Arch City Chronicle, December 2006
By Jennifer Dockery
Bill Michalski had warned me that he might be a little late for our interview. The 28-year-old creator of Big Small Town Designs had a meeting at Grove Furnishings on Morgan Ford. He hoped to place his St. Louis-themed greeting cards in the store. The meeting was a success, and for a little over 12 hours, Grove Furnishings was the newest location to carry Michalski’s Christmas, birthday and thank you cards.
By the next afternoon, Kayak’s Coffee would have that distinction.
When Michalski (pronounced Ma-hull-ski) arrived, he was exhausted. He, his mother and his sister had spent most of the previous night stamping 600 envelopes and attaching price tags to cards and postcards for the Mad Art Gallery’s Rock n’ Roll Craft Show.
“The cards certainly exhibit enthusiasm for St. Louis and its quirks, and appreciating the mundane, [things that] could be overlooked in everyday life—park shelters, parking lots, trashcans,” said Michalski.
Big Small Town Designs refers to the common saying “St. Louis is like a big small town.” The cards feature everyday scenes that, according to Michalski, many people overlook.
“They offer a different view. The sort that when you put it back in front of people in a card they say, “Oh, I do notice it now, and it is funny,” he said.
Michalski’s favorite card features a brick ranch-style house in South St. Louis. Aluminum awnings shade the windows, icicle lights hang from the roof and a light-up manger scene covers the front lawn. The inside of the card reads “The little Lord Jesus asleep in the zoysia.”
“It’s the iconic St. Louis house. The nativity scene is lovingly placed in the zoysia, which, of course, has no snow. To me, tan zoysia grass says winter in St. Louis more than snow does,” said Michalski. (“zoysia” is that solid mat of crunchy, brown that most city lawns turn into during the winter.)
Other Christmas cards feature a deflated snowman (Christmas got you down?), an actual snow-covered city street (Wishing you a peaceful Christmas) and a montage of donut shop signs (Hope you get a lot of dough this Christmas).
Several of Michalski’s cards feature sign collages from around the St. Louis area. “Greeting from North County” shows 20 municipalities located in the northern reaches of the county. For the “All signs point to a great birthday” card, Michalski drove across the state looking for lettered highway signs. (He never did find a Highway I or R. These two are Photoshop creations.)
Michalski, a graphic designer in the Washington University Public Affairs department, designs all of the cards himself. Long-time friend Karen Czmarko helps with the captions, and his sole investor is his mother.
“Should I admit that publicly?” he laughed.
Michalski finds most of his subjects by just randomly driving around.
“Sometimes, I’m looking for specific things like the highway signs. But, I’m still in my car, I still have my camera, and I’m still keeping an eye out for something interesting,” said Michalski. He described himself as a “point-and-click man.”
According to Michalski, the response to his cards has been positive. He feels the humor reflects a younger city resident’s viewpoint—kitschy, yet comforting.
“People that appreciate city living… are going to appreciate these cards because they understand that the city is gritty,” said Michalski with a grin.
Although he has been designing cards for years, Michalski incorporated his company this past spring with the help of the city’s Business Assistance Center.
“I’ve never taken a business class. I was an art major,” he shrugged.
Since then, he has set up a website, www.bigsmalltown.com, with the help of web designer Janet Lackey, and his cards are available at several stores including Left Bank Books, Phoenix Rising, and Digs.
“It’s been fun,” said Michalski. “I like meeting independent small business owners, especially in the city. They are motivated, original people. People who make me excited to live in St. Louis.”
After Christmas, Michalski hopes to expand Big Small Town’s line of cards. He already has get-well and wedding cards in the works. Ideally, Michalski wants to make the company more of a year-round venture.