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Despair in Fashion

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Justin Sewell isn’t perfect. He admires “outliers” like Ralph Nader (even after my insistence that Nader can never, ever be forgiven for helping to botch the 2000 presidential election).

So what? Perfection is boring and overrated. After visiting Sewell’s office and warehouse, I’m convinced he and his business partners have diagnosed the malaise, disillusionment and nausea of our age. The name of their business is Despair Inc. Given this year’s politics and Legislature, Despair is fittingly located in East Austin.

Go there, and you’ll see Despair’s signature posters. One proclaims: “Nothing says ‘you’re a loser’ more than owning a motivational poster about being a winner.” Another: “Failure: when your best isn’t good enough.” And: “Perseverance: the courage to ignore the obvious wisdom of turning back.” These lithographs, Despair’s website says, are “the strongest depressant you can get without a prescription.”

Justin Sewell, his identical twin brother Jef and Lawrence Kersten founded Despair in 1998. All three were kind of depressed at the time.
For several years during the early 1990s, the three had worked for a Dallas Internet startup. It was the dinosaur age of the Internet, when change was breakneck and the future was unlimited. After beginning as temps, the Sewells eventually managed the firm’s marketing and web departments. Kersten, who has a doctorate in organizational communication, managed customer support.

“The company attracted the kind of people like us who worked there for love—not money,” Justin Sewell said. “People would sleep in the offices, work all night. We all loved it.”

They might have worked for love, but they were also promised ownership shares in the company. “We were strung along by promises all along, but nothing was written down,” Sewell said. “We were considered the lucky-to-be-here college dropouts by the engineers in the company.”

Around this time, when promises were being made and broken and new promises offered up, Sewell found himself leafing through a Successories catalog. This catalog is the source of all things inspirational and aspirational. It’s filled with homilies written on beautiful landscapes and proclaiming deep thoughts like, “Change your thoughts and you change the world!” and “Follow your dreams!” and “Live boldly!” You can almost hear Oprah reading them aloud.

Sewell was inspired in a dark and subversive way. He and his sidekicks began making parodies of Successories’ posters to amuse themselves and their friends. They kept their project secret, Sewell said, so their employers wouldn’t see them as a pool of “corrosive negativity in the workplace.” They were still hoping they’d get stock options. They still believed—a little.

In 1998, a larger company acquired their startup. The startup president rewarded only a few employees, all engineers like himself. The creatives—like the Sewell brothers and Kersten—got a small check and a handshake for their dedication. They pooled their checks and started Despair.

Thirteen years later, Despair has prospered. Its revenues for posters, coffee mugs, T-shirts, calendars and other paraphernalia that embrace the depressing truths of 21st-century life have climbed to a few million dollars a year, with a customer base of 500,000. Its mockery of upbeat business and personal platitudes prove there’s a growing audience for Sewell’s belief that, “You can’t commodify motivation,” and, “We still live in a world of decay, and death awaits us all.”

Despair offers posters and sayings for everything that ails Texas liberals this spring and summer:

The future? See the “Despair” poster: “It’s always darkest before it goes pitch black.”

The present? See the “Challenges” poster: “I expected times like this—but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long and so frequent.”

Tea Partiers? See “Idiocy”: “Never underestimate the stupidity of people in large groups.”

The Legislature? See “Government”: “If you think the problems we create are bad, just wait till you see our solutions.”

Order yours now. Just to be safe, order in bulk. Despair may be in fashion for a long, long time.