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Rory Dobner

The imaginative mind behind fantastical ink portraits and more

by Karen Day in Design on 07 February 2012

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Smoking fish, gun-toting octopuses, cupcake-eating lizards—these are just a few of the anthropomorphic animals portrayed in the intricate ink drawings by the eccentric British artist Rory Dobner. His ingenuous penchant for animals and maximalist approach to art come together in a series of wildly imaginative characters easily adored by children and adults alike. The industrious artist, now represented by Opera Gallery, also lends his talents to sculpture, painting, tattoos, home furnishings and graphic design.

Liberty London began stocking a small amount of Dobner's work 18 months ago, after seeing one of his hand-drawn portraits in the background of a photo of his wife Claire, who was featured in a news article. At the time, Claire tells us, Rory had been a stay-at-home dad who worked incessantly on his art, as her job with British Telecom moved the family to places like Amsterdam, Hong Kong, LA, India, Sydney and Taiwan. Since Liberty phoned the couple, his collection has become so widely appreciated by the creative community—and several celebrities—the 34-year-old artist can barely keep up with the requests for his work. In addition to Liberty, Dobner's quirky animals and typographic initials can be found on ceramics and textiles at Bluebird in London, Via Bus Stop in Tokyo, Agent Provocateur shops and soon at Maison 24 in NYC.

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We recently caught up with Dobner's wife of 16 years—the artist himself seems to be almost constantly working—to learn a little bit more about her husband's motivation and plans for the future, which currently include working with renowned neon artist Chris Bracey and preparing for a personal appearance at Liberty on 10 February 2012. To show his support for the company that catalyzed his career, Dobner will be in-store all day drawing personalized portraits for fans of his work, or those looking for a customized Valentine's Day gift.

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What brought about the idea of working with initials?

When they started, Liberty took about 10 of his ink portraits and hung them in all these Victorian frames. They starting selling well, too well actually, and since each one is done by hand he had to keep replacing them. They finally gave him a six-week break, and suggested he do a product so he wouldn't have to keep drawing. So he came up with doing the alphabet because it's very iconic, and he made drawings and printed them on the tiles, and people could still frame them or they could play with them and spell out words. He will frame them all together too if you want a word. For example, Robbie Williams bought "Fuck me, blow me".

He started doing commissions for bespoke coat of arms that include very specific stuff like childrens' names, marriage dates, etc. Kate Moss created one with Ray Bans and The Rolling Stones references for her husband. Making it personal is very important for Rory, he's always drawn, it doesn't sit well to sell his art so if he can personalize it that makes him feel better.

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What attracts Rory to Victorian times?

We've always sought out antique things, we've traveled extensively so our house is filled with loads of stuff we've picked up along the way or salvaged and given a new life in a current time. Rory also likes the invention of Victorian times—the materials are so amazing and there's so much heritage and character.

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How much time does one drawing take to complete?

Every single thing is hand-drawn, the only thing we've done print-wise is the products. Something like Ol' Smokey takes about a day, but a new idea (like a bespoke idea) takes more like 2 days to think, design and draw. Rory just goes straight onto the paper without penciling it in first. Like his paintings on brushed steel, the fluid way he does them means he can only come off the painting at certain points and he can't make a mistake or the paint will fuck up—he's very intuitive, it's very interesting to watch.

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What's his preferred material to work with?

We have a piece of land out in the countryside, and there's a sexy garden down the driveway. I would say Rory's happiest when he's there making his massive wire sculptures. They are really smooth on the inside—models have worn them in shows for Dior and McQueen—but they are really quite sharp on the outside so we have to put them in open spaces to keep from accidentally injuring the children. They take about six months to make and people appreciate them for their artistic merit. At Babington House (the Soho House in Somerset), he created a massive horse that is standing up on its hind legs and the front legs are above you.

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What is something people might not know about Rory?

He's one of three boys, and he grew up on a tiny island off the UK which is more like a waiting area for old people to die. His parents sent him to an all-boys military boarding school at a young age, where he learned to march and shoot guns—it's kind of a scary school system to be in, you're expected to go to the military. He was always drawing, and rather than bash it, they encouraged him and allowed.

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We have two children, Huxley and Louie, and he's very good at playing and thinking like children. He's really in it though, he's making his characters come alive and gives them little personalities. He has a bit of taxidermy, and sometimes dresses the animals up in vintage Vivienne Westwood accessories. But he's so humble, so gentle, and very knowledgeable about history. He mounts every picture himself, he does everything from start to finish. He's very much an artist, just genuinely interested in what people are telling him, and I sometimes have to wrestle his work off him.

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