Life Drawing

Jean Jullien’s take on modern life has made him a seriously sought-after image-maker. Now, he’s taking his observational skills to New York. By Mark Sinclair

Jean Jullien is on the move again. As of last month, the French graphic designer took leave of his adopted home of London to go and live and work in New York. During his nine years in the UK, his work had also begun to shift around and search out new places. While his distinctive black line illustration style has earned him a wide range of clients and fans alike, his output in fact now 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, where 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 Jullien, what stood out in the work of these practitioners was that they had “managed to trick the system and deliver practical projects with a great dose of creativity and playfulness”. It was a revelation, he says. “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.”

Jullien moved to London in 2005 to study graphic design at Central Saint Martins and then spent two years at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 2010. But even as he arrived at CSM, he was already working. He had his own brand, Octopus, which cleverly weaved a Jullienesque narrative through a range of platforms. “One chapter was a series of T-shirts, another one was a sketchbook and another was a website with small games,” he explains. “I was trying to sell my T-shirts so made catalogues and went around with limited success, but nevertheless it felt encouraging and exciting to be in a new city full of possibilities.”

Loading up personal work to a MySpace page, Jullien gradually built a following, resulting in some early commercial projects while he was still a student. A project for Charlotte Cheetham of (a poster for a group show she was organising and the chance to also exhibit there) gave him a taste for multi-disciplinary practice, while a logo and identity for a new club night run by his DJ friend Ruben Pariente, garnered some wider attention. By the time Jullien enrolled at the Royal College, he was already a full-time designer.

His early interest in graphics also owes much to skateboard culture, within which, as he told Huck magazine, he was able to first experience graphic imagery freed up from the confines of books or galleries. “I loved the actual activity of skateboarding, of course,” he recalls, “the appropriation of the urban decor, 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 of urban skateboarding and my vision of graphic design: it’s trying to bring fun to your everyday environment. 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 that the visual would ultimately be ruined.”

Stickers and board graphics by the likes of Evan Hecox (for Chocolate Skateboards) and Ed Templeton (for Toy Machine) reinforced the idea that visual messages truly connect with an audience when they reference – 
or are part of – a shared culture. And it’s this that Jullien so successfully taps into as a practising graphic designer – the recognisable mores and hang-ups of modern life and, in particular, what new technology, our smartphones, iPads and Wi-Fi connections, might be doing to us and our relationships. In one poignant illustration of Jullien’s, a man attempts to capture the view of a huge forest of trees with his cameraphone: it’s clear he’s bound to fail and the picture will do the natural world no justice at all, but the observation resonates. In another image, entitled Never Alone, a character lies awake in bed, their face illuminated by the irresistible always-on glow of a nearby smartphone. Jullien understands our modern addictions and anxieties and, like many of us, is both dependent upon digital culture and at the same time aware that our attachment to it is changing how we experience the real world.

“I’m very reliant and yet very critical of these things,” he says. “But we constantly reinvent and adapt ourselves and it’s the same for technology, we’re all slowly figuring out what to do with it.”

Ten years of “excitement and opportunity”, where “everything was free and shareable and we didn’t care much about privacy or online history” has, he says, advanced the possibility of a digital hangover. “Interconnectivity and hyper-information means that we’re constantly exchanging opinions, findings and theories, documenting our changes as they occur and without much distance. This accelerates the impression that it’s all so wrong and that we’re heading into a wall. But I don’t think so. I just try to observe and play with our obsessions and habits, mine included.” Yet Jullien is aware that returning to these themes could single him out as an artist fixated on our modern technological lives. “I don’t want to be labelled as the techno-freak illustrator as it’s a very current thing and, like everything, it will change,” he says. “But it is very tempting to focus on it as it’s something everyone can relate to.”

While Jullien is too modest to admit so, his aesthetic belongs to a lineage of classic graphic art that uses simplicity and wit to cut to the heart of a larger issue. He talks of successful work in terms of its “efficiency” – Saul Bass’ poster designs are held up as a great example – and there’s definitely something about Jullien’s background in graphics, knowing the ‘rules’ of image-making, that’s at work here. When asked about his recognisable brush pen work, it seems that this is also an active part of his working method. “I do a lot of editorial and commercial jobs where there’s a quick turnaround, so I tend to stick to [the brush], for efficiency,” he says. “But whenever I have a show or work, 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 produces thick lines with colours, your eye and brain can identify that 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. I love working with a brush but it’s not compulsory in any way.”

This chimes with Jullien’s experience of working for clients on their specific messages, of “composing an image in a very pragmatic way in terms of contrast, colours, and shapes,” he says. “Trying to appeal to the cognitive part of the brain, more than to personal taste. When I 2 3 create an image, be it for commercial or personal purposes, it is because I have a message to deliver.” This is the main objective, he says – everything that comes after is more or less expendable. “That’s why my work sometimes appears to be quite minimal or naive, because I try to stick to what’s necessary for it to be read and understood in the best way.”

In recent years, as Jullien’s client list has widened out, his approach has evolved into 3D work, puppet-making, animation projects with his brother Nicolas (as the Jullien Brothers), and also installations. One of his most ambitious pieces, which embodies everything he’s ever hoped to do with his art, is a physical space: a bar called Le Nid, designed in the shape of a 40 metre long white bird. It was commissioned for the 32nd floor of the Tour de Bretagne in Nantes, as part of a promotional campaign for the city. (The organisers knew Jullien’s work, but did not know Nantes was where he grew up until he met with them.) The prone sculptural piece has a working bar within its body, while its neck winds down the length of the room, surrounded by cluster of egg-shaped tables and chairs with golden yolk cushions. The bird’s eyes even open and close as he wakes and sleeps, oblivious to the drinkers around him.

“I love working in public spaces because I find it to be the most ‘militant’ way to do graphics,” says Jullien. “It is communication in the most popular of ways. I’ve always thought that it was somehow a bit too comfortable to create art only for the ‘art-knowledgeable’ crowds. Presenting work to a large audience, composed of very varied people, from different cultures, backgrounds, tastes is very challenging – you have to strip your work of certain characteristics and create something universal, without losing yourself in the process.”

The brief for Le Nid was to create a social space that was 50% art piece – a dream job for Jullien. It took a year of collaborating with architects, product designers and builders but, in the end, is a perfect encapsulation of his work. In a talk last year at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Jullien said that the project retains “the essence of my visual language” while hinting that it also represented a job where he had let go of the need to control everything himself. “It is drawn by me but not made by me,” he added, as if acknowledging that he had now reached a point where he was happy to occasionally hand things over.

“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.”

For now, Jullien is energised by the prospect of a new place, a new visual environment in which to put his take on the world. “London’s a city that I love dearly but I think it’s good for the mind to be set off-balance sometimes,” he says. “Both New York and London 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 inspiring. It’s a temporary break, but I’m planning on making the most of it.”

Jean Jullien is represented by Handsome Frank in the UK ( and Garance Illustration in the US ( See

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