The “Curious” Case of Michael Korfhage

An illustrator sought out by Warby Parker, TIME, and many others, Korfhage tracks his journey from outsider to entrepreneur.

Michael Korfhage, Watkins College of Art

By Lily Kane

When Michael Korfhage was an illustration student, he decided he needed to create a visual signature. The image that came to him was a birdhouse. “Their design is open-ended, they’re not alienating. I love them,” Korfhage explains.

Visitors to this year’s American Artisan Festival in Nashville’s Centennial Park were treated to Korfhage’s birdhouse vision as public art writ large—wooden, nine-foot tall illustrated sculptures titled Dwellings. While this was his first foray at this scale and in this medium, Dwellings had the playful, friendly quality that makes you want to befriend Korfhage’s work. In his world, the clouds and animals bear smirks and smiles. His style is warmly inviting and feels genuinely excited to be seen. Indeed, it draws you right in.

For his commercial illustration, Korfhage’s website cites mid-century design as an influence, and it’s definitely a top note. There are references throughout, from Atomic Age-inspired symbolism, to syncopated, jazzy line work and hand-drawn typography that call to mind Alvin Lustig’s iconic book covers from the era.

It makes sense, since Korfhage’s earliest visual imprint was what he refers to as the “awesome time capsule of nostalgia and old graphics” represented in the boxes of story books, board games and toys faithfully archived by his grandparents. In particular, the anthropomorphized farm equipment in the children’s book “Corny Cornpicker Finds a Home,” published by John Deere and illustrated by Roy Bostrom, informed the young Korfhage’s creative development. “The lesson from the book is a great one, too,” he says, “Take care of your tools, and they’ll take care of you.”

There have definitely been periods of feast and famine, but it's awesome to make a living drawing.

In Korfhage’s hands, the energy and optimism of these post-World War II era design elements are given a modern-day upgrade. His style is cognizant of the outsized influence of technology, but old-school accessible enough to still begin every project with his favorite tools—a pen and a piece of copy paper.

What’s on his mind lately is the influence of regional outsider art. The pure authenticity that it embodies is a million miles away from the ‘authenticity’ used as a buzz word for social media branding, and Korfhage is drawn to this distillation. “Outsider art, or folk art, like that of Tennessee artist Homer Green, is often intuitive, and made in a vacuum,” he explains, an inspiration in a world where social media makes it so easy to constantly compare yourself to other artists. “It’s the genre of art I go back to when I need to remind myself that the rules are wide open, and I don’t have to be so worried about making mistakes.”

With work in his portfolio for nationally—and globally—renowned clients like TIME, The Boston Globe, Warby Parker, Fast Company and the card company American Greetings, Korfhage is able to look at his career from the vantage point of having known success. From his home office just outside of Nashville, though, he remains engaged and excited about what’s next. Or, in his words, “transmitting enthusiasm and curiosity.”

Michael Korfhage, Illustrator

Korfhage allows that, “There have definitely been periods of feast and famine, but it’s awesome to make a living drawing.” And he does, in a room above his garage, often joined by his young child and his dog while employing his freelancer hack—listening to sports talk radio to simulate a crowded, conversation-filled office.

Korfhage started school at another college with a vague plan to pursue graphic design and create logos, but as his practice deepened, he felt himself seeking a shift and transferred to Watkins. “I’d never even heard the word illustrator used to describe a profession until Watkins,” Korfhage says. He knew he was on the right track.

Through Watkins he landed an internship with illustrator and instructor Travis Foster, cleaning files for one of Foster’s popular children’s books. There, Korfhage says, “I got a front-row seat to seeing how the day-to-day worked and he encouraged me to just jump in and do it. I’ve been drawing professionally since then.”

Michael Korfhage, Illustrator

Watkins was also instrumental in helping Korfhage develop the confidence and skillset to market his creative work. “I could immediately tell the direction people wanted to go was ambitious and the students were pushing each other in a really positive way, even if it was subconsciously,” he remembers. “The informal critiques we had outside the classroom taught me how to explain my decision making, justify why something works, or recognize how it fell flat.”

Korfhage adds, “The students in my studio class helped me practice for the real world where you have to speak with clients and do that dance where you’re educating, and selling, them on your idea.”

After graduating he worked hard to develop his own style, and it paid off. In 2018, Korfhage was brought onto the roster of the New York illustration agency Lindgren & Smith. Following his own advice to “surrender yourself to not being embarrassed or over-thinking how it sounds and just ask,” he reached out to them through their website with samples of his work. Principal Piper Lindgren says the firm was initially taken with his “fun style and colors” and that he’s been “a dream to work with.” For his part, Korfhage says, “I credit them with helping me make another leap in my career. They pushed me and my work with their enthusiasm and years of experience.”

Michael Korfhage, Watkins College of Art

These days, Korfhage is also grappling with being a creative professional in the “New Nashville” version of the city where he grew up. “Too often I’m approached for a project by someone telling me how hot Nashville is and that it’ll be great exposure,” he says, ruefully.

Unpacking it further, Korfhage notes, “Nashville is definitely a place where people come to ‘make it.’ The advice I give to students, if they ask, is to not rely on making it, being discovered by someone with a pile of cash, or waiting for a singular breakthrough moment that sets up your career for perpetual success. Instead, be proactive, and think like an entrepreneur. Go out and find or make opportunities for yourself.”

This was the kind of self-propelling ambition broadcast by his Watkins classmates and, combined with being friendly and accessible, it’s a formula he truly believes in. “Not to sound hokey,” Korfhage says, “but it puts a huge smile on my face to make a client happy.”