Designer and illustrator Benjamin Della Rosa says that in Sacramento, “Connections and your reputation play a bigger part than your portfolio does when it comes to design work.” (Photos courtesy of Benjamin Della Rosa)

Art Exposed: Benjamin Della Rosa

The designer and illustrator’s career is all about connections

Back Q&A Aug 31, 2020 By Shoka

His name may not be up in lights, but his work is. Neon light, specifically. The logo for Camellia Coffee Roasters — six overlapping circles that make a flower shape, framing a C in the center — emits white light onto the wall of the Sacramento cafe. Designer and illustrator Benjamin Della Rosa created the downtown coffee purveyor’s logo as well its packaging and visual identity.

Bold colors and playful shapes and lines are signatures of Benjamin Della Rosa’s illustrations.

Each label on Camellia’s bags of roasted beans has a vignette of figures composed of bold, flat colors and shapes and lines that suggest movement and a youthful playfulness — Della Rosa’s signature style. This style can also be seen in the visual branding that he has created for several other Capital Region companies. Many are food and beverage companies, as the designer, who worked as a freelancer for about a decade, was able to build his client base through personal and professional connections in the community.

Della Rosa grew up in Salinas and moved to Sacramento in 2004 to attend Sacramento State, where he studied graphic design. After graduating in 2006, he worked at a few agencies but didn’t feel like they were a good fit. “So in 2008, I broke out on my own and started doing my own client work,” he says. 

And then a windfall. “I was really fortunate,” he says. A neighbor in the apartment complex he lived in was also a freelance designer, “and he was transitioning out of that and becoming a full-time teacher at (Sacramento City College), so he kind of off-loaded his client list to me as a starting point. And that kind of helped me make a lot of connections in town and helped me kind of get a start on … my own client roster.”

As the creative director of the regional food publication Edible Sacramento from 2013 to 2017, he worked with Ryan Donahue, its managing editor. Donahue, also a commercial photographer and partner of Mother and Empress Tavern restaurants, decided with the other restaurant partners to enlist Della Rosa to do the eateries’ graphic design, since Donahue and Della Rosa already worked together.

Now Della Rosa has a full-time gig as a creative specialist with VSP, a vision care insurance company, doing design work for its e-commerce division’s website and email campaigns, but he still takes on his own projects outside of his 9-to-5. Some other Capital Region brands he’s created visual stamps for include Andis Wines, Brasserie Capitale, Tiger restaurant, as well David Lubin Elementary School, Eddy’s De Luxe pomade and Verge Center for the Arts’ Sac Open Studios.

You’ve done a lot of brand imaging for quite a few businesses around Sacramento that are super recognizable. Can you tell me about how you found those clients or how they found you?

Benjamin Della Rosa designed the visual identity of Empress Tavern, which, as of mid-August, has paused operations.

It kind of all goes back to Edible. … Liv Moe, who’s the director at Verge, knows (Ryan Donahue), and she connected me with Ryan to work at Edible. And then Ryan became partners with Mike Thiemann and opened Mother (restaurant, now closed), and ’cause he liked my work at Edible, brought me in with Mother. And then Mother was like a half-step to keep doing something while they built Empress, so then when Empress started construction, they brought me in on that. 

And Ryan Harden, who owns Camellia, really liked the work I did for Empress, and that’s how he and I met. … Obviously, great work matters, but Sacramento has always been a town about who you know, and the connections that you have versus larger cities. Well, I guess connections always play a factor in it, but I feel like in Sacramento especially, connections and your reputation play a bigger part than your portfolio does when it comes to design work.

What has been the most challenging part of being a freelance designer and illustrator?

The hardest part in general about this profession is communication. As a designer, it’s my job to communicate ideas visually but then also (communicate) behind the scenes working with somebody. I think that’s probably the thing I loved the most about freelance (work) … not so much me dictating to the client, “Hey, this is the best idea, you should go with this idea,” but really treating them like a partner and realizing they have an area of expertise, I have an area of expertise, so let’s bring both of those together to create something. And the instances where we have both come into the project with that understanding, I think some of the best work of my career has been produced.

What’s your favorite thing to work on?

I really enjoy branding and developing systems. Empress is a really good example of this, where we create an identity of something, and there’s a set of elements that people associate with the visual identity of something, and then as Empress would (say), “Hey, we need a menu for this,” or, “Hey, we’re doing this kind of event, we want to come up with a graphic for that,” taking that toolbox that we’ve developed and how those same elements can be rearranged or reinterpreted to be something new, but at the same time connecting back to everything else that predated it.

How much of your time do you spend doing freelance work now?

David Lubin Elementary School hired Benjamin Della Rosa to create posters for a speaker series.

I still spend maybe 10-20 hours, and that’s working with clients or working on self-initiated stuff, which is also really nice too. Since I have more free time, I can be more selective with my work. It’s freed me up to do projects I’ve had ticking around in the back of my head for a while.

Tell me about Interval Press, the screen-printing collective you started.

Kyle (Marks) and I started that (in 2008). That was right around when I first started on my own freelancing. (We had) just finished up at Sac State, so we were both in this transition period of figuring out what we wanted to do, so we met with one of our old professors at Sac State, and she told us there’s really no recipe to this, just do something. Whatever you do, just do it 100 percent. … So we started this zine — there’s only one issue — centered around the music community in Sacramento, and … we got connected with a couple musicians who asked us if we wanted to make some posters. Kyle and I had taken a silk-screening class, … so we took that opportunity … (and) printed our first poster in his garage. …

Through that, that same musician had us do a few more, and then another one of our professors, John Forrest, … was like, “Ah, man, I haven’t printed in like 20 years. Would you mind if I sat in with you guys and did one once?” That happened, and then he never left, and we brought in our fourth member (Hans Bennewitz) … maybe a year after John joined. So we were printing out of Kyle’s garage for a couple years, … (and Verge was) taking applications for studio space. John was able to get us an interview, and we moved into our first studio space there. …

We don’t work so much as a collective anymore. We kind of just rotate in and out of the space if we have a project that we’re working on. …

There’s two organizers that worked out of Luigi’s Fun Garden (a defunct music venue in Midtown), so a lot of our poster work came from those two promoters. The more work we did, the bands that we did the work for ended up contracting us directly.

What are the strengths of the creative community in Sacramento, and in what areas could it be stronger?

Benjamin Della Rosa created the labels for Amador County’s Andis Wines.

I have a lot of love for the creative community in Sacramento, for better or for worse. … Cmnd Shft, it was a very short-lived creative event that Interval put together with Ryan Donahue. … He just wanted to do a film and design day at the (Crest Theatre) to kind of tie in and bring business in, and I was like, … in addition to showing films, why don’t we host (a popular) design podcast? … This event grew from this idea … to kind of break down some of the silos that exist in this community. … Cmnd Shft kind of came at this time where John and I had been having these conversations about what can we do to kind of spark something, because all these people are creating these really neat things, but nobody’s really connecting and sharing that out of fear of maybe losing that client to somebody else or whatever. We wanted to bring people together to celebrate the creative class in Sacramento. …

It was a small turnout, but a lot of people liked it and liked it so much we did a second one, and that one ended up being maybe two, three times the size of the first one. We had that at the Guild (Theater) in Oak Park, and we supplemented it with a makers fair. We had some panel discussions about the state of creativity in Sacramento, and we had a lot of good discussions.

Interval did work for the band Sister Crayon. Who else?

Sacramento’s Tiger restaurant’s original menu was designed by Benjamin Della Rosa.

Tom Brosseau was the last artist that we’ve done work for. We know him through one of the promoters from (Luigi’s) Fun Garden. …

One of the more memorable things we’ve probably done, even though we didn’t get to meet any of the bands, was probably the work we got to do for Launch (Festival) and the TBD Fest. I think the work we had done prior got us the notoriety to work on both of those events, and they just kind of gave us the lineup and said, “Pick some bands you want to do posters for, and go ahead and do it.” So getting to make artwork for really big bands is one of the more memorable experiences we’ve probably had.

Related: The Little Music Festival That Was

Who did you make it for?

We did Blonde Redhead and Girl Talk, Blondie, Explosions in the Sky, Empire of the Sun. I don’t think being a small-town studio we’d have ever gotten to work on something on that scale. …

I don’t think I would have been able to get the place that I am if I lived anywhere else. This is such a supportive place, not just creatives to creatives, but business owners. Sacramento itself is such a special place. It’s like we care so much about our relationships with one another and the connections that we have with people and lifting those up and recommending each other and sharing. I don’t imagine being as successful if I were somewhere else.

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