The story of Renata Graw’s ascent to success is one woven out of the places she’s been. Originally born and raised the vibrant cultural hub that is Rio, Renata recalls the edges of the map calling out to her at an early age.
“Between high school and college I took a year off and went backpacking. I had convinced my parents that I was going to take a German course and had it all planned out. After four months, I told them ‘I’m not coming back’ and that I was staying for a year.”
Despite her parents’ qualms, Renata’s sojourn proved to be an invaluable experience that would help set her on the path that she now walks today.
“I felt anxious to learn about the world. I wanted to learn and experience things. I had very little money, but that was fine.”
Renata explained that her experience growing up in Rio had, for better or worse, given her a more cavalier attitude about travel. She spent the entire year abroad, capping off her journey by taking the Trans-Siberian railway into China. When she returned home, she felt like a different person.
“Coming home was a shock. All my friends were now in college, and I had experienced so much. You shift your thinking when you travel, especially when you’re that young.”
Having seen so many different cultures and perspectives, Renata began questioning whether the decisions she was making about her life were natural ones, or rather ones imposed by the culture in which she was raised. Soon observations gained from her life abroad began swimming in her head, pulling her in a new direction.
“When I was in Europe I had this insight that everything around me was man-made. I was interested in objects and where they came from. We’re designing these things and then they become part of our lives.”
Her fascination with design was heightened by the stunning architecture that surrounded her in Europe. Though her home of Brazil had gorgeous natural sights, she had never been taken with architecture until her time in Europe provided her with a new lens with which to observe the world.
“I thought we needed more designers in Brazil.”
Shortly after her return to Brazil, Renata took up studying product design in Rio. While completing her degree she was able to secure an internship working for one of the few product design firms in the city. However, as the field of product design was relatively underdeveloped in Rio at the time, Renata couldn’t shake the feeling that she was stuck in a place that’s goals were misaligned with her own.
“I was interested in the softer side of design, like furniture—things without motors. They were doing washing machines and sewing machines. Very industrial.”
Still, this first internship was not without its merits. It just so happened that Renata started the exact same day as a new industrial designer from Germany by the name of Ansgar. The two were quick friends, and began dating a year after. Today, the couple have been married for 17 years.
Shortly after her graduation, Renata tried her hand at a small graphic design studio, a position she applied for at the urging of an old friend she had serendipitously run into at a gallery opening. Despite initial fears of being unqualified, given that her background was in product design rather than graphic, Renata began swiftly learning the trade.
A year later, Renata once again set out for a life abroad. This time, her husband Ansgar had been offered a position in Chicago. After a few months of waiting for their visas to be processed, Renata and Ansgar made the move.
“We brought a suitcase each. It made no sense to bring anything else.”
The ensuing years would be ones of tremendous growth for Renata. She had started working steadily as a designer in the city, but after obtaining her Green Card, the new sense of freedom allowed her to quit and pursue freelancing projects. During this time, she attended a summer workshop in Switzerland under the tutelage of Wolfgang Weingart.
“In his studio, I had this feeling there was so much more to learn. He was showing us a book by a previous student, Philip Burton, a professor at UIC. I remember thinking, ‘I want to study with this guy, I can learn a lot from him.’”
With that, Renata decided to go back to school and get her Master’s in Graphic Design at University of Illinois at Chicago. A fateful decision, for it was at this very school that Renata first met Jeremiah Chiu and Chris Kalis, two fellow designers with whom she would launch her own first studio: Plural.
“I was thinking this wasn’t going to work. I thought after three weeks they’d just say ‘You’re out.’ They were old friends so I thought I’d be the third wheel.”
Renata’s fears of being ousted early on were quickly assuaged; in fact, she proved to be one of the longest standing members. Chris left early on to become a professor and full-time musician, leaving Renata and Jeremiah to lead the studio themselves. The two produced a prolific catalogue of work, winning a number of awards in the design world.
“All the work that we did for free had a deal: we work for free but we do whatever we want. That’s the work that won the competitions. All the work we had to compromise didn’t win. Competitions are really designed for designers.”
After 7 years of successful cooperation, however, Renata’s partnership with Jeremiah came to an end. Jeremiah had set his eyes on a life on the West Coast, and in 2014 moved to Los Angeles. The two initially tried to maintain the studio in spite of the distance, but it became clear that the dynamic had changed.
“We tried to work remotely, but the relationship wasn’t the same. There’s a fluidity in a small office that was gone. There was a lot more effort to the internal processes. 2015 was the official end. It was really sad, but I think ultimately it was for the best.”
After divvying up their clients, Renata focused on moving forward. First, she had to find a new name for her new studio, a task that proved to be much harder than anticipated. Every time she felt she had found the perfect name, she discovered that it was already taken. In the end, she settled on a name she thought was a risk: Normal.
Renata and Crystal Zapata on a Normal Amsterdam studio tour. Photo credit: Alexa Viscius
Always fascinated by the idea of what was normal and who gets to define it, Renata related a vivid memory as one of the inspirations for her studio’s name.
“My husband and I went to Switzerland a couple years back and we were hiking in this remote mountain. We had very little food, but we knew there was a little hut restaurant up the mountain and asked if we could have breakfast. The woman there just said, ‘Yes.’ I said ‘What kind of breakfast do you serve and she just said ‘Normal breakfast.’ We looked at each other and said ‘What is a normal Swiss breakfast in up in the mountains?’ You know, what the hell is normal anyway?”
Though the sentiment behind the name was clear to her, Renata had some doubts at first about the wisdom of naming a graphic design studio Normal, given that the entire field revolves around creativity and innovation.
“You want to differentiate and not fit in. You want to be just different enough to be noticed, on that edge of normal.”
But Renata’s fears proved unfounded, and since its inception Normal has garnered some of the most sought-after commissions in the Chicago art scene. Just this last February, it was announced that Normal would be taking on its biggest project yet, working as one of the select few studios designing the Obama Presidential Center.
At the moment details on the project are strictly confidential, but Renata was able to share her team’s reaction to the news.
“When we got the call, we definitely had to pull out the Kleenex. This is a very humbling project. The only thing I can say is that we had a kickoff meeting with the whole team, and the feeling in the room is excitement and awe of the legacy we have to talk about.”
One of the reasons Renata feels so deeply about the Presidential Center project is that it in a larger sense reflects her own view of her new home. Though she discusses with candor the challenges of being an immigrant living in the United States, she believes it has provided her with the opportunity to maintain the best elements of her own cultural heritage while embracing the new ones she finds here. There is an optimism that she sees in the United States unlike anywhere else.
“There’s a sense that we can do anything in this country, and I’m inspired by that.”