Jeroen Smeets sat down with Kevin Lyons in Paris last week to talk about art, design, monsters and socks.

 

© Nicolas Jacquemin / La Clef

 

 

When you’re meeting new people, how do you describe what you do for a living to them?

When people ask me I usually tell them that I’m a graphic designer first, and an artist second. And then I go on to explain that I do these characters that form out of my work, but they are very much in their own world, and those are the monsters that you can see on the socks for example. So a lot of my art is very design oriented. Because I started as a graphic designer, when I’m making work I don’t look at it as an abstract. I always start with a scene or content in mind. Even in my illustrations I always have a narrative in mind. It’s very graphic design focussed. I can’t do anything where I just sit down and draw a form, for form’s sake. It always has to be influenced by the music or the lyrics I’m listening to, or some sort of idea that I have.

What was it that you wanted to become when you were growing up? Not the first fireman or astronaut phase. But the second phase, when you understood more about what work was. What did you wanted to become at that point?

I grew up with three things. The first one was sports. Sports was really key. I was playing a lot of soccer, running and baseball. But mostly running, I was a big runner, I ran all the time, and I still do. I always had this thought of myself being in the Olympics. Even in my teenage years I was really set on trying to become a professional athlete. And I was very good at that, but what I also did was draw all the time. I would draw logos, and album covers, I was really into the graphic design of things. And the third thing was music. Music was everything to me. I was into punk and new wave, then into hiphop and rap, ska and reggae and jazz, and everything else. So I knew whatever I was going to do, I wanted to do something with one of those three things, even though I didn’t know what it was going to be. So I decided I was going to do all three. I always had this dream of designing my own running shoe. And then I always thought that I’m going to draw logos for bands and music. And while I was growing up I would ask myself; “What do I love?” I love to work in music, so I’m going to try and get into the music scene and work with bands and clubs. And then I said I would love to work at Nike some day, and then I applied and ended up working at Nike for 2,5 years and worked on Nike shoes. So I really tried to use my art form, what I was given as an ability, to still access the worlds that I maybe couldn’t achieve myself. I couldn’t be an Olympic champion, but I could work on the shoes that go on the Olympic champion. So in effect I always wanted to be an artist in some capacity. But I also wanted to be an Olympic champion and in a famous band you know. So I’m channelling everything through the art now.

© Nicolas Jacquemin / La Clef

What role has Sesame street played in your work? You’re a big fan aren’t you?

Sesame street has played a huge influence on me. I’m of the age where Sesame Street was the only thing that was consistently on television every day. So that was on every day. And Jim Henson was such a huge influence on me and you can see the subconscious influence in my character design. When you look at my characters I often hear from people that they look like Muppets, or Garfield or Hanna Barbara characters. With the Muppets it was always the humour, the sarcasm, the music, the design and the eyes of the characters. So much of my inspiration was Sesame Street and the Muppets and then it definitely turned into the all the other cartoons in the world.  He was a huge influence on me, growing up, and I’ve met a few of his children. And I met his wife, his widow. But I never met him myself. I was obviously too young to work with him, and too old not to have missed him. But I grew up on him. I still watch the Muppets to this day, and even my kids like the Muppets now.

When you were back in school, what was your understanding of the ‘art-world’ back then?

I didn’t think much about art, and the art world. It seemed very abstract to me. It seemed like Warhol, Kadinksy and Rauschenberg, these artists who were very far off what I was doing at the time. The gallery’s were intimidating. I looked at art as a history thing, or this very kind of fancy movement thing. I only thought of my immediate friends and what we liked. Which were album covers, stickers, flyers, t-shirts, skateboards. The graphics that were on there was pretty much all I thought about. Looking back, my aspiration was very immediate to what I saw in my life. So I walked around and wanted to be a part of that world. I wanted my friends to like my work and want to wear it on a t-shirt, or put it on an album cover. That was really all I thought about then.

How do you feel about that now?

It’s been really good to me now, because the art world has come a lot closer to street culture. Over the years it has been transformed and I’ve had the access to the art world without even trying. Simply because by osmosis my artwork got a little closer to what is contemporary art. I think that there are people like Basquiuet and Haring, that helped access that world and opened the doors. These people have been a huge influence on me because of that, just like Jim Henson. I’ve just done a project for a doctor. He’s a cardiologist for kids. He wanted to have his office done with a monster image for the kids who come to visit. These are kids who come to visit and are sick. At first I was like, why would I do that? And then I thought about the mentality that Keith Haring had. He has done so many projects with kids, and I thought the purpose of what I do is to make people happy. If these kids are coming into the doctor’s office and they are scared of what’s going to happen but then they are stoked on what the graphics are on the wall, then I’m making them happy. Keith Haring has been a huge influence because he straddled the high art world, but was never too proud to not appeal to ‘regular’ people or the mainstream audience. The pop shop was a huge effort, because it was the first time that an artist who put graphics on t-shirts sold them in retail. That had a huge influence on the graffiti, which was dying out, because of the legal implications. T-shirts had become the new way to get your name up. It was inspiring to see how Keith Haring did that. And that influenced a lot of us to start more in the street world.

You’ve worked on many different collaborations throughout your career, from snowboards to t-shirts, to all kinds of products. And now also socks?

One of the things that I wanted to do is to make socks. I actually love and collect socks. Different patterns and colours. I usually wear like navy/black uniform, but then flex something on the socks. I always wanted to do something with my monsters on socks and I experimented with many brands and manufacturers, but was always disappointed with the replication of what I was trying to do. It never looked the way I wanted it to. It looked like cheap clip art on a sock and it always looked poorly manufactured or designed poorly. Then Stance came along with this sock and I saw what they were able to do. They have a really fine production, and that is why this is so exciting for me. I thought the idea of the monsters popping out of your shoes and looking at you, or even on your feet while you are walking throughout the house. I thought it would be such a cool idea, and I could never realise this with any other brand.

How did the connection with Stance come about?

We worked together on a project for Colette about a year ago. Stance was doing a Colette sock, and Sarah from Colette picked me and a couple of others to work on this collaboration. This was the first time we worked together, and that was such a great collaboration that I was immediately excited for the complete collection that we’ve worked on now.

© Nicolas Jacquemin / La Clef

Is there a difference between designing something for a sock, as opposed to a t-shirt?

The difference between a sock and a t-shirt is that for me a sock is that it is more about the pattern, instead of a single visual. A little bit of a wall paper on the sock. One of the things that was interesting was how do you make the socks still a good sock? It’s one thing to just put your characters on it, you can pretty much do that any time you want. But the interesting part of this sock was how do we make it feel more like a traditional sock, which we ended up doing with the athletic stripe. The other sock that I did was more designed as a totem pole, with the faces going all the way down. I also looked at the colours differently than a t-shirt because I really wanted fir the socks to pop out.

© Nicolas Jacquemin / La Clef

Top Five:

Five things you take with you when your house is on fire

  • My family
  • My record collection
  • Photos
  • As many drawings
  • My sneakers

 

Five best sesame street characters

  • Cookie Monster
  • Oscar the Grouch
  • Ernie
  • Aloysius Snuffleupagus
  • Yip Yips

 

Five best Muppets characters

  • A tie for Animal and Crazy Harry
  • Fozzie the bear
  • Doctor Teeth
  • Sweetums
  • Swedish Chef

 

Five destinations in the world that are still on your bucket list

  • Copenhagen
  • Iceland
  • Istanbul
  • Morocco
  • Egypt