The Playfulness of Childlike Glory.
By rejoicing in the decorative, London-based artist John Booth has bestowed breath to his striking illustrations in many lifeforms. Known for – but not limited to – his ceramics, clothes and installations, they take on a charming faux-naif style that not only replicates his youthful spirit but taps into one’s inner child. For Booth, color is innately connected to childhood memories growing up in the Lake District, an area renowned for fostering craft practices. Equipped with an urgency to paint even from adolescence, his pop-up exhibition for Matches Fashion and House of Voltaire act as a continuation of the ultimate teenage fantasy of what it means to truly have a room of one’s own. Many of his pieces, even those that are manufactured, hinge on a bespoke quality: the furrowed stripes of a brush stroke, a fat dab in colour, an imperfect but steady line of a pencil. This distinctiveness has invited the likes of designers John Galliano, Zandra Rhodes, Paul Smith as well as brands such as FENDI and Sunspel – to which Booth welcomes with enthusiasm. Collaboration – and an openness to adaptation – sits at the heart of Booth’s visual pursuit. But most importantly, being able to make his work monetarily and conceptually accessible to a wide audience is absolutely vital, invoking artist Keith Haring as his main inspiration. After all, Booth’s discipline vouches that joy is a right, not a privilege.
Has growing up in the Lake District, an area where many makers have blossomed their craft, affected your interest in applied arts? Do you consider your work to be a continuation of this decorative heritage?
For sure. Applied arts was always present in my studies as a child, and something that we were surrounded by in the Lake District, not in a contrived way, but in a way that just happened very naturally.
In 2018, you fabricated an immersive installation of your dream teenage bedroom for the House of Voltaire store. Was this a reflection of actual reveries from puberty, or was this scenario conceived later on? Was it akin to any place you have lived in the past or did it manifest a utopian version that you have never been before?
Luckily as a teenager, my parents let me paint all over my bedroom. I did murals all over the walls, so the project with Matches and House of Voltaire was an extension of that childhood experience. Though this time, there was an added joy of being able to design all the furniture and objects within the room as well. I referred to it as my dream teenage bedroom, as it made me think of those initial yearnings I had as an adolescent to decorate and make my mark on my immediate surroundings.
Since graduating with a BA in Fashion Print Design at Central Saint Martins, you have teamed up with designers John Galliano, Zandra Rhodes, Paul Smith and brands such as FENDI and Sunspel. Has it been complex to adapt to these companies’ recognizable style whilst maintaining your own voice as an artist?
No, because a massive part of what I enjoy doing is collaborating with design companies. I love the challenge of designing within their aesthetic parameters whilst also pushing my aesthetic with the work I do for them.
Being currently based in East London, is there a sense of longing for the Cumbrian landscapes of your childhood in the recurrence of natural motifs such as clouds, flowers and rainbows in your creations?
To be honest, not hugely. Although the older I get, the more I wish sometimes that I could just click my fingers and be back in the Lake District for a few hours to get some fresh air and walk through the countryside a bit.
Has the matching outfits shared with your twin sister during childhood motivated a desire of individual expression during adulthood that has made you more prone to make hand-made, single creations?
Yes, definitely. Personally, growing up as a twin has made me strive for my own individuality and independence in adulthood. Throughout my childhood, it became more and more frustrating to always be paired with my twin sister and to be treated as a single unit.
Having experimented with clay or wood, is the organic-ness of these materials a key feature that attracts you to them? Would you say that you tend to prefer natural to synthetic materials?
Interesting question, I’ve never thought so much about this before. It’s more the potential of the materials that I find exciting. I wouldn’t say I strive for a natural aesthetic at all, as my style could never be described as that. I think what I do like is to start with simple materials, whether that’s clay, fabric, paper or wood. Then, I work into them as much as I like to totally manipulate them into something I enjoy.
Situating your practice somewhere in between art and design, how does it differ to work on commissioned pieces than to create purely artistic ones? Do you find these two approaches to be antagonistic, or complementary?
Complementary, I hope. I have always considered the commercial/design projects to be an extension of my personal studio practice anyway, and I treat all my work with the same energy and importance. Actually, I try to not heavily differentiate all of my material outputs.
Over the years, your pieces have expanded from illustrations to interiors. Has your small-scale work made an impact on your larger pieces and vice versa? How much does this change in scale inform the viewing response?
All the work is a continuation of what I’ve done previously – the same energy and precedence is given to all the work whether it’s a small-scale object or a whole room.
When designing furnishings, do you envision a particular space for them? In regards to the framework for these, do you have a purpose and a set of restrictions to start with? How do you see the relationship between domestic aesthetics and functionality – does one take priority over the other?
I primarily think through a decorative lens as that’s what I love. But I also really love when my pieces have a function, even if it is very simple or basic. Even if the function is to look nice or to bring joy, that’s enough for me!
Your illustrations have an unfinished, spontaneous air to them. As you’ve quoted in past interviews, your best work was made in five minutes. How vital is planning versus improvisation? Is this instinctive way of working integral to preserving the magic of your style?
Planning is not essential at all, but perhaps some preparation is good in terms of practicality like having the drawing materials ready that you want to use. Other than that, nothing can be planned. With the drawings, it’s all about spontaneity.
Are your masculine characterizations intended as a form of self-portraiture? Or are they actually anonymous, universal depictions?
They are never self-portraits! A lot of the drawings are observed directly from life when someone is sitting for me. The depictions of characters on the ceramics are usually an imagined person. I often describe them as a ‘shorthand’ way of portraying faces that stem from years of me drawing people from observation.
Pink glazes of male faces often support flowers, a motif and palette not normatively associated with this gender. Is this a way of contradicting hegemonic narratives of masculinity?
I do use my work as a way to question typical masculinity indirectly and sometimes more directly. In many cases, it’s done quite subconsciously.
Have you ever experienced stigmatism in the arts sector for being driven by the formal rather than the academic? Why does the importance of material investigation take precedence over conceptual inquiries for you?
I’m just not naturally inclined to make conceptually driven work. For me, it is naturally led by material and decorative investigation. I don’t care if that could be a source of criticism, because it’s not even up for debate in my own practice. I know I wouldn’t be staying true to myself if I started putting pressure to start producing conceptual work.
In your Instagram you share a wide range of colourful visual inspiration, from the work of artists, designers and filmmakers to advertisements, cartoons and interiors. The whimsical aesthetic sensibilities of these are reminiscent of the 80s and 90s. Do you have a personal kinship with these creative sources? What about them enthrals you? How does drawing from a variety of references, that come from different contexts and time periods influence your work?
As well as sharing my actual work, I also take pleasure in posting references and research. Perhaps those who care can see where I get my inspiration from. Researching is integral to my work and is also a form of entertainment – I enjoy doing it. I like finding and showing my followers images/clips of things that I get an emotional response from.
You have mentioned being attracted to pop art, a movement that addressed elitism and tradition in art through its inclusion of imagery from mass and popular culture. Is your practice similarly concerned with accessibility and approachability?
This is important, especially if you are interested in sharing your work with a diversity of people, and if you want it to have a wider reach. It’s why I’m obsessed with how Keith Haring worked. He sold original art pieces through galleries to collectors, but also made badges, books and clothing (the list goes on…) that everyone could buy and enjoy. It’s a nicer approach.
Can you explain the dynamics of the communal Hackney studio you have recently moved into? Do you find proximity to other craftspeople stimulating?
I’ve been here for over 4 years, so I’ve really grown to love the space and the people that I share it with. I’d 100 percent prefer to be in a communal space than in one by myself. It’s a nice part of everyday life to see people talk about work and ideas, which we do a lot. I also collaborate directly with one of my studio mates Ian McIntyre on our sideline project called Super Group.
It’s really great to have an output that I haven’t touched directly. As mentioned before, I have to acknowledge the necessity of having some work that is more mass produced so it is more accessible to a wider audience.
I’d really love to do another fashion related project which is something I’m really in the mood for doing again. I’m in the process of speaking to a few people about some initial ideas. I might potentially look into working on my own fashion related project rather than a collaboration with an existing brand this time.
Would a solo exhibition at a gallery or institution be a fitting setting to your latest developments?
I’m still trying to figure that one out! I’ll get back to you about that one day….
While you employ printers and scanners to document your work, you have said that you do not implement digital tools in the actual illustrations. Is there a reason why you don’t use software to draw? Would you be curious to explore this possibility?
Nothing will replace hand drawn lines and marks on an actual piece of paper. For this reason, I have no interest in using software to draw, ever.
Words by Vanessa Murrell