Anna and Roger aka uber talented illustrators Crispin Finn, with their true love of all thing red, white and blue, invited us and photographer Backyard Bill on a tour of their Dalston studio recently. They introduced us to their lovely dog Finn and we chatted over a beer about ideas that start in Roger’s parents kitchen, compulsively stealing drinks coasters, the amazing Crispin Fizz cocktail (which is lethal), labours of love, working in pairs, screen printing on glass, keeping things analogue, creating curatorial homages to films, making the disposable permanent, why art is work, taking pleasure seriously, listening to Ween and how, over a pint in the pub, they got off their arses and made things happen. All of this while the brilliant photographer Bill Gentle, aka, Backyard Bill snapped his way gloriously round their colourful studio. Enjoy.
It is always interesting hearing about how people work together in pairs, especially creatively. Can you tell me about the processes you go through together to create your work ?
Crispin Finn evolved slowly out of both wanting to make things we couldn't find. The very first thing we ever worked on together was the Year Planner stationery design, because we both used one and, given that it has a permanent spot on the wall, wanted to make one that wasn't completely fugly. We had ideas about how it should work practically, and reference points for how it could look, mainly based on our shared love for printed ephemera.
Our backgrounds of design (Anna) and art (Roger) allow us to bring different approaches to a project, and although the crossover is much less defined now, Anna mainly worked in the computer and Roger out of the computer. That led to a way of working that still sticks, and almost everything we make begins as lists, then discussions, then drawings, then digital, and then into whatever process realises the final work.
We both love to work with physical processes which is why we still screen print our own personal work, or will hand paint a mural for example. Alongside the digital work, keeping a close relationship with making things by hand (mixing inks, choosing and working with paper stock, pulling prints, creating packaging, figuring out problems on a practical level, etc, etc), really does help to inform everything else we do. And it makes life fun.
You have often talked about how your choice to work with three colours was a practical and economical decision. Do you think that choosing to use three colours has defined who you are as artists ? Or do you think it is your obsession with collecting old school ephemera that ultimately created the Crispin Finn signature style ?
It's interesting - our style as Crispin Finn is different to the separate work we were making as individuals. It's as though a new visual language emerged out of collaborating and yes, the colour way definitely had a huge impact on that. More than anything it forced us to be uber-economical right from the beginning - with colour, composition and layout, how we drew things. It made us lay down a pretty rigorous set of rules from the beginning which has completely informed the work we've made and how we visualise things. It created an identity, but it also created an equal creative point of entry for us both, so the language we've developed we've learned together, and solved the problems that have come out of this way of working together, and the result of that is this language that belongs very equally to both of us.
The old school (and new school) ephemera that we collect is an extension of our reference library. It's a compulsion (for example it's often hard for us to leave a restaurant without taking a drinks coaster, a napkin and a menu if they're nice), and it feeds our brains and inspires us in all sorts of ways, but we're also very clear about wanting to make work that is contemporary - not a pastiche of the past. So we'll try to understand the rules of a piece of design or ephemera that excites us, rather than recreate the effects or textures that make that thing vintage or whatever.
Crispin Finn: Pack Rat
By what standards do you judge your own artwork?
We always try and begin with an idea, a reason or a rationale, to answer a brief with something appropriate. Less is usually more - if something gets too complicated it can sometimes lose a certain kind of quality. There is something very satisfying about a simple but elegant outcome. Also, we both get very excited about a piece of work that's working, and if that's happening it's a good sign that we're on the right path with something.
For your movie print poster series you have re-appropriated the every day objects that appear in your favourite films and create individual artworks out of the ephemera. They seem much more challenging to create than your other screen prints. What set of rules do you impose on yourselves in order to create these posters ?
The movie prints are laborious, and we see them as being almost curatorial homages to the films we love. We're both avid cinephiles, and whenever we're watching a great movie we get as excited by the objects or signage that appears in the background of a scene as the action taking place. So we wanted to apply the same process as we did with our Pack Rat series of prints, which recreated ephemera we'd collected from all over the world to make the disposable permanent, a two dimensional museum of all this stuff which, when presented as a screen print, gave it a visual value that might be overlooked in the everyday.
So with the films, we pick a movie we love, watch it a couple of times, freeze framing and photographing all the objects as they appear, then we'll go though and select a group of around twenty five. These will then be type referenced and researched - we try and be as accurate as possible, so even if something appears partially obscured, we'll go to great lengths to recreate it. When all the objects are drawn we build the composition so it operates rather like a fictional prop cupboard of artefacts - everything at relative scale, collected together. This takes time, especially working within our restricted colour way, to make everything visible and clearly defined. The process creates an interesting neutrality around the items, freeing them of their narrative associations - only observers familiar with the film will be able to recall the pivotal or trivial scenes with which they are associated.
The series is a labour of love, but we hope anyone that is as crazy about the movies we depict as us might really enjoy seeing an accurately described, alternative way of referencing film.
What was that the beginning of your Cocktail cards series ? Is it true that your cocktail Crispin Fizz was born out of a David lynchesque dream ?
The idea started in Roger's parent's kitchen looking at this collection of old recipe cards that his mother has - they're beautiful and we constantly said how nice would it be to make a set of cards for classic cocktail recipes. We liked that idea that you have a definitive set of recipes for the home as there are so many variations. The slightly Lynchian way in which it progressed was that coincidentally Charlie at Beach London got in touch to tell us about a dream he'd had where they hosted a crazy cocktail night at the gallery. He woke up and thought we might want to help make it happen with them and using it as a way of making a new body of work. It was very serendipitous. He put us in touch with Duncan from Hendrick's Gin and together we created a screen printed set of cards with classic recipes for the attendees, and created the amazing! Crispin Fizz cocktail which we mixed on the night. The packs of cards were hugely time consuming to print so we decided to take the designs into a larger sized screen print series which we showed at Pick Me Up, and since then some of the designs have translated into kitchenware and stationery.
I came across a vine recently which shows a sneak preview of Roger reverse screen printing on glass for a limited edition Up Side Up product. Can you talk about this collaboration and how does the process of screen printing on glass work ?
The project with Up Side Up has been a really interesting one. Their concept is that they approach designers and invite them to make a product that is out of their usual material remit. They have different models of developing the projects but we eventually decided to use it as a way of expanding our screen printing capabilities at our studio. Having long been fascinated by victorian reverse printed mirrors, often found in pubs and bars, we decided to make our own and investigate glass printing.
Once the basic factors had been overcome - figuring out how to pull a print on a glass sheet without splitting the silkscreen, sourcing air-cured glass printing inks, using the correct mesh size, registration of each printed layer and just handling an edition that exists as fifty sheets of glass before framing, it was really nice to print. After several months of research, design based on a quote we felt would be really appropriate on a mirror from The Truman Show movie and finding appropriate packaging, we finally launched the mirror at London Design Festival and it's now available online.
You have been represented for the last few years by Siobhan Squire and have been commissioned commercially by a range of brands including Vodafone, Bryon & Camden Brewery. How valuable is it to you to balance commissioned and personal work ?
Early on, Siobhan had been following the shows we were doing of personal work and was the one who thought our work would translate well commercially - because of that the first portfolio we made for her was pretty much entirely personal work and so the jobs we started to get offered were based on the work we were already making. Perhaps because of this we don't really make a great distinction between it and our personal work - different jobs allow you to do different things, and require different things from you, and that's what really drives us. It is, after all, the job of the designer or illustrator to help solve a problem, almost regardless of what that is. We think one feeds the other, and we've learned so many things from working commercially with different art directors, designers and clients. David Gentleman is a great example of a designer and illustrator who seemed to never be without a commercial brief, and used all of those opportunities to make an extraordinarily diverse and beautiful body of work.
Last year you took part in the Word to the Wise group show at University Arts London and created a lovely print based on a Milton Glaser quote - Art is Work. Why does that statement resonate with you ?
When Anna took part in Glaser's summer workshop in New York she encountered that statement first hand from Milton and we loved its apparent double sentiment, that art is a valid vocation, and also that it's hard. That it takes time, dedication and sweat to get it right, rather than a brief ethereal moment of inspiration although sometimes that can happen too, but it might still be a slog to artwork it properly…!
You guys have been working together since 2008. If you could go back in time and give yourselves one single piece of advice what would it be ?
We came across that famous Eames quote, Take Your Pleasure Seriously again recently, and it really chimed for us because of the way our partnership evolved we've found a lot of ways to bring the things we love into our work. It probably took us a while to realise that early on that the things we had in common and got excited about are exactly the things we should and would be making work about. So knowing that more formally early on wouldn't have changed the way we work, because through making things we figured it out, but it might have given us that extra confidence when we were first started collaborating.
Likewise if you bumped into your future selves seven years from now what would you most like to see yourselves doing ?
Well hopefully we'd have just released the 2022 year planner! The main thing would be to continue to work for a roster of varied and exciting clients, to continue developing our personal work, maybe into more textiles and furniture as well as the stationery and prints, and it would be great to exhibit further internationally. We'd hope to see work that could made our current selves say wow!.
What do you think is the best piece of advice for anyone starting out and trying to make a living from their craft?
All the cliches are true - Find the thing you have genuine passion for. Work really hard at it. Keep going. Don't give up. Crispin Finn came about after a pub based conversation about wouldn't it be great if we could make a… (fill in the blank) and the major difference between that conversation and a lot of other pub conversations about doing things is that the next day we got off our arses and actually made it happen.
Finally Bill Gentle our lovely photographer today always asks people what their personal soundtrack is at the moment? As he is taking some photos of you I hand that question over to you guys. Is it ween ?!!
Yes, Ween are always in there somewhere! Right at this moment we're also listening to a lot of 2 Bears and Joe Goddard stuff, Lou Reed, Aphrodite's Child, Faith No More, Neil Young, The Beatles, Black Flag, The Monkees, Royal Trux… it's a big and mixed bag. We also listen to a lot of podcasts and long form spoken word/ interviews, things like WTF with Marc Maron, Stuff You Should Know, Radio 4 documentaries of the week, Desert Island Discs… the list is long…!
Crispin Finn: Halloween Playlist
Crispin Finn: Love Playlist