Growing up in quiet, 70s Calgary, Alberta, a city with wilderness at its front and back doors, Geoff McFetridge’s artistic bent led him to hear the voices of his world. “I grew up as a consumer. When I was very, very young and interested in art, I was observant of a world that was full of visual things. Those became the things I wanted to make. I wasn’t driven by any sort of idea of ‘prestige’ or to be independent as an artist producing a ‘body of work’. I wanted to participate in culture.” His diligence and focus have taken him from aspiring to a place at the table to having a calendar festooned with invitations to participate in culture at every level. Many witnessed his early contribution to the Beastie Boys’ inventive and influential Grand Royal Magazine. Devotees of Cupertino know his design touch by heart from their Apple watches. We’ve seen his art in major films, such as Spike Jonze’s “Her”, where his sensibility pervades the tone emerging from the film’s distinctive graphics. He’s designed furniture and skateboards, and for clients like Warby Parker, Standard Hotels, Patagonia, and Nike.In 2023, this magazine, working with the Mori Building Company, asked the artist to visit the site of the developer’s newest residential community in the heart of Tokyo, Azabudai Hills, and draw what would become the artistic rubric for news and information about the social attractions and cultural opportunities available there. We spoke with him at length about the elements of the drawing, how he views city life, and about the many facets of his personal life and thinking that constitute his art.
TEXT BY DAVID G. IMBER
PHOTO BY AYA MUTO
EDIT BY KAZUMI YAMAMOTO
illustration by Geoff McFetridge
It’s actually unlikely that you’ve not seen Geoff McFetridge’s popular designs, but there’s a less-known aspect to his creative career, no less beloved. His canvasses and drawings, displayed in museums and galleries worldwide, are sought for their simultaneous ability to draw in the intellect and place a bead on the heart. They address the great conundrums of the human condition — uncertainty, isolation — in ways that are uniquely free of the fear that warns us off from dwelling on them, and carry viewers to a place of optimism. Progress, technology, and interactions with the natural world are ubiquitous in his visual language, that nonetheless isn’t fraught with the anxiety and despair those topics drag with them across the media-centric universe. His art considers what much art confronts.
The municipal tongue
He leads with “a general belief that my audience is the most literate people that have ever existed. And what they use that literacy for is mainly filled with commercial things, manipulations, memes… complicated stuff; sometimes really funny or fun things. I’m going to use that literacy for my own purposes, for my art. That’s at the root of any appeal to my work. It’s that literacy that we carry.”
Demand for Geoff McFetridge’s work is furious, so much so that at the time he agreed to take on the job of making the art work that would be established as a conceptual anchor to understanding the far-flung goals of the Azabudai Hills project, he’d paid scarce attention to the prep materials sent to his studio.
“I think that it was really fortuitous that I was able to be in Tokyo at the time this project came about. I didn’t know much about it. I had maybe seen some images, but Jesse [Sanes, McFetridge’s longtime studio Number One] was handling a lot of it because I was in Tokyo to hang a show. When there’s a painting show going on it actually occupies your hands, so it’s not a very ‘multitasking’ time.
“What was sort of incredible was that there was this great way to be introduced to the project — we came to the site, came around the back and then went up a tower, and I didn’t know where I was going. I thought ‘this is it… or maybe we’re going to see it’. And then we went into a room in the middle of the tower where there was a model, and a view… It was like somebody’s dream, a drawing, a total fiction come to life — like CGI in the real world being built down below.”
As he describes his first glimpse out the window to the Azabudai site, where the topology was presently being limned by huge machines, his mounting excitement is marked in the pitch of his voice. “There were probably so many barriers, technical and creative. But I saw it as a project where everything has basically been overcome, it’s being physically made. It looked great, and … I got this jolt! This very powerful ‘zap!’ that was the intentions behind the project. I didn’t need to read a brief, or to be told what was going on… I saw the intentions!”
The ways in which the guiding philosophy of this community, the Mori Company notion of the “Vertical Garden City”, are made manifest in the physical attributes of their developments has been written about extensively. But as journalists we crave clarity, and so when we spoke, we laid them out once again in full detail for the artist.
“I would say that you’re describing something that architects, futurists, utopians have been talking about forever,” was his response. “We’re all fluent in the language of cities. We know when a bench is built at an angle it means that you can’t sleep on it. We know these things about cities. Cities are speaking all the time. … So if I just glance at that development out the window from 20 stories up I see that ‘this opens up to the street,’ ‘you can take a shortcut through here.’ It’s not walled off; it can’t be closed. Viewed from above there are all these decisions that make it more like a park than a giant high-rise. I see these other decisions being made — how it’s going to change that block. That becomes my inspiration. So a press release or what you write about it is useful, but I want to create a new conversation, a new dialogue that’s visual, to communicate the more atmospheric things. Take the language that is evident and make it clearer. It’s something deeper that’s harder to say with architecture and harder to say with words.”
Reading the way
McFetridge’s aims may have come fully-formed from the outset, but after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1995 he did anonymous yeoman’s work in graphic design (not untypical, but McFetridge notes wryly that he went from being forbidden to sign his work to being sought globally for collabs to be marked with his distinctive “GM”). That work would have included creating signage; illustrations that are as fundamental in form as they are critical to understanding. In beginning our discussion of the Azabudai illustrations elements we noted that his depictions of people, animals, and other things in the world lacked explicitness, yet land the viewer internally on the concept of what they’re intended to depict, regardless of their complexity. It is almost as though his drawn and painted figures are a kind of signage pointing toward nongeographic destinations.
“A lot of that imagery is tied to things I’ve seen over time, and that includes signage and logos. Things that are common and ordinary. I’m interested in common things. At the same time, my deeper instincts are as an artist. I do want to be inventive, and explore my internal world, but all my language is very common language.
“I literally use school pencils. I use paper that’s industrially produced for animation. I want common materials. It’s sort of the same with deer. When I draw deer, I draw does and fawns, I don’t draw bucks with big racks. I draw the most common deer, the ones that are not trophies. They’re gentle and, you know… basic.” (He laughs with this thought, as we’re both aware of the sense in which that word was once, in some circles, about the most ignominious of labels.) “I don’t research them. I don’t even Google ‘deer’. I just do it from memory. So it barely looks like a deer, it’s just my impression.”
“All of the subtleties of the things I draw are about the push and pull of manipulation. Yes I’m guiding you, in all these things. I’m asking you to ‘read’ them, but at the end I want it to be like ‘oh, there’s some generosity in there’. When you see the connections, when you see my intentions, it isn’t implanting a dream in you, or implanting ‘my thought’, it’s an invitation, almost like a prompt for further thinking. A prompt for you to be creative.”
Elements of an entrance
With that, we delved into the component parts of the kinetic weave of the Azabudai portrait, starting with the enigmatic set of activities occurring in the lower right quadrant. McFetridge loves technology because he maintains a cuttingly realistic view of it. “Our lives now are completely enmeshed with technology… For instance, when you’re in a city, and there’s an oak tree growing off the side of a building, that’s not the magic of nature, that’s technology. There’s technology involved, whether it’s a computerized watering schedule, or the ability to ship and move the tree, or create the CAD drawings. I wanted to avoid drawing a world that is just entirely ‘natural and beautiful’. … One of my overarching tasks is to create works that project a positive future, that dreams of a positive future. Because if we don’t dream of it, it won’t happen.” And speaking of dreaming, what of that guy in what appears to be an MR or CT scanner, because Mori has made the point that the Azabudai community will contain on-site medical and health facilities… or is he just dozing, dreaming?
“It’s a futuristic body scanner,” the artist explains with a laugh. “I know that part of life is healthcare, and it’s not necessarily comfortable. I felt this is a case where I would put in stuff that’s from real everyday life. But again, it’s idealistic. There’s some aspect of what he’s doing that feels medical, that he’s going through some sort of treatment that in an ideal world is part of everyday life. We scan for problems, we take care of them, we monitor our health in a way that involves technology…” But there’s also something emerging from him, it appears. “Yes, he’s connected to this machine that’s taking his thoughts. The machine is absorbing his creativity and making something of it in the world. It’s producing building blocks, and down below someone is using the block for something educational, something that’s being shared with students. With the film they’re watching you’re seeing someone else’s dream, and you can see that in the film itself, someone is sharing something with a child. It’s a film about sharing, and instead of a block, it’s a triangle — someone else’s dream came from learning his deepest thoughts. It’s saying that sharing is a very healthy part of being a human”.
Actions are depicted in this way throughout McFetridge’s work, starting from an utterly relatable and mundane activity we all know from experience, then to have it splinter off into unexpected consequences. Such is the case with the “crane operator” occupying the center of the Azabudai tapestry. “The guy who’s in the crane is working, but it’s the same guy seen from two views. On the left he’s working the crane. On the right he’s doing a painting. I’m not going to draw a construction guy just constructing. I’m going to say what I believe, that the people running these machines are artists. He has a life, and his job requires problem-solving and creativity, and skills. It’s a mechanical creativity.”
We asked if he had a favorite section of the work. It was, perhaps, the part with two young people near the left border. (The artist has two daughters.) The female figure is seen imagining a technical climb (an earlier version had her examining algorithmic diagrams in her head). “He has music in his head… but they’re both building. They’re both building a structure. That’s something that repeats in my work, and draws me to projects like this. I really respect things where many sorts of creative skills are being executed. It might be hand skills, as I really respect hand skills and mechanical things, but then I also respect lyrical, free, open creativity, related more to music.” Throughout the work its varied details are asserting that “in architecture and in many peoples’ jobs, the brain has to be activated in all these different ways. For a lot of people their whole brain has to be activated.”
What to make of the cryptic behavior of the male figure just above these kids? “For that character there are these ‘leftover dreams’ just flying about, and that figure is grabbing and eating them like candy. It’s his own dreams that are about cycling and the outdoors and running. He’s dreaming of this trail. So it might be that he’s dreaming of making a trail or that he wants to be on one that exists. It’s just saying that there are other kinds of dreams than career dreams, they’re experiential. That having experiences is just as important as building things and being ambitious. There are many types of ambition.”
As clumsy as we felt asking the artist to give concrete guidance to his work — art that achieves what it does precisely because it leaves us with questions — we couldn’t resist asking him about the image of the hill near the right center, this surely being McFetridge’s intimate take on the meaning of that word so central to the Mori Company’s urban vision. “Yeah! That’s the question, ‘what is a hill?’ A hill can be small, or nearly a mountain. Once you’re on a mountain it might have plateaus, or itself be hilly. So again, there are many different types of experiences. There are ‘peak’ experiences and everyday experiences. On the left the character has a school backpack, but is slowly evolving into an adventurer with oxygen, climbing Annapurna in Nepal. It’s an evolution, and at the top they’re planting the Hills Life flag. Then on the other side it’s just a hill, with steps. And there’s a teacher with students. So this is again talking about dreams and ambitions, and they’re all sort of equal. To a kid, going to school for the first time is just as crazy as adults finding these goals that might kill them! It’s just making a simple relationship. I like holding on to childlike ideas, but then also putting them in context.”
The animal, the essential
A fellow writer, long familiar with Geoff McFetridge’s painting and sculpture has suggested that whereas earlier in his career his canvasses concentrated more steadily on human interaction, in recent times they’ve gradually introduced the idea of closer human-animal interaction, and there’s a yearning to explicate something about the artist’s relationship with nature.
“That’s a good observation, and it is true. My interest in doing imagery about human interaction is about expanding the vocabulary. I can use imagery that has animals in it, and you could say it’s a metaphor representing nature as a whole, or just another being… or our relationship with ideas.”
McFetridge recently became interested in the subject of hunting, but not the sport. “The complexity of ‘conservationist hunting’ and its long history is very interesting. They’re doing the dirtiest stuff, actually killing things and eating them. But it’s very real. I listen to and respect what they have to say about it.” And out of the intellectual calisthenics required to assimilate this complex a topic came a sculpture. “It was a deer sitting in the grass and looking at you. But if you walk behind it, the deer is hollowed out, and within it is a sleeping baby deer. It’s really cute. But it’s in the body of this deer, so it evokes the idea of being skinned and hollowed out, and the hide and meat taken from it. At the same time it’s nurturing a baby deer, which relates to parenting. For me it was about that moment when you look at a sculpture and your first impulse is to walk around it, find out the full shape of it. I think of that moment of shock… ‘something’s wrong… there’s a hole…’. But then, what’s in it is cute. To me, this moment of zigzagging thought is what the piece is for. But if you follow that thread it can lead into other relationships and our understanding of nature. Breaking the clichés; like climbing the mountain and looking at the view. Everything along the way has been more complicated,” the artist explains, with a resolve suggesting that the path to this expression was upward and arduous.
We asked him if he felt he had any true knowledge of animal nature, to which he responded strongly in the negative. Because, we suggested, all of what he’s talking about here describes not animal, but human nature. “Yeah, exactly! Because I’m using nature as a mirror of our relationship with language and the world. It’s mediated stuff.”
Lessons of the land
His real-life interactions with nature are of another order, pitting himself with the sparest of means against the harshest conditions. He favors endurance sports — trail running, cycling. “I like the sorts of activities where you really disappear in them.”
He and his wife started surfing together in the late 90s, and the experience has fueled his sense of inquisitiveness and proved enlightening on several levels. “It’s about this constant paradigm shift. What you know about surfing will always change. Yes, you learn more, but you’re learning that you know nothing. And you’re learning that you’re better off to think less, than to think more. … It’s teaching you these sort of Zen lessons… and it can also be intense. Certain aspects of surfing involve being scared! That’s a constant. I bring it up because what’s really rewarding is that when you talk to professional surfers they say the same thing. Yeah, it’s creative and all that stuff. But anything that’s creative or introspective about it gets negated by ‘I hope I don’t get hit in the face…’ That’s what I mean by its being a Zen teacher with a stick — sometimes they just hit you over the head with it.
“I’ve learned so much through surfing, but really it could be anything. For some it may be ping pong.”
We asked if his busy schedule — he’s typically referred to as a workaholic — gives him satisfactory time to interact with nature, and he switches the conversation to what his children, when they were young, and his life as part of a family have given him.
“I think it’s a defining thing of being a parent … When we had kids it became an excuse for saying ‘ok, now let’s come up with all this stuff that we can do together.’ And a lot of that stuff was going to the beach, going camping all summer. I used the circumstance,” he laughs. “I’m an opportunistic person, so for me, parenting was great because I’m thinking, ‘My mind is going to be melted down and turned into a new thing.’ I want these sort of experiences. So part of parenting was saying ‘now we have all this time with these kids, what can we do? What have I always wanted to do… I’ve never been to Yosemite!’ I’d never spent time in New Mexico. There were all these things I hadn’t done, and now I had a reason because we could do them as a family.”
Push and pull
We’d dug into the meaningfulness of Geoff McFetridge’s art, but people aren’t always drawn to the promise of meaning, so how did the artist account for the unflagging affection his work has increasingly garnered over the years? “It sort of wants to be decoded a little bit. It invites you in because there’s a familiarity to it — it seems like a language that you know. Then, when you engage with it, I think what’s within it is a lot. It doesn’t stop at the surface. Within it there’s some kind of humanity, some kind of feeling, yet it’s also playing with this quick surface. I think of it as both things. I don’t even know how to describe the ‘feeling’. But I know when it’s there or not. Finding that feeling is why I push forward, and that’s the biggest part of the work.”
As our long conversation came to a close we reflected on how strenuous the planning for it had to be, because every moment of the artist’s life seemed accelerated by purpose, and every hour seemed full. He’s able to produce truly massive amounts of creative work, into which is apportioned time for commercial collaborations and media graphics, along with that set aside for the more personal aspects of his artistic exploration. But here again he found in family life a virtuous cycle toward higher achievement.
“What shows up in the work is my trying to have everything I make have humanity as part of it. It’s a central theme that it look like there’s a life to it. Or that it’s relatable because there’s this connection that you feel as a viewer that’s based on the human experience. … The very broadest idea is that subconsciously, years ago, when we had our first kid, I decided that if I did things that better myself, if I was more clearheaded in my life and happier, if I’m doing work to better myself, it would make the work better. Maybe it was contrary to decisions like ‘I’ll do anything for my art — I’ll stay up all night, I’ll disappear for weeks on end…’
So then, he’s rejecting the entire Western romantic myth of the artist? “Romantic, exactly!” And he relates the story of a conversation with a friend, an accomplished musician. “So you have to stop writing a song because you have to go home for dinner…,” his friend protests, “I’ll stay up all night if I have to for inspiration, and I’ll write all night. And you can’t do that…” And the artist readily assents to that portrayal. “Yeah! Because I made the decision that when I go home for dinner something happens that changes the song, and my song comes from that dinner, from sharing my life with these other humans. … I can’t say that I’m right or wrong, just that I made the decision, I chose that.
“I made the selfish decision that I want to like it along the way. I don’t want to just aim for something way in the distance and then say, ‘now I’m here, and I’m glad I made all those sacrifices to get here.’ I wanted to like it every day. That’s a selfish behavior where no one else is suffering. It meant that I had to work quickly, and I had to be able to work while traveling. It took away a lot of time that was just rambling experimentation. It meant that I had to be direct and very decisive. Those are all things I’m glad for. I’ve developed it over years, but now the behaviors that it reinforced I’m glad to have. It’s a sort of inward-looking process, and it’s a clarity that comes out of the decisions I’ve made in the rest of my life, and things I’ve learned through experience.”
As precision and clarity mark Geoff McFetridge’s life, it’s mirrored in the work, down to its very stylistic impulses. And as we recognize this, his art suddenly bursts alive for us once again.
Born in Alberta, Canada, 1971. Attended CalArts in the mid-nineties, and upon graduation served as the early art director for the Beastie Boys’ magazine “Grand Royal”. Established the Champion Graphics studio in 1996, and has worked on numerous projects for Hermes, Patagonia, Apple, and others. His graphics appear in films by Sofia Coppola (Virgin Suicides) and Spike Jonze (Her). 2016 Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum National Award winner; and in 2019, awarded an American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) medal. The documentary film Geoff McFetridge: Drawing a Life premiered at SXSW and will be in wide release in 2023.