Friday, June 14, 2002

Lavender Up Close and Personal: Jennifer Gordon

(Article published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #184, June 14, 2002)

PHOTO: Jennifer Gordon

The items surrounding Jennifer Gordon in her South Minneapolis basement office can be divided into two categories: A) computer equipment, and B) kitsch of the best, or in her words the “cheesiest,” kind. Her office is a perfect reflection of Gordon’s life these days—which is a good thing, since lately that’s where she seems to be spending most of it.

You know those “Velvet Elvis Design” ads (“Where Graphic Design Is King”) you always see in Lavender? Jennifer Gordon is the woman behind Velvet Elvis Design. (She says her nickname, “Velvis,” “has grown on me—like mold, but I’ve finally gotten used to it.”) As Senior Creative Designer for Lavender Magazine she creates many of the other ads and many pages of editorial as well, and she also helps with proofreading.

And her work for Lavender is only the tip of the iceberg. Gordon, through Velvet Elvis Design, produces an astounding amount and variety of both printed materials and websites. For many years much of it has been for the GLBT community and much has been pro bono: Pride logos (in 1998 and 2000), flyers, buttons, Pride Guides; ads and logos for bars and clubs; logos, flyers and program books for the leather community (she holds the title of Ms. Minnesota Fantasy 1999), the women’s/lesbian community, and the Imperial Court of Minnesota. She designed this year’s Nebraska Pride logo and will be creating their website.

Then there are her non-GLBT clients, which include realtors, web-radio stations, mail-order companies, and an auto-parts supplier. “Hipsterz,” which are journals and diaries that she designed, are available at a SuperTarget near you. Her work is, seemingly, everywhere. No wonder she spends so much time in front of her computer screen.

Born in Minneapolis, she attended third through sixth grades in Redondo Beach, CA, seventh grade in Minneapolis, then eighth through tenth grades in Hollywood (John Marshall High). Then, she says, “I dropped out, got my GED, got married and got divorced.” She considered being a lawyer “because then I could spend all day in courtrooms, arguing.” She worked in real estate for awhile: “taxes, escrow, really boring stuff.”

In 1983 she went to California and made a vitamin catalog for her step-dad: “He gave me a catalog and a stack of paper and said ‘Here, learn how to do this.’ So I had a whole summer off, not wearing pantyhose to the office. Then when the catalog was done I got a job where I had to wear pantyhose and do the whole escrow thing again. I lasted, like, two days—‘Fine, I give up, I’ll just go to art school.’ Which I should have done in the very beginning.”

She didn’t think she would get into Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), but she applied and was accepted. She proudly graduated MCAD in 1994, after which she sat in her basement and taught herself “everything that MCAD didn’t know they should teach me, like the whole web thing which was just getting going then and wasn’t a required course yet.”

She picked the name “Velvet Elvis Design” at 4 o’clock one morning “after trying a hundred other web domains and finding out they were all taken. I said it was ‘cheesy as a velvet Elvis’ that they were all taken, and click! Velvet Elvis was available.” Her partner at the time, Karen King, did a mean Elvis Presley karaoke imitation, which is where the phrase “Where Graphic Design is King” comes from. Gordon’s advertisements for Velvet Elvis often feature a crown, which makes sense in light of the “King” motto. And they always feature the image of a magic 8-ball, which Gordon says “just evolved.”

In 1998 she placed an ad with Lavender for one of her clients and placed an ad for Velvet Elvis Design at the same time. Shortly thereafter she got a call from the magazine asking her if she wanted to put together that year’s Capital City Pride book. She did, and she also ended up putting together the Twin Cities Festival of Pride book for 1998 and 1999. She’s been doing graphic production work for Lavender ever since.

Gordon is a high-femme lesbian. “I couldn’t imagine being anything else. Remember, I grew up in LA, where we wore makeup to school in sixth grade. And high heels, too.” She remembers “crying through my whole wedding when I was sixteen, just knowing I was doing the wrong thing,” but she didn’t really identify herself as a lesbian until seventeen or eighteen. “And then for awhile, every time I broke up with a girl I went out with a guy to see if I still hated it—for like five years. And then the last time I just said, ‘Well, you know you’re gonna hate it, so just save yourself the agony.’ So I did.”

One of the few things capable of getting Gordon away from her computer is her daughter, who is just finishing up third grade: “She’s doing great—she’s healthy, she’s bright, she’s artistic, she wants to be a veterinarian and a graphic designer.”

Gordon collects any kind of bad Elvis paraphernalia and anything else that is, in her words, “cheesy.” There are stuffed Gumby figures hanging from the ceiling in her office, and on shelves are many other examples of vintage kitsch “like the hula doll—it dances and plays music, so it’s very cheesy. Or a Chia Pet—it’s so cheesy you don’t have to take it out of the box.” She’s also on a Spam kick now, but those items are upstairs in the kitchen. Appropriately enough, she has two paintings of Elvis on velvet: one she bought, unframed, on Ebay for $40, and one a friend brought back from Mexico: “It cost $9—and that one has a frame.”

The fact that Gordon is a product of South Minneapolis crossed with Southern California has given her a unique aesthetic sensibility. She delights in retro-50s design, taking its “cheesiest” elements and making them into ironic fun. This design ethos is exuberantly displayed on her website, <>, where visitors will find a client list and examples of past work, jokes, music, poetry, links, all done in that inimitable Velvet Elvis style.

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