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Local Designer, Dad Carving Out Niche in Covington

The view from Austin Dunbar’s second floor studio in downtown Covington is amazing. The large windows that line the front of the space overlook one of the city’s busiest intersections at Pike and Madison. From a chair in the corner of the room, you can see the Madison Theater, the Cathedral Basilica, and the future site of the Hotel Covington to the south. 
Across the studio, local designer and dad of three Austin Dunbar sits working at an old tanker desk that was used on an army depot in the 1940’s. His computer screen, much like the walls in his office, is filled with various designs and typefaces. As a freelancer, Dunbar works alone, focusing all of his attention on the project in front of him. For as long as he can remember, Dunbar says that he talked about opening his own studio, not knowing if or when it would ever happen. Eventually, it did.
Dunbar’s career in design began immediately after attending school at Northern Kentucky University. After a brief stint at Cincinnati-based ad agency Landor as an intern and freelancer, Dunbar landed a job at Powerhouse Factories designing gig posters and working in strategy branding. Feeling a need to venture out, Dunbar moved to Chicago to be with his wife Ashley and took a position with a firm named Soulsight, designing brands for MillerCoors and crafting designs for the beer and spirits category. 
Following the birth of his second of three daughters, Dunbar and his family moved back to Cincinnati to be closer to relatives and Austin accepted a job at LPK. Despite working with several big name brands, Dunbar couldn’t shake the idea of working on his own.
“After our second child (Sophia) was born, it really straightened me out in some regards and made my ‘want to’ align with my ‘will have’. I found myself actively designing once the rest of the house went to bed.”
A short time later, Dunbar left LPK and the stability of a full-time job.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make the transition without my family, that’s for sure. Having a family made me work harder and hungrier to do something for the better of all of us.”
In June of this year, Dunbar made the decision to open his studio at the corner of Pike Street in what was once the Covington Arts District. Dunbar, who had lived in Covington for four years before leaving for Chicago, says the city was the obvious place to set up a brick-and-mortar studio. Now that he’s back, Dunbar hopes to be a part of the change that’s happening in Covington’s urban core. In fact, painted on the windows in Dunbar’s studio is the phrase “The Old Has Gone & The New Has Come”. 
“It’s actually a verse from (the Book of) Corinthians, but I feel it applies to my drive to better everything the studio does each day,” he says. “I think it can also serve as a mantra for our city during this time of transition. With coming here, I hope I can bring a level of relativity – having lived here and knowing Covington and where’s it’s been – but also contribute new perspectives and insightful solutions that propel the city’s growth toward it’s exciting future.”
Dunbar says his passion for design began at an early age. Growing up as the son of a part-time DJ (and Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force) in upstate New York, Dunbar was surrounded by thousands of CDs and vinyl albums and was fascinated by cover artwork.
“At one point I remember going through Nirvana’s Nevermind CD booklet and realizing the baby water image matched the one-color water halftone on the actual CD. Obviously, I had no clue what any of that meant at the time but I knew it stood together as a cohesive piece that looked awesome.”
Today, Dunbar, like many great designers, finds inspiration in many different things. From the tactile and textural quality of fabrics and woods to the type on rusted metal signs, Dunbar feels as though there is a place for each in his work. A lover of words and wordplay, Dunbar also pulls inspiration from how things are said and structured.
“I find myself jotting down candid verbiage in my phone from people, podcasts, or someone having a conversation on the street. Later, I’ll pull those notes back out when designing personal work.”
Although his studio has been open just a few short months, Dunbar is focused on the future of his company, Durham Brand & Co. Next month, his work for beer company Lucky Merlin will be featured in the design book Cool Beer Labels: The Best Art & Design from Breweries Around the World and Dunbar hopes to build upon that success. 
“There’s a lot of work, locally and internationally, coming out soon that I’m excited to share. With regards to the business, I’d eventually like to bring two to three people onboard and start talking in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. I have all kinds of goals for DB&Co. and myself as a family man.”
Before he has a chance to go into details, however, Dunbar’s phone rings. After mouthing an apology, Dunbar swivels in his chair and turns to face his computer. For a few minutes, the only sounds that can be heard are faint clicks as he glides the mouse across the desk with his right hand. Apparently, Dunbar has a deadline to meet and his client has some last minute changes. Not wanting to get in the way, I show myself out and head down the stairs, leaving Dunbar alone again to work in silence.
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Written by Jerod Theobald, managing editor