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ick Valicenti’s story starts in a middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Born in
1952, “the oldest of three in a happy family,” he describes his early years as “normal,
normal, normal.” However, his passion for art soon became apparent. “The code was inside
me and evident at an early age. I learned it looking at album covers on my bed, guitar across
my lap, headphones on, surrounded by paisley wallpaper. None of us knew who Milton Glaser
was, but we had the Dylan poster or the early Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, and Albert Lee’s Love—
killer type. My mother encouraged me by taking me to private drawing lessons and, on Saturdays,
to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.”
Despite his passion for art, Valicenti had more pressing concerns by the time he was ready to
move on to college. “Back in the ’60s, when I was finishing high school, no one imagined being
a real-life artist. We just focused and fretted about Vietnam. We spoke out. I was in Ohio for
school during the Kent shootings. Wearing an armband seems like a silly graphic device in
hindsight, but it did leave an indelible bruise on my attitude toward trust and authority.”
It was a bruise that influences Valicenti’s work to this day. “Most of my career, I have used both
commercial and professional opportunities to comment on culture and design as culture’s
voice box. My approach has been consciously steady and subversive. I can do more from the
inside than I can as an outside agitator.”
ORKING AT THE STEEL MILL Valicenti graduated from Ohio’s Bowling Green State
University in 1973. “I returned to Pittsburgh with a portfolio of nudes and abstract paint-
ings. I tried to have a go at the studio world. Back then it was a service to bring art
direction to a print-ready state. Needless to say, I was underqualified.” But money was tight, and
unemployment not an option. “I went to work as a steel worker in the world’s largest stainless-
steel mill. I was a hardcore, steel-toed shoe and hardhat guy. I bought a small pickup truck
and a 2
/4" (5.5 cm) camera—there was money to burn at this job. I would sneak the camera into
work in my lunch box and shoot the other older workers. With a little more money, I bought
a darkroom outfit with a kick-ass Omega enlarger and East Street studio print washer—I was in
the game and bored at work, so I decided to apply to grad school and went.”
1973 1989
Rick Valicenti came of age in the American Heartland of the 1960s,
and the experience left its mark. Having paid his dues the hard way,
he built himself a design studio that has become an extension
of his family—both personal soapbox and secret laboratory.
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