Sam Stubbings believed the design world was false and elitist, until he stumbled across an exhibition that changed his mind forever. Graeme Aymer meets the brains behind 4Wall, one of the UK's most exciting design collectives.
It's not often that one can talk about a Damascene revelation when chronicling the goings-on of the digital design world, but sometimes it happens. You head over to a low-key exhibition in a former shoe shop in East London, set on snaffling up free beer and finger food. A flash of inspiration later, you're in charge of one of the capital's most respected art collectives.
So it went for Sam Stubbings, the brains behind the hugely successful 4Wall, the umbrella organisation that helps some of the most noted painters and illustrators in the UK showcase their work. In 2005, Stubbings went to an exhibition in Shoreditch to lend "moral support" and "free booze" assistance to exhibitors Andy Potts and Mark Taplin, former co-workers at Abbey Road Studios.
"I was blown away by what I saw and, for me, things have never been the same since," he recalls. Until then, Stubbings had thought of the whole art scene as "false, affected and elitist", patronised by buyers who were either "investors trying to make a quick buck" or "mugs with too much money."
"The thing I learned that night - and the message I have wanted to get across with 4Wall ever since - is that there is a group of visual artists capturing our times like no-one else and there is a style of art that is not only relevant, but fun, cool and accessible," says Stubbings. "I was inspired by the spontaneity, immediacy, the intelligence and the humour in that exhibition, and it was these kinds of traits I began hunting for in other artists."
In the beginning
Essentially, Stubbings jacked in his job as a multimedia producer at the erstwhile Beatles' haunt and, within five or six months, set up 4Wall - with around 2,000 or so artist submissions.
"There wasn't really an artist that I asked to come on board that didn't, so I can say with all honesty that 4Wall features my 18 favourite artists in the world," Stubbings admits. Those 18 artists include Daniel Egneus, Richard May, the aforementioned Mark Taplin and Andy Potts, Si Scott, McFaul, Erin Petson, Kerry Roper, Ric Stultz and Container, to name but a few.
"The key thing is that they are very clever, sympathetic, funny and real people who have a connection with you and I," Stubbings explains matter-of-factly. "They not only understand the nuances of modern life but also instinctively know what people actually want to look at."
For most of its existence, 4Wall has been more a gallery than an agency - or even a collective - deriving money exclusively through the sales of its works of art. "It is only loosely a collective in that we exhibit and socialise together," says Stubbings. "Other than collaboration work for exhibitions and large-scale painting, the artists tend to exist as individuals."
There have been commissions, however, derived in the main from the interest of influential passers by of the 4Wall stall at Portobello market. For instance, BIBA designer and entrepreneur Barbara Hulanicki was struck by the work of Kerry Roper and Miles Donovan while passing the space, and got them on board to help her with the interior design of Ian Fleming's former home, Goldeneye. The building is now owned and operated by Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell.
"The great thing about working this way is that Barbara was introduced to Kerry and Miles as artists and not hired guns," Stubbings explains. "When she then asked us to do work for Goldeneye, she asked for art and not a design, which is what we want to encourage as a group."
4Wall members have also picked up commissions and collaborations with Stella McCartney and Selfridges, as well as exhibitions around the world. But Stubbings points out that the group sees no difference between its commercial and exhibition work. He estimates that about 90 per cent of 4Wall sales are to private collectors.
"We don't do any cold calling or chasing of work, plus we don't work to a brief, so it isn't exactly a traditional agency," he says. "Commissions for large-scale artwork have come through people seeing 4Wall work done for our Bermondsey-based exhibition Production Lines, in particular Andy Potts, Erin Petson and Austin, so we haven't had to do much pitching at all really."
Explaining the working methods of 4Wall's artists, Stubbings seems to beam with a proud parent's fullness of heart. "With Si Scott, Dave Foldvari, Kerry Roper, Paul Willoughby, Container, Erin Petson and Lucy McLeod, I have the seven most able freehand illustrators of a generation," he says. "Rich May, McFaul, Miles Donovan and Andy Potts have alone led digital trends for the last five years and Tim Marrs, Mario Wagner, Austin and Ric Stultz are peerless when it comes to using collage, textures, printing techniques, graffiti and combining these with digital imagery. Jon Burgerman, Daniel Egneus and Mark Taplin would use laser beams and blood if it met their ends, so I don't think there are any real limits or trends in 4Wall's materials."
Stubbings is equally keen to share the creative riches of 4Wall's artists. Production Lines, which took place in late 2006, is a perfect case in point. Stubbings began to notice that fans, tourists and members of the fashion media were dominating 4Wall exhibitions. "The people who were like me a couple of years ago, who I'd hoped would fall in love like I did, just walked on by, thinking I was a wanker," he admits.
So he put together an exhibition in the Southeast London district of Bermondsey, with involvement from local residents. Based on the area's manufacturing past, it featured live painting sessions by 4Wall artists, with input from the community. There were, in addition, family events and workshops, which drew on the area's past traditions, such as textiles and brewing.
"Our beer-tasting day couldn't really fail, but it was the success of the fashion show, the craft workshops, the 99p local art fair and the family painting day that gave me such a good feeling," says Stubbings. "We had hundreds of people of every age, class, and culture through the door every day."
An important part of 4Wall's creative process is its live painting sessions, described as "the ability to turn up, paint, draw, spray and deliver in a matter of hours." It's a process that Stubbings hopes will become more commonplace as an artistic method, as part of his mission to make art more accessible. Although 4Wall artist Austin is involved with the live painting 'scene' in the UK, Stubbings denies that the collective is an integral part of any such movement here.
However, he does believe such activities are vital for the rejuvenation of art as a form of expression relevant to today's public. He is enamoured with the idea of artists using illustration and contemporary life as a reference point for art, rather than a tradition based on antiquity or "some Greek myth."
The sessions provide a way into art for an untraditional audience, especially the young. "They've been shocked to find that they can create something cool themselves with illustration techniques," Stubbings explains. "Both talented and less able kids tend to be happy with what they've done, because it doesn't just rely on pencil or painting ability, and often cuts the boring technical corners that can stifle an impatient young person."
There's plenty more to come in 2007. "We're in the process of painting the inside of a pub in Worcester for Fusion DNA architects, with free rein on what we do," says Stubbings. "I'm hoping we can redefine what it is to decorate a room by hand and really set the standard so that other pubs, bars and restaurants ditch their IKEA prints and reproductions."
The collective is also painting a six-storey hotel exterior by hand, and a large 1,000m hoarding in Birmingham. "Although it's daunting, it's these kind of challenges that 4Wall's artists thrive on and we are gradually getting a name for being able to take on the unthinkable," says Stubbings.
Additionally, 4Wall plans to continue working with children, through schools and youth clubs. "It helps to spread the message that there is a kind of art that is accessible for everyone," says Stubbings. "This raises the profile of the discipline for everyone."
"We want to make sure the people who have to see our work every day are engaged with it and like it," Stubbings concludes. "We'll carry on canvassing local people, researching local identity and trying to involve people. This isn't just to be do-gooders. If people like it, you'll get more work in the area and no-one loses out."