BOSTON — A Boston designer with a passion for the World Cup is trying to capture the tribalism and revelry of the globe’s biggest sporting event. Mark Willis, of Clean Sheet Co., designed 32 T-shirts — one for each nation competing in Brazil.
“I feel like I took a heraldry course in symbology or something like that,” Willis said in an interview, “because I feel like I’ve learned all the different nuances about national identity and flags and symbols and seals. I tried to work all the stuff in, and then tried to simplify everything to make them look really iconic.”
Willis shared some of his design thinking in the 32 Nations project:
The Brazil Shirt
“I wanted to try to distill the idea of a soccer crest, which everybody that plays soccer on a team wears, usually over their heart. I tried to create a shape that would instantly signify the idea of a soccer crest, something that unifies every design. It’s a very basic shield shape, with a star on top and a circle in the middle. Stars in soccer signify championships.
“The Brazilian symbol is quite simply a reinterpretation of their famous flag with the Southern Cross. One of the stars of the Southern Cross doubles as the star on the shield.
“When you see that flash of yellow and green, all of a sudden all you can think of is [star soccer player] Neymar running down the pitch. Somehow your brain translates a few colors into this complex mix of pride and excitement, and I really tried to express that in the shirt.”
The Belgium Shirt
“I’m a pretty staunch America fan, and I don’t see myself wearing a lot of other countries’ designs. But I kept a Belgian shirt for myself, because I really like the way it came out. It’s got what you might call the ‘lion rampant’ on the front, which is a Belgian national symbol.
“You can consider the hole in the shield as a ball sometimes; sometimes it’s a negative space. So in this case the tail of the lion makes its way through the middle of the shield. It’s toned against the shirt red-on-red, so you don’t necessarily pick it up right away. It’s a nice subtle design.”
The Mexico Shirt
“For Mexico, the shield became the face of a lucha libre wrestler. There are other design elements in there, too. Mexican nationals salute their flag during the national anthem with their hand across their heart in a kind of horizontal fashion, so I made a design that represented the arm across the chest.”
The Cameroon Shirt
“For Cameroon, the shield became the face of a lion, the team’s emblem. Some teams have been more popular than I ever imagined. I’ve had a lot of requests for, say, Ghana’s shirt. Those designs went very, very quickly. Lions make it a lot easier, but I think Cameroon was popular because it was one of my strongest designs.”
The Italy Shirt
“The Italian symbol is a version of the Stella d’Italia, which is the ‘Star of Italy.’ It’s a symbol of Italy going back many centuries. So the star in the shield is interpreted in a different way, with a gear and a garland around the star.”
The USA Shirt
“For a while last year, the U.S. was wearing a somewhat controversial, but what became a very beloved design. It was red and white ‘hoops’ in soccer design parlance, horizontal stripes reminiscent of the stripes on the American flag. It was really iconic. I thought they were fantastic. And I made a shirt that kind of played off of that idea.
“The USA design has 13 stripes, like you see on the flag. The crest sits where you would expect to find the panel where the stars are for the American flag. There’s also a sash running through the flag with those 50 stars incorporated into it. For a while, U.S. soccer teams were wearing a sash — a diagonal stripe across their jerseys. So I tried to reference those designs and build them into a simple distillation on the shirt. When you see that red, white and blue in this configuration on the American shirt, it hopefully triggers some type of reaction in your gut, and that’s what I was going for.”