Tomato… A house hold name in our industry. This multi-disciplinary collective tackles almost anything creative. Among the mediums most noted would include; typography, graphic design, architecture, filmmaking, and the music of Underworld. We caught up with Graham Wood, Steve Baker, and Jason Kedgley and were able to get these kind gentlemen to ‘speak up’.
Speak Up: To jump right into things… your group tackles a lot of varied disciplines: Identity, signage, publications, merchandising, web design, exhibition design, catalogues, advertising, films, music… And the list goes on. Is there ever a time, when approaching a new project, you say “Shit! We have no clue how to do this”.? Besides your talent and your eagerness to try new things are you ever afraid on tackling something new?.
Steve Baker: No, we always have a clue, but sometimes only a clue. We’re not afraid of tackling something new but we’re terrified of endlessly repeating ourselves.
Jason Kedgely: Yes to both parts! for me that immediate response is quickly translated into a drive to either try something myself or find the right people to work with. A majority of projects I am involved in are about interacting with people you respect and the enjoyable uncertainty of direction which that takes.
Graham Wood: I would never say no to something purely because it was in a media or form that i’d never worked with before: I think in the end one works with possibilities, potential, and the interplay of thought and form that some people call ‘ideas’, and this is so easily applicable in every context. The hardest thing is to say ‘yes’; once you do, everything follows. It’s not hard-none of it is, not physically and certainly not really intellectually. I wouldn’t say that we actually do try new things. Most of us work on simple, single ideas until the first thing has changed so much that you realise you’re on to an other thing, and again, and again. And hopefully that will keep happening for a long time.
SU: If given the choice from the previously mentioned disciplines, which facet of creativity would each of you say you enjoy most?
T-SB: The next one.
T-JK: I still enjoy them all in their own way; just depends on me really… what day, mood or other things are happening around me on how I react.
T-GW: Just thinking, being inspired or forced to think, letting something grow in the mind and take it’s course, flowering, transforming. Just thinking.
SU: Where do you see Tomato in the future? 5 years? 10 years? Is there a master plan or goal Tomato would like to achieve?
T-SB: The master plan seems to be strained survival.
T-JK: For me, as long as we continue to make inspirational work, for both ourselves and others, we will do just fine.
T-GW: About three months tends to be my limit (I do start to look forward to Christmas around about the end of September), so the ability to see 6 months ahead would be a nice goal for me. 10 years time? We’re all still alive? Would that be enough to hope?
SU: Tomato is a collective, does this differ from the typical agency or firm?
T-SB: Only in every way possible.
T-JK: Yes and no. I have not worked in a typical agency so can not compare but tomato has its fair share of ups and downs, the same as everyone else I imagine.
T-GW: I’m not sure what’s typical, as tomato is the only thing i’ve known… hard question to really answer properly. You make your own experience, your own ‘real world’, so whether or not we’re ‘different’ form others doesn’t really interest me, and I don’t honestly know how I would find out if we were different. I like it when there’s similarities-far more interesting-and theres loads of people doing work now that is powerful and very very alive.
SU: A few of you are situated around the globe (UK, Japan, Australia, Sweden). How does this affect the outcome of projects when working with each other? What are some of the techniques you use to collaborate with physical distance being a restriction?
T-SB: We struggle, but then we always did. Despite the technology available and cheaper airfares, communication doesn’t get easier, it just takes more effort. However it’s great to be able to bring experiences and influences from all over the world into the work. As people don’t stop growing, life changes are inevitable, so we might as well get used to it and find ways to accommodate and benefit from these changes.
T-JK: The effect of people being outside of london is that the dynamism of interaction is less. For me this is super important, apart from the physical interaction which I think is always best, being able to discuss your ideas and take your work into that uncertain area where you would never go alone is what its about.
T-GW: E-mail, phone, post, travel-all of the obvious really. the best thing about being apart is that we all tend to make more of the time when we’re together. We work more together now than we ever have done, I think, which is sort of interesting.
SU: Do you feel a lot of pressure for being Tomato? Is it hard to live up to the standards in creativity that you have set, not only from clients and designers around the world, but also from yourselves? In less professional words, do you ever feel that you won’t achieve the “Tomatoness” that we’ve all come to expect?
T-SB: I think we’d rather cut our throats if we thought we were only producing work to satisfy other people’s expectations based on an imagined style. Obviously we continue to try to produce work that we like and hopefully our clients like. Is there any other way?
T-JK: I have never really thought about this, so there must be no pressure. We just do what we do, I don’t think we try to be tomato or anything else. we are tomato.
T-GW: I understand what you’re asking, but I can’t honestly answer the actual question, for lots of reasons, and mainly because the idea of ‘pressure’, of ‘standards’, and ‘expect’ation has nothing to do with the way I think about it. I sort of don’t believe in it as a point of view about graphic/whatever design, because in the end it’s a job, usually (90-99% of the time) for a client who has a pretty specific set of requirements that you do your best to accomodate, unless the accomodation of same would negate the positive outcome of a project. And that’s it. Granted, because of some of the work we’ve done we’ve been able to make publications, but you don’t make a cake without breaking a few eggs and all that guff, i.e. you have to make the work to make the work, it doesn’t drop from the sky etc. etc. did I end up answering the question?
SU: Which brings me to my next question; what makes you [Tomato] who you are? An obvious answer would be your style, but you seem to be more about style and trends. Is it your energy? Philosophy? Your friendship?
T-SB: No idea. Actually yes, I have an idea – tomato is just a group of individuals – it is just a reflection of some of the things those individuals aspire to. Sorry if this sounds a bit obvious.
T-JK: It most definitely is not about style or trends… in fact everything else apart from that. for me, it is still about working with and respecting friends and all the dynamics that involves and creates.
T-GW: We are more about style and trends! yes! Have you seen the new thing!? Oat foxes in a drainpipe/shoe arrangement! It’s nice! Plastic mastic cock shields! We are only stylish and trendy and hungry like the wolf!
SU: When Designing for Underworld (for those who are unaware – Karl Hyde and Richard Smith of Tomato formed the musical group in 1988), would you say they are your best or worst client? Do you have fun with the work or do you become your own worst critics?
T-SB: We haven’t heard from them for years now – I thought they’d disbanded – are they still going??
T-JK: Working with rick and karl and the record companies has pushed me to produce some of my most interesting works, and at times they have been the most frustrating projects ever, bar none.
T-GW: The work I’ve done with rick and karl has been some of the most amazing and some of the most diffcult I’ve ever done. Think of any reason for both situations (and many in between) and I’ve probably experienced it. The work
is always fun, to a greater or lesser extent, and all critical facilities go out the window when i’m doing this stuff. The things we do together go a lot further than the stuff ‘for underworld’, and I’ve just been doing something with rick (a few of us have) that is the kind of thing that one lives for.
SU: How often do you run in to clients that no matter what you do, they cease to be impressed, happy, or satisfied with what you have done? Was there ever a case when Tomato was fired from a project?
T-SB: Never fired, just agreed an appropriate realignment of mutually achievable goals.
T-JK: More than you would think. Some agency’s want to employ you as a service and that is not what we do; we work with people to find a resolution. In my experience it is these individuals that upset the balance. And yes I have been fired from a job, only one to date I think.
T-GW: Often enough. I’m not sure about fired, but work gets changed about after you finish your part, or things get rejected, or radically changed as part of the working process. It’s not always easy (never promised a rose
garden) and obviously there’ll be times when everything just goes pear-shaped. Clash of ethos, of approach, of ambition, yes, often enough, but then we get our fair share of ‘do what you think is best and come back when it’s finished and we’ll be happy if you are’ type of stuff so there’s a balance. There’s one occasion i can think of when i had work rejected and knew it, but the weirdest and most common thing when things don’t work is the ‘everything’s dandy to your face but when it was all over they weren’t happy’ situation. I think honesty and openness are essential parts of the working process (there isn’t one without them), and in any situation i’ll say what I think (it’s what I’m paid for) and I have to assume everyon else is doing the same. The best work I’ve done is with people who’ve said it’s not good enough, do more, go further, start again. Things don’t come together immediately and they don’t always come together comfortably, and that can be a source of frustration for all concerned. In the end though, for me, I view everything as potential and experience, and if the potential isn’t achieved then the experience is always something to learn from and try to understand-afer all, we’re all simple people trying to make our way in the universe.
SU: When Tomato broke into the mainstream, a few years back, there was an apparent style to your work. A trend that was highly imitated for some time. Now, I think, you have outgrown that style that separated you from other collectives and have transformed it into a voice that then translates into different visual solutions. What has made you grow and evolve into what I think is, and I mean this with no offense, a more mature approach to design?
T-SB: We broke into the mainstream? Why did nobody tell us? Are we mature already? Goddammit why did anybody tell me before?
T-JK: Tomato is full of ideas and always has been. Each individuals commitment to personal work has kept tomato evolving and pushed it into the future without trying. It is these personal responses that form the back bone of all tomato work.
T-GW: Again, this a question of point of view. I make work and I see the others I work with making work too-it’s all connected. We’ve been together for about 12 years now, so there’s been ups and downs and blank patches and times of productivity; again, it’s hard to answer this without seeming a bit bland, and also hard to answer without knowing which work you’re referring to-I know almost everything we’ve made over the years, so to me the things which are familiar may not have been seen too much and so I think we’re all still those strange little fellows with hearts of gold and heads full of dreams, looking for beauty in a troubled world. But no solutions, I’m afraid.
SU: Who first came up with the idea of workshops and why? Was it to proliferate good tomato vibes? Was it to give back to the creative community and help the up and coming?
T-SB: I did – because it feels good.
T-JK: I don’t know exactly who started the conversation but it has been a topic of discussion for many years. I have only taken part in one, and it was interesting to meet and spend time with people from other cultures, to engage and be engaged in varied dialogue and to travel to distant places with people you perhaps would never have otherwise had the chance.
T-GW: We’ve all been doing a bit of teaching and lecturing (ha!) here and there over the years, and the workshops seemed a natural extension of that. Steve initiated and has been central in making it all work, and the intention was to try it and see what happened, with the hope that people would come and enjoy themselves. For me, the workshops i’ve been involved with have been intense, emotional experiences and very very hard work, for good and bad. I’m not the best at this kind of thing, but i think the range of people who’ve come to the workshops and the different people from tomato who’ve been involved has made for a very particular experience. We’ve made lots of friends, i think, met some extraordinary people and seen that there is a validity in some of the ways in which (idealistically, perhaps) we believe work can be approached. If it’s true that in the end all of the things we (all) do are about people communicating, then I think the workshops have been among the best things we’ve done.
SU: One of the best ways to learn and to expand your knowledge is by interacting with other designers, how important have the workshops been in the development of Tomato?
T-SB: Very important, that’s why I thought of it, because I’m very clever. And some of the other members of the company helped out a bit too… occasionally.
T-JK: As I said I have only taken part in one workshop, but for other members the workshops are of the utmost importance, both mentally and physically. The overall effect is that tomato learns more each time, about ourselves and about those who join us.
T-GW: Refer to my previous answer.SU: Thanks Steve, Jason and Graham for speaking up with us.