From Brighton to Texas, to band merch and fashion lines, the Finnish illustrator talks about bursting out of his comfort zone.
For an artist whose work often depicts US locations with an American 'cool jazz' sort of touch, it's a surprise to learn Janne Iivonen has only recently visited the USA.
"I was in California last year, visiting San Francisco and San Diego, and this year I was invited to collaborate on a zine that was launched at SXSW in Austin, Texas. I got to finally visit NYC too," the Finnish artist tells Digital Arts. "I’ve been blessed enough to have had the opportunity to work for several US based clients since graduation, starting from my first US editorial for Bloomberg Businessweek, but I’ve actually only recently got to visit the country itself."
It was editorial work like Bloomsberg which first made Janne's name, but 2018 has seen the illustrator work in different fields, again with that distinct US touch that brings to mind American cartoonists of the 60s, and that same decade's sense of industrious and sunny optimism.
"Growing up in Finland, I was always exposed to North American visual culture in the form of comics, music videos, TV shows and movies, so certain visual tropes have been etched into my brain from a very young age," Janne reminisces. "I’ve also always held certain US illustrators and designers in high esteem. People like Russel Patterson, Gluyas Williams and Earl Oliver Hurst, for example. I’m also a keen admirer of many classic New Yorker cartoonists, too."
With influences like these, though, it'll also surprise you to learn that Janne lives in Brighton, England. Although it shouldn't, really; where else in the UK could an artist with work this bright and breezy be based, and it's no shock when he tells me how the town plays a vital role in his work.
"It might sound like a cliché, but the sea really inspires me," he says. "Also, Brighton is full of really interesting independent businesses and in general has a very creative and left field vibe, which I like. Something always catches my eye when I’m out and about; for example many of my characters are based on people I see on my daily walks in the town."
These characters have recently popped up in a wide range of places, including coffee packaging, band merch and menswear. For an artist most known for editorial work, how far out of his comfort zone did he feel working on such differing projects?
"The branding and band merch stuff was pretty new to me," Janne responds, "but that made it super inspiring, too. I had to envision how a range of illustrations would look good together and how they would best convey the brand values, how to make an illustration work well when it’s printed on a three dimensional object, and how to complement the sound and visuals of a band with my illustrations in an engaging way. I feel truly lucky to have had so many exciting commissions that have really challenged the way I approach my work."
One of these objects was a redesign of Norwegian brand Talor&Jørgen's coffee packaging, a name he'd worked with before. The end result, released last year, is a slick looking beauty that grabs your eye with a happy looking couple waving at you from the store shelf.
"They wanted to change the shape of the box in a way that it would be more visible in retail situations, so I was tasked to create a new illustration for it," Janne explains. "The process was actually pretty straightforward, but obviously I had to envision how it looked as a 3D object. This was a challenge, but an interesting one, and the updated shape proved easier to work with as it wasn’t curved like the previous one. Talor&Jørgen are an amazing business and super nice people too, so it was ace that I got to collaborate with them twice."
A new name he's worked with recently is Goodfellow & Co, the new menswear label from US retailers Target (there's that 'stars & stripes' connection again).
Janne's work can be seen on an entire range from the label; not simply in promotional material, but upon the actual clothing itself, which is a rarity considering characters are mainly the domain of t-shirt chest and back designs. His depictions of modern men going about their business can be seen all over labels, hangtags and even on the pocket of Goodfellow's jeans range.
While he tells me there was "a great deal more conference calls and back and forth" than he was used to with the project, getting down to actually defining the essence of 'modern man' was also a walk in the park, no surprise considering his background in illustrating for men's fashion and lifestyle magazines like GQ's Style Guy. "It also helped that I’m a keen menswear aficionado myself. I’m actually working on some new illustrations for them at the moment, too."
A more left-field project was a poster and band merch project for Japanese indie band Homecomings, using the below image. "The band’s guitarist found my work through Instagram and emailed me to ask whether I'd be up for creating an illustration that would be used in promoting their upcoming gigs in Tokyo. The piece was also adapted for merchandise, like a cup and a tote bag."
"I really liked the challenge of coming up with a fitting visual to the band’s style and sound," he continues, "and I’d definitely be up for doing more music related projects, provided that I like the band or artist and that they have a big enough fan base, so that it gets seen by many people."
For the foreseeable future, Janne will continue enjoying the Brighton studio he's recently moved into, a space he's currently sharing with star talents like Sophy Hollington and Edward Tuckwell, and where he enjoys 'talking shop' with his studio mates about pricing, contracts and other topics close to any illustrator's heart.
"Ideally there is this sort of positive competitive spirit, which makes you want to create better and more engaging work," Janne says about the set up. "I feel truly grateful that I get to share the space with some amazing illustrators and people working in other disciplines too (moving image, web, design, print), which is definitely inspiring and can potentially lead to interesting collaborations, too."
"I was somewhat content working from home for the first couple of years living in Brighton, but eventually I felt that I needed to have a more engaging and creative work environment," he confesses. "When the right opportunity came along I jumped right into it and haven’t looked back. I think it makes it easier to have a more healthy work/life balance, too."
The latest on Janne's plate is a commission from Melbourne-based industrial design studio RAMA Works, who've asked him to create manual cover art for one of their new products, along with an illustration for a Brighton-based fashion and comic book retailer.
"Besides these I have several new editorial pieces that I’m itching to share too." We're itching to see them too, Janne.
Read next: Janne Iivonen's bright and brilliant comic-style illustrations from 2016