Aaron Huffman, friend and colleague to everyone at The Stranger, and veteran of the Seattle music community for more than 20 years, died earlier this week of respiratory failure following a long illness. He was 43 years old.
Aaron died surrounded by his family, who loved him dearly, and he was not in pain.
He was art director of this publication for the past nine years. His elegant, exacting visual style and imperturbable energy, even in the face of overwhelming stress, served to make him professionally invaluable.
Though he was proud of his work at The Stranger, and as an artist/designer in his own right, Aaron's main source of passion was music. For 17 years, he was the co-songwriter and bass player of Harvey Danger, the band he started in 1992 with his friend Jeff Lin at University of Washington, where they both worked at the student newspaper. (Evan Sult and I joined the band a year or so later.)
Harvey Danger will always be best known for our one big hit song, "Flagpole Sitta," from our debut album, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, but Aaron felt a much more intense connection to the band's two subsequent albums, King James Version (2000), and Little By Little... (2005). I've always said that Aaron's distinctive distorted bass, which he frequently employed as a melodic lead instrument, was the signature element of the band's sound.
Aaron was no less committed to the many other musical projects to which he lent his enormous talents over the years, including Love Hotel, Like Lightning, and most recently Campfire OK—later renamed the Weather—whose album, Waters Electric, he was rightfully very proud of.
I hardly know what else to say about Aaron in this forum. He abominated sentimentality. But he was also one of my closest friends and most valued creative partner for more than two decades. I revered his talent and envied his taste.
He was exacting but generous, hilarious but sincere, elegant but unpretentious. He loved Capitol Hill, loved Seattle, loved rock 'n' roll. He had the most striking pair of ice-blue eyes I've ever seen.
A lot of people have approached me during the past seven months, during which Aaron was hospitalized, to tell me how much they cared about him, missed him, appreciated his work. All I could say to them is all I can say now: Me, too. Me, too.
Aaron dedicated so much of his life to making music and art, and though he liked when people liked it, what really meant the most to him was that his work feel like part of the fabric of the city.
He drew essential life force from the rhythms and pleasures of Seattle, from the friendships he made while walking its sidewalks, drinking its drinks, seeing its art, reading its comics, hearing its music. The homemade subcultural life here in the early '90s drew Aaron out of his intense shyness, and gave him a model for emerging as the smart, funny, gentle, discerning artist, husband, and father he became.
He was appalled by the invasion of Capitol Hill by rich normals, partly because it meant longer lines at Vivace (I really hope they rename his favorite drink, the caramel latte, after him), but far more because his transition into adulthood, into himself, had so much to do with the nourishment he received from this neighborhood's full-body embrace of freaks and weirdos. This was where he learned to be proud of—rather than slightly abashed of or merely resigned to—being one. The two things he hated most in this world were bullies and idiots.
All I want to do now is grab every stranger I see and tell them all about how much I loved him, how much we've all lost. But I take some small comfort in the image of Aaron rolling his eyes and scoffing at the hysteria of such a gesture. And so I'll put on one of the MANY records that are forever notarized with a deep connection to him (Skylarking? Lifes Rich Pageant? Disintegration, when and if I'm ever ready?) and quietly reflect on how much we all gained. SEAN NELSON
Aaron Huffman was a brilliant art director. He could design a completely new publication in three hours, and it would be pretty good. If you gave him 48 hours, it would be a masterpiece. So much of the work here is collaborating. Working on something new with Aaron was particularly satisfying. You could give him an idea, and he'd give you something back that was your idea but so much better—and he'd deliver it with a humble, "Is this what you were thinking?"
I've worked with a lot of funny people over the years at the Onion, The Stranger, and the Mercury, but Aaron was one of the funniest. His jokes had a time delay. They were delivered like poison on the tip of an assassin's umbrella. At first, you might not even notice the joke at all. Maybe your psyche just felt a scratch. Four hours later, you'd be dead.
Aaron was also a sweet, decent guy who loved his family, his community, and his art. I'm lucky I got to work with him as long as I did. TIM KECK
One day in 2010, Aaron Huffman sent me an e-mail that just said, "What if we had a painting of challah bread on the cover? Something about this is kind of funny." That was it. Attached was this image:
Two weeks later, that was the cover of The Stranger, along with the cover text "What's Wrong with Dave Reichert's Brain?" Aaron's funniness was understated and sly, and you could see it even in the tiniest (brilliant) details, like the way he made The Stranger's logo look partially painted over if someone was holding a paint roller in the image:
Or the way he arranged text on the cover with all the kayaks from last year—a cover that one staff writer keeps on the wall above her desk:
The Stranger's Men Who Rock cover parodies of Rolling Stone? He designed those.
He loved poster design—he was always stopping to check out what was on telephone poles for his column Poster of the Week, which ran in The Stranger from 2006 to 2015—and loved magazines, particularly funny, well-designed ones. He knew more about them than most people. When he was the editor of the UW Daily in the 1990s, he also worked at Bulldog News on the Ave. In 2007 or 2008, shortly after he became art director at The Stranger, I invited him to a party at my apartment, which I did not expect him to come to because he was much cooler than me, but he came, and we talked in my kitchen for a long time about his obsession with Might magazine, Dave Eggers's magazine in the 1990s, which I'd never seen a physical copy of, and the next day he brought his Might collection to work and told me I could borrow it as long as I wanted. They're still on my shelf. I can't look at them now without bursting into tears.
Another memory: Shortly after that party, he invited me to a party at his place, and I asked about a painting on his wall that cracked me up. It had nine faces in it—people like Art Garfunkel, John Oates, and Chewbacca—and he said it was called Sidekick. I asked who painted it. He said he had painted it. I told him we should put it on the cover of The Stranger, and he laughed and said sure, but then eight years' worth of opportunities went by and he never put it on the cover of The Stranger. He was not a self-promoter.
In an office with a lot of big personalities, his ego was barely detectable. His calm was supernatural. It was like he was more aware than anyone else around him of what really mattered in life, and he wasn't going to spend a second of energy on anything that didn't. Not only did he make amazing, iconic, one-of-a-kind Stranger covers for nine years straight, he never broke a sweat, he was never grumpy, and he never missed deadlines. If he had to redesign the Bumbershoot schedule grid at the last moment, he would just chuckle to himself. Whenever a prima-donna writer behaved egregiously, his eyes might get big behind his glasses, but that was about it. He could sigh cleverly. His laugh was a blast of warmth. We often saw each other in the early morning, because we both had the same commute—a walk through Cal Anderson Park—but I tried not to bother him with small talk on his morning walk, because he would never have let on that he didn't feel like talking even if he really didn't feel like talking. He was one of the kindest, smartest people I've ever met. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
I learned from him to always give weird ideas room, even if your instincts fight it, because you never know what solution will work until you try. It's okay to have your own view, but really the best part of life is collaborating with others. Aaron was a patient person and maintained his cool head at all times. He made our lives in the production department better and kept us laughing during the toughest of times.
A lot of people don't realize he was a skilled illustrator as well. When the editorial department came up with a food feature about Seattle's best booths, Aaron drew John Wilkes Booth for the cover—the only art of his own he ever put on the cover. That cover drawing is way too good. I wish he had drawn more for the paper. MIKE FORCE
Almost 10 years ago, Aaron Huffman and his wife, Mindy, came to a karaoke birthday party I threw at the Fortune Sports Bar in the International District. After the bar closed down, they generously invited everyone, including some people they had never met before, back to the house they were living in on Beacon Hill. This was before any of us had children, back when 2 a.m. still belonged to us and to the night, not to our babies and their early morning cries. Mindy led some folks upstairs to the attic, where she convinced them to lie down on the floor as she gleefully rolled her body over theirs in a party game of Steamroller.
I found myself downstairs in the living room with Aaron, one of the only times we ever sat alone together and talked. Music was playing, of course, and a song from the XTC album Skylarking came on, which made us both happy. I told Aaron how every spring—when the birds begin singing, the trees begin blossoming, and I begin sneezing because I'm allergic to all the pollen and life in the air, just as I am doing right now—I lie down on the floor and listen to Skylarking because everything about it has always felt like the season to me. He laughed and then got up and fiddled with the stereo. A few moments later, the sounds of the album's opening track, "Summer's Cauldron," filled the room: insects buzzing, crickets chirping, birds tweeting. We sat together on the floor in silence and looked up at the ceiling.
Listening to these songs remains a springtime ritual for me, but this year—and every year that follows—I'll be thinking of Aaron when I look upward and hear these words: "When Miss Moon lays down /And Sir Sun stands up / Me I'm found floating round and round / Like a bug in brandy / In this big bronze cup." ANGELA GARBES
Aaron is survived by his wife, son, and mother, who request privacy in their bereavement. There will be a public memorial in the coming weeks. To make a donation to Aaron's family to help defray his medical costs, click here.