

Photo Credit: Eric Ryan Anderson

7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?

Dana Tanamachi: Try some new music and have a glass of wine.

8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Dana Tanamachi: The Renegade Craft Fair is one of my biggest sources of yearly inspiration. I love to treat myself to a few fun items. Over the last three years, I’ve become a big fan of vendors like Goose Grease, Bettula, Up In the Air Somewhere and Clam Lab. I keep all my little finds on my desk, so I can enjoy them while I work!

9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsperson, whose would it be and why?

Dana Tanamachi: After recently viewing this video from Lincoln Supply Co., a small clothing brand out of North Florida, I just sat at my computer with tears in my eyes. I’m not even sure why, exactly. But a chord inside of me had been struck. Lincoln Supply Co. is the brainchild of designer/art director Jeremy Paul Beasley. Jeremy ensures that every t-shirt and accessory is made and handled with utmost attention to detail from start to finish. Their shop sits inside an old 1940s warehouse where they hand-dye and print these nostalgic American-made shirts. I even love the stamp that they use to indicate the size on the inside of each shirt. Jeremy’s process and philosophy harkens back to a time when things were individually handcrafted — and I’d love to take a peek inside his studio/toolbox!

10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it include?

Dana Tanamachi: Here is a small list of my favorite summer jams as of late:

“Haunted” by Leagues (I can’t stop listening to this song!)

“All Day Day Light” by The Morning Benders

“In the Sun” by She & Him (Check out the video!)

“Right on Time” by Zach Williams

“Lights Out” by Santogold (Love this video, too!)

“Bob” by The Dodos

“No Worse for the Wear” by Dylan Sneed

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  • Just beautiful work and absolutely inspiring! I’m blown away by her ability to write with chalk…waaaay better than I can write on anything! :) I loved the Lincoln Supply Co. video (Matt Wertz is one of my favorite musicians), so thanks for pointing them out too!

  • Dana is an absolute inspiration and blessing to all who know her! So excited to see such a kind and genuine artist recieve praise, encouragement and recognition. Absolutely love and admire her and her work. So beautiful!

  • I am so proud to say that this amazing woman created my wedding invitations 5 years ago! I knew she was an amazing talent. Just beautiful work.

  • As much I love Dana’s work, the more I find out about her, I think she’s an even better person. Thanks for featuring her, she’s a real talent and an inspiration.

  • Love Dana’s work! Gorgeous! And Leagues is my husband’s band…thanks for the shout out Dana!!! Glad you like “Haunted”…its a good one :)

  • Dana, your chalk art rocks! I stop and look at your work and draw something different from it everytime. Great imagery and branding for your clients.

  • Love this!! Wrote about Dana on my site too – she’s amazing :) Her process and methodology is spot on and so inspiring.

  • Wow, now that is serious talent, I love her! What a typographic freehand genius! So beautiful they make my heart race! Inspirational. Excellent post.

  • Her artwork is truly stunning, think this will give the wife some ideas as we are doing a little renovating.

  • So glad Dana was featured here! I met her in Denton, Texas while she was still in school. She’s an amazing person! Great advice.

  • I already was gobsmacked by Dana’s work, but hearing her words and advice I realize she is also incredibly wise and just the sort of person I would love to know in real life. Such wonderful advice about getting offline and actually hunting down inspiration in the world, on the streets, in vintage shops, old books, etc. I agree that is truly vital for keeping the creative spirit alive – don’t get me wrong, I devour blogs as much as the next girl! But we CAN get wrapped up in our little bubble a little too much; it’s great to branch out! xo Laura

  • “My personal advice for young artists/designers is to start building a collection of resources and inspiration that is not from the internet.”

    That this piece of advice seems counterintuitive means it’s right on the money. Thanks Dana.

  • Beautiful work! I so needed to hear Dana’s advice about stepping away from the Internet and finding inspiration in other more physical places. I love reading blogs, tweeting, and and of course pinning! But there are days when I feel like such a glutton consuming so much online art/resources and contributing way too little of my own art and resources.

  • Her work is amazing and so is she. I have known Dana and her family for many years and they are all incredibly talented and wonderful people!

  • God has blessed you with such wonderful talent that enriches all or our lives. Your creativity in chalk art is indeed unique much like you.

  • Thank you for introducing me to Dana & her work. I love the balance between the complexity and simplicity in her lettering. It is beautiful!


  • Such a talented and smart lady! Beautiful work and great advice to young creatives.

  • Thanks for introducing me to this amazing artist! After teaching 4th grade for 15 years, I can honestly say this is the most incredible use of chalk I have EVER seen! It makes me sorry I ever cursed the dust and mess all those years…

  • She’s so right about internet over dose crippling your creativity. I have the bad habit of filling my head with all of the gorgeous images out there and then thinking that my work is not good enough. That’s when I know I need to shut the computer off and take a breather. A nice dose of fresh air and worldly inspiration usually sets me straight. Awesome feature!

  • She’s so right about internet over dose crippling your creativity. I have the bad habit of filling my head with too many gorgeous pictures from blogs and then thinking that my stuff is not good enough. That’s when I know I need to step away from the computer and get some fresh air. There’s nothing like a little break and some worldly inspiration to make you feel renewed. Awesome feature!

  • She’s so right about internet over dose crippling your creativity. I have the bad habit of filling my head with tons of gorgeous images from the internet and then thinking that my stuff is not good enough. That’s when I know I need to step away from the computer and get some fresh air. There’s nothing like a break filled with worldly inspiration to make you feel renewed. Awesome feature!

  • What a very clever way to do the artwork! I LOVE Dana’s work, it’s definitely an inspiration and makes me smile to see it…thanks Dana!!

  • Oh, man, talk about worlds colliding! I’ve long admired Dana’s work – she’s a master of such an interesting medium and speaks deeply to my vintage-lovin’ heart – and for her to include that video link. Whoa. That Lincoln Supply Co. video is for the tour of a friend I grew up with in high school and haven’t thought about for a long time. His music really is magical too – real homey, heart-warming stuff. Thanks for making my morning. <3

  • So cool. That tag on the Nagging Doubt drawing really works! You can see a video of her in action making it.

  • Incredible talent and sage advice! Unbelievable skill!

    How I wish she lived either in Texas or Washington (state). Just love her work! Thanks Amy, for sharing your friend’s website! Your kitchen is wonderful. Maybe Ed and I will get to see it sometime!

  • Wonderful interview, beautiful work! Some great advice in there, and I really enjoyed the video from Lincoln Supply.

  • I love seeing your success Dana! You have such a beautiful heart and it is just as inspirational as your lovely designs! Makes me miss Brooklyn…

  • Thank you, everyone! I truly appreciate the encouragement and feedback. Thanks to Grace and Ginny for making my week extra special:) Much more to come… stay tuned!

  • LOVE her work – she’s so talented. She inspired me to do chalk typography on my own kitchen walls – I’m so happy to see her on DS!

  • Love, love, love… saw you featured on 100 layer cake site. Now I love even more.

  • I love your work Dana, please continue with everything you do!

    – New music and a glass of wine seems like a great inspirational boost, I’ll be sure to try it :)