Drew Hodges was a young designer in 1996, living in New York and making album covers for Aerosmith, Lisa Loeb and other pop stars. He was interested in Broadway shows but thought Broadway marketing campaigns were boring.
Then, along came “Rent.”
His firm, SpotCo., designed most of the ads for “Rent” and became Broadway’s leading design firm over the next 20 years. SpotCo. created campaigns for “Chicago,” “Hamilton” and dozens more. Hodges, who sold the firm five years ago, lives in Portland and has written a coffee-table book, “On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution.” It’s a book about Broadway told from a design perspective by someone well-schooled in American culture.
Hodges, 53, will talk about his work and sign copies at 6 p.m. Thursday at Maine College of Art in Portland. He will join MECA’s graphic design faculty in the fall and teach an entertainment design class called Emotional Branding.
SpotCo. got the “Rent” job because of a connection with music producer David Geffen. Hodges pitched marketing “Rent” with a contemporary voice, directly to a young audience. He wanted to bring the same exuberance to billboards in Times Square that he did to album covers on music racks. “We were a small firm, and we felt like theater was exciting to us, but the way it was marketed looked a lot like the ’70s. It seemed outdated,” he said. “We came in as young people looking to disrupt the usual using a rock ‘n’ roll tool kit.”
SpotCo. created the branding image for “Rent” – stenciled block capital letters – by spending a few dollars at a hardware store on stencils, paint and masking tape. The campaign was gritty and rough, and felt more like Guns N’ Roses than Broadway. It was emotional, and felt personal.
Hodges, described by a contemporary in the book as “a tall, Chelsea hipster with the nerdy glasses and a plaid shirt,” was at the epicenter of the New York theater scene. Unlike in the music business, where Hodges could expect no more than a 30-second phone conversation with someone like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, on Broadway he had the ear of producers, writers and actors.
He talked about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with playwright Edward Albee and haggled with actress Nicole Kidman about what to wear – or more precisely, what not to wear – to make her look sexier in a photo shoot for “The Blue Room.”
“They would be better if I was naked, yes?” she asked.
Hodges bought a place in Cushing several years ago and came to Maine from New York often. When he sold the firm, he had more time for Maine. He and his partner kept the place in Cushing and bought a home in the Deering neighborhood of Portland. Hodges consults with SpotCo. and travels to New York frequently. He can leave his house at 6 a.m. and be the first in the Manhattan office by 8:30, he said.
“Everything is easier here,” he said. “The size is right.”
He’s helping to design a “Hamilton” calendar and will stay busy at MECA beginning in the fall. Otherwise, he’s considering his design opportunities and is intrigued by the idea of starting a small design house in Portland. “The firm is now 120 people,” he said of SpotCo. “When I started it, it was five. I want to go back to being five.”
Hodges grew up in Hyde Park, New York, on the Hudson River, the hometown of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He moved to Manhattan to attend the School of Visual Arts and didn’t leave until he moved to Portland. He’s always appreciated Maine’s visual arts community and cites the work of Robert Indiana and Alex Katz as reasons he wanted to see Maine. Living here, he’s learned to love much more.
“You come for the art, you stay for the food,” he said.