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Joshua Davis, 6 Questions

by Ami Kealoha in Design on 19 August 2005

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We're in the home stretch leading up to the inaugural American edition of Semi-Permanent, the design conference that's met great success over the last few years in Sydney and London. Held in New York City's Avery Fisher Hall, the event emphasizes creativity, bringing together image-makers and producers at the forefront of diverse fields like advertising, graphic design, web, graffitti, and animation. You may have already noticed that we've had the privledge to showcase some of their work in the above banner. Starting with an interview with tattooed modern American innovator, Joshua Davis, over the course of the next few weeks we'll present a series of q+a's with some of today's main players from Semi-Permanent's line-up.

Joshua Davis park his car, attends to his 2-year-old daughter, and talks to his wife, all while agreeably juggling our interview on his cell phone. Multi-tasking is nothing new to this 34-year-old illustrator, painter, and designer, who, over the last decade has been winning awards, creating work for the likes of Sony, Diesel, and Wired, lecturing globally, and teaching at New York's School of Visual Arts. Here, he homes in on current experiments with proximity-based design, the punk tunes that get him motivated, and the new frontiers of fashion.

How did you get here?
I was living in Colorado and they had 25 artists paint bus benches. Mine ended up making it on the front page of the paper and I had this defining moment. Three days later, I bought a plane ticket and went to New York with $300. I slept on people's floors for the first year. I was just determined. I started to do stuff in galleries. Then I went to school. I thought, "It'll give me all this free time and I can take out loans."

While still in school, I had written and illustrated a children's book. I love children's books and there were two publishers in New York that I thought would do justice to my work. I'm like 23-24 years old and I got two letters back saying who are you? I told one of my classmates and he said you can self-publish, there's this thing called the world wide web. So, I read a 500 page book about html and I had no idea what I had just read.

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What are you doing now?
I really enjoy doing hand-drawn work. I literally put a sheet of paper on a Wacom tablet and I draw a piece that has all the assets, but program the color palette, for example. I think that's what sets me apart from other designers who are using programs to do the work. It means I can collaborate with other designers. I've been working with the rock band Tool, which is a process of meeting with the band, coming up with ideas, and drawing.

I'm really fascinated with proximity-based design. Basically, I design proximity fields around the user's mouse, so if I have 1000 objects on the screen, all of the objects are affected by it according to its proximity, so you get undulating waves of movement. The other stuff I've been getting into is 2-d, 2 1/2-d, 3-d and optical illusions, taking illustrations and scaling them up so you realize it's a 3-d space and you can fly through it.

What are your current obsessions?
On the bookshelf is Ayn Rand. I just finished The Fountainhead and now I 'm starting Atlas Shrugged. She's she sot crazy ideas. My favorite artist is Cy Twombly. And I've also been really into Basquiat. I'm trying to create programs that fuck up. WIth music, definitely heavy metal or I would say punk is my music of choice. My favorite thing in rotation is this band called The Refused and the album is The Future Shape of Punk. If you're not in the mood to work, put that album on. On Gamecube it's Resident Evil on the Xbox it's Psychonauts.

What's next?
The interest I'm getting is from the fashion industry. I tell them I can take a system and generate patterns and print shirts and every shirt would be unique. And they're like, "Oh, wow really?" I just did handbags in Japan. It's getting off the screen and into the physical form, which I'm all for. Being printed in a magazine is one thing, but being printed on a handbag is another. It's legit. I see a lot of designers making t-shirts. For me, tees are cheap.

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How do innovations influence your process?
The software that I use and the programming language that I use are constantly being added on to and they're creating new things in the tool set. Its like the paint man coming out with a new color of paint that you didn't previously have. As software evolves, I'll be able to have new ideas, but you know I always tell this story: If you have one foot in the past and one in the future, then you're pissing on the present. You're never going to have an auto-Joshua Davis button. It's not going to happen. I don't want that kind of distraction to deter anyone from what's happening now.
As painter, I used to make my own oil paint. I used to experiment working with materials, waxes, resins. When I started getting into programming I experimented with programming the same way. I'm still the same person, but the weapons have changed.

Any advice?
I'm always trying to tell people, you have these designers who travel the world and didn't study internet design. You have Ito Nakamura who is an architect. You have me who's an illustrator. The internet is the worst place you can go. What I do comes from interpreting it on the net.

Another thing I always end up telling my students this. It's so simple. The type of work that you present is the type of work you'll get hired to do. I probably get more work from my abstract art site. It's how you get to do crazy things for crazy clients. Use the medium to express yourself.

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