Tuesday, 7 April 2015

An Interview with the Wonderful Stanley Donwood

I met Stanley Donwood a few years ago in a basement in Soho. I heard it used to be a sex dungeon. By the time I was sitting across from him at a small wooden table it had turned into an art gallery. It was a pleasure chatting with him. Donwood is the kind of intuitive and intelligent man that you wish would appear on your left at every dinner party. Below is our interview, published in Exit magazine.


Stanley Donwood is an English artist and writer who is famous for designing Radiohead’s album artwork.  He has been collaborating with Thom Yorke for almost two decades. Donwood runs a studio called Slowly Downward Manufactory and he regularly exhibits his distinctive linocuts, paintings, and drawings in galleries around the world.  When not creating visual art, he writes dark but lively prose. EXIT met up with Donwood before his recent show at the Outsider’s Gallery in London to discuss the next Radiohead album, Thom Yorke, writing, and how temperature affects art.

The next Radiohead album is described as a newspaper album with tiny pieces of artwork held together with plastic. What was the inspiration behind the design?

I’ve always really loved newspapers, their tactile quality, that crappy paper. Newspapers are on their way out. I like dying media. They have a poignancy that I don’t find in things like Twitter. But maybe when Twitter is dying maybe the last Tweet will be the saddest thing we’ve heard for years. The last daily newspaper we can buy will be an impossibly sad thing. So I wanted to use the format of a newspaper because a newspaper doesn’t pretend to be anything other than of the moment. Because a newspaper is so ephemeral that if you leave it out in the sunlight it will decay and go yellow and if you leave it out long enough there will be nothing left. (For this album) I wanted to make the opposite of an archival quality coffee table book. No future.

What’s Thom Yorke like? Is he quite serious? I read that when you collaborate one of you does something then the other destroys it. Then you mend it back and forth.

It depends on the time of day. We get on very well. We haven’t had an argument yet in twenty years. We just destroy each other’s work and then keep working at it. Keep battling until you get to the point where the conflict is resolved and that’s the end.  We both like it after a lot of toing and froing.

Do you find English weather and temperament inspirational or limiting? 

I don’t know. It’s an interesting idea. My dad always said the reason why the industrial revolution happened in England was because it’s so miserable that people are just desperate for something to do… There’s something about the pessimism that when I’m not here after a while I miss it. I really like the Mediterranean and California, places where it’s sunny and nice. You can do nothing (there.) I love it. Essentially I’m extremely lazy. Something in the appalling weather in this country forces me to go do something… to keep warm, half the time.

I agree. I’m so much happier in warm weather, but it’s hard getting anything done.

Exactly! But what’s the point of getting anything done? It’s natural to not do anything.

I thought, I’ve got some books in my head; I should go somewhere cold.

If you want to be miserable, go to Scandanavia. (He jokes) I’ve got this weird fascination with Scandinavia, places like Sweden, Norway and Iceland. I’ve never been but I’d like to go. Just to see what would happen. I’m really interested in snow, whiteness, and the idea of where the land and the sky blurs. Like when you’re on a boat and there’s really bad weather and you can’t see what’s the sky and what’s the sea. I imagine it’s like that in Northern latitudes. Is that snow falling or settling? It correlates with your mind. You don’t know what’s up or what’s down, what’s far or what’s near.

Is bleakness required for good art?

No, though I see what you’re saying. I really like the Aboriginal art that is done in a very bright, sunny environment, and all those dots and dream paintings. That very colourful style of painting. You also get that with the French Impressionists when they were down in the Southern regions of France…and the Fauves, they were called Wild Beasts. I didn’t quite understand it until I went down to some of the towns where the Fauves were. They were doing this artwork that was very bright, messy and amazing.  I got there and after a few days I realized why you would make work like that because that’s how you feel. Bright, messy and amazing. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like that. Where I come from, artwork is more didactic.

To what extent does art history and political history inform what you’re doing now?

Probably a lot more than I think. Art history is something that I’m incredibly ignorant about.  I went to Art College but I was sufficiently arrogant to not go to any of the lectures about art history, little bastard. Since then I’ve started to learn about art history and political history. So I’ve read lots of books about it and it’s made me realize how little I actually know. The certainties I held when I was 20 are now uncertainties at the best, vagrancies at the worst.  Vague ideas.

There is a lot of writing on your website. Do you spend more time writing or doing visual art?

There is some kind of weird lock in my brain if I can’t work visually. I spend a lot of nights not being able to think then I start thinking I’m really shit, I should stop and get a job. That’s when I’m really low.  I can’t do any visual artwork and that’s when I write, usually quite late at night.  Then the other thing happens. I think what I’ve written is atrocious and despicable. Then I start doing artwork again. I can’t do the two at the same time. It’s impossible. It’s over a couple of weeks. One will fail and then one will emerge.  Writing particularly is like drawing fish hooks out of your throat. It’s horrible. But necessary. Because you can’t leave them there.

Interview by Margo Fortuny. Exit Magazine, Spring/Summer 2011

Check out Donwood's new J.G. Ballard-inspired exhibition 'Dream Cargo' at the Lawrence Alkin Gallery in London through April 25th, 2015. 

Kindness of Women, Stanley Donwood, 2015

Faber & Faber have recently published several books by Stanley Donwood, which can be found here.