Scott ‘ACID’ Chester

August 5, 2011

CP – What is ACID?

SC – ACID is a concept. Something to cause a ripple, a marker in history, before ACID and after ACID, two different worlds, nothing less.  A.C.I.D. stands for Arielle Chester Industrial Design, Arielle being the motivation to develop that ripple. Push the envelope, find the gap in the market and fill it with a creative solution or unique product bridging the past and the future.

CP – Arielle is your daughter?

SC – Arielle is my daughter, and at the time of conception, for lack of a better word, she would be going to college in 17 years, and Daddy would have to pay.

CP – When did you know that you wanted to be an artist?

SC – I have always been creative.  Designing my own toys for my own worlds created in any yard. Digging in the dirt of Ellaville, Georgia to create a Tonka truck town, or a multi-staged rally in the backfield of a school in Columbia Maryland. In the 70s when times were hard for my family there were no toys.  I created a landing bay for a fleet of space ships made of pin caps and cassette tapes, the push pin landing gear looking proportionately correct to the odd assortment of things that could be scale attack fighters. With a little heat and a bit of “cold working” the pins would support the plastic space armada and they would fly missions in pairs into the vast unknown of the living room but avoiding the giant ogre in the den watching ‘The Wide World of Sports’ or ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’.

CP – Drawing always came natural for you?

SC – My first recorded drawing was an 18″ sketch of Abe Lincoln from the image on the penny when I was 6 years old. That was in Hempstead Long Island.  From then on I made countless creative projects until my father got me a drafting table at 12 years old. My life changed at that point. All I wanted to do was wait till everyone went to bed, have some peace and quiet so I could draw for three or four hours.

CP – When did you start taking art in school?

SC – One day I was falling asleep in a Brooklyn catholic school.  The principal, Sister Eugenia came into the classroom and announced that there were applications in her office for The High School of Art and Design.  My life changed again.

CP – What did you focus on in high school?

SC – While at the H.S. of Art and Design (1980-84) I had a chance to try my hand at many different types of art. Graphics, airbrush, photography, fashion design, sculpture, drafting and a brand new technology in 1983, computer aided design! What the school couldn’t teach was what I learned when we cut class.  Graffiti, break dancing, video production, art gallery and show design, set design and an artistically competitive attitude which shows in any product requiring ACID art direction.

CP – Did you continue to study art after high school?

SC – I graduated high school after a junior year Executive Internship in a Madison Avenue graphics agency with such clients as Mon Cheri Chocolates, Ferrero Rochet, which also does a line of chocolates but holds such brands as Kender, Nutella, and Tic Tac. I got insider information about the success of the ‘New Coke’ campaign.  The goal was to quadruple Coca Cola sales in a three-month period.  Did you go out and buy new Coke when it came out? Did you buy New Coke and Coke Classic when it was put back on the shelves a month later to do the side-by-side comparison? Most Coke drinkers did.

CP – What about college?

SC – I got accepted to The Center for Creative Studies, College of Design in Detroit, Michigan.  That was number one of the top three design colleges as was rated by Forbes magazine in 1980. This was a design education program on steroids.  Art history, design history, auto design, design theory, geometry, and at a neighboring school called Wayne State production methods and football (this need something it’s incomplete).

CP – How was the football team?

SC – Actually we lost every game.  Well, all but one, the other team decided 6 degrees was too cold to play so we won by forfeit. The “CCS Insomniacs” were not destined for greatness.

CP – Did you find yourself drawn to one particular area of the education program at that school?

SC – At CCS I took my education into my own hands.  I designed my schedule for 21 credits where 16 is the max allowed by the head office. After my third semester the bursar’s office realized my overbooked class schedule and cut me back to 16 credits. I decided I wanted to go to the other two schools on the Forbes list to learn their design philosophy, so I transferred to Pratt Institute in my hometown Brooklyn, NY. There I designed tool sets for Black&Decker and the front door for GE’s Future House project. I also ran into my old high school crew at Pratt.  They had side work doing fantastic and elaborate paintwork in New York City’s many Mafia owned discos and night clubs.  After three semesters at Pratt and a year using their shop facilities to build my own projects as an alumni, one of which got me my first write up in The New York Times, I decided to go to California for another round of schooling at the Art Center in Pasadena.

CP – That’s a lot of moving around.  How long were you in school?

SC – I had been in school for five years, skipping 1987.

CP – What was it like going to so many schools with such different programs in a short period?

SC – When I entered the school in Pasadena, rumors of a spy from CCS were being circulated.  The students clammed up about their design projects and watched my every move.  Looking back I understand the two schools were in a fierce battle for the number one spot, and Art Center was not about to give CCS any clue of their methods.  As I walked from studio to studio students wrapped up their work so that I couldn’t catch a glimpse of what they were doing. As I made my way through the Industrial Design department, some students would follow me and ask questions about the CCS environment and curriculum.  As I got closer to the library I could hear loud reggae music echoing through the hallways. After a while my group of curious students grew, and I wanted to find out where the music was coming from, so that became the focus for everyone. As we approached the library we could see a large group of students amassed clambering over each other to see what we could not. I found a spot between some Japanese cameramen and a German photographer where I could see this boyish figure painting directly on the cement wall opposite the Library. Bright lights on tripods and a boom box blasting.  It was Keith Herring, a fellow NYC street artist and club goer enjoying worldwide fame at that time.  Months earlier we were hanging out on the lower east side at a VIP club called “It” inside a larger club called “The World” listening to Larry Lavan spinning and smoking heavily back when you could smoke in bars and night clubs in NYC.

CP – Were you always creative?  Did you find one area that you naturally gravitated towards?

SC – I knew I was creative, I knew I was an artist, but I had to decide if that creativity would be spent on music, film, design, or fine art. I chose industrial design because it incorporated drawing, developing, and sculpture.  What could be better than designing the future?  I designed furniture for a couple of clients from the notorious Drexel Burnham Lambert (Mike Milken, insider trading, Wall St. the movie).

CP – What exactly is industrial design?

SC – Industrial design is the art of making things better as technology improves. To solve problems with the old design, combine parts or make parts work better together. To refine the operation and make the object perform better for whoever is operating the designed thing. Developing the product to perform better for the end user or company who produces it. It’s anything where a person has to design something to solve a problem.  In my friend’s situation, it’s gates.  Someone wants something private yet beautiful.  They don’t want it to look like a prison.  So he’ll design falling leaves or something like that.  That way it looks beautiful and it’s secure at the same time.  All those years I had been building wooden ships, housing for toy cars and specifically purposed vehicles and gadgets as a kid, I had no idea that I had been playing with industrial design.  Now I was about to stop playing.

CP – What did you do when you finished school?

SC – I had only one shitty job out of college working just off Canal St. in New York City at Pearl Paint Art Store in the drafting furniture department.  Cheap and plentiful art supplies at the supermarket of the New York art world was the allure.  I had been painting racing mountain bikes and motorcycle parts in my basement in Brooklyn.  After a while I decided to get out of my basement and paint motorcycles full time in a shop in Queens.

CP – When and how did you originally get into cigars, what did you smoke?

SC – A friend of mine, Paul Steinman, was a guy who rented out movie equipment whenever a movie was being made in New York.  He has booms and trains, things like that, Dragon’s Head Productions. His father would always bring him Cubans.  We were kind of young, actually.  We’d go to his apartment on 5th Street on the lower east side in New York and smoke cigars and drink scotch.  We had gone on like that for years.  I got to learn about cigars just by smoking them.  Of course we got hurt going through the first couple of Cubans, sitting there turning green wondering what’s going on.  After a while you get your legs and understand how to enjoy it.  Then it becomes great.

CP – Not many people start with Cubans.

SC – I took whatever I could get my hands on.  Cigars and single malt scotches.  Paul had a coffee table that opened up.  Inside he had a bunch of super hi-end single malt scotches, as well as Cuban cigars.  I think we were about 26.

CP – How did you meet the guys from Drew Estate?

SC – Jon and Marvin would eat lunch in my studio just about every weekday.  They had an office on the 5th floor of the same building.  They were getting rid of a showcase, and I needed showcases for my trophies. That’s how we met.  Then they came down to see what I did in my studio.  Over the next couple years they would come down to my studio everyday at noon.  I’d just be waking up, then let them in and they’d eat lunch.  We’d smoke cigars and talk shit.  Then they’d go back upstairs and work.

CP – What cigars were they doing then?

SC – La Vieja Habana.  They used to sell La Vieja Habana at a cart in the World Rrade Center.  This was before ACID cigars.  Jon and I would start at the shop in Dumbo Brooklyn, drinking some scotch and smoking cigars.  We decided to take a walk.  We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge.  We walked up to Housen, which is a pretty long walk in NY.  We walked to 4th Street, which was where they had a magazine stand.  In back they had a humidor.  Jon and I were there looking at cigars, talking about different things, the packaging, looking at all the different aspects of the cigar world.  Some guy and the owner are also in the humidor.  The guy reluctantly asked the shop owner, “Do you have some cigar named La Vieja Habana?”  Jon was shocked and turned around, “What did you just ask for?” he said to the guy. He told him La Vieja Habana, and that it was his favorite cigar.  The guy loved them but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Jon said “I make them.”  The guy didn’t really believe Jon at first.  It was the Rosado if I remember correctly. It was funny because we were in sports gear, tank tops, and sneakers. We looked like city kids.  Jon couldn’t convince the guy it was his cigar.  After a while he bought into it but he thought we were pulling his leg.  I was amazed because this guy was asking about his cigar. I don’t even think people had cell phones then.  Beepers for sure.  I think that was in 1996.  We really got going in 1998.

CP – That’s when ACID cigars were released.  How did ACID cigars come to be, especially after getting spoiled in your early years with nothing but Cubans?

SC – At the time they had something going on with Drew Estate, but it fell through.  They came down into my office and they were really depressed.  They weren’t talking much, basically left the conversation up to me.  I asked them what was wrong.  We were smoking cigars and Jon had his back to the wall.  My back was to the window.  Jon was just sitting there in his funk, with his head sunk low.  Marvin had gotten up to go to the bathroom. Then out of no where Jon lifted his finger excitingly into the air, “Ah ha!” he said.  When Marvin came back into the room Jon looks at him and said, “He can do it!”  They were talking about me doing the packaging and design work for a cigar brand that would become ACID cigars.

CP – Back then, everything was going nuts and the cigars themselves were all very traditional.  How did the ACID cigars become what they are?

SC – I said that if it’s going to be an ACID product, it has to be a advancement, a step forward.  We didn’t want another cigar that was going to sit around on the shelf.  Obviously none of us are Hispanic, but Jon knows the artesian ways of manufacturing cigars.  Marvin knows all about the cigar industry, the history of it, and so on.  We can’t pretend to be Cuban or anything other than what we are, three kids from Brooklyn.  We didn’t want to act like something we’re not.  None of us could even speak Spanish then.  It’s all about flavor, changing and adjusting.  Snapple ice tea changed the game.  ACID cigars did the same thing.  We combined individual talents and made that happen.  It was something that reflected all of us.  At first we were going the traditional route.  Now at this time Jon and Marvin wanted to get to the tradeshow, what was then the RTDA.  They wanted to go there with product in hand.  I wanted to check out the product and see how we could modify it.  So we went to a strip club, the VIP club in New York.   We were smoking with the host.  A lot of the girls that worked there didn’t like the smell of our cigars.  That was our first “ding” moment, a light bulb went off in our hands.

CP – So at first you guys wanted something that was more traditional for ACID?

SC – At first we were going to do it as an American Indian, and very traditional style of cigar.  What Sir Walter Riley would have brought back to England.  Pure American tobacco, and so forth.  But we decided not to do it that way, and we couldn’t do it the Cuban way.  We wanted to bring something of our own to it.  We needed to add to the industry, not just copy what somebody else did.  The idea was to come up with a cigar that people could enjoy the smell and distinctively pick it out in a room of other smokers.  That’s what ACID is.  If you’re anywhere you can smell ACID over anything else.  Women are walking up to you now and asking what you’re smoking.  When the women want it, you know you’re on to something. Most of the guys around here, want the women’s interest.  So after going to the club that night, the smell and aroma was an area we wanted to address.  So that’s what we did.  Jon mainly, went on a rampage and sampled thousands of different things.  He was smoking so many cigars.  I was a little concerned for him.  But he dove deep and eventually narrowed it down to about 20 different things for us to try.  He spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor of some bodega.  He didn’t speak Spanish so he was a total gringo and no one took him seriously.  It’s not until later on that he got respect.  Now he is the saving grace for a lot of things in the industry.

CP – They have become the tip of the spear for what is a big movement in the industry.

SC – Cigar Safari wouldn’t have existed, for example, without Jon.  They are always trying to come up with new ways to think outside the box.  Nicaragua isn’t the largest country, and Esteli is a small remote town.  Now they are literally building communities around them there.

CP – How long did it take for ACID to become a cigar?

SC – We had to be at the RTDA, this was in 1998.  After all of that sampling, it took us about 8 months to get it right.

CP – Not many people know you were part of the whole process.

SC – Nope, I’m not just the model for the brand!

CP – I can’t believe all of the tobacco free Florida ads I am seeing now.  Especially the one with a baby crying, slowly panning out to a mother smoking a cigarette while driving with the windows up.

SC – Well maybe these commercials will make people think about themselves.  No one should smoke in the car with a child in the back seat, that’s abuse from the parent, not the cigarette.

CP – I’m sure a lot of our readers can remember the original DONK you had painted for Drew Estate.  That was incredible.

SC – With the early DONK, you could see depth in it.  It had perspective lines and no matter what angle you photographed it at or looked at it, you were always looking down the road into the distance.  The new DONK is a different concept but no matter what angle you see the car from, it’s going to fool you.  This car is going to be crazy.  Almost frightening.  But it’s not going to be super colorful and child-like.  It’s going to have an adult theme, meaning it follows adult values.  For example, if you were designing a meal you may put hotdogs together with mac and cheese.  If you wanted something a little more complex you put mac and cheese with truffles.  That’s what the new DONK is, mac and cheese with truffles.

CP – Besides the new DONK, you’ve also been working on the Checker Cab, which is getting close to being finished.

SC – Oh yeah.  Honestly, the Checker is more in depth than the DONK.  I uprooted the car.  The engine was rebuilt already just so it could run and I could test the suspension and various things on it.  It’s a new car from what it was.  It has a second lease on life.  Everything has been chrome plated if not polished or painted.  A lot more time and energy went into the Checker.  Jon’s car, the new DONK, was good and ready.  It didn’t need severe bodywork.  They drilled holes before to put on trim, and I wanted to eliminate trim since it wasn’t original with the car and it got in the way of the artwork.  So I filled those holes.  We found every little problem, nick and knack, and then solved it.  Even now after all those layers of paint and sanding, there are still little things that bother me.  As we go we’ll shave those things down.  The Checker is going to be more luxurious than you can believe.  We can’t wait to show it.  The dimensions of the scene that is painted top to bottom on the car, to the interior that brings you to another lavish world.

CP – I’m pretty excited for it.  It’s been a work in progress.

SC – It’s really going to be incredible.

CP – You also design motorcycles, toys, wheels, motorcycle helmets, clothing, among other things.  But one of the major things you like to do now is customize cars. How do you choose what you’ll work on?  What is the process if someone wants you to make a car for them?

SC – You find a car that’s in need of a second life.  When it comes into my hands, I take it completely apart.  People used to bring me cars and want certain things.  I, on the other hand wanted to collect a bunch of cars, ones that I consider ready to be classic.  Mostly from the 80s, maybe sought after or desirable.  Not from the 50s or 60s.  Most of the things I want to build are from the 70s and 80s.  I have a ‘68 Corolla, a ‘74 Corolla, two ‘87 Maserati’s, a ‘76 Porsche, and a ‘74 Mercedes, I have things like that. What I want to do is build them, bring them to car shows.  There is no better place for cigars than car shows.  It’s open air, talking about cars, the history of them, how someone first fell in love with one.  It’s a great time.  But I wanted my own vehicles so if people want to do any particular shows, I can do them since I have cars.  People with their own cars want to use them for their own purpose.  I want to put together cars that people find desirable.  We want to connect to the common guy.  You could put a Ferrari at the car show, but most everyone doesn’t drive a Ferrari.   Everyone may drive a Chevy truck.  So I’d rather customize a Chevy truck.  I even put my Lotus next to a Chevy truck at a show and more people go to the Chevy truck.  It’s America.

CP – Are you going to sell those cars?

SC – I think we’re going to show them for a little while.

CP – It’s a hobby too.

SC – What I really want to do is artwork.  I want to take these 16 cars and make them showable.  Then I can do artwork.  I can take that anywhere around the planet. I have 33 paintings in the works.  I can show 11 in Tokyo if it’s still there.  11 in Germany, and 11 someplace else.

CP – You can only have so many cars.  I know Jay Leno has a lot…

SC – I didn’t get that memo. I have too many right now.  I have three warehouses. Even the clothing warehouse has the 69 Volvo and the Lotus. My wife is working with me to customize the Volvo.  She thinks she knows what the interior will look like, but we’re still picking out the colors.

CP – But people can come to you and get some work done?

SC – I don’t want to paint someone’s mustang that’s rusting in the back of their house. For the most part we’re doing vehicles that we can use to promote and things that are from people’s childhoods.  A lot of guys getting a Lotus, remember the James Bond Spy Who Loved Me Lotus.  There are very few people that are interested in buying that kind of car.  But there are a lot of guys in the tobacco industry who think a Lotus is cool, but they may not be likely to buy one.  They’d probably get something bigger with more comfort.

CP – It has to hit home.

SC – No one wants to see a 96 mustang redone. There are a lot of those out there. They are pretty common.  But it depends on what I’m working on at the time.  If someone has a car that they want to take to shows, or someone in the industry wants something done for their brand, then I’ll most likely consider it. I just want to do things that are special.  People ask me all the time for me to paint their car.  A lot of people don’t have the time I want to put in.  I’m putting 5 or 6 weeks just with Jon’s new DONK, putting in some serious brain time.  This car has to represent what he is all about.  And that’s what ACID stands for, representing yourself.

Interview by: Thor Nielsen          Photos by: Simon Muchnik

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