Designers aren’t often asked to research peg legs, glass eyes, and afflictions such as scurvy, gangrene, and seasickness, but creating a new visual identity and range of products for a pirate-supply emporium is no ordinary task. That’s why the San Francisco–based graphic-design firm Office dove in, pro bono, when asked to help rejuvenate the store at 826 Valencia. Founded in 2002 by the writer Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari, an educator, 826 Valencia is a nonprofit center in San Francisco that tutors kids and teaches them to write. Adding a shop to the operation originally allowed the center to meet commercial-zoning requirements while generating some extra funds. Six other chapters of the organization have since opened across the country, each with its own themed store. (Brooklyn, for instance, has the Superhero Supply Co.)
“Part of our business model is to have a quirky storefront that serves as a portal to the community,” says Leigh Lehman, the executive director of 826 Valencia. “It helps us get the word out to students and families as well as donors and potential volunteers.” But six years after the initial excitement, the pirate store was starting to feel a little stagnant. “We wanted to keep it fresh so that people who came in and loved it would keep coming back.”
Eager to lend a hand, Office, led by the husband-and-wife team of Jason Schulte and Jill Robertson, set its sails for the local library and began a crash course in pirate lore. “We have a designer here in the studio who is now an expert on pirate diseases,” Schulte reports. “And one wall of the studio became a bulletin board of pirate inspiration.” The project’s output includes a forbidding skull-and-crossbones logo (complete with eye patch), a collection of posters, and some 50 new products, such as Peg Leg Oil, “gangrene treatments” (rubber leeches), Captain Blackbeard’s Beard Extensions, Eau de Mer cologne, and Scurvy Begone jelly beans (the label warns: “Fairly probable side effects: hirsutism; supernumerary organs; chimerism; sudden onset of fake English accent; boils”).
“The products needed to present a story in a unique way,” says Robertson, who notes that because they aren’t functional, they have to sell themselves conceptually with creative packaging. “Eau de Mer, for instance, is this beautiful bottle of cologne packaged with metallic gold in a painted wood box,” she says. “It looks amazing, but it’s just bay water. We literally went out to San Francisco Bay and collected water and sludge and funneled it in ourselves.”
Since their introduction in September, the best-selling new items have been the posters, like one that details compensation for lost limbs. “That comes from an actual chart from a buccaneer’s insurance policy,” Schulte says. But pirates aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit. “We’ve quintupled our monthly online sales because of the posters,” 826’s Lehman says. “They’ve sold tremendously well.”
826 Valencia, San Francisco, (415) 642-5905, www.826valencia.org