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August 20 2014

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Behind-The-Scenesters: Lee Swillingham

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Designers design. Photographers photograph. Models model. That much—in broad strokes, at least—is clear. But what about the artists, technicians, and industry insiders, often unpublicized and underappreciated, who help to get clothes and accessories made and shown? Call them Behind-the-Scenesters: people who shape our experience of fashion but never take a bow on the catwalk or strike a pose for the camera. Without them—from pattern-makers to production designers—the show wouldn’t go on. And in a new series, Style.com sits down with a few of these pros to find out, basically, what they do.

If God is in the details, as the saying goes, then art directors are the gods of fashion. The job is hard to summarize—LOVE magazine creative director Lee Swillingham (pictured), for example, has a hand in everything from conceptualizing multi-page fashion spreads to setting the type in the credits. For him, as for his hero Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary former art director of Harper’s Bazaar, success comes of making a series of micro decisions add up to one iconic image. Even before LOVE came along, Swillingham and partner-in-design Stuart Spalding had already entered the art director pantheon—they were the founding creative directors of POP, and their firm Suburbia has created campaigns for the likes of Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Alexander McQueen. Here, Swillingham talks to Style.com about the gestalt of logos and layouts.

So, Lee: In one sentence, what do you do?
Really, what I do is I make things look beautiful. That’s my mission, as I see it. The way that relates to reality is, I’m a graphic designer, a typographer, and an art director of photography.

Elaborate, please—what does it mean to be an art director of photography?
It depends on what you’re doing and who you’re working with. Here’s a good example: Prior to POP, I was the art director at The Face. And we did this issue with four different covers, each one with another nineties supermodel; I literally planned out, on the computer, the different shapes of each cover, because we needed them to look coordinated, and yet totally distinct. Or, another good example from The Face is the portrait of Kurt Cobain; it’s very famous. Nirvana had gotten a lot of press in the U.K. at that point, primarily music magazines like NME, and we were trying to figure out how to make a picture of Kurt feel new. We asked David Sims to shoot it—he was a massive Nirvana fan—and it was around the time that Kurt was wearing dresses. We were tossing around ideas, and the whole dress thing gave David the idea of dress up. And that’s how we wound up with Kurt Cobain on a white background, in a Tigger costume. There’s not one element in the photo I could point to and say, that’s mine, right there, but I was involved in every decision and the development of every idea that went into the image.

How did you get into art directing?
Well, I always knew I wanted to do it, from when I was a kid. Then, when I was still in school at [Central] Saint Martins, I began assisting at Arena magazine. Back then, they only did six issues a year, so I could work on a whole issue at a time and only miss a few classes now and then. There was one issue I was working on, when the art director and the editor had a huge fight, and the art director walked out, and I wound up designing that issue of Arena all by myself, essentially. When I graduated, I took a job at The Face. In a similar way, life just sorted itself out in such a way that, within a year, I was made the art director of the magazine. Which is insane, a year out of school.

The Face had such a strong identity. How did you make it your own?
Well, for one thing, I brought in a whole new crop of photographers. That’s something I’m really proud of, commissioning people like David Sims and Inez van Lamsweerde very early on in their careers. Also, we began doing a lot of photo retouching, which was pretty unusual at the time.

Do you feel like you have a certain style?
Oh, definitely. If you look at all my work together, you see the influence of Pop art, for example, a Warholian influence I bring in pretty much unconsciously. I love color. A lot of art directors are very monochrome; not me. Another thing is that I really love to design typefaces. For better or worse, I’ve been pretty influential, in that regard. Like, the 2005 Kate Moss covers of POP, where she’s an angel in one and a boxer in the other, I did handwriting. That was very me, now you see handwriting everywhere. And for The Face I introduced this very stencilized militaristic font—it’s on posters all over the place now, and on American TV, and it makes me cringe. The handwriting trend is getting to that level now.

You mentioned that at The Face you pushed retouching. Do you feel like that’s another trend that’s gone too far and/or gone on long enough?
What bugs me the most about the retouching going on lately is that, much of the time, it’s just hiding bad photography. I love what Mert & Marcus do, that hyper-stylized thing, but fundamentally those guys are great photographers. When they retouch, they’re elaborating an image, not trying to cover up bad technique. But of course, there are photo trends, just like there are font trends, and so you wind up with all these mediocre people trying to do “that Mert & Marcus thing” and really, no matter how much they retouch, they’re not going to get any closer to those guys, because they’re not as talented. And the more bad imitations of that style you see, the more you want to see something else entirely.

Are you feeling ready for images that are more raw?
In general, yes. More real, more raw, more off. It feels fresher. I’m speaking for myself here, by the way—I don’t push this at the magazine too much because we’ve got a LOVE look and feel to account for, and we have to consider the stories we’re working on, who we’re shooting, what the clothes are, and so on. But for me, personally, I love the kind of thing Juergen Teller does, shooting some insane, elaborate outfit in this completely raw style.

I feel we’ve gotten a little off track. I’m still not sure exactly what you do. I know you talk to photographers a lot, and I know you like to design typefaces. But what’s an average day like for you?
I don’t think we’re too off track, because thinking about things like, how do I feel about retouching, is in a way part of my job. But to answer your question, when I’m not at the magazine I’m usually having meetings with clients and meetings with creatives like stylists, and when the magazine is in production, I’m in the office doing layouts. I still get a kick out of laying out fashion stories. When the photos turn up from the shoot, that’s the most exciting thing, because then I get to start thinking about how to pull everything together. The moment has been diminished, a little, by e-mail—it used to be you got a lovely big box of prints delivered by FedEx. It was like a gift. Now it’s “ping” in the inbox. I try very hard not to look at images on my BlackBerry.

We’ve talked about your experience at The Face, but you’ve launched two magazines now, from scratch, and I wonder how that works? Where do you start?
LOVE, for me, started with the logo. It’s such a strong, powerful word, “LOVE,” and I wanted to do a strong, powerful expression of that name. Nothing cutesy. And this was my first time I was working with Condé Nast, which I’ve always considered the home of fashion, and I wanted to stand up to the great logos, like Vogue. I wanted the logo of LOVE to feel like, this is a title that’s been around for a hundred years. I researched old engravings, going back to Roman times. I went around Grand Central and took photos of the engraving on the stonework. Another big influence was the old movie studio logos from the golden era of Hollywood—Columbia, RKO. The references were very different from POP, which we launched ten years earlier. Then, I wanted the magazine to feel very new, very of-the-moment. Anyway, in both cases, I did the logos and everything else kind of followed from there.

You’ve been working with Katie Grand for a long time now. At this point, do you guys share a brain? Or is it more like, this is your thing, this is my thing?
The great thing about working with Katie is that she’s incredibly visually aware. She’ll talk about the clothes, but she’ll also say things like, remember when i-D used to use photocopying? Remember what that was like? She’s magazine literate, and we share a vocabulary. It’s always a pleasure to work with someone who can think like a graphic designer without actually being a graphic designer. Like, my favorite photographers to work with are the ones who are thinking about layout while they’re shooting. They already have a sense of where the copy should go.

Do you see yourself as having a bias toward one part of your job over another? Like, do you think of yourself as a type guy?
I love type—I’m someone who walks around seeing typefaces everywhere, I’m reading out names of fonts in my head all the time. And I really enjoy hand-creating a type, like the calligraphy-esque ink on the first cover of LOVE, which was based on Jean Cocteau’s handwriting, or the stamp we did on the nude issue. But as interested as I am in type, I’m just as interested in photography. My heroes are people like Brodovitch, who could do it all. It’s hand in glove. If you want to do a layout where there’s a photo of a girl reaching out and touching the letter Y, that has to be art directed. That’s the reason I’ve always loved magazines. The layout, the combination of images and text, the type. All the disciplines come together. And if you’re into graphic design as a kid, why wouldn’t you want to work at a magazine? What’s not to like? No one sits around daydreaming about designing crisp packets.


Below, a few examples of Swillingham’s work, from POP, The Face, and LOVE.


Photos: Jeff Bark (portrait); The Face; Pop; Love

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