Interview to Jordi Labanda
The career path of Jordi Labanda, the great illustrator, is vast and has gone beyond frontiers: from Barcelona to New York and from the artistic aspect to the commercial aspect and vice versa. The turning point in his career came by way of the Wallpaper magazine at the end of the Nineties, a collaboration that gave him visibility worldwide at a time when there was no internet, and that at the same time allowed him to position himself as an artist that managed to act as a catalyst for the taste of an era.
He was recently back in the news when he illustrated the poster for Rifkin’s Festival, Woody Allen’s last film, that was presented in the San Sebastián festival this week. A project that has made him particularly happy, given his admiration for the New York director’s filmography. He spoke to us about this, his work, Formentera, lockdown and much more in this interview. Come in and read on.
I consider myself to be sensitive and emotional. I have quite a lot of empathy and I like to listen to everything that I am told, although afterwards, I won’t pay attention to anyone and always do as I please. I think this is a kind of silent resistance to imposition, to the norm. I’ve always done whatever I felt like doing.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I didn’t really know. I really wasn’t clear on what I wanted although I always knew that I would do something creative.
“As an illustrator I have never been to a school. I am self-taught.”
Did you imagine you would devote your life to art?
Yes. In fact, to think about anything else… I just don’t see it. I wouldn’t be able to be anything else professionally.
You were born in Mercedes, Uruguay, but you have lived in Barcelona since you were three years old. Do you keep in contact with your birthplace?
I do, through my parents. They keep the contact very much alive. I don’t tend to visit. For me, it’s important unfinished business that I will resolve sooner or later.
The influence in your work is classical, mainly the glamour and the aesthetics of the Fifties and Sixties. What is it that captivated you?
I soaked these influences up as a child. I was always a child who was highly sensitive to aesthetics and when I returned to Spain, it was a great shock to see a place in black and white, when I came from a city full of colour, pop…
Life there was very much in technicolor, and the truth is that they were undergoing an economic boom there. So I found refuge in the magazines that we had brought with us: specially old Vogues. I remained trapped in what I had experienced those first three years of my life and from there on, I decided to look for more references, both in my childhood and my adolescence.
“It didn’t take me very long to find my voice. And that is basic, and it is what defines you.”
In fact, could you say that your personal life is reflected in your work?
No. My characters live a constant dolce vita, haha. But my life is not like that and never has been, although I wouldn’t mind if it was, haha. I have always been a firm advocate of hedonism and ‘live and let live’. But hedonism with regards to enjoying the pleasures in life and I have always maintained that that isn’t always linked to your finances. It’s about being aware of the small pleasures in life. Being present.
You also need to take into account that I emerged professionally at the end of the Nineties, and it is important to bear that in mind as context. Specially, because we are talking about a time when aesthetics was super important, as was a certain lifestyle. That made me be very aspirational, although in reality it tied in very well with what I intrinsically brought with me in terms of Fifties and Sixties’ style fashion, films and advertising because those years were the right ones for me to develop professionally.
You have a 20-year career as an illustrator, and your first job in Spain was for Woman magazine. How do you remember that time?
It was very exciting! I was always sure that I would end up doing something interesting, because it was like a feeling but not in a self-help book kind of way, hahaha. I just felt it. I didn’t tell anyone but I was certain that something would happen and that made me feel at peace. In any case, it has to be put into context as there weren’t as many illustrators then as there are now. It was easier to create a space for yourself.
In fact, I’ll tell you something: when I said I wanted to be an illustrator, people didn’t know what it was. They didn’t understand the word. They knew what a cartoonist was, but not an illustrator. It wasn’t a common word in the Spanish language.
And the funny thing is that your second assignment on Spanish ground was the weekly comic strip in the supplement of La Vanguardia, El Magazine, that you started doing in 1999 and continue to do every Sunday. Isn’t that incredible?
“My relationship with La Vanguardia is the longest relationship of my life.”
I’m happy to continue. I enjoy it a lot. The fantastic thing about this section that I do each week is that it is alive and has a very up to date feel. Additionally, it has allowed me to grow and reflect on the times. And I believe that my being up to date has a reward for the reader.
Additionally, the work you were internationally recognized for was the work performed for Wallpaper magazine. How do you recall that moment? Do you like to be the centre of attention or are you overwhelmed by fame?
The years at Wallpaper were very intense and exciting. Wallpaper was more than a magazine, it was an icebreaker where no one had ventured before. I can assure you, for example, that in Spain, in 1999, specifically in Barcelona, if you said Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier very few people knew who they were. Wallpaper democratized art, design, architecture and culture. What it did is priceless. In the Noughties, people were brought up to date but there were serious gaps and this magazine filled them. So everything that happened at that time was very exciting. And as I was the star illustrator of the magazine, they would give me the kind of projects that you would never have thought possible for an illustrator. So all of that made me grow tremendously, it opened my mind and that of the market.
I collaborated with them during the years that Tyler Brûlé led the magazine. From 1997 to 2002, which was when they let him go and he launched Monocle, another success story.
“Fame doesn’t thrill me. I have always felt quite uncomfortable. The good thing about my profession is that it is solitary and your work speaks for you.”
Even so, in my case, I have lived some crazy situations regarding fame… but at the same time, you think: it’s great for the profession that an illustrator is acknowledged, when historically it has been an anonymous figure.
You have worked for many magazines. Is there one that got away?
Rather than got away, there is the odd one with which a collaboration hasn’t yet arisen, but I’m not going to say which one… hahaha. I still have hope hahaha.
It’s hard for us to believe that your precious, flawless and vividly coloured illustrations are drawn exclusively by hand, with brushes on paper. Is your work purely analogue? Do you have a team that takes care of the technological part?
Yes. There are three of us in the studio. Laura is in charge of the studio’s agenda and coordinates projects and then David is the person who digitalizes what I do. I create the illustration by hand and we scan it. The thing is that the scanner mixes up my work and changes the colours, the textures… That’s why another part of my job is to be next to that person to ensure that the illustration becomes once more what I drew by hand.
I work with gouache, that is characterized by a very powdery and sophisticated colour card. And it’s very difficult to obtain those tones with a computer. Because of that, this post-production task is important.
It’s my way of working, but I also want to make it clear that I defend all types of techniques. There are people that work digitally and do marvellous things. I defend that what matters is the final product. I work in this way because I enjoy it and also because I like the limitation that this technique implies for me.
Do you follow a specific creative process?
It always tends to be the same. I work with sketches based on a briefing with the client. I tend to be fairly quick at generating ideas, although I get it wrong sometimes. But that creative spark comes to me when I speak to the client.
Maybe a large part of the success of my work is because I connect very well with the needs of the public. I call it knowing how to listen to the beat of the times. It’s like intuition.
Which work are you most proud of?
Everything I did with Wallpaper or my page in La Vanguardia magazine. And it’s not that I am fond of this project, it’s more than that. Both have made me very happy.
When you were taking off “Jordi Labanda” was on a thousand formats. Did this have a negative impact for you?
Perhaps it did from an editorial perspective, but it opened up important new opportunities. It was a time of great over-exposure but the demand was very intense. And you know it’s always the same, those that first discovered you are the first to turn their backs on you. But I accept it, this is human nature. I was always aware that the trend would pass.
“Whenever there is commercial success, it’s the artistic aspect that suffers.”
What do you think of social media? Are they a necessary evil or do you enjoy them?
It’s a great subject.
“I think social media is fine to discover things and connect with others, but on the other hand, they seem to me to be the work of the devil.”
I say this hand on heart, Facebook and Instagram are envy generating machines, and this is the ugliest sentiment a human being can have. Because envy unleashes a series of processes that lead to the very worst in human beings.
I believe that using Instagram without it giving you Fomo is very complicated. Its use affects us all at one point or another. Social media is perverse by nature.
There has recently been a boom in illustrators. What do you think about that? And, which illustrators or artists throughout time inspire you?
I love David Hockney’s work. Both his art and his outlook on life inspire me. I also really like René Bouché, because his ethereal and mundane illustrations with light elegant strokes take me back to a time when fashion reigned and was understood more intellectually than it is now. His women are a prodigy of style; Mary Petty, because I see modernity and irony in his illustrations. His female characters are women that are trying to find their space in the modern jungle using their sense of humour as their machete.
“René Gruau has been without a doubt my biggest influence. His solar outlook on life, his sense of colour and the composition and his hedonism have shaped my personality.”
The black outline with which he finishes his characters seems to be the epitome of an entire era. When I see a fashion illustration by Gruau I don’t see a portrait of a dress, I see a portrait of a woman.
You lived in New York for some time, how did the city treat you?
I was in New York for four years. I love it and consider it my second home, but at the same time, I like to be away from her. When you are there, you get into social and personal dynamics that are not normal. Your consumerism flairs up without you noticing, you have many needs, you talk a lot about money, you compare yourself with others and others compare you and they force you to compete… and you become more envious. And I can’t be bothered. It’s like undergoing a constant exam, like: what are you doing now? So I like to be distanced from that insane orbit and I think it’s very healthy. You don’t live there, you survive.
“New York treated me very well but I am glad to have left.”
And now for the star question: What did you feel last May, in the middle of lockdown, when you were told that you had been selected to design the posters for the new Woody Allen film?
It was incredible! I consider it one of the pinnacles of my career. So imagine, it was lovely. It’s like when you receive an email and you skim through it and you take a few seconds to realise the enormity of it… The truth is that I responded quickly. I spoke to the people at Mediapro and they told me that it was a done deal.
“Woody Allen already knew of my work and it was he who decided that I illustrate the poster. So I just had to say yes or no. I couldn’t believe it.”
Woody Allen is God for me, but we live in a schizophrenic world, in which you have to watch your every step for your own survival, specially because of everything that has happened with him. So I did give it some thought. In fact, I consulted a very good friend of mine in New York who is like an oracle to me. And although, she recommended I didn’t do it, I decided to, as I told you before I don’t listen to anyone. I am team Woody Allen. I believe in him. I already had some information but now I know more.
Have you worked with him directly on the proposals? How has the experience been?
He decides everything and Mediapro is just an intermediary. But I didn’t speak with him directly but with Helen Robin,his executive producer (his niece), who is Woody’s right-hand person and even lives in the same building as he does.
I presented a sketch with two backgrounds and had the go ahead in 2 hours.
We know that you first ventured into cinema in the year 2000, when you elaborated the poster for Spain for the British film, Relative Values, starring Julie Andrews. The tape raised more here than in any other country and the poster served as an example for Allen, who already knew of your collaborations in publications such as The New York Times, Vogue USA or Harper’s Bazaar, to decide to go with you. Later, in 2013, you were artistic director for the short film American Autumn, by Albert Moya. Would you like to venture further into the world of celluloid?
The truth is I’ve never thought about it, taking into account how things are in this field.
These are agitated times full of uncertainty. How are you experiencing it? Any advice?
When the lockdown began in March, during that first weekend I was given some bad news professionally-speaking and people went crazy. And I decided it was not going to affect me and, in some way, I managed to hypnotise myself and, while being aware of what was happening to me, I tried hard to keep a good vibe. And today, I really do continue to keep the same philosophy going of “driving with dipped headlights” , because the future is unpredictable. I am fairly optimistic by nature.
For me, the good part of lockdown, although there have been many bad parts, is that it has forced us to face ourselves in the mirror. We were living such a crazy acceleration of time that we had never thought of stopping… And what has happened, at least for me, has made me not think about the future or the long term.
“I have chosen to live one day at a time as fully as possible and to look at things out of the corner of my eye. And above all, not to fall into the vibe of fear, that is the worst thing that can happen to us.”
We know that another of your artistic interests is writing. What role does it have in your life? Do you plan to write a book?
Right now it plays a small role, although I love writing. I write short stories. It’s something that I find very rewarding and enjoy very much. But I have realized that it is a full-time occupation. Because being a “Sunday writer” is a bit of a drag, hahaha. What I have been doing for a few years is to register at a creative writing school in Barcelona, I do one course after another and the truth is it’s good for me because it forces me to write.
For now, I am not planning to publish any books. But what I do know is it wouldn’t be a book of illustrations. For me, they are two different things. Also, I have a lot of respect for writing.
Formentera is your paradise where you look for peace and relaxation, in fact you’re there right now. What does this island mean to you?
I have been going there for 22 years. There I can enjoy the simple pleasures and be bored, a value that I defend fiercely.
“Visiting Formentera allows me to empty myself and fill myself once more.”
We have heard you many times advocate travelling as the perfect formula to learn, nourish oneself and find inspiration. Would you recommend somewhere in particular?
In reality, anywhere is inspiring, I am a great defender of Mexico, that has so many nuances and such a strong historical and aesthetic background. When you are there, you feel very special sensations. Italy would also be another destination, specially Florence, that is amazing. You cannot not go to Italy, hahaha.
A book, a film/ series and a song that you are particularly fond of.
A book: “Nine Stories”, by J.D. Salinger.
A film: “Juliet of the Spirits” by Fellini.
A song: “Risveglio di Primavera” by Franco Battiato.
When I return, I will continue to work on a small significant project that is beautiful. It is a pop-up book by a Spanish publishing house, Lupita Books, about the history of haute coutoure.
To continue working.
(*) Illustrations by Jordi Labanda.