AriZona 20 Years: Sam Wheeler

Published July 11, 2012

MIGUEL ENAMORADO: You began as a painter and instillation artist, when and why did you start exploring other mediums?

SAM WHEELER: I started exploring other mediums as soon as I left school. Initially in performance, but then I found store windows to be a fantastic and more humble venue to show a great variety of work. It is a nice way to expose a lot of people to work they might not expect.

ENAMORADO: What advice would you give to a young, aspiring artist?

WHEELER: I would say to stick to your guns. Imitation never leads to greatness. If you strive for the career, you’ll miss the fun, if you follow your instincts and take opportunities as they come, it’ll go somewhere.

ENAMORADO:  Where do you go in New York when you feel in need of visual stimulation?

WHEELER: I go to the flea markets and for long runs around Red Hook.

ENAMORADO: What makes a successful window? How do you a draw the viewer in?

WHEELER: As successful window to me has a few levels of meaning. It is functional and beautiful, but also has real conceptual beauty. It has enough meaning for a quick view to enjoy it, but also another layer for me and whoever really wants to investigate it.

ENAMORADO: What’s your favorite commission you’ve done and what was so successful about it?

WHEELER: I really love working with Hermes. Most of our work with them is a lot of fun, but I would say the most successful so far was our magical factories, where we worked with a team of fabricators to make giant dollhouse sculptures of semi-futurist dream factories. It was so much fun because every step was lighthearted and we all approached it with a labor of love attitude.

ENAMORADO: What are you most proud of in your career?

WHEELER: I am most proud of how Dino and I have built our company by really staying with our core principles and tastes. We really have always tried to do only work that we can be proud of and being able to look at where we’ve been and where we’ve come, I feel like it really worked.

ENAMORADO: What is the first thing you do when beginning a new, site-specific installation?

WHEELER: I first try to really understand the venue and try to find a place where the inherent subtext of the place or brand intersects with my own interests, so that I can be confident that the piece will be coming from somewhere real, not just regurgitating some brand jargon.

ENAMORADO: How does your design work relate to your work with the band SOFT?

WHEELER: Well, Dino and I first collaborated musically, so that dialogue still exists. It is important to work with someone that can give and take criticism without getting emotional about it. SOFT was an incredible time with 4 of the best guys I will ever know, but honestly, the work we are doing now is more interesting to me, and while I miss some things about the band life, I would never go back to it.

ENAMORADO: Can you tell me a little bit about Svbscription? What does “lifestyle curation” entail?

WHEELER: Essentially, we encounter cool, new, special products all the time in our work and in our free time and Svbscription is a way to share these things with an audience. It is like getting the editor’s picks in a magazine mailed to you quarterly, with a splash of visionaire.

ENAMORADO: What would you like to try next?

WHEELER: Well, we just opened a bar called Lavender Lake in Gowanus, so that is checked off… I guess I would like to design a flagship store from the ground up. Dream client would be Dries van Noten.

ENAMORADO: The art world has become so interdisciplinary, what do you think “art” means today?

WHEELER: For me it always comes back to intent. I can’t call a lot of what I do art, some of it yes, but some of it is design or just clever. For myself, I always fall back on DuChamps and say that if I intend it to be art, if the intent comes from me and serves my agenda, then it’s art. This isn’t a qualitative statement only a differentiation.

ENAMORADO: What were you doing 20 years ago? Where would you like to be in 20 years?

WHEELER: 20 years ago I was in 8th grade trying to figure out how to play Black Sabbath licks and drawing terrible angsty drawings on my walls. In 20 years I hope to be living in an off-world colony, leading the rebellion against the bugs.

ENAMORADO: If you were to paint or create an AriZona inspired piece of art, what would it incorporate and what feeling would it invoke?

WHEELER: It would be about thirst, and relief. I would hope it would make people salivate. Every time I run around Red Hook, I see the distribution center for AriZona and it makes me go a little faster to get to a deli.

ENAMORADO: Why did you choose this particular can as your favorite? Tell us about its color, images, texture, techniques?

WHEELER: It wasn’t easy, but I chose the Rickey Lynn Design because it has a nostalgic connection for me that suits the 20 year idea.  It is the most true to the brand, with a nice graphic twist. While I do still appreciate the sense of humor of the Burrito Machine design, the Rickey Lynn design is more beautiful and graphically more it tune with the brand. It is not just doing its own thing, it is adapting the brands existing language to feel fresh and re-invented.

ENAMORADO: How did this can respond to your interpretation of the AriZona brand?

WHEELER: AriZona has always had an element of fun and lightheartedness. I think this can falls right in line with that.

ENAMORADO: Has your “lifestyle curation” business changed the way you think about everyday objects? How did it impact the way you evaluated the different AriZona can designs?

WHEELER: One question that we always have to ask when picking items for Svbscription is, “would I want this, really?” It is sort of a truth test to make sure we aren’t getting caught up in any spin or trend. This can was the one that I feel the most connected to because it feels honest and unpretentious.

ENAMORADO: What’s your favorite flavor of AriZona?

WHEELER: Honestly, I still go back to the basic lemon or peach iced tea. Boring, maybe, but when I want iced tea, I want iced tea!

ENAMORADO: Which packaging (besides the Cherry Lime Rickey) is most appealing to you and why?

WHEELER: Again, sorry to be boring, but the classic pale green can is beautiful. I will reach for it first every time.

ENAMORADO: Do you remember the first time you tried an AriZona? When and where was it?

WHEELER: I do, oddly… It was at the Carnegie Mellon school store in 1996. I was a little addicted for a while…