Inspired by classic cartoons like Tintin and Popeye, the British illustrator JAMES JARVIS (1970-) has created his own three-dimensional casts of characters as the World of Pain and In-Crowd plastic toys. He also invents imaginary worlds for his characters each of whom has their own role and personality.
When James Jarvis dreamed up a group of bikers as a new collection of the plastic In-Crowd characters he designs for the toy company Amos, he pictured them as “reasonable, sound, sane, wise, balanced, rational, sagacious, prudent, judicious and level-headed”. He even invented a club for these do-gooding bikers – the Forever Sensible Motorcycle Club.
The members of the Forever Sensible Motorcycle Club, like the musicians in Ages of Metal, his next In-Crowd characters, stem from the drawings that Jarvis has created since childhood. He was inspired to start drawing by his love of illustrated books such as Tintin, Rupert the Bear and The Tale of Peter the Rabbit. Born in London in 1970, Jarvis went on to study illustration at the University of Brighton and then at the Royal College of Art in London.
A Japanese friend suggested that Jarvis should turn the characters drawn in simple, sparing strokes in his illustrations into toys which he did by creating the engagingly raffish Martin, a moulded plastic model, for the London-based fashion company Silas. Jarvis then developed equally engaging characters to live with Martin in the World of Pain, the imaginary world inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which he invented for them and depicted in a book and website. Eager to create different characters, who would not necessarily fit in to the World of Pain, he then invented the In-Crowd series of figures.
Q. How do you describe your work? As design? Illustration? Both?
A. I think of my work as drawing. I started off applying it to illustration, and then figure designs. But drawing is the fundamental thing that I do.
Q. When did you first become interested in drawing?
A. When I was first exposed to Richard Scarry, Hergé, Dr. Seuss, Rupert the Bear and Alfred Bestall, Beatrix Potter and Maurice Sendak.
Q. When did you begin to apply drawing to three-dimensional objects?
A. A friend in Japan had suggested that I design a toy based on one of my character drawings. We made the first toy in 1998 to coincide with the launch of the clothing label Silas with the help of the Japanese label Bounty Hunter.
Q. Is your work inspired by that of other illustrators?
A. Hergé and Richard Scarry have always been my benchmarks. Also Gary
Panter and Gustave Doré.
Q. And is your work inspired by other disciplines such as design and architecture?
A. The Bauhaus and the whole of the modern movement has always helped to
define the way I look at things. I was obsessed with LEGO as a kid, and I think all my work is about building realities out of pen and paper.
Q. What is the process for developing and producing your characters?
A. When I was at college I was massively influenced by Gary Panter and Javier Mariscal. I spent a lot of time aping their visions. I was encouraged to draw more from reality, so I went out and made a lot of drawings of car parks and other urban environments. When I came to populating these environments I came to rethink and refine the kind of characters I had been drawing. I started to reduce them to the simplest possible shapes and features while still retaining a ‘personality’.
Q. How have these processes evolved as your career has progressed?
A. I am always rethinking and refining. I like philosophising about the nature of drawing.
Q. How does the development of the characters relate to the environments you create for them such as the World of Pain?
A. At first I conceived World of Pain as the sole universe for my characters to inhabit. I had just read Lord of the Rings and was inspired by Tolkien's complete vision of an imagined geography, language and culture. The World of Pain universe was a vehicle for my creating a similar reality for my characters. But I realised that the World of Pain universe, characterised by order and discipline, was just one reality for my characters to inhabit. I also wanted to draw foppish dandies and other beings that didn’t readily fit in with the World of Pain. Now I am thinking more in terms of a Potato-Headed Multi-verse, where an infinite number of cartoon realities can exist together simultaneously, of which World of Pain is only one.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. At the moment I am tied up in the creation of my In-Crowd range of figures. I am also pondering on a definitive encyclopedia of the World of Pain. Getting my 10K PB to 35 minutes.
Q. When historians look back on this era, will they consider it to be an exciting time to work in areas like design and illustration?
A. No more or less than before. Modes of communication become outdated, but new ones replace them.
1970 Born London
1990 Studies illustration at the University of Brighton.
1993 Enrols at the Royal College of Art for a master’s in illustration.
1994 After graduating from the Royal College, starts work as a freelance illustrator.
1998 After a Japanese friend suggests that he develops toy versions of the characters in his drawings, Jarvis begins a collaboration with Silas, a London fashion company, by designing a moulded plastic toy based on the character Martin.
1999 Develops the second Silas toy – Evil Martin and Bubba Silas.
2000 An exhibition of World of Pain, the imaginary environment he has invented for the Silas characters, is held at the PARCO Gallery in Tokyo and then Nagoya. Launch of the World of Pain comic and a third Silas toy – Tattoo-Me Keith.
2001 Designs Lars World of Pain for Silas.
2002 Creates the Juvenile Delinquents characters for Sony’s Time Capsule toy project. Publishes a book – James Jarvis Drawings – in Japan.
2003 Launches three sets of six In-Crowd toys for Amos: Zombies; Forever Sensible Motorcycle Club and Ages of Metal.
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain