Our rainy Autumn morning was instantly brightened after a visit to South London based artist Rob Lowe’s studio, hidden along the cobbled streets of creative community Havelock Walk in Forest Hill. Walking in, it felt like stepping into one of his pieces of work as we were immersed into a world bursting with colour and pattern. Huge original screen prints of his work are dotted across the walls in amongst brightly coloured 60s style furnishings with shelves displaying a rich range of graphical books and prints.
Behind this striking graphic work is Rob Lowe, a down to earth guy, who’s vast experience as a graphic designer has enabled him to be multifaceted in his work, often involving a range of illustration, typography and graphic design. We sat down with him to find out more about the development of his distinctive style.
How did you get the name Supermundane?
It’s a real word, it means beyond things which are above or superior to the earth. It’s the opposite of what it sounds. I trained as a graphic designer working in a kettle factory in the midlands designing packaging and really bad things to go on the side of the products. It was really boring and I used to read the dictionary when I was there as something to do on the lunch breaks and found Supermundane. At the time I didn’t think I was going to be in the position where id be making a living out of it.
How did you start out?
So I studied graphic design in the midlands, it was only HND so I haven’t done a BA or anything, and that’s what I did for 10 years – mainly graphic design. I moved to London 20 years ago, working with a company making lava lamps in the early 90s when those things were taking off. So I was doing Supermundane work in my spare time and set up a website in the very last bit of the 90’s. For some reason that got picked up in America, i’ve got no idea why, and so I was basically hiding behind the name Supermundane. It was something different and completely hidden and it would just be a thing I did in my spare time. From that I got a job from that at sleeve nation magazine which was a lifestyle magazine. At that point I was working at ministry of sound doing covers and art directing as well. I then creative directed the independent magazines Good For Nothing and Anorak magazine. I was the creative director of Anorak from the start for 6 years, and wrote things from them as well. It’s in its 10th year now so I did the first 6.
How has your style progressed?
About 2009 I was getting to a point where I was thinking how much further can I go with it. So I started looking at all the ways the lines interact and there was no perspective in there at all. It’s just lines on top of lines. And then you have to make the depth. I just looked how all the lines were intercepting and took a tiny bit and simplified it to 45 degree angles. I tried to see how far I could go whilst retaining movement and depth and then I use colour just to differentiate the way the lines work.
How do you chose your colour palette?
Its pretty arbitrary, its contrasting colours really. Sometimes I like putting colours that should be in the foreground in the background. I like playing around with the things like that. So from that point I went on and started to develop a whole way of approaching things which is all really about depth and hierarchal depth and how we try and organise things in our brain. Sometimes our brains follow the angle and the shape underneath and then sometimes it doesn’t. It means that even though these are flat images it has to start moving around because your brain tries to organise it.
It seems that you are good with angles and perspective – are you mathematical?
No not at all. People always expect me to be this precise in everything, i’m just not. I mean I am precise but i’m so bad at maths, I find it quite frustrating. I was doing some paintings for a show earlier this year and I measured them and I still managed to measure them wrong. I’m not a perfectionist, i’ll do something to the point i’m happy which might be in terms of a perfectionist, but how I think as people as being perfectionist are people who want to be spotless and perfect, whereas my paintings have got little rough edges. I don’t mind things being a bit rough and sometimes the people who want to do these kind of paintings want to remove the human touch and make them perfect, whereas I prefer to have a bit of human touch.
Can you tell us a bit about your process.
Depending on what the work is, sometimes I start with a sketch, but a lot of its on computer. I use this old programme called Freehand which you cant buy anymore, it hasn’t been updated for 10 years. I basically got an old computer because it won’t work on my new one so I have to use to use my old one. I hate illustrator and i’m really quick in Freehand and I’ve been using it forever. I literally start with a line and build lines up, and most of my lines are 90 degrees or 45 degrees. It’s a thing which is a process of building and adding and subtracting. Ill keep building until I get a black and white composition that I really like and then I colour. Most of the time i’m trying to go against where you would expect the line to be, so i’m trying to play around with that by creating odd depth and unexpected angles. Even though the angles are only 45 degrees, so there not unexpected but its all about how they connect. And then the colours are used to create depth and in a similar way. I use pattern as well so I throw everything into it.
You also have created fonts?
Yes, I really love typography, I mean letters are abstract things in themselves really. I taught on illustration courses and illustrators are so scared of typography because they think its some sort of hallow graphic design thing, but I had to say to them, you’re not designing helvetica, if your’e just using letters they’re just abstract things, it’s just a code, and its a very resilient code because you can push it quite far and people can still read things. Ive done quite a few fonts. Years ago I used to make typefaces for every project. I just finished one called protest. Its a typeface i started 15 years ago. I also write quite a lot, short stories and poetry. I had a little booklet called ‘Extra Ordinary’ which I published myself. There’s these little things i found in my sketchbooks from 2010, which are just little micro dramas, so i put them together. We printed 1000 of them and they were for sale in the design museum and places like that. I used to do it with my drawings – i’d write a little bit at the bottom which had nothing to do with he drawing but something to read and think about whilst looking at it. So maybe introduce that to my new stuff, maybe. Took me years to get confident, i’m not that good at spelling and don’t really get punctuation and all that.
How did you come up with the Bookblock cover designs?
They’re from a really big image that i did, thats really really detailed so its a crop. Because of the way i designed them they can be cropped almost anywhere.
Have you always been drawn to bright colours.
I think i have. Either it’s black and white or one colour or I go for all colours. I don’t know what that is, i think its partially because, I am a bit colour blind, just the kind of red and green, but as far as I can tell, I can see the same colours as everybody else. I wouldn’t mind doing an article on it cos i know at least a couple of illustrators who are properly colour blind, but weirdly all the people who do know that there colour blind are all really good with colour. But I think it’s because you think about it more – I do it in a way that all my colours are chosen via the CMYK numbers.
What’s your favourite project you’ve worked on?
The one at the moment which stands out is the mural i did at Leeds train station, just because its a proper peace of public art. It took no time to do because its printed, so the guys who put it up took seven hours and I just watched them. You can watch a video of me watching them which is quite weird. I had to work in reverse because it’s on glass. So the design had to work both ways but I hid the word leeds in there and then when you flip it, it reads Leeds as well the other way. Its 14 metres. So the white bits are see-through so you can see right through the tracks. So people can enjoy it as a colourful thing and then they can enjoy the weird angles, then they might find leeds in there. The people who I worked with were really lovely, Leeds inspired, who are part of the council there. The station is quite grey and then smack bang in the middle there’s a 14 metres long colourful mural. It’s going to be there for at least 6 years.
Where else would we have seen your work?
I’ve just done some socks, the socks have faces with a tongue out and i’ve done underpants for a Swedish company too. I’ve been working for Dolby, i’ve done a couple of murals in there, i’ve done a mural at Moo too. This year I haven’t done many murals but last year I did some painted ones and I did enjoy them because they’re quite a big thing, and they take a few days. It’s a real nice process, I paint the black first and use the tape as the line width and then paint the colour, so it gets really messy. Pulling off the tape is normally the best bit, its really enjoyable. I use this special tape – i’ve had a lot of tape conversations, i’ve just been told a technique as well – if you put the tape up, then paint the edge with the colour of the wall and then paint on top of that you get a perfect line.
What are your future plans?
I’m working towards an exhibition in Brighton called ‘Unlimited’ in October – it’s a print show so i’m doing lots of stuff for that. The beauty of that is because i’m doing quite a lot I don’t know where i’ll end up, so things might crop up. People ask me about animation loads and my feeling is I always try and put movement into my pieces and if you animated it, it would lose that. I spent a year or 2 screen printing in Peckham print studios screen printing and then they’ve closed down and started a East London print studio but theres no open access there, but there is a place in Peckham called soul Studios – I do miss it so I want to get back into it.