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Grammy winner settles back into life in Boston

Posted by Christina Jedra  March 11, 2013 02:04 PM

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Photo courtesy of Fritz Klaetke

Upon returning to a snow-covered Boston from Los Angeles, Fritz Klaetke, like many other Boston residents, went to work shoveling out his driveway. 

His South End neighbors took the opportunity to both congratulate him and joke around. “Shouldn't you have someone shoveling for you now?” some asked.

After all, it isn’t every day that a graphic designer comes home a Grammy winner. Klaetke won the award for Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package for his work on “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection.”  The boxed set -- a 150-page book of photos, essays and three CDs put out by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings-- is the biggest commemoration of the folk singer’s work ever compiled.

Klaetke, a Detroit native, never dreamed of winning a Grammy when he started his creative services agency, Visual Dialogue, with a friend, while a senior at the University of Michigan. 

His early career was spent working on smaller projects, from creating a CD package for a friend's band, to his first big break designing a trophy for the Coaches' Choice Trophy, an award sponsored by Domino's Pizza that is given to college football players in each of the four NCAA divisions.

With an architect for a father and an artist for a mother, Klaetke had roots in the arts.
 “If you mix the DNA of an architect and a painter, you get a graphic designer,” he laughed. “I had no choice in the matter – I had to be this.”

He traces his interest in graphic design back to his sophomore year of high school, when he was introduced to commercial art. He was intrigued that he could use his artistic skills to solve real-world problems, he said.  One of his assignments for a commercial arts’ course was to redesign Tylenol packaging so that consumers would believe the bottles were safe, after the company's scandal with poisoning.

“I was just hooked from that minute,” Klaetke said of the assignment. He thought, “Sign me up – this is what I want to do.”

Afterlaunching his business, Klaetke learned by doing, he said. If someone asked whether his company designed websites, he would say 'yes,' then try it.

 “I felt that I would learn as much and grow as much working for myself, if I kept kind of challenging myself with projects,” he said.

In 1989, Klaetke and his business partner used money from their first big paycheck – the design of the Coaches' Choice trophy – to set up shop in Boston, a location they chose at random. 

“We liked it. We felt there were enough business opportunities here, and it was too crazy to go to New York,” he said.

Since settling in Boston, the company has taken on all kinds of projects, including working for non-profit arts organizations and designing book covers, logos, websites and more. All of these led to the Woody Guthrie project.

“Projects like this Woody one don't come around everyday,” Klaetke said.

Nor does an invitation to attend the Grammy’s, an event he described as “wild . . . from a perspective of a person who has only watched from TV.” He ran into several celebrities, including Esperanza Spalding, a jazz singer and former student at Boston's Berklee College of Music, and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Inside the Nokia Theatre for the pre-telecast, Klaetke and his wife, Susan Battista, took seats up front. “It was a pretty fun and amazing experience,” said Battista, who is a principal and strategy director of Visual Dialogue. They felt lucky just to be there, husband and wife said.

“The work was so outstanding, we thought we had a really good shot, but you never really think about winning. You don't want to jinx yourself or get your hopes up,” Battista said.

“I really was not thinking it was going to be my name” announced as a winner, Klaetke added.
When his name was called, he said the moment was “surreal.” He worried about getting to the stage quickly, after being warned that if he took too long, he might not get to speak. Although he didn't have a speech written out, he said he had given some thought to what he wanted to say.

“I was able to get out something halfway coherent,” said Klaetke, who thanked people connected to the project and gave a shout-out to Guthrie. “That's why I'm here,” he said. “His words and his lyrics today are even more powerful.” Klaetke also spoke of the value of package design in an era of downloaded music – comments that brought cheers from the crowd.

Now settled back to work in Boston, Klaetke said he views the Grammy as an honor that may help to open some doors.

“I think it's definitely one of those things that is a great conversation starter,” he said. “Where it will lead, who knows.” He said he is in talks about doing a similar box design for another well-known musician.

Once the Grammy arrives with his name etched on it, Klaetke said he plans to host a celebratory party before placing it on a shelf and moving on to the next chapter. For now, his day-to-day life is largely unchanged, he said, joking that he still must endure his daughter yelling at him in the morning about getting ready in time for school.

“It brings me back down to Earth,” he said.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.

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