Los Angeles has a strange relationship with its sports franchises. Since many of its residents are transplants, the rooting allegiances can be spread throughout the rest of the country. Additionally, with the return of franchises like the LA Rams after decades in a different market, it has left people who were born and raised in the city to consider if they want to rekindle a romance with an old flame. Enter National Forest, a design collective made up of LA natives, Justin Krietemeyer and Steven Harrington, who specialize in work that exudes whimsy, artistry, and humor — boasting a roster of past and current clients such as Nike, Kith and IKEA.
National Forest’s challenge was to launch an activation for the Rams’ final home game at the LA Coliseum before the team moves to Inglewood next season. Both Krietemeyer and Harrington didn’t grow up on traditional team sports — preferring the allure of skateboarding, surfing, and graffiti to traditional Xs and Os — yet the Rams saw their ability to take their collective LA memories and distill them into a fan-friendly experience.
We recently caught up with Krietemeyer and Tyrel Kirkam, Vice President and General Manager of Merchandise for the Rams, to discuss National Forest’s process as a studio, and the Rams’ feelings on their “LA Bold” activation.
How did you guys come up with the name National Forest?
Krietmeyer: We wanted a name for the company that represented something that was special and felt good. It seemed like something that everyone can see as being important. And it’s a place that you go to for fun experiences and memories that is mysterious and worth protecting.
How do you typically approach your work?
Krietmeyer: The type of work that we’ve tried to create always comes from our personal space. The impulses that we’ve had both as artists and designers are to create things that are cool. The interpretation of what’s cool is up to whoever’s calling it that way. And it seems like a fickle term, but we say it very often: “Is this cool?” That’s one thing we’ve always been interested in.
We also liked the idea of being inclusive. But lots of times things that were very cool were not inclusive, and the things that were super inclusive were not super cool. We’ve just been fortunate enough to kind of create this entity that allows us to adhere to cool, interesting places and things. And we find folks to collaborate with, we get invited to things that we otherwise didn’t even know that we had a voice or place in, which is kind of relevant to this Rams conversation where suddenly we’re working on football stuff.
From a trend standpoint, we’re starting to see athletic teams and franchises work with artists who are a good cultural fit. I look at something like the partnership between the Brooklyn Nets and HAZE as a good representation of a symbiotic relationship between new commerce opportunities, narrative, and an artist. How did you guys at the Rams decide that you wanted to rebrand the Rams’ iconic imagery?
Kirkam: It’s interesting, I actually used to work with the Nets. The last project I worked with on was with HAZE.
We landed on this initiative around the Seattle game of “LA Bold.” We knew that all cities can have loud fans, but LA Bold was truly going to be an expression of Los Angeles through the arts. We partnered with Justin and Steven and National Forest and allowed them to excel in what they’re really good at: creating an environment that was not only well received by our fans, but also praise and accolades from our peers around the industry.
Is the path forward going to rely heavily on third-party partnerships with artists?
Kirkam: I think it’s important as an organization to be standalone, but also align yourself with the right partners that allow you to amplify your cool. We’re constantly looking at those opportunities. National Forest happened to be at the top of that list.
We want to take that up a notch and really build with a fully immersive holistic approach to a third-party partnership. I can’t speak enough to the partnership component. It’s just a testament to putting the right collective minds together, and seeing what results ultimately come out of there.
How did you approach this from a creative standpoint?
Krietmeyer: We start by asking, “what can we add to this?” “What do we add to the conversation?” Like really what do we know? We said it in multiple meetings, “we don’t know much about football.” We really know our city and we know culture. That’s been our funny path into sports. We started making skateboard graphics and doing surf stuff and snowboard stuff, which we knew very well, but there’s a cultural component to those sports that are not just the sport themselves. It’s like how you post up after a skate session. There’s a culture and and we love that. And then we got very good at talking about that through imagery or photography. It’s a new, fun, and exciting way to talk about sports. Going to a Rams game — whether you like the game itself or not — is fully enjoyable. It’s as much a part of this city as going to the beach or to a park.
How do you guys evaluate something like this in terms of a positive impact?
Kirkam: The goal is really engagement and offering our fan base a new perspective and outlook on how our brand can be represented. In this case, the ability to touch so many of our digital social channels with this look. Our diehards loved it, but I think we also were able to lure some new fans.
As younger generations turn their attention more and more to technology and smartphones, do you think more organizations are going to turn to this sort of strategy to keep eyeballs on the game?
Kirkam: For us, it’s more that when we can find authentic means to tap into new audiences, we are going to do so 10 times over. Los Angeles is a very crowded marketplace. To be able to reimagine our game day presentation on national television with an iconic artist and agency here in Los Angeles that we could leverage, we’re proud of that.
Krietmeyer: We are all very aware that things need to sell, but that was rarely the conversation. In fact, probably never. The strategy was as simple as just making something cool. Let’s just chase that.
Editor’s note: This interview was condensed for clarity and length.