Jonathan Zawada: “I now follow my instincts and trust my thinking”

Published:  February 28, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Jonathan Zawada is a multifaceted designer and ‘corporate dada’ artist whose practice is informed by his early roots in web design, coding and animation, evolving into commercial graphic design, illustration and art direction. Currently living and working in Los Angeles, his practice now centres around object design, sculpture, video, installation and painting, in a fascination of real and virtual signs, symbols and visual cues.

He is best known for his varied approach to the discipline of design, working across many mediums and visual styles for many different clients, including Bloomberg, Nike, BMW, Herman Miller, Asos and Warp Records, and been recognised with an Aria, a Bronze D&AD award and a Museums Australia Multimedia and Publication Design Award. He has shown his work in exhibitions in Los Angeles, Sydney, Barcelona and Paris,

You started very early in the design field (you were still in high school) before you began to practise and exhibit art, as well. Was this a transition, or do you believe that both these modes of producing work inform/rely on one another, for you?

The transition from design to art was a very slow one for me that really took the better part of a decade to happen. I have always drawn, painted and made things but for a long time I saw this activity as a hobby, something separate from – and something to be consciously kept separate from – my design work. No matter how hard I tried to keep the two things walled apart though, cracks kept appearing in the way I defined the barrier and the bled into one another. I’ve always felt that both activities are defined to a large extent by the ‘intent’ phase and by extension that – aside from the crossovers inherent in their both being visual activities - that everything that flows from the point of intent, and many of the points of decision making after that stage follow very divergent courses and require very different skills. In the past year though I’ve come to realise that design can very much be encapsulated within “Art” and that, if the point of intent is carefully considered in each case, there is very little reason to think of them as separate activities, so that my design activities can function on equal footing with, and contribute wholly to my art activities.

Album artwork for Mark Pritchard’s Lock Off, Warp

What do you feel were the most significant developments in the way you work, as you matured (and continue to mature)?

I think there were a few key realisations I’ve had so far. The first came in the context of design but I think has had much broader ramifications for me and that was the conclusion I came to quite early on that design tasks were best served if each one was approached uniquely, where there was no sense in building any sort of ‘signature style’ as that would, by definition, be at the expense of communicating my client’s values. Extrapolated into my art practice, I think the same applies, whereby a message and intent can be drastically compromised by being skewed through the lens of an individualistic style that exists for purely personal branding purposes. The second realisation I had was actually a criticism that a close friend and colleague made of me that I tended to often question the basic assumptions of a brief but rather than propose solutions to a re-brief of my own design I would simply quit the job. The ability to question basic assumptions, re-brief and propose solutions seems obvious but it took me a while to get there. The final development in the way I approach my work has probably been to let go of all of the design and art history references that often cloud my judgement (for good or bad). I now largely purely follow my instincts and trust my thinking without having to relate it or skew it through imagining its perception within another context, be that a gallery context, marketing meeting or reblog.

One of 10 artworks representing the 10 chapters in Illangelo’s concept album, History of Man

Artwork for Marble Music X Sixpack: Para One + Cam’ron

What do you consider graphic design’s strength as a medium, over the production of art?

I think graphic design is in a unique position in the visual arts where it can actually have an immediate impact and contribute directly to contemporary culture, right now. Art with a capital A tends to make reference to visual culture in an effort to make claims about our world whereby the context of the visual expression is hermetically sealed with in the artificial gallery/museum construct.

Design has a very different master and it must function in our culture today, not sit outside of it. Art can be academically justified and almost requires it, genuinely good design that is serving a purpose cannot, its success can be measured (due to its commercial context) and as a result it can’t hide from its task of communicating directly with the real public and the real world.

Where art seeks to comment on culture from outside, design is born directly from within it and as a result I think it can be a genuinely more fertile space for relevant ideas. Going back deep into our history as a species I think design has much deeper roots in our psychological makeup whereby the act of crafting and decorating functional objects (wherever the balance of the exchange between form and function lies) extends orders of magnitude beyond the very short timeframe within which we have had the kind of ‘art for art’s sake’, useless picture on a wall definition of art.

Artwork for Zawada’s ‘O’ show at Sarah Cottier Gallery. The data that defines the shape of the mountain range is the cyclic repetition of the peaks and troughs of Google searches for ‘draft’ from 2004-2010.

Digitally printed scarves for TRU$T FUN!, Zawada’s fashion label with Shane Sakkeus and Annie Zawada.

Artwork for FREE DUMB

Your work is often characterised by a transmogrification of digital and analogue elements, questioning our expectations on how we expect an image to be produced, and where we expect certain elements to appear. What does this say about your approach to digital and analogue living?

For pretty much as long as I can remember I’ve worked visually with computers. At the same time I’ve also always drawn, painted and made things. To me they aren’t at all separate things, no more than using both a pencil AND a paintbrush is. For me there has always been a part of working digitally that has felt a little like operating at a level of remove, like seeing a room through CCTV rather than directly with your own eyes and often the act of translating digital works through physical media is about me coming to terms with that, finding ways to make the work genuinely mine in a distinctly human way, as opposed to merely a representation of an image.

Do you have a feeling, response or method for recognising when something you are working on is ‘good’, or working well?

I think about things a lot before I actually start putting pen to paper, I’m able to picture things in my head to a fairly detailed degree so I tend to address most of the problems at that stage. I also like to periodically disrupt things in a drastic way to refresh my perspective on things (this can be simple things like doing drastic hue shifts, randomly shuffling elements, or placing the work in a very different context) and this is a huge help in the evaluation process because it forces a gut response that is pretty much inescapable. This is one reason I’ve never been very good at working with agencies or in a traditional studio structure because the whole sign-off process creates incentives NOT to improve and reevaluate a work as it progresses to a finished stage. Quite often I’ve found that I’ll come up with a much better solution right at the end of a job that almost entirely throws out the work up until that point and I think that is a result of the process of fully digesting all of the aspects of a problem that sometimes can take a really long time.

Zawada’s t-shirt artwork for PWND exhibition

What tools or technologies have aided significantly your working process?

I don’t think there are any specific ones, in fact I think the biggest aid in my work process has been a willingness to explore a wide variety of different technologies and tools in creating work. Not only is the challenge of learning new methods inspiring and compelling but I think it also helps with the problem of clearing your vision and seeing what you are working on in its purest form as a conceptual problem rather than just its visual manifestation. To that point I’d say then that having always had some knowledge of the basics of coding, and a willingness to learn a few different languages has helped in understanding the layers of logic involved in digital tools which can often be responsible for the steep learning curve that needs to be overcome in order to utilise them.

Is there a method or attitude to design that you feel is recognisable as particularly ‘Zawada’?

I don’t consciously try to have any consistently ‘Zawada’ approaches but I think my personality is drawn somewhat to a sense of joy and effortlessness.

Album artwork for Chester French’s MUSIC 4 TNGRS

Zawada: “This is an illustration of a selection of my real and virtual possessions in a state of destruction with the compositional structure dictated by the arrangement of the synthetic Aflatoxin B2 molecule, one of the most carcinogenic substances known.”

Is there a level of satisfaction you achieve with a commercial project that differs from an art piece, or do you feel you are able to approach all your work with a certain amount of freedom?

I like the external problem solving component of a commercial project, of allowing somebody else’s values to interact with my own. There’s something that is uniquely satisfying in commercial design which is almost like writing a little program where you set up the rules and methods within a piece of design and press go when you send it out into the world and get to see how it performs in its task. I definitely choose commercial work that has values that line up with my own to large extent and in that respect I tend to maintain a lot of personal freedom but as I’ve been talking about, for me that freedom is much less about “allowing me to do what I do” and more about “allowing me to think the way I do”.

You moved to LA a couple of years ago – what has been the biggest adjustment you have had to make to how you work? Or the biggest development?

Moving to LA has allowed me to get a bigger studio space, I have a space now that I can make pretty much anything I want in, unlike in Sydney where always worked out of my apartment and had to pack everything up at the end of each day. This has allowed me to explore different mediums, scales and forms much more openly. I think as a result of this I’ve had the epiphany that everything I make is part of the same practice, and that I don’t need to worry about deciding whether something fits into the context of “furniture” or “design” or “art” or “product”. This has been incredibly liberating for me and has given me a way to focus without changing the way I work whereas in the past I tended to do an awful lot of second-guessing and feeling like I was being confused or scatterbrained.

Did the move introduce new influences or opportunities you didn’t expect?

Surprisingly I’ve found LA doesn’t have the binary and rather judgmental climate of ‘cool/not cool’ that Sydney has being out of that has also really freed me up in my approach to what I do. In many ways its removed the influences and allowed me to follow my own path more. There are certainly a lot more opportunities here, by virtue of a larger population but also because American society really encourages people to pursue new enterprises and to follow their own path, so there is money invested here in businesses – and art – that in Australia would simply be invested in property. There’s an incentive and requirement here that you need to stay engaged and switched on consistently, not just until you finish university and land a job. My worldview has become exponentially deeper and more nuanced since being here and meeting the people I’ve had the good fortune of meeting.

You currently have an exhibition of your work, Real 3D, at Sarah Cottier Gallery in Sydney, which sees another investigation into analogue and digital, real and virtual. For example, your ‘canvases’ have been wrapped in netting, layered to create moire patterns that both flicker in real life, as they do looking at thumbnails of the work on a computer screen…

The mesh pieces are visual recreations of the concept of light as both wave and particle. They are visual metaphors of Claude Shannonʼs development of discrete, sequential binary operations creating a logical whole. Douglas Hofstadterʼs articulation of emergent phenomena is particularly apt: As an example of an emergent phenomenon, Hofstadter tells of the time he tried to take out a wedge of old envelopes from a box in his drawer, and could swear he felt a marble nestled among them. It turned out that the uncanny appearance of a marble was produced by successive layers around the closure of the envelopes. Ultimately, he proposes, our self is an emergent appearance of this sort. In fact, it is the most real emergent object in our inner world. This disconnect of reality and perception, and emergent virtual gesture is in many ways also connect to our touch interaction with screen media and in turn with traditional abstract expressionist concerns that deal with the pure human act.

Artwork for Zawada’s ‘Real 3D’ show

Artwork for Zawada’s ‘Real 3D’ show

If there was to be an retrospective of both your work and your defining influences, what would be in it?

I feel like I’m much too close to my own work to make a call on which pieces should be included in a retrospective but my hope would be that the spectrum would be broad. In terms of influences I would propose Mati Klarwein, Peter Saville, items related to the concept of “katachi” in traditional Japanese craft, Bjork, Harm Van Den Dorpel, Karl Gerstner, Shane Sakkeus, Jeff Koons, Italdesign Giugiaro, Red Dead Redemption, Gerhard Richter, Autechre…

Work for Zawada’s ‘Real 3D’ exhibition

Jonathan Zawada will appear at Look Upstairs design forum, running from 3—5 April 2014. You can buy one and three day passes to the event:

To win 1 of 5 day passes, use the comment box to tell us your favourite piece of Zawada‘s work. Winners announced on Wednesday 5th March. Good luck! This competition is closed and winners have been notified.

17 Responses

  1. Lauchlan Craig

    For me my favourite Zawada piece would have to be the ‘Pacifica’ album art he produced for The Presets. The detail in the final deluxe album design really transported me to another world, something which is shares with the music contained inside. Although the sounds were entirely new to me, Jonathan’s wonderful album art felt familiar to me, like I had seen it previously in my youth. It felt somewhere between the computer game Myst and film clips like ‘Go West’ by The Pet Shop Boys. I originally had to do a double take upon viewing the cover, as I thought this was an actual shot at first, only to realise it was a combination of 3D modelling and photography. There is definite wonder present in all of JZ’s work. You don’t quite know how he has produced the work or where it has spawned from, you can only sit back and soak in its beauty.

  2. Thomas

    I still love everything from Boolean Values. I caught the train down from Newcastle to the MC gallery back in 2008. I was a student at the time and the show had a big impact on me. Tnks jz …

  3. Super hard choice, so out of the work shown above – his artwork for Mark Pritchard’s Lock Off, Warp Album. The way it manipulates it’s interpretation by looking at it from different angles is reflective of Mark’s crazy layering sound, this might seem strange but I like to focus on one part of his tunes to understand how it works & every time I hear something a little new. Not to mention Mark just smashes a lot of songs together.

    Also, it’s still visually interesting as an iTunes cover.

  4. Lyn

    As a fan of both Romance Was Born and Jonathan Zawada’s work, I’d have to choose this collaboration as my favourite. It really was a collaboration in the true sense of the word, in the way the art is in perfect harmony with the fabric and garment design. The prints are mesmerising – if I was to own a piece it would probably be hanging on my wall to be stared at all day.

  5. Deepika

    I really love Zawada’s ‘O’ show.

  6. Favorite is definitely the ‘O’ so much can be taken from this piece!

  7. So hard to choose but I’d have to say that I really love the printed scarves for TRU$T FUN! So colourful and fun!

  8. Jonathan was one of the first designers I ever saw speak back as a fresh faced design student nearly 7 years ago at SP Sydney. Because of this I’ll always have a love of his classic Presets work that was so inspiring to a young designer.

  9. I’m in love with Zawada’s collaboration with Tru$t Fun. They’re all such great pieces, with clashing colours and unthinkable gradients – making your eyes hurt but in a good way of couse! There’s a throwback to 90′s design styles which always manages to strike a chord in me. The best part is how they look worn as scarves – further mixing up the eccentric patterns and colours.

  10. ian

    TRU$T FUN!
    That print is hectic

  11. Hayley

    The artwork for the ‘O’ show is pretty magical!

  12. Rhys Davies

    The ‘O’ draft mountain-scape.

  13. Hilary

    The ‘Over Time’ exhibition. Graphs and design, mmmmmm.

  14. Jessica

    This is a great interview! I like his comparisons of art and design.

    My favourite of his pieces are the works for his exhibition FREE DUMB – he sure is good at using colour!

  15. I love the “Romance was born” textile prints. Patterns look stunning, the result as a piece of fashion is vibrant and incredibly contemporary. I like when designers take over the place and cross disciplines, applying their craziness to all creative mediums and medias they can explore.

  16. Absolutely love the ‘O’ show. It’s beautifully mind blowing!!!

  17. Sam

    You guys don’t have it in your feature, but my favourite pice from Jonathan is the cover art he did for Monster Children Magazine’s issue #26 a few years back!

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