Toys by Design: The Pete Fowler Interview
We’ve reached the finale of Toys by Design for Design Bureau, and I’m “chuffed” to conclude my column with that polymath, Pete Fowler. Here’s an artist who was an early player in the designer toy game, but he didn’t pause on plastic. In fact, he didn’t pause at all. For over a decade, Pete Fowler has let loose a panoply of woodland critters and seafaring sprites in mediums as disparate as toys, trophies, tables and thread. You can drink out of or eat off of his artwork. You can jam with his creations. Some might even say his characters raise awareness.
Pete and I had the following conversation back in April, and the truncated column appears in print in the August issue of Design Bureau. Notably, this marks the final “toy art interview” I’ll be posting on my website for the foreseeable future. But…stay tuned for 50+ interviews with creators and collectors in Toy Art 2.0, the coffee table art book I collaborated on with Okedoki, out before the year is over!
JB: Where does this missive find you today?
Pete Fowler: At home in east London, enjoying a coffee [ed note: perhaps?] on a Saturday morning while the elusive sun streams through the windows with Ulrich Schnauss playing on the Hi-Fi. I’m signing at ToyCon this afternoon, looking ahead to a busy weekend of catching up with friends and fellow artists. I’m sure there’ll be a few drinks later.
What are some of your favorite places to be?
I really like being in Cornwall, the part of Britain where I went to art school and later spent a chunk of my life before I moved to London. I love being near the sea, and Cornwall has an amazing coastline. It’s an inspiring place for me–not just the landscape, but the myths, stories and characters that live there. Also, it’s an excellent place to relax.
Creatively, my perfect space can be anywhere really. Good pubs are as good a place as any to ponder and plot. My local, the Carpenters Arms, [ed note: “granny annex”???] is a great pub once owned by the most notorious east end gangsters: the Kray twins!
You work in a splendid array of mediums! Does the medium or the message come to you first?
I’m inquisitive by nature, and I think that’s reflected in the different mediums I work with. It’s also a patience issue, so it’s useful to have several projects running at once so I can dip in and out of them. I often get ideas from one project that can be transferred to another, and the mixture of mediums seems natural for me to explore. Sometimes coming across a new medium can excite me to think of a way to use it. Other ideas search for a medium. It can happen both ways.
How do you organize your ideas?
My sketchbooks contain most of my ideas, spanning years of drawing and free thinking/doodling. As well as keeping those, I have folders and folders of artwork and drawings that I have on hand, and I’m always looking through both the books and folders to search for inspiration. As I catalog a lot of my work online with flickr, I often find myself looking through the sets I’ve made there to refer back to older work that I want to bounce from.
I had a laptop stolen at the end of last year and lost a lot of stuff that was foolishly not backed up. That experience has made me make more physical work, be it drawings or paintings. It’s also made me organize my work a lot more. It was a pretty harsh lesson to learn from, but I took it as a positive thing to happen.
You created an elaborate world full of interesting monsters. If you had to make a hasty exit from our world to be forever exiled on Monsterism Island, what 5 items would you bring with you?
- A never-ending pencil
- A never-ending sketchbook
- Solar-powered music player with GREAT headphones
- My Hawaiian parrot shirt
- A bicycle
You were involved very early on with the vinyl/designer toy movement, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really heard you talk about how and why you got into it?
I stumbled into it really, I saw the very first Michael Lau and James Jarvis figures and was really intrigued to see toys that weren’t part of a merchandised property or from films or animations. That changed the way I thought about the sculptures I was doing at the time, and after showing them in Japan in an exhibition with Paul Davis, I was approached to design toys by Sony Creative Products.
After putting so much time, effort and money into the large sculptures I displayed in the show, the idea of designing and selling inexpensive versions of them really interested me. I loved the thought of them as editions, and the same creative energy and thought went into designing the toys as it did with the large sculptures. It was a no-brainer for me to decide to take up their offer.
What was your process like for making the series of Monsterism figures? What are your favorite “nostalgic” memories from that early 2000s era of toymaking?
Getting started with toys on the up side of the toy ‘boom’ was really interesting and exciting. I was travelling to Japan a couple of times a year, doing promotion for the toys and design work, and it was a lot of fun. It was amazing to visit places like Medicom and meet the players. Medicom was awesome; such nice guys. I remember coming away from there with a huge box or goodies! I must say I’ve been spoiled in Japan over the years, and I have a deep respect for a lot of the people I’ve met and befriended. Those early days were a very inspirational time, and the attitude of ‘you can do it’ was motivational. I took this back to London and ran with it.
I’m not really one to sugar-coat things, so I’ll just come right out and ask this: what the hell happened to the designer toy scene?
Well, I stepped out of it for a while. Other projects were taking up a lot of my time and thinking, so I stopped the production of my toys as I felt there was too much stuff out there. I think people stopped buying the quantity they’d been previously buying, and I think parts of the scene got quite derivative. For me, I just wanted to concentrate on other ways and mediums of making artwork. I guess to some people, I’m known for my toys, but I’ve always thought of that as just one of the various mediums I use to make my work.
I recently got back into it a little, and I’ve been working with Dudebox and Unbox (too many boxes). I’m collaborating with the latter on a cool project with 2000AD, a comic that was hugely inspiring to me when I was growing up. That’s actually a dream project, so it’s great to be making toys based on characters I read and enjoyed as a kid and still do now.
I’m enjoying the independent manufacturers making resin and vinyl figures in small runs these days. That’s where it started, I believe, and it’s good to see people doing it for themselves. The underground, for want of a better word, seems to be healthy at the moment, and that can only be a good thing.
I can relate to something you said about how growing up on cartoons and comics gave you the outlook that anything was possible. Do you think it’s different for kids nowadays?
I think it’s a similar situation. Technology these days is so accessible, and as kids grow up with it, it’s second nature for them. Being able to pick up software quickly and make, music, artwork, movies and whatever else empowers kids to express themselves and their ideas in a way that was impossible and unthinkable when I was a kid. You can see that nowadays with Youtube millionaires and the like.
I followed along as you discovered that style of circular sewing (is it called needlepoint?) and then proceeded to learn it and attack it with a fervor. What was it that attracted you to that? And maybe it goes back to the idea that it’s possible to DO anything, so what would you next like to try?
It’s called cross stitch embroidery and was popular in Victorian times and has, until relatively recently, been thought of as a craft that is done mostly by middle-aged women in sewing circles. My interest in the medium started with making drawings using graph paper, something I’ve always enjoyed messing around with, as well as pixel work. After seeing a piece of embroidery somewhere, I put the two together and thought I’d have a go. To see if: A) I enjoyed it, and B) It suited my style. I’m happy to say that: A) I love doing it (apart from threads snagging!), and B) I think it does suit my style. Again with any new medium I use, there’s a sense of excitement. It’s been interesting to see my images translate into a medium that consists of small ‘X’ stitches.
I’m currently showing my stitched pieces at a small solo show in Beach London Gallery. I have a secret element to the show that I’m collaborating on with David Cranmer. It will be something new but it makes sense in a surreal way to me and Dave at least. [Revisit the duo’s collaborative electronic Van Orlax!]
The next medium I’m thinking of trying is wood carving. I’ve planned to start several times over the years but never quite got off the ground, so I’m considering doing a course in London this Autumn. I usually teach myself if I’m inquisitive about a new idea and medium, but I’ve had to finally admit I need someone to teach me. You’re never too old to learn!
I’d call you an “epic Instagrammer.” Your personal plusses and minuses on social media?
It took me a while to come over to twitter and it was my good friend Al Doyle from Hot Chip who convinced me. I’ve found it a really amazing ‘thing.’ (I’ve no other way of describing twitter as I use it in so many different ways.) I’ve gotten jobs via twitter, arranged collection of a bike I bought on eBay, gotten answers to my questions and found a really good way to promote my work and share work in progress. Instagram, I find to be a really interesting app, and I like to use that to share work in progress, drawings, promotion and snaps from my day-to-day life. I also have a flickr account that I add to frequently, and I’ve decided to use that as my main public archive of work. There’s some gaps in there, but it’s fun to add to and use for myself as a reference tool.
I’m very aware of my use of social media. I left Facebook last year, so twitter and Instagram are my main two. Together with flickr, they give me the ability to share work really easily, often as I’m creating it. I’ve had many conversations about art and social media, and some people like to retain some kind of mystique between them and the public. But for me, to lessen the distance between artist and viewer is something I like to do–to make people feel like they’re closer to the creative process and mind. I certainly enjoy that with other artists I follow, and it often feels like some sort of invisible network and portal where you can step into an artist’s studio for a few seconds.
Could ‘Cosmic Nauticalist’ ever be the new Urban Vinyl???
Ha! I doubt it very much! That’s something that’s come from the music I do with my good friend Jon Tye under the name Seahawks. The music and concept behind it has really influenced my artwork. I think it tickled my fascination with sea and space and the link between the two, together with space music of all flavors. It’s a world I’ve created where tall ships still sail the seas whilst hirsute feller play synths at the captain’s table.
What’s coming up next for Pete Fowler?!
One of the things I’m really excited about is working with Tim Burgess on his Tim Peaks coffee brand. He’s such a lovely chap and has a lot of love out there for his recent solo work and his music with the Charlatans. I’ve designed some biodegradable coffee cups he’s selling online, at his cafe spaces and at UK festivals where bands play, words are spoken and people hang out.
I’ve a whole load of projects running at the moment and shows on the horizon. The last show of the year is in upstate New York state and will consist of new drawings. I’ll be posting info on all these shows on my site and social media, as usual! Running alongside that we have more Seahawks releases coming out, first is a remix version of an LP we did last year that we’re really excited about, and we have some amazing artists remixing our tracks on there. That’ll come out on CD and download, and then we’re gearing up for another two releases this year. The music keeps me busy as well as the artwork, so there’s a lot of plate spinning going on at any given time! I’m lucky to be involved in so many fun projects. By working hard, you can start to make your own luck and opportunities. I just wish there were hours in the day!
I love Pete Fowler’s figures and art. And I have so many more of his figures lined up for future photos. Great interview.
Here’s to a whole new set of figures one day!