Jean Jullien’s observational take on modern life has made him one of the most sought-after image-makers around. In last December’s CR, we talked to him about his recent move to New York and his work to date. Here, we publish the full transcript of the interview…
As of October 2014, Jullien took leave of his adopted home of London to go and live and work in New York. During his nine years in the UK, the French graphic designer’s work had also begun to shift around and search out new places, from animation to product design.
While his distinctive black line illustration style has earned him a wide range of clients and fans alike, his output now in fact spans graphics, animation, products and installation. For an artist as observant as Jullien, a new city is an untapped well from which to draw further inspiration.
Originally from the town of Cholet via the city of Nantes, Jullien studied for his post-baccalauréat in graphic design at Le Paraclet in Quimper – “a very pragmatic graphic design course, but that benefited from incredibly passionate tutors”, he says. It was here that he was introduced to the work of French graphic artists and illustrators such as Tomi Ungerer, Raymond Savignac and studio M/M Paris.
For the young designer, what stood out in the work of these practitioners was that they had “managed to trick the system,” he says, “and deliver practical projects with a great dose of creativity and playfulness”. It was a revelation, he recalls. “You could be practical and yet entertaining. Even better, you could actively participate in people’s lives by bringing a bit of art into their everyday world.”
As of 2015, that’s exactly what Jullien is now doing himself. What follows is the text of the interview I did with him, used as the basis for an extensive profile piece in CR’s December 2014 issue.
Creative Review: After studying in France, why did Central Saint Martins in particular appeal to you? Why did London?
JJ: After I finished this very practical degree in design I applied for St Martins and the School of Fine Arts in Paris and got into both. But I opted for St Martins, seduced by the idea of a different culture and fed up with an educational culture that was looking at the papers more than at the person.
CR: Skateboard graphics were important to you early on in life: What was it about skate art that interested you?
JJ: Here again, I loved the practicality of it. I loved the actual activity, of course: the appropriation of the urban décor, the playfulness of it, finding inventive ways to interact with bricks and stones that I would normally just walk or sit on.
There’s something similar in the logic or urban skateboard and my vision of graphic design; it’s trying to bring fun to your everyday environment. It’s making your surroundings (visual or architectural) exciting.
But beyond this, I loved that (the skateboard companies) could commission such beautiful graphic pieces, even though they knew the prime function of the object would mean the visual would ultimately be ruined. Evan Hecox (who drew most of the skateboards for Chocolate skateboards) is one of the artists that got me into graphics, really. I loved the composition, meticulosity and fantastic colours.
CR: Did you set up your blog while at CSM? What was the reason for doing so and how did it help you as a student?
JJ: Upon coming to London I had created a small ‘brand’, a project, called Octopus, which told of an intricate narrative, through a multiplicity of platforms. One chapter was a series of T-shirts, another one was a sketchbook, and another one was a website with small games. I was trying to sell my T-shirts and catalogues and went around with a very limited success but, nevertheless, it felt encouraging and exciting to be in a new city full of possibilities.
It was also the birth of social networks and I used MySpace for Octopus and saw it as fantastic opportunity to share my work. So I carried on sharing on MySpace as I was doing new projects for school, and thanks to the beauty of online sharing, my work got to people like Charlotte Cheetham [of ManyStuff] (www.manystuff.org/) and Bobby Solomon [of The Fox is Black] (thefoxisblack.com) who commissioned me to do images for them.
Charlotte asked me to do a poster for a group show she was organising and to also exhibit there. That was a fantastic experience and gave me a great taste of how having a multi-disciplinary practice can be reinvigorating and exciting.
CR: Did you start to get jobs from people who had seen your work online?
JJ: Alongside these early online adventures, my first proper job was thanks to my friend, Ruben Pariente, a french DJ who was then living in London and commissioned me to do the logo and identity for his new club night Cliché. I really went for it and created epic decor to be photographed for the posters, with the help of many friends. It got a fair bit of attention and from these I got many other jobs.
CR: You went from CSM to the Royal College of Art. Did your time there help you to work out what you wanted to do? And looking back, do you think your experience at the RCA was significant in terms of your development as an artist?
JJ: The RCA is a fantastic place to meet people and join a big family. The studios are arranged in a way that makes the whole sharing ideal very easy. I loved the studio there and met some great people that are a very strong part of my life now. But looking back at it, I think I mishandled it epicly.
I was just getting very busy with commercial work when I left St Martins and got increasingly busy in the two years I was at the RCA. Since you go to art school to essentially become a professional practitioner of arts, I figured I should make the most of the luck I had then and focus on doing all these commercial projects. Which I did – and I don’t regret it – even though it meant I couldn’t really enjoy the programme as much as I should have.
CR: Can you remember what your initial plans were upon leaving the college? Were you prepared for life as a freelancer?
JJ: Oh yeah, I was already working full time so, work-wise, my life during and after the RCA was virtually the same. The only main difference was that I didn’t have to commute and could take a studio in east London with my brother Nico and my friend Thibaud Herem.
CR: When did you start working in your sketchbooks? And do you refer to them regularly for ideas?
JJ: I was working intensively on my sketchbooks throughout all my school years. It was life drawings, ideas, anecdotes, everything that made my life. I had an urge to capture everything. It was very time consuming and narrative but quite interesting to look back at now.
I guess what I do in my shows with observations and situations stems from this practice, but in a more stripped down version. I have thousands of pages, capturing happy, funny moments as well as terribly difficult ones. It’s a humble slice of life that I would love to get back up and running, as soon as I get enough time on my hands!
CR: You seem to like to move between mediums – posters, books, 3D, installations – but what does working in animation enable you to do with your ideas that stand-alone ‘still’ illustration doesn’t?
JJ: Narration, I think is the key appeal for me. My still images do tell small snippets of a story, moments, which I really enjoy, but working with animation means we can tell a story in a more traditional way, with subtlety that only time and movement can create.
The other main appeal of animation is working with my brother, who brings a lot of ideas and creativity that are his and that make sense in moving image. We grew up together and have been best friends since day one, so we share the same cultural references which make the creative process very smooth.
Whenever we think of an idea for a video that isn’t commissioned by a third part, we always think of a nerdy genre that we are into, like heroic fantasy, AD&D, sci-fi, comics, etc. Working together in that sense is a bit of an enhanced kid’s fantasy.
CR: Regarding the brush pen ‘black line’ style – was there a particular point in your career when you realised this was a way you wanted to create work, or could even make into your own? How do you see it, or hope to see it, evolving into the future?
JJ: Ah yes, I realise now that it seems like it’s ‘the one holy tool’. My sacred brush… no, no, it’s not like that. It’s something that I feel comfortable with because I’ve used it a lot, but I’m happy to work with anything else really. I guess because I do a lot of editorial and commercial jobs, where there’s a quick turnaround, I tend to stick to it, for efficiency.
But whenever I have a show on, I am often prompted to stray from it and experiment. The problem for me is that I don’t think I have great drawing skills, so I focus on ideas and the most efficient way to communicate them.
The brush is naive and striking enough: It is thick lines with colours, your eye and brain can identify that very easily and read it very easily, hence it can focus on what it’s trying to say more than how it’s trying to say it. So to sum it up, I love working with a brush but it’s not compulsory in any way.
CR: I liked the way you talked about “the beach” as a place for inspiration in your interview with Huck magazine – “I love how everyone is stripped down to their very core. No clothes to make you look tough, rich or cool – it’s just your body and you”. I wondered if there was anywhere else, or any other type of situation you use in your work in this way, or regularly go back to?
JJ: I guess just walking around, being around people in the street, cafés, bars, public transport. Anywhere where you get to observe people moving and behaving in real life, not videoed or photographed.
I tend to get ideas just walking around and scribble them on anything I find (often a napkin), then work on them when I get back to the studio. It’s important for me to be able to ‘snap’ these moments as it is how genuine they are that will define how accurate my depiction is. I can’t draw a pub from photos, I have to somehow experience it first, which I don’t mind!
CR: Thematically, a lot of your personal art work deals with people’s relationships – and how people relate to one another through technology (smart phones, iPads and so forth). How do you define your own relationship with technology? You seem a bit like me – reliant on it (blogs, Twitter, news etc) but also at the same time worrying about our attachment to it, and what it might be doing to how we experience things?
JJ: You’re correct: I am very reliant of them and yet very critical of them. I am not worried, as such, as I think social evolution is a smooth and unstoppable process, but I am critical.
I think changes, however drastic they might appear, is what made humans strive as a whole. We constantly reinvent and adapt ourselves. We’ve destroyed our planet, and yet I have a gut feeling that we’ll find a way around it. It’s the same for technology, we’re all slowly figuring out what to do with it. I’d say we’re about to experience a certain digital hangover: We’ve had 10 years or so of excitement and discovering, where everything was free and shareable and where we didn’t care much about privacy or online history.
But interconnectivity and hyper information means that we’re all constantly exchanging opinions, findings and theories, we’re documenting our changes as they occur and without much distance, which accelerates the impression that it’s all so wrong and that we’re heading into a wall. I don’t think so.
For these reasons, I try to observe and play with our obsessions and habits, mine included. But I don’t want to be labelled as the ‘techno freak’ illustrator, as it is a very current thing and, like everything, it will change. But it is very tempting to focus on it as it’s something everyone can relate to.
For my show at Kemistry [which ended on January 10], I will try to carry on my social observations and stay relevant but without such a strong emphasis on technology and 2.0. It is, however potent, only a part of our lives, not the whole.
CR: You’ve mentioned a few times in interviews how much you admire ‘efficiency’ – in illustration, posters etc – and I wondered if you could expand upon that a bit? I certainly see it applicable to your work; is there something about being a graphic designer, knowing the ‘rules’ of image-making, that’s at work here?
JJ: I don’t know that I do it, but it’s certainly something that I try to do: composing an image in a very pragmatic way, in terms of contrast, colours, and shapes. Trying to appeal to the cognitive part of the brain, more than to personal taste.
When I create an image, be it for commercial or personal purposes, it is because I have a message to deliver. That’s the primary objective and everything that comes after is somewhat expendable. That’s why my work sometimes appears to be quite minimal or naive, because I try to stick to what’s necessary to be read and understood in the best way. Some people manage to do that and to create gorgeous pieces, I don’t know that I can.
CR: What do you like about making work for public spaces? Do you enjoy the fact that an audience can interact or experience your work in a variety of different ways?
JJ: I love working in public spaces because I find it to be the most militant way to do graphics. It is communication the most ‘popular’ of ways. I’ve always thought that it was somehow a bit too comfortable to create art for the art knowledgable crowds only. Presenting work to a large audience, composed of very varied people, from different cultures, backgrounds, tastes, etc is very challenging. You have to strip your work of certain characteristics and create something universal, without losing yourself in it.
I also really enjoy the idea that my images can be a part of everyday life, when people open a paper or go to work, whether they pick up on it or not, it’s part of their daily visual environment. The larger the audience, the harsher the critics, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see people notice it and being appreciative when they might not have been able to see if it had remained in a private context.
CR: Finally, why the move to New York?
JJ: I’ve been living in London for the past nine years, which have been fantastic. It’s a city that I love dearly but I think it’s good for the mind to be set off balance sometimes. Both cities are actually quite similar in many ways, but there’s an obvious cultural difference that’s interesting. New York is such a vibrant city, so much is going on, the scale is disconcerting: it’s extremely inspiring. It’s only a temporary break, but I’m planning on making the most of it.