Artists used to be viewed as difficult, expensive and awkward to commission. But designers now realise that they can offer a great deal, discovers Fay Sweet

He’s designed album covers for the likes of Dave Stewart, produced a six-page “art, fatherhood and formaldehyde” pictorial essay for the September edition of Esquire, gets more press than Lady Di and has even been courted by the advertising industry as a budding director. By anyone’s standards, Damien Hirst is doing nicely. For an artist, he’s coining it.

Of course, the notion of artists working in the commercial world is nothing new. But aside from buying the odd painting or photograph for the studio walls, few designers regularly integrate art into everyday work projects. But the growing numbers of those who have explored this rich vein of intriguing – and often refreshing – imagery have found the experience extremely rewarding (and not wildly expensive).

Clutching a copy of Modern Painters, I set out to talk with designers, artists and agents – to discover where the action is and how to find the hottest talent.

The Designer

The music business has long provided a meeting place for a spectrum of artistic talent. Singer/actor (he’s about to play Andy Warhol in a new film)/painter David Bowie has notched up the double of packing out Wembley and a gallery in Cork Street, Holly “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” Johnson delights in making computer art and John Lennon’s doodles have fetched a fortune at auction. The industry is an enthusiastic art gourmet too – the album cover is the most notable vehicle of commissions, covering the decades from Peter Blake to Hirst.

This tradition is being continued and built upon by design group Jaques Russell with its work for the Swiss record label UpArt.

The commission is for five covers, each painted by a different artist. Covers are free of type so the images will stand alone. Inside, a booklet explains the work of musician and painter. UpArt owner, composer and art connoisseur Patrick Mimran claimed one cover for himself and commissioned two artists; Martin Jaques chose the remaining two. “I particularly wanted to use the work of Max Jourdan – an art photographer I’d commissioned before, and there was the painter Brad Lochore, whose latest show was bought up by the Saatchi Gallery in London. In fact, when I took Patrick to meet Brad he liked the work so much that he bought three paintings on the spot,” says Jaques.

Jaques relishes the opportunity to work with artists: “Their train of thought tends to be very different from that of commercial designers, and the work has great ingenuity.” He believes that it is essential for the designer, as commissioner, to be “very reasonable. Artists have very strong opinions about their work, so it is up to designers to ensure that they respect the artists’ views and let them get on with it.”

The downside of the process is making the deals. Says Jaques: “Artists’ agents are really hard to negotiate with – even worse than commercial artists’ agents. Of course, they’re working to get the best for the artist, but too often there’s a warren of contracts to cope with and long discussions about reproduction rights.”

Taking forward album cover design, Jaques is discussing putting the albums in their entirety – music, book and cover – on the Internet .

Graphics consultancy Trickett & Webb has a long history of commissioning artists and has again asked Peter Blake to produce a piece for its famous calendar. “I see no division between art and illustration… Peter Blake is a perfect example of how artist and illustrator meet,” says consultancy partner Brian Webb, who has little patience with an artist who may fear that “commercial” is synonymous with “compromise”. “All my favourite artists – Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden – have worked commercially at one time or another. In fact, most of the fine art hanging in the National Gallery in London was commissioned by patrons,” says Webb.

While the working relationship between architect and artist is well established, traditionally it has revolved around buying in work to be installed on-site. A welcome (and not new) extension of this idea is to incorporate art into the very fabric of the project – designing flooring, furniture and so on.

Recently, artists Gary Palmer and Charles Hadcock have been involved in the refurbishment of Prince’s House in London’s West End. Working with client Ivory Gate, the architect McMahon and Curtis has commissioned the artists for very different aspects of the job. Palmer, a pavement and mural painter, is responsible for a vertiginous trompe l’oeil interior perspective of the building painted directly on to the carpet.

This work was featured at the start of the refurbishment project as part of the

marketing display to show how the finished job would look. Meanwhile, Hadcock, a sculptor, has won a commission for a pair of entrance doors for the building when it re-opens next year.

“We are in the very fortunate position of working with a client who is extremely receptive to the idea of incorporating art into the project,” says McMahon and Curtis partner Nick McMahon. He adds that while both he and Curtis are regular gallery and degree show visitors, Palmer’s work was known to them through friends and Hadcock was spotted several years ago when he was working as a welder. “Gary Palmer is noted for his exploration of perspectives and so was an ideal choice for conveying how the building will work once complete, while Charles Hadcock’s beautiful metalwork will enable us to incorporate a permanent work of art in the completed building.”

Describing the experience of working with artists, McMahon says: “Commissioning has probably involved us in a little more work than if we had used more orthodox suppliers. However, it was something we were really interested in doing. Employing artists may be seen as potentially risky, but we have been able to work closely and were very struck by how concerned they have been to work with the building.” And the cost? “Against the popular myths, we are confident that introducing art has been very cost-effective – the outlay would have been virtually the same for commercial suppliers.”

The Artist

The humble bus shelter may not immediately spring to mind as a piece of public art. But a visionary at Edinburgh District Council spotted the potential at Edinburgh’s Gyle Shopping Centre and commissioned artist Julie Ross to make a series of glass screens at the bus stops.

“This was a very real opportunity to make something exciting and functional which complemented the surrounding natural environment,” enthuses Ross. “The theme of the finished screens is loosely based on an abstract landscape. It was built of four layers of glass which were part-sandblasted, grozed (the edges are nibbled away and left ragged) and then pinned together with steel bolts,” she explains. The lower portion is fully sandblasted and obscured to give bus passengers a sense of enclosure, and the top section is transparent to give a view over the Pentland Hills.

Ross is very comfortable with commercial commissions and working with designers. “After leaving college I spent a long time making up designs from architects’ drawings. I was working as a technician and the product was a total compromise. However, I treated it as an apprenticeship which allowed me to develop my own work. I’ve now just about reached the stage where I’ve always wanted to be – people commission me because they know what I do.”

Having just accepted a commission for a set of hospital windows, Ross is optimistic about future collaborations between artists and designers. “The mood in the country has changed slightly. People do appear to be more open to, and appreciative of, contemporary art. Perhaps it has been as a result of the influence of schemes such as One Per Cent for Art (whereby 1 per cent of building costs go towards artwork for the project), or perhaps it is a reaction against mass

production and computer-generated imagery, but I’m convinced there is a growing interest

in hand-produced art.”

Like Ross, Charles Hadcock also spent time on an unscheduled apprenticeship, but in his case as a welder. He was making up pieces to drawings by architects and designers. “It was totally unrewarding work but I did it for bread and butter. A few years ago designers thought they could do everything, which was a bit unfair really. It’s good to see that change and have more art left to the artists.”

His work was spotted by architect Nick McMahon (see previous page) when he was looking for a welder. In the studio McMahon instantly realised Hadcock was primarily an artist. Says Hadcock: “He mentioned at the time that as soon as an opportunity for a commission turned up, he’d be back in touch. It took a couple of years, but the job has arrived.”

Hadcock is working on a pair of cast aluminium doors for Princes House in London’s Jermyn Street. “Commissioning an artist to make doors follows a long tradition back to the Baptistry doors in Florence and on to artists including Picasso and Matisse. For me this job is great – I’m interested in making functional art and I’m being left to my own devices.”

Hadcock adds, however, that his experience of working with designers in the past has not always been a happy one – “these doors are the first uncompromised piece I’ve done. I’d be

hesitant to encourage artists to work with designers unless they were absolutely prepared to take the backstage.”

The Fixer/The Go-Between

When it comes to the commission, it is rare indeed to strike a deal directly with the artist. You’re more likely to be negotiating with the agent, art consultancy or the artist’s gallery.

Art consultant Clare Cumberlidge has recently worked with interior designer Ben Kelly on the redevelopment of the Science Museum’s basement as a centre for children and young people. She operates independently and matches artists with clients for her fee “which can be as little as just a few hundred pounds”.

“As part of Ben’s proposal I included the integration of permanent works by contemporary artists,” explains Cumberlidge. “The idea was that designer and artist would work together from the early stages – the art was not an add- on.” The museum asked Cumberlidge to prepare a shortlist of artists from which the first, Tim Head, has now completed a commission for the floor. Made in laser-cut marmoleum, it was inspired by Roman mosaics and is strewn with images of bottle tops, old cassette cases and assorted items of modern waste. Sponsorship has been provided by Forbo Nairn and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Work continues to find sponsorship for other artists on the shortlist.

Cumberlidge’s central advice to designers considering working with artists is, wherever possible, to involve them from the inception of the project: “Whether the result is a collaborative piece of design or a one-off piece of art-work, the input can be very stimulating.”

Kathryn Bell of Fine Art Consultancy is another matchmaker. Not only does she guide corporate art buyers, but she’s been responsible for a range of projects – from finding artists to design Christmas cards for the Bank of China to helping a charity incorporate art into its new-look identity.

Bell sources artists through degree shows, galleries, and her own contacts list. “One of the key qualities I have to consider is whether an artist is happy to apply themselves in a commercial way and respond to a brief,” she says. “Among the concerns I often hear voiced by clients is the complex contractual agreement with the artist, including the thorny copyright issues and reproduction rights. It is true that these can be a nightmare, but I have devised my own contract to take all this into account. My theory is to keep matters as simple as possible – the more paperwork there is the more there is to argue about,” she adds.

Agent/gallery owner Stephen Lacey of the Reed’s Wharf Gallery is always happy to encourage relationships between designers and artists, but warns “it is always important to match like with like – they must be on the same wavelength. Some artists are better than others at adhering to a brief, but by the same token designers must know what they want”. He stresses that “the happiest commissions are when the integrity of the artist is respected. If the designer feels tempted to interfere, then perhaps he or she is better off doing the work”.

Shopping Around

Unless you already have specific artists in mind for a particular project, the process of seeking out new talent is almost inevitably going to start at the gallery.

Stuffy old Cork Street apart, most galleries these days are pretty laid back and much more enjoyable to visit than even ten years ago. Thankfully, the old “church hush” seems to have disappeared – you don’t have to be quiet for art any more. Staff are often artists and enjoy nothing better than chewing over the British Attitude to Art and the spending of National Lottery money with anyone who shows enough interest.

The hottest spots in London include The White Cube – owned by entrepreneurial agent Jay Jopling, who has Damien Hirst on his books (44 Duke Street, SW1, Tel: 0171-930 5373); Raab Boukamel (9 Cork Street, W1, Tel: 0171-734 6444); Raw (7 Gainsford Street, SE1, Tel: 0171-357 7570); Atlantis (146 Brick Lane, E1, Tel: 0171-377 8855) and Reed’s Wharf (Mill Street, SE1, Tel: 0171-252 1802).

Outside the capital there is a plethora of brilliant spaces – try the 1853 in Saltaire, Yorkshire, currently home to a new and bizarre David Hockney show (Tel: 01274 531163); the adventurous Atkinson Gallery, Millfield School, Somerset (Tel: 01458 442291); Brewery Arts, Cirencester (Tel: 01285 657181); The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh (Tel: 0131-558 3900); Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (Tel: 0131-650 2211); Flying Colour, Edinburgh (Tel: 0131-225 6776); CCA, Glasgow (Tel: 0141-332 7521); Beside the Wave Gallery, Falmouth (Tel: 01326 211132); Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff (Tel: 01222 641411); Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham, Rutland (Tel: 01572 821 424) and so on…

An interesting recent development in the gallery scene has been the emergence of “home” galleries. There are a handful of these in London, and there must surely be others around the country. One of the best in London is run by enthusiast Maureen O’Donoughue (Tel: 0171-837 5856) who hosts half a dozen shows a year. These are informal affairs where some good-hearted patron offers up their walls to an artist or a bunch of artists and sends out invitations. Over the period of a handful of evenings or a couple of weekends, visitors can see all manner of artwork in a domestic and informal setting. This is about as far as it is possible to get from the chilly, Saatchi-style warehouse experience.

Open studios are another exciting way to view art. Most groups of studios around the country have regular times – even if it’s only once or twice a year – when they are open to the public. For example, in London, Space Studios, which has 14 buildings in the east and south-east, has openings through the autumn (for details, telephone 0171-613 1925).

And finally, a note for next year’s diary – the annual Contemporary Arts Fair, staged in the Business Design Centre, London, (Tel: 0171-359 3535) takes place from 17 to 21 January 1996.

Art on the Internet

Finally in this section, the great mesh of the Internet is providing new opportunities for showing and viewing art.

PIG – Pavilion Internet Gallery. A mixed show. The gallery charges artists a 10 setting-up fee after which they pay 5 per image per month to display images and text. Incorporated within PIG is SHOT – an exhibition of art photography by women (

Also for art-house photography… there’s surreal imagery on offer at Jochen Brennecke’s on-line studio (

If you’re in the mood for a discussion about art, there’s reputed to be some interesting debate and discussion on offer at The Green Room Web site ( created by American performance artist Laurie Anderson. I’ve tried calling a couple of times without much success – it seems to be pretty busy, but I’m assured it is worth the time and effort once you have connected.

The dazzling digital artist Jake Tilson (currently artist in residence at The Laboratory, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art) has concocted an interactive art site called The Cooker – highly recommended (http://www. html).

And for fun, take a tour of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh – admire the pictures then order the T-shirt at

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