A conversation with Australia’s greatest export, LA-based creative multi-hyphenate Jonathan Zawada.


A series of self-portraits created by Jonathan Zawada for Manuscript.

It takes Jonathan Zawada 31-year old multi-hyphenate creative, and I some four weeks to pin down a time to speak via Skype for this interview. He’s not pretentious or above doing an interview – far from it, as the following discussion attests – just busy. In a career spanning just over a decade, Mr Zawada has risen from merely a graphic designer to an internationally recognised name in fields as broad as video direction, print design and illustration, radically flip-flopping between all of them depending on the job he’s given. You could say that Mr Zawada gets all the good projects – commissions from ASOS, Surface to Air, Nike and the New York Times – but he’s known for his ability to do interesting things with more corporate brands, too, with a portfolio spanning Bloomberg, BMW, Coca- Cola and Mecca Cosmetica. And as Mr Zawada reaches new heights following a relocation to Los Angeles last year and solo art shows on the cards, as well as a new baby, Pip, in the mix, he shows no signs of fatigue.

MITCHELL OAKLEY SMITH You’ve been living in Los Angeles for a year now. How’s it treating you?
JONATHAN ZAWADA I love working here. It seems like anything is possible, and people are really positive. Everyone wants to help and be doing stuff and gets behind one another, which is great. In terms of living it’s not the greatest. Annie [Wright-Zawada, Mr Zawada’s wife] once described it as an endless Parramatta Road, which it is in some ways, but at least it’s cheaper [than Sydney].

MOS Is that why you moved?
JZ I’d come over here twice – once for a group show and another time for a solo show at Prism [Gallery]. The show had gone well and it seemed like a good time. Not much was happening in Australia at the time, so I wanted to try out something different.  I’d been trying to do more art [in Sydney] but renting studios was really difficult, whereas here it’s really easy; space is abundant and it’s cheaper.

MOS The contemporary art scene in LA has radically evolved in the past few years.
JZ It certainly seems that way. And my theory has always been that Australian people have a chip on their shoulder. There’s always the assumption that you haven’t really made it until you’ve made it somewhere else, like New York or London, and so everyone second-guesses decisions they make. Here, on the other hand, it’s not like people are striving to go elsewhere. They’re focusing on what they do right now.

Jonathan Zawada

MOS Do you think that being Australian differentiates your work over there, or are we so globalised today that geographic influences aren’t so prevalent?
JZ I don’t know, actually. I haven’t met too many LA natives, really. One thing I have noticed is that Australians seem to be able to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time; there’s a real can-do attitude. All the Aussies I meet here are really prolific and working extra hard. I think being in  Australia, with its various restraints, teaches you to be more economical and varied in what you do, just to make things happen. It can be difficult not being able to achieve what you want, but I love that part of Australian creative life too.

MOS We’re not as laid-back as our reputation suggests.
JZ Exactly. The more you work with others, the more you realise that Australians aren’t lazy or laidback. At least the last generation, anyway.

MOS I asked earlier about your work having something distinctly Australian about it, because others have written, and in many ways its true, that because your work is so broad it’s hard to pin down an overarching aesthetic.
JZ It’s probably the wrong word to describe it, but there’s definitely a conceptual underpinning to what I do. I approach each job the same way, and the way I work is with pretty much the same process. It’s the aesthetic style of the outcome that varies. For me, a lot of the work I put into my practice is not the visual side; it’s thinking about the challenges and problems inherent in the brief and the concepts associated with it. The outcome tends to be solving that problem in my head and then moving onto that final stage. I guess it changes a lot because as the problem is solved there are a lot of solutions.

MOS Is there one medium you prefer working with more?
JZ Not really. I love working with lots of different things. A lot of my work lately, especially in my art practice, has involved lots of mediums slung together; there’s scripts I’ve written, oil paintings, sculpture… I like combining processes as much as I can. I enjoy drawing with pencil on paper, and although I haven’t done it much in the past few months, it feels really natural. But then I love working on the computer with new software, too, and I’m happy to sit down and fiddle with things digitally.

MOS It’s interesting because, unless you look closely, many people would assume all of your work is digitally created.
JZ There’s a lot of artists that love picking up a notebook and scribbling bits down, but I don’t feel like I have a natural style for that. I don’t doodle much. I always wish I had my own style, where if I felt like drawing I could just draw, but I’ve never really had that.

MOS It makes sense then that so much of your work has been about responding to a specific brief.
JZ Yeah, I like a brief. When I started working, ten or 15 years ago, the vision I had of graphic design then – and graphic design was a different thing at that time – was that you got a brief from a client and you executed a solution, and it was always to promote that client. It’s changed a bit now in that clients want to attach their brand to a pre-existing designer style, but I don’t like the approach of using a client project to promote myself. It should be about promoting the client, not yourself.


MOS You said in an interview once that you are a terrible collaborator, and yet nearly all of your projects require you to work with others in some way, which makes that hard to believe.
JZ I love responding to a brief. I love solving problems. I love meeting people. I’m not particularly social but I like being social via meetings. I think it’s important to be a good communicator and that a good communication channel is key to a good project. Very few projects require me to sit alongside someone to create something together.

MOS I guess that level of collaboration has been limited to your work with Annie and Shane [Sakkeus].
JZ Shane and I had been friends a long time and I’d been going out with Annie for years before we did anything together, so there wasn’t anything at risk. There was a whole lot that had already been said, and those projects just worked.

MOS How do the more commercial collaborations – like those with ASOS and Surface to Air – come about?
JZ They were both out of the blue. Those kinds of one-off product projects are usually out of the blue, otherwise it’s through someone I’ve worked with before as a nameless graphic designer, like Colab [eyewear]. ASOS came about through It’s Nice That, which I’d been involved in. In some ways [this kind of project] tends to be more straightforward but I feel you get a bit more respect than with others.

MOS There have been not so enjoyable ones?
JZ Surface to Air was a particularly bad experience for me. In contrast, I have had amazing working relationships with people like Tina Kalivas for a long time, and that’s really collaborative. With someone like Surface to Air they are under no obligation to make the experience enjoyable. They get the PR out of it to help sell their normal, straight-up line, and they never risk enough money for the collaborative project to be a big deal if it doesn’t sell well, so it doesn’t matter if the artist is unhappy because they’re never going to work with them again. Which sucks. It should be a 50-50 relationship, as how the press sees it, but really it’s 95-5 with those projects.

MOS And yet these collaborations, so to speak, are so prevalent in the fashion industry, from luxury to designer to mass market. Why do you think they’re so popular?
JZ I think an artist’s name has a lot more weight than it did in the past. A collaboration might not sell product, but it creates a story, generates press, with the brand theoretically publicising the collaborative project when, in fact, they’re using it to promote the stuff they do that’s not collaborative, because often the collaboration isn’t so retail-friendly or commercial. I’ve been caught out and discovered that firsthand. When things are labeled a collaboration there’s the implication that it’s 50-50, but in reality it’s more a case of ‘we’re already making this X bag or t-shirt and we want to put your Y print or whatever on top of it’. There’s no real discussion going on. Sometimes, though, it works brilliantly. [Takashi] Murakami with Louis Vuitton was a blending of the two, a meshing of the two worlds, and it was great.

MOS Some people would argue that the application of an artist’s work to a fashion garment devalues the artist’s work, as happened with Murakami.
JZ I don’t tend to agree. I don’t think it devalues an artist. When it’s not done right, maybe then it devalues an artist’s work, like with my Surface to Air project. I produced the artwork with the assumption that it would be reproduced at a certain quality and size. But when it’s done correctly and the artistic integrity is maintained, I don’t think it inherently devalues an artwork by virtue of it being on a garment.

MOS Is the clothing then deemed art?
JZ I think there are definitely boundaries between the two. I have quite defined boundaries between the two in my practice and maintain a separation between the two. If I make something with my own hands, I consider it art, but if it’s massproduced I don’t think it is. With Tina or ASOS, there’s a lot of design that takes place and so many production processes, and that doesn’t speak to me of the idea of art, which is a fluid flow of ideas. I guess we tried to address this with Trust Fun, by doing something in the middle. We produced the pieces in small numbers or hand made most of them, like the jewellery, which we loved from an environmental perspective. But all that said, I think that the term ‘art’ is pretty malleable. In a museum show, pretty much anything can be construed as art. For example, I love car design, and there’s a lot of old car design that I consider to be art. Really, the term ‘art’ is, a lot of the time, ill suited for discussion. You can say the word and it means a very different thing to different people based on their experience.


MOS Going back to Trust Fun, I found that project interesting in that you’d already worked with other fashion designers – like Tina, Insight and Ksubi, and Shane with Josh Goot. Was it a reaction to all of that?
JZ Yeah, we’d been doing so many fashion projects, and worked together on Follow magazine. I’d been doing a hell of a lot of t-shirt prints and was getting the shits with the process of it. I thought that the idea of printing the same t-shirt in multiple quantities was really archaic, and I think Shane felt the same way, and so we began with tiedye, which we couldn’t get any other brands interested in at the time. Then it went to digital printing, which is an amazing technology in that every garment can be different in terms of the print. It goes against the grain of commercial fashion, in that each piece is different. So I guess we did things for Trust Fun that we wished we could do or wanted to do for clients but had been turned down. That then translated to our fashion comic, Petit Mal.

MOS Speaking of publishing, it’s amazing that a place like the New York Times, undoubtedly the world’s greatest media institution, has picked up on your work.
JZ Yeah, definitely. I get really excited by those projects, like the one I did for Bloomberg. The Times had asked me to do things previously, and it’s always so exciting, but with those sorts of things you usually get an email late at night asking for artwork in two days time with little in way of a brief, which is understandable for the operation, but it can be terrifying and unceremonious and exciting all at once.

MOS Do you still spend much time in book stores?
JZ Not really anymore, especially now we’ve moved. I left all of my books at home.

MOS Where do you find inspiration?
JZ I haven’t been looking at the internet, as I’ve been painting so much. More and more I trust my own approach to the brief and am having to look for inspiration less and less. Aesthetics tend to be a product of the concept.

MOS What about other graphic designers and illustrators – are there others you admire?
JZ Heaps! There are so many amazing designers – Peter Saville, Barney Bubbles, Hipgnosis. Early on I had very specific points of reference, but then Tumblr came about and with the images not attached to names, I guess my influences became more disparate. I feel like a result of being older that I don’t look at other things too much. I go on a different tangent from job to job. There’s a bunch of people and things that inspire me, like Bjork, but not so much in a visual sense.

MOS Actually I recall you mentioning Bjork in a previous interview as someone you’d like to work with. Is there an ideal project in mind?
JZ Less and less so. The jobs that are the most enjoyable or rewarding are the ones you least expect to be. I really like the surprise of something new that I don’t know anything about, and I guess there are different measures of what constitutes a good project. I love my working relationship with The Presets. They, maybe more than anyone, have a lot of faith in me and let me go off and do what I do best. We have similar mindsets and a lot of stuff doesn’t need to be said, which is the same as with Tina. The thing I’m most proud of though is Trust Fun.

MOS Going back to your artwork… you’ve created large-scale paintings, installations, and sculptures. A lot of people, at least in Australia, don’t know this side of your work.
JZ Well, the oil paintings came about out of something I was working on, and after doing one I thought I would do a group of them for a solo show. It simply seemed like the best way to execute the idea I had in my mind. There’s no way I could have done them in Australia. I wouldn’t have had the means to survive and there wasn’t the forum or support for it. But anyway, I’ve always tried to keep my work – art and design – separate. I had small shows of pencil work at Monster Children [Gallery] and Sarah Cottier [Gallery] in Sydney, and my design work often didn’t have my name attached too it, at least earlier on. The show I’m working on at the moment has oil paintings but also installation work and sculpture, and I’m not sure I’ll use those mediums again, but I always approach my practice with whatever seems like the best way to do so. That’s the part of the process I enjoy most: learning something new.

MOS Where is the show?
JZ At Prism in Los Angeles, just near my house. I’m also doing a bunch of different design things, too. There’s a lot on.

MOS People often say that having a baby forces you to be creative in the compartmentalised moments you have available.
JZ It’s true, which is probably why it hasn’t been so challenging. I’ve always had so many jobs on that I’ve never had the luxury of spending the whole day on just one job. I do things in incremental additions and work on multiple different projects at once. With the oil paintings where, because the paint is wet, it requires hours at a time, it can be trickier to work out a balance. The first week or two after Pip was born I managed to produce a 24-page book for The Presets, along with some vinyl artwork, and it was challenging but I like working in little blocks of time. I get sidetracked or procrastinate if I have too much time.

MOS It doesn’t seem like you have trouble creating anyhow, with the prolific amount you turn out.
JZ I like doing things as quickly as I can, not for economic reasons but because it seems healthy to me. I get a brief and don’t pay it any attention for
the first few weeks, just let it linger in my mind until an idea forms, usually when I’ sleeping, and then I’ll execute it in the last few days.

Jonathan Zawada’s solo show, Free Roam Above The Mist, is now open at Prism Gallery, Los Angeles.