During my trip to London in mid-September, I was fortunate enough to interview the very talented artist Rob Lowe, also known as Supermundane. Rob is a man who loves to draw, who loves words, and who loves drawing words. ‘Supermundane’ is a word that Rob stumbled upon in a dictionary, and it spoke to him. The word seems to have vanished from most modern dictionaries, but if you do manage to find it, you might find a definition like ‘not Earthly; without physical presence.’ Rob designs the children’s magazine Anorak and he recently began a new publishing company called Present Joys. In October, he’ll be showing work as part of a group show in New York (his first visit!) at Giant Robot. When I inquired about an interview, Rob suggested that we sit down for a pint at a pub called the Jerusalem Tavern. When my London friends enthused that the Jerusalem was one of their favorite pubs in the city, my anticipation for the interview doubled. Here are the highlights from my long, beery conversation with Mr. Rob Lowe.
Dan Redding: How has the graphic design industry changed during your career thus far?
Rob Lowe: When I was at college, when I was seventeen, there were definitely no computers at all. The majority of my typography was hand drawn. Even my first job – which was at a kettle factory designing boxes and stuff like that – it was all done on a massive drawing board.
I actually admire that because you learned a traditional way of doing typography that many people these days don’t learn, and I didn’t learn. I went to school for illustration, but I kind of feel that I missed out on some of those typographical techniques. Also, the idea of a kettle factory is a very amusing one. It’s so English.
It is a funny idea.
How many kettles could they possibly sell? I guess a lot!
Well, they also sell toasters.
I enjoyed viewing your Truman font because it’s based on a physical piece of London. Are there any other designs of yours or of other artists that come to mind as having a piece of London in them? I’m wondering about works that include a physical piece of London, a piece of London’s history, or the renowned British sense of humor?
Everything I do is done via my way of thinking, and as I’m British or English or however you want to describe me, it’ll always have a certain amount of that in it… So I don’t know if there’s anything specific apart from that Truman Brewery font. The reason I did that was because I couldn’t believe anybody else hadn’t done it! (laughter) It’s just sittin’ there! I literally worked for a while looking at it. It looked – it is a beautiful font. Because it’s on a curve – on a chimney stack – it appears distorted. I was counting all the bricks. It’s the kind of thing that people don’t do anymore. It’s hard enough to build a circular brick chimney. But then to work out where these white bricks are gonna go – unless they painted them, I don’t know. But I don’t think they did. The tower just sits there like a big totem. For me, it’s a bit of a statement of that area. And it’s a good name: Truman.
There are so many great names of streets and neighborhoods here in London. Mudchute, for example.
Mudchute, yeah! Have you been there? It’s quite descriptive. There’s some very funny ones.
It’s interesting to me. The mundane things or the everyday things are really where the personality of a city comes out.
I have always wondered – I had this conversation with someone else recently, drunkenly, I think – who decides the names of streets? I dunno who does it! There must be somebody!
You think there’s one guy somewhere? Going, ‘Mudchute Road!’
Some names are completely inappropriate, like ‘Something Hill,’ and it’s not even a hill. Who did this?
Have you released any of your fonts commercially?
I’ve got one from years ago… You make so little money, I’ve stopped doing it. Whenever I used to do a project, there’d always be a font that came out of it. But now, I’ve stopped. Part of it is that the money you get from it is so small, it’s not worth it. The other side of it is, it you’ve put a lot of personality into your fonts, you’re actually literally giving someone else your design. They can just type something out and it’s like it’s been done by me, really. Also, to sell them, you have to do every single letter, it’s like 260-something bits… then kerning it…
It’s a very painstaking process. It seems like you have to almost devote your whole career to designing fonts, or it’s almost not worth it.
I do know typographers and that is what they do. They’ll do fonts for commercial companies. And that way, you’re doing a specific thing, and they’ll get paid a lot of money to do a font for, like, a bank. But when you’re doing individual fonts for sale, it’s a very different thing. And then other people I know who aren’t designers have no idea that you have to pay for fonts. They don’t even get that. They think you get them for free, fonts just exist.
Like there’s a font fairy out there, bestowing them.
‘Oh, you need something for your…’
Something frilly for your wedding invite?
(Rob does magic wand motion) Ding! There you go! (laughter)
There are a lot of quotes that pop into my head while I’m working. Quotes from former professors, designers, or artists. Are there any statements or words that have stuck with you from people you’ve learned from or people you admire?
I’ve got some items that I really like that are words-based. There’s a Louise Bourgeois hanky that says, ‘I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it was wonderful.’ I’ve got that on my wall, and that is a statement I really like. I’ve also got a postcard of hers that says ‘Be Calm,’ which is a good bit of advice.
Sort of a zen truism.
The statement is, yeah. Although I don’t think she’s very zen, as a woman, she’s quite mental… I’m starting a new publishing company called Present Joys and it’s going to be almost pure word-based.
That’s a nice name.
It’s from a song by the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, off the Anthology of American Folk Music. It almost sounds like The Smurfs, it’s weird, it’s odd. It’s from about the 1930’s. It’s very good.
There’s something very ghostly about that music. It’s ethereal and strange.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before. But it’s a great name. And I’ve been trying to bloody use it for years. A couple of months ago, I thought about starting Present Joys, because I don’t get the chance to do enough typography. I love words and I love writing. And I thought, ‘Actually, there’s not enough places you can go to buy really good, quite simple words to put on your wall or send somebody.’ So we’ve put together a company. It’s going to be things I’ve done, and we’ll get other designers to do things. We’ll be publishing prints and booklets and pamphlets.
What career goals do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I’ll continue with Anorak. Also, I’ve got an exhibition coming up in New York! Well, it’s a joint show – four of us. It’s really soon; it’s at Giant Robot on the 17th of October. Come out to the show!
Many thanks to Rob Lowe.