Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Life and Times of Peter Aschwanden

Profile of the artist by his widow, Deborah Reade as told to Big Blue's Driver

Peter was an artist and illustrator from grammar school. He illustrated many things including his school paper, yearbooks etc. from that young age. Right before he did the VW book, he was carving and painting signs. At the time, he was working at a coffee house here in Santa Fe called “Three Cities of Spain” for which he had painted a sign. John and Eve Muir saw the sign there and decided he might be just the one to illustrate the book (How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive).

I think Peter got more involved in commercial illustration after the VW book as there’s a large body of work including a lot of books after that time. But even before that, he did cards and labels and logos too. He always considered himself a fine artist first, though and was a painter for many years before the VW book as well as a sculptor. He continued painting after the book and there are some gorgeous paintings—some on a theme like the Billy the Kid series, The Grapefruithead series and self portraits. There are several wonderful and humorous sculptures too.

I worked on the Honda book with Peter and he would work from both photos and the actual parts. I’m sure he worked on the VW book in the same way. Sometimes we would take parts off the car or he would go out to the car and draw directly from it. He would start with pencil sketches of each drawing, working on it over and over until it was just how he liked it. Then he would ink the drawing, erase the pencil and ink the drawing again where the erasing had deleted parts of the ink. Peter was a master of perspective which is why he did such a great job on the “exploded” engines and parts. In the later books it was almost like the parts were flying into outer space!

Peter never actually owned a VW himself though he was surrounded by friends and family who did. (Except he might have owned a Rabbit for awhile. Certainly he drove a Rabbit and there is a story in the Rabbit book of when he fell asleep and crashed it. Everything collapsed perfectly and protected him so he was able to walk away even though the car was totaled.) He wasn’t totally into cars but was a great mechanic and maintained his cars himself until he got older and started having Subarus. (Though even then he did some repairs himself.)

When he was younger and living in the country he had a 51 Ford Panel Flathead Straight 6 (Hence the name Flathead Graphix!) and a 50 or 51 red Ford Pickup. He kept the Straight 6 and a friend of his has it now and is restoring it. He also had an International and a 3-cylinder Saab for awhile. Starting about in the 80s he had Subarus which he always said to me was like having a VW with a water jacket. Don’t know if that’s really true but I went from a series of VWs and VW buses to Subarus and now the whole family has them. I’m a complete convert—though when I go to VW shows and see those beautiful buses I really miss mine.

Peter was the one that started Flathead Graphix (Also sometimes spelled Flathead Grafix) and on some of the posters you’ll see “copyright Flathead Graphix.” The T-shirts were produced originally by John Muir Publications and sold by them for a few years. Their T-shirts had a wonderful rainbow from red to yellow behind the circular back designs, but we couldn’t produce a large enough number of shirts to be able to do that many colors so we just print in the one color. Peter never produced the T-shirts, but started producing the posters himself quite awhile ago and never stopped producing and selling them. In fact, about a year before he died he came out with the Santa Fe 3-D map poster. We sell that as a “reprint” even though it was actually produced by him. But he was never happy with the colors in it so we don’t sell it as an “original.” (The colors are beautiful in the poster but if you compare them to the original painting there is a big difference.)

Peter would print different posters over the years and therefore they are printed on different types of paper depending on the print runs. We are almost totally out of the Cutaway City Posters now (We’re keeping some for the future but I think we’re down to less than 20 for sale now.) but still have a lot left of all the other posters he had printed.

After he passed away there was a lull for about a year or two when we didn’t produce or sell anything but then a young friend of Peter’s, Sean Castner, who worked in a local print shop where Peter had a lot of his pre-production work done suggested we start up the T-shirts again. With his encouragement we printed up the classic designs and started going to car shows to sell them and the posters we had. I loved going to the shows but the expense of travelling there and paying the fees, hotel bills etc. wasn’t cost effective so now I’m trying to build up the business through the internet.

So Flathead Graphix is now run mostly by me with the help of our kids Francisco and Sophie. Sophie does the Facebook page. Francisco’s gone to shows with me and also is writing some articles about his Dad—I think one’s coming out in a zine fairly soon.

Lately, I’ve been trying to convince one of the local museums to include him in a 60s show they’re thinking of having. Right now though, they think there isn’t enough interest in the 60s. I think this isn’t true as there is a huge age cohort from that era and I’ve even seen ads in magazines and on TV using the 60s so I think they’re coming back into popularity.

Peter has so many beautiful designs—many of which aren’t related to the VW book. My hope is to build up Flathead Graphix first with the fans from the book and hopefully to expand it so we can produce his other work as well so everyone can see that too. I’m also working on a retrospective show of all his work (some years in the future).

For more info, including the chance to buy some of the original posters, visit



Excellent interview. Thanks for sharing!


First fell in love with Peter's work back when he was "Juniperus Scopulorum (Jr.)," when my brother got his '63 bug and then his "Idiot" book, back in about 1972. Sure do miss him and John.

Big Blue's Driver

Roger - I wasn't into VWs when he was alive, but man, I love his artwork. I think it should be hanging in a museum. Or my house.

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