Just for fun, drive up Mills Avenue the 13 or so blocks north of Colonial Drive to Virginia Drive, before you hit Loch Haven Park. In that stretch, the odds and ends of mismatched businesses and structures are eye-filling, to say the least; there's Phúóng Dóng Restaurant & Club, Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors, Devotion Tattoo, Track Shack, Simonet Electronic, Feng Shui Concepts, Exotic Bonsai Gardens.
Everyone calls it the ViMi (Virginia-Mills) district, but that's an unofficial designation attributed to the early-settling gay community, not a term used in city-of-Orlando jargon. ViMi's boundaries -- also unofficial -- loosely incorporate a clutch of gay-related storefronts, as well as Asian markets and restaurants and a slew of other eclectic entries: machine shops, beauty salons, auto garages and miscellaneous repair shops. It's not downtown proper, but a colorful spillover on the other side of Colonial.
To some, the messy clutter is begging for a uniform makeover. To others, the urban-cool factor is irresistible, and they're moving their businesses into the neighborhood. Rent is cheaper than downtown, but the location is still centralized and well traveled, and parking's not a test of patience. Best of all, the sprawl has not yet been homogenized by corporate ventures. It's a bustling enclave of indie operations.
Among the new tenants are three of the cooler, edgier, string-of-accolades graphic-design companies in town -- Jeff Matz's Lure Design Inc., Julio Lima's Say it Loud and Tom Hope Graphic Design. In a way, their relocation is a statement against the orderly look and feel of the increasingly undiversified downtown and the mindset behind it. But really, they've parked in ViMi because that's where they want to be to ensure the growth and success of their highly competitive businesses. They do this even as Mayor Buddy Dyer and his team are crying out for downtown tenants of the smart, creative kind. To rub in it a little more, perhaps, there are bright-orange stickers showing up on area storefronts announcing the "ViMi Design District" -- another unofficial designation. While it's not exactly protest in the streets, it is a bit of self-promoting countercultural fun.
Tom Hope, an Orlando native, is enthusiastic about his new studio at 1221 N. Mills Ave., which doesn't really have a sign but can be spotted by the bright-orange construction net that serves as an awning, and the unpredictable images hanging in the front window. Hope shares the space with Julio Lima, a founder of the stellar Push Inc. ad agency. Lima ventured out on his own last December. He says he ran away from the corporate rat race to explore the ultimate work experience -- to be his own boss.
Hope and Lima maintain separate businesses. The small workroom they share has already doubled as an exhibition space for an art gathering they hosted and will likely do again.
Around the corner from the Hope and Lima studio, at 1009 Virginia Drive, are the new digs for Lure Design Inc. (www.luredesigninc.com). Lure's designs have been award-winners and show-stoppers for many years, both locally and nationally. With his personal support for the local arts community, Lure president Jeff Matz for years has branded the visual collateral for several heavyweight organizations and their events, including the Florida Film Festival and Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival.
Matz and associates Paul Mastriani and Kim Fox moved from an office on the downtown side of Colonial into this understated work space -- no fancy signage here either. It's a cozy, high-tech factory of sorts, where, of late, they've been inspired by hand-printing and other low-tech techniques for projects that include a new line of greeting cards.
Fox is an interesting addition to the Lure team. An artist in her own right, she participated in a group exhibition that recently closed at Gallery at Avalon Island. She is also a graphic designer and president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the national professional trade association. In October 2000, there were 20 charter members of Orlando AIGA (orlando.aiga.org); under her leadership, it's grown into a medium-sized chapter with 145 members.
Among her many roles, Fox is a mouthpiece for the local design community and the kind of person who can make an idea come alive. She is the one who saw through to completion the "ViMi Design District" sticker, designed by Hope, though it started as a joke. In a similar way, Fox is looking for a means by which she can meld her activism and network of talent to influence community issues such as voter registration, civil rights, overdevelopment, animal rights and so on. "I don't have a problem with going after what I want," she warns.
Fox's altruistic attitude is more or less matched by Matz, Hope and Lima, all of whom are members of the markedly free-thinking graphic-design collective called Eleethax ("elite hacks," get it?). They get together to talk, whine and indulge their creative whimsy outside of the money-making realm. Formed in 2001, Eleethax made their public debut in 2002 with an underground campaign: a 40-page, tabloid-sized, newsprint publication titled Open, printed and distributed at random with no advertising, bearing only graphic images in spot color that carried out the theme of "growth." It contained contributions from about 20 graphic designers, none credited individually, who printed this collective explanation in the issue:
"Eleethax: a somewhat spontaneous digital manifestation of the central Florida design community, composed of established and on-the-cusp art directors and designers. The stated goal? To engage each other critically and inspire each other creatively."
The members of Eleethax "have no ambitions but our own amusements," says Hope, who is as frustrated as his colleagues about the conservative nature of Orlando business and its general goal of maintaining the status quo. "We are people who care about design -- besides just making money," he says of the group's bond. "We are agents of change."
Indeed, there has been a ripple effect: Open was recognized by Communication Arts, the bible for graphic designers and any other professionals in the visual communication field. Eleethax was one of the winners in the highly prestigious 2002 "Interactive Annual" competition, in the self-promotion category. The artists immortalized read like a who's who of the Orlando arts community: Jamie Bogner, Sean Brunson, Steve Carsella, Billy Davis, Jenise Oberwetter Davis, Kim Foxbury, Jane Harrison, Klaus Heesch, Tom Hope, Bryan Kriekard, Julio Lima, Tom Macaluso, Paul Mastriani, Jeff Matz, Andi McNamara, Larry Moore, Thuan Hguyen, Doug Scaletta, Thomas Scott, Scott Sugiuchi and Mike Witt.
Eleethax also won recognition in late February from the Orlando Advertising Federation at its 37th annual Addy awards competition, winning the Best of Collateral category. They went on in May to win a Gold Award from the American Advertising Federation's district competition.
Themed around the concept of "security," the second issue of Open was released earlier this year and is still creating some buzz with its bold, black-and-yellow striped cover. There's been some discussion of another issue, but there are no definite plans. The members of Eleethax just make it up as they go along, staying true to their inner motivations. All the more powerful then, that Eleethax is winning awards, which Hope and Lima think is kind of funny, but validating nonetheless.
So while the orange "ViMi Design District" stickers are playful, they do project a stubborn vision for the area as a recognized haven for creative refugees. And you've got to give all involved credit for daring to be different. It will be interesting to hear how the city responds to this low-key bravura, as downtown continues to lose favor as the desirable place for local independent businesses to set up shop.