Designer Eric Hu on Generative Butterflies and the Politics of NFTs

Hu’s new NFT collection, Monarchs, pulled in around $2.5 million in a pre-sale Wednesday afternoon.

AccessTimeIconOct 7, 2021 at 11:02 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 3:35 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 7, 2021 at 11:02 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 3:35 p.m. UTC
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Eric Hu’s design practice has taken many forms. Before pivoting to full-time independent work in 2019, Hu worked at Nike as the brand’s global design director for sportswear. Before that, he was head of design for SSENSE, a Canadian fashion retailer known for its au courant selections and imposing print magazine. Across album covers, magazine spreads and top-to-bottom brand identities, Hu’s work is elegant and composed – even at its most experimental, it’s always grounded in a sense of clarity.

That’s the principle he’s brought to Monarchs, a new collection of visual artworks attached to non-fungible tokens (NFT). Each piece is a twinkling, pointillist interpretation of a butterfly with a randomized set of visual traits.

As with popular NFT projects like Bored Ape Yacht Club or Lazy Lions, minting a Monarch NFT is a little like rolling the dice: You won’t know what you’re getting until you buy in, and the exact combination of traits is different every time. Some wing shapes and body types are rarer than others, and potentially more valuable. It’s what’s known as a “generative” project; the code determines which pieces are assigned which attributes.

Hu priced his NFTs at 0.8 ETH ($2,800) each, and limited initial purchases to one per person. When the full supply of 888 Monarchs sold out yesterday afternoon, Hu and his collaborators came away with around $2.5 million.

“I think yesterday was definitely the most emotional day that I can remember in a long time,” he told CoinDesk on Thursday. There were hiccups – the problem of exclusivity, and a so-called “gas war” that jacked up fees on the Ethereum blockchain – but on the whole, Hu said, the launch exceeded his wildest expectations.

After Bored Ape

Hu got his start in crypto in February, courtesy of Dee Goens, a co-founder of the NFT startup Zora. “He reached out and he just video chatted me, and walked me through just the whole process. I installed MetaMask over video chat in front of him,” he said, referring to the Ethereum wallet software that’s become the bread and butter of the NFT ecosystem. “I think after that process I was really hooked.”

Hu has also spent the last eight months as a member of Friends with Benefits (FWB), the crypto-backed social club that’s now one of the most important (and exclusive) incubators in the NFT space. As a kind of thank you to the community, FWB members were given first dibs on the Monarchs pre-sale.

For Hu, the bridge into NFT art was in some ways a natural extension of the design work he’d already been doing:

“I think a lot in terms of, how do I make, like, modular Lego pieces that other people can rearrange and remix. This generative process where I don’t necessarily know the final results, but I know I could design individual pieces in a way that makes them blend well with other pieces – that’s always been a kind of central telos of my design practice.”

NFTs are just a kind of cryptocurrency – tokens that work as proof of ownership for media files. To mint a file “as an NFT” is just to assign it a token. But Hu said he was more interested in the idea that the code itself could inform the aesthetics of the work. Taking inspiration from Saul Bass’ stippled poster for The Shining, as well as the NFT project Solvency, Hu was aiming for something digital-first, from conception to production.

The smart contract itself, which generated the individual works, was modeled after the code from Bored Ape Yacht Club. It’s a recognizable template – x number of tokens, each tied to a subtle variation on an animal-themed image. Boring Bananas, Weird Whales, Lazy Lions, Cool Cats, and Bad Bunnies are among the most popular, but developers are (still, somehow) coming up with new alliterative NFT collections all the time.

Most of the art behind those projects is garish and cartoony; they’re closer to Beanie Baby-style collectibles than digital artworks that can hold up on their own. Hu was aiming to give this tired trend a fresh coat of paint.

“One of the good things about also just having a programming background, at least in a small sense, is that I’m able to look past a lot of what I call the ‘decoration’ or the aesthetics, and just see the underlying structure,” he said. “And seeing a lot of those Lazy Lions and collectibles, I knew it was a bunch of random body parts mixed together.”

Monarchs is the same basic concept, with an aesthetic informed by Hu’s design background.

The final piece was animation, which came from Hu’s old college friend, the artist Roy Tatum. “When we were first really interested in generative art when we were younger we couldn’t even conceive of something called NFTs, and their use case,” he explained. “It just really felt like this is what we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

Natural defensiveness

Not everyone in the design and digital art communities sees it that way. There’s still a decent amount of skepticism around NFTs, especially regarding the environmental impact of proof-of-work blockchains like Ethereum. There’s also a political valence to crypto, and though it’s beginning to transcend its Libertarian origins, a certain toxic culture persists.

“I think when a lot of designers look at NFTs, it’s like, OK, there’s new technology, it’s earning a lot of people money. But by the same account, there must be a lot of people not earning a lot of money, or a lot of people having their living affected by it,” said Hu. “There is just this natural defensiveness that comes into it.”

This is what the technologist Mat Dryhurst has called the “Faustian bargain of decentralization,” or of crypto: In a space without regulatory guardrails, there’s as much potential to get screwed over as there is to strike it rich. At least in theory. But when NFT initiates find themselves in a market they’re not prepared to handle, old pros (like the ones in Friends with Benefits) have a chance to capitalize on the hype, and retail investors end up holding the short end of the stick.

“It really is a game of risk tolerance,” said Hu. But any game of risk tolerance only creates conditions of inequality, because not everybody has the same tolerance – or even means – to take such risks. The people who get lucky from taking a risk are able to take larger risks. And people who are not lucky, their ability to take risks is diminishing. So it’s only created even more wealth inequality in the short term.”

Collecting NFTs remains cost prohibitive for most, thanks to sky-high gas fees on the Ethereum network. And $2,800 for a Monarch isn’t exactly pocket change.

Hu says he’s personally getting “about half” of the ~$2.5 million generated by the Monarchs sale. But he’s also holding out hope regarding wealth inequality in crypto, and says he wants to put a percentage of the proceeds toward new NFT projects from underrepresented communities. For Hu, the answer lies with conscientious new voices guiding the technology from its infancy.

“We’ve been pushing that concept for the past decade, that the best way to make our views known about something is to not get involved. We’re boycotting this, we’re canceling this and so on,” he said.

“What you can do is think, OK, how are we going to build these railroads? Who are we going to connect? How is this system going to be more fair? And how can we make a system that works for as many people as possible instead of a few?

“The train’s been invented already. And you cannot un-invent the locomotive engine.”


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Will Gottsegen

Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.

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