In conversation with Kris Andrew Small
When you spot one of Kris Andrew Small’s designs there’s no mistaking it for someone else’s. Over the years the Sydney-based artist’s joyfully frenetic clashing colours and typography has become a signature style that’s completely singular.
While his work calls upon his background as a graphic designer, these days Kris’s work is closer to a fine arts practice as he explores the dynamic fringes of traditional design.
Often featuring boldly lettered slogans like “Vaccinate Don’t Hesitate”, “Be What You Are”, or simply “You’re Amazing”, there’s an uplifting optimism to Kris’s work that encourages the audience to embrace their potential. It’s a call to arms that the outspoken designer can’t help but include in his work, stemming from a moral inability to accept unfairness in any form.
Creating work with purpose is paying off for the artist with commissions from big names like Apple, YouTube, Nike, and many more now firmly under his belt. And he seems to have found an ideal balance between the reality of working commercially and his many various personal projects.
From his studio in Sydney, while a city-wide lockdown due to a COVID-19 outbreak drags on outside, Kris joined us ahead of his appearance at Semi Permanent Wellington to discuss his unfiltered and unrestrained approach to his practice.
Your work is so distinct. How long did it take you to develop your style?
It took no time, and then it took 10 years at the same time.
I went to TAFE, which meant I started in a very conservative environment. When I first moved to London, designers would mention their university studies and be like, “One day we'd all throw paint at a wall and another day we'd be hanging upside down from the ceiling.” Whereas during my design education I literally had to design logos for cafes and that was it.
Is that super practical mindset what led to your stint working in advertising?
Yeah, I thought that’s what I had to do — work in advertising. And then I ended up in this intense situation where I was so done with making commercial work. In the end I kind of exploded and quit. After that rupture is when I really started working on my own style.
Was there a particular moment that caused that explosion?
I have very strong opinions about how I think the world should be. I get incredibly infuriated by ignorance and intolerance of other people. And I never got anywhere to put that in advertising. They’re putting up 20 metre billboards and not saying anything meaningful. I think it was the suffocation of not being able to speak my mind that was killing me.
How has that affected the way you do your own commercial jobs now?
It’s funny, over time I've been getting hired to do more and more LGBTQIA+ jobs. And I think they're hiring me not just because I'm gay but also because I stand for something. Although sometimes it's exhausting to always stand up for things. Sometimes it's kind of nice to have a shoe just be a shoe. Then I get to be the one to make it look cool and have some fun.
A lot of your work ignores traditional design “rules”. Is that a conscious decision?
Honestly, I think I’m more of an artist that accidentally became a designer. I don’t care, for lack of a better word, about technique. If you look at me from a technical perspective — I'm horrendous. I've never used grids. I don't even know the difference between tracking and kerning, no matter how many times I've checked. One of my favourite pieces of work, and also the thing that got me the most attention, is full of mistakes because I made it when I was drunk.
[Laughs] Seriously? Which piece?
It's a poster that I made at the start of the pandemic called We Can Get Through This Together.
Wait, isn’t that your work that was shown in the Louvre and the V&A?
It was in the Louvre, which is ridiculous. And yeah, it’s in the V&A Dundee as well. I made that on the sofa after a bottle of wine because I was annoyed that we closed our borders. It felt like everyone was trying to split up the world and I was trying to positively remind people that the world is one thing.
But how did it end up in museums in Europe?
There was a project in the Netherlands called Stay Sane Stay Safe. It was an initiative by Studio Lennarts and De Bruijn, an amazing Dutch design studio. They noticed people were making pandemic posters so they collected a few and put them in hospitals in the Netherlands, including mine. Then they did a travelling exhibition around the Netherlands before the V&A showed them in an exhibition on design during the pandemic. The Louvre did the same thing — it's actually in Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD), the decorative arts wing of the Louvre. So it's not next to the Mona Lisa or anything, but it's still cool [laughs].
Why do you think that piece in particular got so much attention?
I feel like it summed up how a lot of people were feeling. Also, the Stay Sane Stay Safe project got featured in so many different places. It’s the first time I made a piece of work that wasn't for a giant brand that went everywhere. I feel like it opened a lot of doors for me.
A lot of your work feels like it’s encouraging the world to be a better place.
If I feel really frustrated about something I’ll put it in my work because I hope that someone else is feeling the same. And then that might inspire some form of change. I'm doing it in a selfish way to deal with my own problem but I'm also doing it because I think it’s the right thing. And hopefully someone else gets something out of it.
Before we wrap up I have to ask you about mediums. What do you enjoy about working in so many different mediums, like posters versus clothing for example?
It's really cool to see your work in a way you've never seen before. I love Keith Haring, he's my famous favourite artist of all time, and I love that he did everything. Like, at one point he literally did a blimp.
I was about to ask you about your dream project, but maybe it's a blimp?
I would love to do something with a car because I haven't done that yet. And they’re the first thing I was ever aesthetically drawn to.
I’ll be sure to leave that in the interview so all of the car brands know you’re interested.
[Laughs] Yeah, please do.