Columbus, Ohio USA
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Chris Stenger's Career Takes Circuitous Route
Natural born artist has designs on problem solving
October 2009 Issue
By Karen Edwards
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This December, Stenger (left) and his partner Rob Pettit will celebrate 20 years of togetherness.
No doubt one of the celebrants will be their Great Dane Roofus. [© Photo by Emily Noble]
The design expert who heads up Stenger Creative at 54 West Third Ave. in the Short North’s Victorian Village may have become a neighborhood fixture over the last 17 years, but the Cleveland native has taken a circuitous path to get there.
Still, that’s only part of his story. The rest has to do with Stenger’s uncanny ability to solve other people’s problems – as well as his own. But before you can understand that part of the story, you need to hear the first part.
Stenger was one of those kids who sat around in school drawing. You know the type. Your mother thought your pictures looked stunning and said so as she magnetized them to the refrigerator door, but you knew that the classmate in the back corner of the room who sketched on his notebooks every chance he could was the real deal. He drew the way you thought your pictures might look when you set crayon to paper, only yours never came out the way his did. You know – recognizable.
“Your son excels at art,” Stenger’s second-grade teacher told his parents – and it wasn’t hyperbole. Stenger really could draw, so naturally his mother enrolled him in art classes. The formal art classes went well, he recalls – but when it came down to it, he said his best education came from a neighbor. “The neighbor down the street was a painter, and I would go to her house and watch her paint,” said Stenger. The neighbor indulged her protégé and taught him about oil painting and watercolors. “I probably learned more there than anywhere else.”
Stenger and the CIA
So far, no other Stenger sibling was displaying the same interest, or ability in art. Not his three older brothers. Not his younger sister. And none of his family was surprised when Chris applied to and was accepted into the Cleveland Institute of Art.
If you are more familiar with the Columbus College of Art and Design than the CIA, as the Cleveland Institute is sometimes called, well, you’re excused. You live in Columbus. But the CIA is among the top 10 professional colleges of art and design in the country and enjoys an international reputation. Classes here are small – enrollment is only about 500 students – and the student-faculty ratio is about 9:1. If you haven’t already guessed, it is not an easy school in which to gain admittance. The school, which offers a five-year program, is careful about those it allows into its prestigious artist colony, so the fact that Stenger was admitted shortly after high school should give you an idea of the quality of his talent.
“I didn’t enter the program right away,” said Stenger. “I took a year off and worked so I would have the money to go there.”
The CIA offers a series of “foundation” classes its first two years, exposing students to all of the art disciplines – painting, design, photography, and sculpture – but by the third year, you are expected to declare your area of interest and have a portfolio, drawn from your first two years, to gain admittance to that field.
“I intended to become a painter when I entered,” said Stenger. But somewhere during those first two years, practicality came into the picture. “I had to be realistic,” he said. “I thought I was likely to make a better living as a designer than as an artist.”
Stenger has never regretted his choice.
“I really do love designing,” he said. As for his painting ambitions, those are realized every once in a while when he picks up a brush at home. “I don’t paint as much as I should,” Stenger admits, “but I enjoy it when I do. It relaxes me.”
Five years at the CIA came and went quickly – but during that time, Stenger was already trying to answer “What next?”
“I took some time during school to study the top designers in the field, and I did some research as to where they were working,” said Stenger.
One of his favorite designers at the time lived and worked in Dallas, so, during his fourth year at school, Stenger took the opportunity to visit the city during spring break.
“The designer I liked had the same style I did, and as I did further research, I could see that there were several places down there I could work,” he says.
Following his graduation from the CIA, Stenger moved to Dallas with high hopes. “I liked the city,” he said – and the design work they were doing there.
But while location may be everything in the real estate business, timing is everything in a job search, and Stenger happened to land in Dallas at the worst possible time in the city’s history. There was an oil shortage and Dallas lives on oil.
“I went on 250 interviews,” Stenger recalls now. He worked in retail at night and spent the day on his job search. “I couldn’t get my foot in the door.” Defeated, Stenger returned home to Cleveland.
Anyone dealing with a job search in today’s economy can understand how demoralizing such pursuits can be, but fortunately for Stenger, he had a friend in Cleveland who told him about an opening for a graphic designer in a production company that crafted everyday objects like milk cartons. “I lasted six months there,” said Stenger. There was simply nothing creative to do.
New York adventure
About that time, however, Stenger received an invitation from another friend who had moved to New York City. “She invited me to come for a visit, just to get away for a while,” Stenger said. She also invited him to bring along his portfolio. As it turns out, Stenger’s friend was a freelance designer for the publishing house Simon and Schuster. While Stenger was there, his friend introduced him to her boss at work, and figuring there might at least be some freelance work, Stenger had agreed to bring along his portfolio. What Stenger didn’t realize at the time is that the company actually had an opening for a graphic designer. “I received a call shortly after I returned home,” said Stenger. The call was from Simon and Schuster. “They asked me if I’d be willing to move to New York.”
Stenger said yes, and lived there for five years, designing point-of-purchase displays, posters and newsletters, first for Simon and Schuster, and the last two years as a senior designer at Bantam Publishing.
Stenger liked New York and was getting to know the city well. In fact, he still visits on occasion – and offers a tip to anyone traveling to New York: Take time to look up the Great Jones Café, 54 Great Jones St. in the East Village (www.greatjones.com). “It’s really this kind of hole in the wall place but it serves the best huevos rancheros and Bloody Mary’s at brunch,” he said. In other words, if you’re looking for something outside of the typical tourist trap, check it out. It’s the kind of place where native New Yorkers go to eat.
He might have stayed in New York longer had a headhunter not called. “I really wanted to be an art director,” Stenger said, and the headhunter had just such an opening – in Columbus. So Stenger returned to Ohio and became the art director for School Book Fairs, a children’s book publisher. He worked there three years before the company decided to move to Florida. Despite the fact that his sister lives in Florida and his mother is an Ohio snow bird who lives with her daughter half the year, Stenger wanted to stay in Columbus. So it was back to the classifieds.
He found a job as assistant art director for a local financial firm, but like the production job he had taken long ago, there wasn’t enough creative work to keep him longer than a year. “There is only so much you can do with green marble,” Stenger confided.
At that time, however, he and a female co-worker decided they could go into business for themselves, charging half of what other firms were charging, and still make a living. RSVP Graphics was born and lasted, well, a year. Things didn’t quite work out and the two separated. “I never expected to go into business on my own,” says Stenger, “but this forced me to do that.”
At first, he operated out of his home in German Village. That lasted a few years until he decided he really needed to get his business out of the house. “It was always there,” he said. “The office was right in the living room, so no matter where you went in the house, you had to go through it.”
Those with home-based businesses know how difficult it can be to relax when work is literally around the corner, so Stenger went in search of another workspace. He settled on a Neil Avenue house in Victorian Village. The previous owner, a photographer, had constructed a studio on the first floor and moved the living quarters and kitchen upstairs.
The arrangement, with a separate entrance to the office, was an attractive compromise to Stenger, so he purchased the property and continued to operate his business from home for another ten years before he finally managed to move his office into the current quarters on W. Third Avenue – a Victorian-style house where a doctor once saw patients. Stenger gutted the inside and had it renovated, and that’s where his clients come today. The move also allowed Stenger to proceed with restoration plans on the Neil Avenue property. Returning the structure to its former glory, without a main floor office, was so successful that the house was showcased on the Victorian Village Tour last year.
The rest of the story
Now we’ve reached the second part of the story. If not for Stenger’s circuitous route to Columbus – if not for his many positions in the world of design – he may not have become the creative problem-solver he is today.
The path to Columbus gave him an extraordinary list of contacts – and all those positions mean that Stenger has yet to be presented with a creative or design problem that he cannot solve. He’s no niche-marketer. Stenger Creative is a versatile shop that focuses on brand solutions for all types of businesses, large and small. In fact, Stenger provides a business with the complete brand package – from logo to tagline, from marketing material to Web site design.
Stenger Creative has developed brand and marketing solutions for the likes of Pepsi-Cola, Mettler Toledo (formerly Toledo Scale), and the Ohio Grape Industry. His clients are so pleased with his work that they not only return to Stenger Creative for additional business solutions but also refer other businesses to him. In fact, most of his business is through referrals.
The design work is only part of it, however. Stenger said if one thing sets his design firm apart from others, it’s “that we listen to our client’s needs. Because we’re a small shop, we’re able to pay more attention to them.” Usually, one of the biggest problems between design firms and their clients is a lack of communication, he continues. “We try to guide clients in their choices. We don’t come in and foist designs on them. Our work comes through listening to the client’s biggest problems, what frustrates them, then trying to arrive at a solution. Our relationship with our client is really more like a partnership.” No wonder, then, that, as Stenger points out, “our clients become more like friends.”
If Stenger hadn’t turned to graphic design and design solutions, he might have gone into interior design. “It’s an area that has always interested me,” he said.
Life at home
Chris Stenger vacationing in Greece. This is one of the photos that inspired a lifestyle change and 50-lb. weight loss.
Maybe that’s because home and his non-workday life is important to him. This December, Stenger and his partner Rob Pettit will celebrate 20 years of togetherness. No doubt one of the celebrants will be their Great Dane Roofus.
In addition to walks with Roofus, “I like to ride my bike when I can,” said Stenger. On weekends, you can often find him biking on trails near the Scioto River. And he and Pettit enjoy the Press Grill’s $9.95 Sunday night steak dinner as often as they can – although Pettit is a great cook. “I don’t like to cook but I like to eat,” said Stenger with a laugh.
Stenger stopped laughing, though, after he saw a picture of himself taken on a recent vacation the pair had taken to Greece. “We don’t typically take photos of ourselves,” said Stenger – but this time, they had and Stenger couldn’t believe what he saw. “I looked huge,” he said.
As soon as the pair returned, Stenger went to the gym and worked out as often as he could. It took him about a year and a half, but he is now celebrating a 50-pound weight loss.
That Stenger accomplished such a healthy, life-changing feat is more than admirable. But when you stop to think about it, maybe it’s not so surprising. This is an artist who makes a living solving design problems. Stenger’s weight loss may be his most ambitious – and yet satisfying – design solution to date.
Stenger Creative is located at 54 West Third Ave. For more information, visit their Web site at www.stengercreative.com or call 614-299-3290.
© 2009 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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