The Wanderer

Designer and visual artist Jonathan Zawada on fusing fine art and video games, creating award-winning album covers and the problem with
‘signature styles’

Jonathan Zawada has led a varied career for a 32 year-old. Since teaching himself to code and design in high school, he has worked as a creative director, web designer and illustrator, designed for clients including Coca-Cola, BMW and Uniqlo, launched his own fashion brand, and staged successful mixed media exhibitions in Australia and Los Angeles.

But while he’s built up an extensive portfolio, Zawada’s work isn’t immediately recognisable – rather than find a niche or preferred medium and stick to it, he experiments with digital and analogue techniques, oil paintings, textiles and graphite, and his website looks more like an art collective’s than an individual’s. He’s a talented and versatile artist, and yet he has had next to no formal training.

Zawada was born in Perth, Australia. He moved to Sydney when he was 14, and has loved drawing for as long as he can remember. “We didn’t have a whole lot of money when I was a kid but I really wanted a Nintendo, so I would make my own board game versions of Super Mario Kart and NBA Jam. They were pretty elaborate – I would design the game, and the instructions, and make a set of rules for each,” he says.

At high school, Zawada started designing websites and identities for local businesses and made illustrations for a hairdresser, business cards for a rubbish removal company and websites for a motivational speaker, a nickel mining company and a group of pubs. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of New South Wales’ College of Fine Arts – but left after just six months.

“The work I was doing outside of college wasn’t amazing but I was starting to make some money from it, and I had rent to pay. I’d already taught myself a lot of the things we were learning on the course, and I’m terrible at working in studio situations with other artists, so I just didn’t think it was right for me,” he says.

Zawada’s first full-time role was at a web design and production company, where he built sites and digital projects for retail brands; followed by a three-year period as partner at creative agency The Revolution. In 2003, he decided to go freelance and has been self-employed ever since, aside from part-time roles at fashion label Kubi and Australia’s Modular Records.

During his time at Modular, Zawada designed the artwork for electronic duo The Presets’s second album, Apocalypso. The design, a striking image of the band standing in the palms of someone’s hands in outlandish outfits, holding a Hindu God, won best cover art at the Australian Record Industry Association Awards, and he has been designing their albums ever since. More recently, he has also worked on artwork for electronic label Bromance, Mark Pritchard and Warp Records.

“The Presets covers are one of the projects I’m most proud of, because I feel like I’ve helped them develop as a band and their visual identity has become an integral part of who they are,” he says. “I try not to design artwork based on my interpretation of the music, because my brain will probably associate a track with another artist and cover and that’s hard to shake. Instead, I chat to the artists and ask them what the record is about. They put so much thought and detail into making each album that it really helps you develop an idea of what it should look like,” he adds.

In 2009, Zawada launched a design label, Trust Fun, with his wife Annie Wright-Zawada and friend Shane Sakkeus – a fun alternative to the demands of client-led projects. The brand’s first collection was a set of digitally printed silk scarves and they’ve since made bags, jewellery and Fashematical, a comic book-style collection of backstage photography from fashion shows.

In 2010, his illustrated zine for the Australian WorkCover Authority’s Big Mouth project – an initiative which commissions artists to highlight the importance of being safe at work to young males – won bronze at the D&AD Awards and a silver in print craft typography at AWARD 2011. The zine contained intricate graphite drawings of each letter of the company’s slogan, Speak Up, Be Work Safe.

Since then, Zawada has worked on identity and poster designs, packaging, clothing, and illustrations for fashion, music, publishing and corporate clients. Yet, in 10 years of designing, he never developed a strong signature style, moving from experimental typography to hand-stitched monographs and Hawaiian-style shirts for an ASOS and It’s Nice That clothing range.

“When I started getting into commercial work in the early 2000s, I fundamentally disagreed with the principle of it,” he says. “To me, it just seemed counterproductive: every problem warrants a different solution, so if I do something in the same style each time, that people recognise as mine, it means I’m publicising myself more than the client. It was something I consciously tried to avoid for a long time, although now when I look back I can see a fair amount of popular colourings or approaches to my work. I always try to introduce an element of humour, too, even if it’s concealed,” he adds.

Zawada also hates to do the same thing twice, and says recreating things he’s done before “is just not me. I like to push myself and try out new techniques, and once I’ve worked out how to do something it’s just not as fun anymore. I am getting better at this though – I’ve learned from some great designers and illustrators that there’s a lot to be learned from fine-tuning a technique and persisting with something,” he adds.

Throughout his commercial career, Zawada has been developing his skills as a visual artist, and has staged several solo exhibitions combining his passion for painting and digital. In 2010, he launched Over Time, an exhibition at LA’s Prism gallery featuring large scale landscape paintings with topographies derived from graph data and manipulated through a 3D fractal programme to become virtual abstractions.

The show was a success, and Prism invited Zawada to move to LA. He has since staged another show at the gallery, Free Roam Above the Mist,  which also featured large-scale oil paintings, this time depicting digital renders of the Elbe sandstone mountainscapes represented by Casper David Friedrich in Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. He’s now developing an extension of this that includes digital installations, plastic sculptures and flat-pack furniture, and is inspired by visual similarities he has spotted between Friedrich’s work and third-person shooter video game, Red Dead Redemption.

“The works are all really an attempt at addressing what it means to have a meaningful experience that is also entirely virtual, synthetic and replicable.” This exploration of video game-inspired visual art also led to his 2012 experiment, Road to Mecha, in which he laid in-cockpit visuals from inside a Japanese Mecha robot over Google Street View images, turning each road into a potential battleground.

“I don’t have a preference for working in digital or analogue – I’ve developed both hand in hand. To me, learning a piece of software is no different from learning how to paint or draw, so they don’t feel separate, and I really enjoy working on projects where I can mix the two,” he says.

What Zawada really loves about working with oils, he says, “is the depth and purity of the medium. Everything in design is generally about bare tolerances and a thin veneer of image, [but] oil paint – even when applied quite mechanically and sparsely – has a depth and substance to it that is really compelling for me,” he adds. “That is really what the work is about, and why I paint the pieces after all of the digital pre-production,” he explains.

Zawada still finds time to work on commercial projects – including art directing a music video for Pharrell and Moncler with director Carl Burgess – and on Trust Fun. He’s just re-interpreted some of the label’s designs into a set of wool rugs, and says the label will continue to work on projects whenever they have good ideas and as long as it remains enjoyable. But these days, Zawada is more selective about what he takes on. “If a nice person comes along and the work’s interesting, then I’ll take it on, and I’ll always be a sucker for projects with musicians, but I’m not having to worry so much about paying the bills by design.”

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