“Finding the right typeface is like falling in love. I can really get a crush on a typeface,” says graphic designer PAUL BOUDENS whose lines can bring a shiver down your spine, whose script seeps through scrim, whose bold letters and text blaze next to combusting sex, whose punctuation curves mate with runways’ moody gaits, whose promotions propel the anti-fashion, and whose prints bind the sacrosanct union between designers and their cults.
“You can explain your work until your face turns blue. If the end result isn’t worth looking at, what’s the point?”
Having watched American Psycho in the violent spurt of early youth, I always wondered why its protagonist, Patrick Bateman, would literally kill for the finest calling card. I wondered, “Who in his right mind would cut throats for a piece of paper?” But these days, who in his right mind would tolerate shoddy prints amid a cutthroat world whose yearly resolutions involve accumulating images in higher resolution?
Bateman should have hired Paul Boudens. After all, for people with top-tier taste, what a gaffe if they can’t communicate their vision in a way that manifests cachet instead of cash, and character instead of shameless flattery. Clients such as Yohji Yamamoto, Haider Ackermann, and Dries Van Noten create clothes culled from dreams; and for their fantasies to sprout into other countless forms (invitations, posters, productions), Paul had to enter the picture or, rather, be the man behind the image.
Though Paul prefers working in the sidelines, his oeuvre contains a human side that results in a breathing brutality of textures distilled in a restraint of lines and shapes. The task might be physically taxing, but Paul is always excited for the next project. He says, “I’m easily bored. I want to create, create, create.”
I caught up with him during the holidays—to which he reacts, “Holi-what? Never heard of such a thing, I’m always at work!”—and work he does even during a time of frolic. He’s designing books, catalogs, and posters; planning city projects; and preparing for workshops and speeches with designer Walter Van Beirendonck, photographer Ronald Stoops, and makeup artist Inge Grognard for a visit next year to LA’s Otis College of Art and Design. Slumped but not stumped, he quips, “Before you know it, it’s fashion show invitation time again!”
“I’m easily bored. I want to create, create, create.”
I love your work. How did you start doing what you’re doing?
It’s a long story. I came to Antwerp in the mid-80s to study fashion, but I flunked my entrance exam. So there I was, alone in Antwerp, on a comfortable budget from my parents, a cheap place to live, but with absolutely no idea what to study! I did some other studies like Press & Communication and Translation, but failed those, too, because my heart wasn’t in it. Basically, I lost four years, although I had a really good time. [Laughs] In the meantime, I was playing around at home, making cassette covers and birthday cards for friends with Mecanorma letters and photocopies—some even in color… a novelty at that time. [Laughs]
Anyway, one day, I was at a friend’s birthday party and my card was on display on the shelf. A woman asked who made it and I said, “Eh, me.” She shouted, “You have to study graphic design!” Frankly, I had never heard of such a thing. The woman convinced me to do an entrance exam at the school where she was teaching. I passed and started to study graphic design and illustration. This was the first time I felt comfortable doing something, and graphic design fit me like a glove. When I was in my third year, Walter Van Beirendonck asked me to create prints for his T-shirts and I rolled into the fashion world by accident. That was in 1989, and we’ve worked together ever since.
“Avoid hype at any cost—go for the long run.”
Having worked with so many designers, what is it with fashion that makes your art so close to it?
I’m quite fashion-sensitive. Not that I’m a fashion victim—far from it—but I understand how that world works and I’m good at channeling what a designer wants or would like to see. So a lot of my clients are also sensitive people creating something. We’re all alike, you know.
In relation to that, what are you wearing as we speak?
A Fred Perry shirt and sweater, Lee jeans, an Alexander McQueen coat, Maison Martin Margiela sneakers. It’s all quite classic stuff you know, I’m a regular guy. The coat has a nice historic/military influence—typical McQueen. The tail bounces funny when I walk around.
You’re also a co-founder of A Magazine.
A Magazine started as N°A during the Fashion 2011 Landed project in Antwerp with Walter Van Beirendonck and Gerdi Esch. We did a couple of issues with Bernhard Willhelm, Hussein Chalayan, Olivier Theyskens then we went belly up. A year later, we got picked up again by a financer and restarted, working with the likes of Maison Martin Margiela, Yohji Yamamoto, and Haider Ackermann.
“Finding the right typeface is like falling in love.”
With all the bloggers and social media available, how do you think print will progress in the future?
I’m sure there will be less and less printed matter in the future, but it’s going to take a while. I’m still a paper person, and there’s still a lot of us around who feel the same way. Vinyl hasn’t disappeared yet and neither will paper. The only good reason to use it less is ecological.
Working in a fast-paced industry, how do you adapt to change?
Actually, it’s the fast pace of fashion that I like. Although I must say, sometimes I can feel my bones crack under the pressure, and I think: “Can we all stand still for just a second, maybe?” [Laughs] I just keep my eyes and mind open and try to let my work evolve gracefully.
I love what you said about art not being just done on the computer but rather a “breathtaking explosion of images, forms and colors—translated into various techniques: silk-screen, fluorescence, black-on-black, UV varnish, overprinting.” Tell us about your process. Do you have lists, routines, or you just go with the flow?
You are quoting from my CV! [Laughs] That was the way I described my monograph, Paul Boudens Works Volume I. My creative process is truly simple; when I get an assignment, an image pops up in my head, then I try to recreate that image in any which way possible. When I succeed in doing that, you’re going to have a very nice design, but if all I see is a black hole, you’re in trouble. Rather, I’m in trouble! I do make lists everyday, but that’s just to see what I’m working on at the moment—most of the time ten things simultaneously.
“Be creative, be patient, or try to be.”
That said, as much as art is an “explosion,” tell us about the value of editing and curating with regard to image-making?
I find it’s quite easy to edit something. The right image just pops up. “Less is more” is my motto, but even I sometimes make the mistake of starting too complicated and overwrought, then I have to scrape away layer after layer until my gut says we’ve arrived at the right image or design. I’m a very “gut” kind of guy, and I abhor concepts even though they are very “in” these days. You can explain your work until your face turns blue. If the end result isn’t worth looking at, what’s the point?
Do you think life imitates art or it’s the other way around?
I quite like that it’s a continuum: art imitates life imitates art imitates life, etc.
“I’m quite fashion-sensitive. Not that I’m a fashion victim—far from it—but I understand how that world works and I’m good at channeling what a designer wants or would like to see.”
Your body of work communicates a strong vision. In an industry saturated by hype, what’s your tip to anyone who wants to succeed in art/fashion?
Learn to know what you are good at. Be yourself and stick to your guns. It pays off in the end, but it takes longer. Avoid hype at any cost—go for the long run. Be creative, be patient, or try to be. [Laughs]
Lastly, pick a theme and five works of art that support it, if you were to curate an exhibit. What does this story say?
Without a doubt, I would go for “Gut Feeling.” Gut means stomach, but also “good” in German, and I spent my whole childhood there. I would go for a crazy mix of people like Alexey Brodovitch, Louise Bourgeois, Walter Van Beirendonck, Barnett Newman, David Lynch, Hermann Nitsch, to name a few. I’m not going to name any more, in case one day I will set up this exhibition. [Laughs]
Story by Kristine Dabbay