James Jarvis, visual philosopher and artist visiting the Målerås glassworks in Sweden.
James Jarvis, visual philosopher and artist visiting the Målerås glassworks in Sweden.

Visual philosopher turns to glass

Artist and visual philosopher, James Jarvis, is one of nine participating artists in the upcoming IKEA Art Event. Mostly known for his toy designs, quirky simplistic illustrations, and comics, James embraces working with the unknown challenges of glass and IKEA enthusiastically. We sit down for a chat about art, the IKEA collaboration and skateboarding.

Take us back, where did your passion for art begin?
From as early as I can remember I wanted to draw. It’s something that is instinctive and in some ways, none of it a choice. It’s my natural way of expressing myself. I’ve been exposed to it all my life. My mother taught in art school, which let me know at an early age that you can make a living from drawing. After art school, I started out as an illustrator and artist, drawing everything that came to me, without really thinking about it. I got into making designer toys by accident actually. I was asked to design a figure for some friends who owned a fashion label sold in Japan. So I made this toy, back in 1997, and that toy became really popular. We made more and more, and eventually I ended up having a toy company.

Are you still designing toys today?
No, after 10 years of doing that I didn’t want to make products anymore. It was almost like having an existential crisis. This is how I went back to drawing. I realised that it’s the foundation for all my work. So, I stopped making products and started drawing things that helped me understand the world.

Since you stopped working in 3D, why was this an interesting project?
I actually told my partner, with whom I had the toy company, that I’d never go back. Once we stopped, I’d stop completely, because, the body of work that we made was there, and it had an end to it. What was really exciting about IKEA was that it was a different type of product – in glass, a material that has a real history to it.

I didn’t realise that glassblowing was so human and such an organic process, which makes it quite amazing doing it on an IKEA scale.

How’s it working with IKEA?
Unbelievably easy. Usually, when I work with larger brands they tend to want to buy into an artist’s artistic vision, but because they’re so big my original idea tends to be twisted and turned into something else. With IKEA, Henrik and the team have been really respectful of what I’ve wanted to say, and how I want to portray myself. That’s quite refreshing. And, they have restrictions, which makes it a lot more interesting.

Have there been mistakes and learnings along the way?
I’ve learnt more just by coming to the factory here in Målerås. Suddenly, I’m seeing all the different things I could have done. I didn’t realise that glassblowing was so human and such an organic process, which makes it quite amazing doing it on an IKEA scale. If I were to do it again, I would’ve liked to build myself into the process more. For me, art is a practical skill, and I like being a part of it, rather than dictating it.

What do you love about skateboarding?
It’s this self-enclosed culture that I embraced, and it embraced me. Although no one quite knew what to make of my work at the time, it’s the kind of culture that just accepted it. It’s the first world in which I was able to publish my work. The thing I love about it isn’t the surface of it – the graphics and the fashion. It’s the physical act of what it actually is – particularly skateboarding in an urban place. It’s like a philosophy – a way of understanding the world – and I see a parallel between that and my drawing. I like to think of skateboarders as philosophers, but they’re not aware of it. For me, they’re making sense of reality.

See James Jarvis speaking about the IKEA Art Event at Democratic Design Day 2017.

Fast facts about James Jarvis
Five things you can’t live without? My family, a pen and a piece of paper, space, a comfortable pair of shoes – now you have everything you need. Well, I guess you kind of need some clothes too. Then again, you could go for a long walk naked.
Your favourite food/colour/music? Bread, black, and my favourite music is an impossible thing – it varies from moment to moment.
Describe yourself in three words: Thoughtful, silly, realistic.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Philosophising about fashion. So I’ll get into this thing where I have rules like if I have a pair of trousers, I have to have only that style of trousers. I’ll spend hours thinking about it too.
Your favourite IKEA product? I liked these record shelves that were discontinued. They had a geometry that was completely square, and now the proportions have changed.