Inside The Artist's Studio: Dan Fern
Written by: Sophie Taylor
The award winning designer and graphic artist, Dan Fern, works with print, mountains and Brian Eno from his home studio in Muswell Hill. As a designer Dan has taken on commissions from the Royal Mail and the London Underground, to a poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of Toulouse Lautrec for the Centre Pompidou.
But that’s merely scraping the surface. The likes of MOMA Kyoto, Juan Miro in Barcelona, the Tate Modern Liverpool and Smithsonian Institute in New York have shown Dan’s multimedia work, not mentioning the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
One crisp day in January we meet at Dan’s home studio in Muswell Hill for a coffee and a catch up. The last time I saw the artist was over an interview table where I nervously showed my films and ideas, hoping for a place on his renowned MA course at the Royal College of Art.
He then left his position as Course Director before I started, leaving us first years to wonder if it was something we said. But it was down to Dan’s love for getting out of the institution and in to the hills.
Today the table swings slowly round and I have the rare opportunity to view his work over a large studio desk in his studio.
We clamber upwards to the top floor, bumbling by Fern originals on walls of peaches and creams, past ancient rugs and hiking boots and ferns in glazed ceramics. A wooden door opens inwards into an arched honeypot of print ephemera and literature.
We are eagerly shown drawer upon drawer of prints and A0 size sketchbooks of new designs. It starts to become quite apparent Dan has a fixation with paper.
Amongst pots of large, bristling flat and fan sable brushes there are stacks of unfurling maps, from Ordnance Survey pages to 1930’s contoured Bartholomews and rare French maps from the late 19th century. Poring over textured papers and sketchbooks, we reminisce on college and old workshops to mutual associations and how life has changed since he left the RCA in 2010.
“I was invited to do a Guest Professorship at Munich University in 2014. I then had a small exhibition there and worked for six months at the Uni with the students. It was amazing because I was free from the bureaucracy of the education system. We were able to hire a place up in the Bavarian Forest to work with the students and spend time there. I’m a great believer of getting away from the institution and making events out of it. We spent time cooking, eating, walking, making work, experimenting with different projections, working with smoke and a whole range of things. We then mounted it all in a great exhibition in the centre of Munich which went astonishingly well.”
Dan is Artistic Advisor to a project at Central St. Martins linking visual artists there to musicians from the Guildhall School; the project began at the RCA in 2000 as MAP/making ( MAP=Music, Art and Performance ). At the end of February he’ll be lecturing at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and he remains a Visiting Lecturer at the RCA.
At one point Dan plugs in his speakers to his laptop, temporarily pausing Brian Eno’s latest album to show us a new film he’s currently editing. Although Dan’s medium of choice may shift, his subject matter remains focused on nature: landscapes, bodies of water and seasons all permeate his works.
Speaking of Brian Eno, one of Dan’s colleagues and friends, our talk turns to politics. I mention Eno’s roundup of 2016, that heralds the time to ‘jump out of the saucepan’ after a period of ‘mass disillusionment’.
“Brian’s obviously someone I’ve known about and admired for a long time. I came across him in one or two different contexts, so I invited him in to the RCA to work with us. He wrote a piece of music for us that we performed at the City of London Festival in 2004. He came to our MAP making concerts and gave us feedback, it was really nice. That’s when I started bringing him in to do lectures as well.
But increasingly he didn’t want to talk about his music he wanted to talk about the environment and politics. I think a lot of the students would have quite liked to just hear him talk about working with U2 and Coldplay and all that.” We laugh. I would have enjoyed listening about his Bowie collabs mind.
“I have a lot of time for Brian, he’s a very inspiring thinker. Often when something pops up online that he’s written or said, there’s always lines from his quotes that make me think yes, that’s absolutely right.”
I reference another RCA visiting lecturer, Grayson Perry, who recently mentioned the old adage that great art is often made in times of political unrest on some chat show. And we wonder if it’s true, or worth dwelling on.
“A lot of the best art that’s ever been produced comes out of economic and politically hard times as a reaction against it. I’m not saying that that justifies somebody like Trump who is completely unjustifiable in all sorts of ways. And indicative of a real breakdown of a political system.
That someone like that can be elected? It seems to be an indication of a really deeply dysfunctional political system which it’s hard to see being changed.
If someone as wonderful as Obama can have 8 years and be replaced by someone as unexperienced and awful as Donald Trump, it’s awful. There’s something wrong with the system then. It’s crazy.”
Dan is positive however, hailing the universal backlash it has created.
“There will be good things to come out of it. One of which was the Women’s March and the shows of solidarity. It takes something like that to create a reaction. I don’t remember an event like that, at all. Not as big as that, not all round the world. It was fantastic.”
Having just left his position as Course Director when our studies began, Dan Fern was something of an enigma when we began our studies at the RCA. He had started teaching there in the 1970s when his old tutor asked him to take a couple of his classes. Now a household name, tutor Quentin Blake’s career had just started skyrocketing, leaving him with little time to teach thus appointing the recently graduated Dan. By 1994 he was the first Professor of Graphic Art and Design.
Fast forward to 2010 where Dan was made Professor Emeritus, continuing as a research supervisor and external examiner: something he prefers at this stage he explains, stretching and pouring another coffee. Whilst he may keep himself busy lecturing in China, London and Munich, Dan is constantly creating new work. Maintaining a life long passion for mountaineering, the last seventeen years of this work reflects on the landscapes of the Vercors: a massif of mountains and plateaus east of the Rhône Valley in South East France where Dan bought a studio in 2000.
The mountainous shaped prints of manipulated paper and colour wash, speak of the place he feels most tranquil. Which is saying something: Dan Fern exudes an infectious level of inner calm it’s hard to imagine him needing to feel more serene.
The main studio and body of work, however lies right here: on the top floor of his family home in Muswell Hill, with floating views over rooftops, trees and Alexandra Palace.
It was back in 1977 when Dan bought the house with his wife and, despite a brief flirtation with the idea of moving to Lewes, they decided to stay.
“Twenty years ago, when some of our friends were moving out of town, we even went to look at a couple of places. But when it came to the crunch we thought why? We’ve got lovely neighbours, it’s a great area and it’s getting better and better. North London has improved enormously in most ways with good restaurants and shops and so on.
The only way it hasn’t improved is that it’s lost some of the more practical shops that were here when we first moved, having been replaced by high end restaurants and coffee shops. It’s the same all over the city. I like being on the hill, to have that view out over the city. The air is fresher up here.”
His wife, an amateur violinist, rehearses with friends and hosts recitals in the music room. I wonder if this influences Dan while he works upstairs.
“I love live music, so having that sound coming up from the music room is fantastic. They’re mostly playing Mozart and Beethoven and I love some of that.
I suppose it influences me in the richness of the environment, rather than directly. But it’s also been such an important part of the house as a family. We’ve brought three children up here.”
Their house is now the family home where his children and grandchildren can consistently return to and stay temporarily between moves.
“Because it’s a big place and finding accommodation is so difficult at the moment, members of the family often come back in between renting or buying places so we don’t have any qualms about the size of the house because it’s constantly being used.”
It’s a rarity now, I say wide-eyed and envious, thinking of my far away dream of owning property in this current diet of triple dip recessions, hard boiled Brexits and freelance salaries.
We continue to watch his abstract video portraits of babbling brooks and rock formations flowing through the seasons with slow colour inversions, finding ourselves lulled into a trance and forgetting what time of day it was.
On our way out we spot a large painted sculpture from his 2012 series, les choses mêmes sitting idly in the front room.
“When we bought the house in the Vercors I recognised for the first time that I wanted to make work about the landscape. It’s so beautiful, I felt so good there. Every day up in the hills I was seeing things; stones, roots, streams, that just made me want to start making work.
So I was writing, filming and making three dimensional work – coming at it from lots of different angles. That’s the main thrust of what I’ve done since the 2000s. After leaving the RCA in 2010 it’s given me a lot of time to work up in the mountains and make lots of large sculptural work for example.”
Dan’s les chose mêmes project began with finding these raw materials in the landscape. The next book in the pipeline is a collection of his works to be designed by the same designer as his last with text by Rick Poyner, ready to be published later in the year.
The forked tree root sitting in the front room, wrapped in painted rope is larger than we’d imagined and brighter than the photos suggest. He picks it up with one hand still holding the coffee pot, enjoying it all over again, explaining how it came to be from it’s beginnings in the Vercors: from a root the same age as he is now.
Leaving Dan’s studio we walk away smiling and quiet. This part of North London, so close to Alexandra Park and adorned with rising slopes of Edwardian terraces, exudes tranquility. In 1787 it was written that nowhere within 100 miles of London was there a village so pleasant or withholding such varied views.
Before that Muswell Hill was a place of pilgrimage for healing due to the natural spring (Mossy Well) that cured Scottish King Malcolm IV of his various diseases. Those medievals had it spot on. Much like the mountain goats of Vercors, Dan Fern has a penchant for positioning himself up a height: atop mountains, hills and at the summit of his three storey house with coveted views over Alexandra Palace.
It’s an ideal spot for a family home-meets-studio and an artist so at peace, high on the hill.
See more of Dan’s work here.
Photos by Mike Barry.
Staying in a hotel one mile from where you actually live feels strange enough, but doing it on your own is even stranger. These photos are a visual record of me wandering the lonely corridors of a new boutique hotel between the hours of 10-12pm. I would describe the decor as handmade but not cheap, minimal but not clinical. It has the feeling that money has been spent on the things that matter.
The rumours are true: a cheese festival exists and it’s coming to North London. This Sunday. Be there or be … cheese-less I suppose. But you’ve gouda get there early: If you’re as keen as brie and one of the first fifty fromage fondlers to show, you’re in the running for a free bottle of Black Cow’s pure milk vodka. Traders will be setting up stalls along Islington’s Chapel Market: from the Raclette Brothers and Mac to the Future to La Fromagerie and The Cheese Truck.
Dream Talk. It’s like Dream Phone, but not at all. Artist Emma Alonze and musician Andy Becker have joined forces to collaborate on a (possibly prophetic) new sound art project. Londoners are invited to take a moment out of their daily commute, routine or journey and immerse themselves in a narrated collection of dreams. Taking three years worth of forty winks, Alonze has gathered and narrated a chosen few to be set to an ambient soundtrack by Becker.
Holy smoke, her nipples are on fire! Somebody pass the woman an extinguisher. Wait, why is she climbing into that giant margarita glass - does she not know it's highly flammable? She's going to need to be doused with a sizable portion of aloe vera gel at this rate, the poor lamb.
If there's anything the new moon today has told us, it's that it's time to be our true selves. That's what my horoscope told me today anyway. But what does that mean exactly? It means that if you want to eat honey loops for lunch, you 100% can. It means if you feel like learning how to make a bouquet instead of working on your tax forms, you 100% can. It also means if you want to learn how the deep throat (singing technique) you don't have to explain yourself. You're keeping it .
Our exclusive meeting with Eroc: the Beyonce of the skateboarding dog world. Eroc the french bulldog is making waves. With fans like Tony Hawk, BBC Radio and over 30k followers on Instagram (and counting), Eroc has also become something of an online sensation. His viral status comes and goes, randomly popping up on online social media channels every now and again to generate hundreds of thousands of views and clicks via the likes of Buzzfeed, Time Out and rogue iPhone filmers.
We all have our own ways of dealing with life when things get shitty. Having a big cry and getting it all out can be incredibly therapeutic, and even more so when we find ourselves repeating the same line over and over through the tears. “He’s a dick!” or “I’m not a bad person!” These little lines of reinforcement help us push through the crappy feeling. Sometimes we might even revert to a hearty little stamp on the floor / kick of some unsuspecting object. It feels surprisingly satisfying when the rage sets in and we feel helpless.
This Friday sees the release of Malian master musicians, Trio Da Kali’s new album Ladilikan. Fusing rich, expressive vocals with traditional instruments like the balafon and bass ngoni, this is a beautiful mix of ancient Mande culture and contemporary Malian sounds. Luckily for us North Londoners, we have the opportunity to see the trio play live in the rather fitting ethereal surrounds of Stoke Newington Church next month.
Walking along Monsell Road in Finsbury Park, we spy the charming exterior of a shop looking like something out of a children’s book circa 1932. Beneath a green and white striped awning, a whimsical new world of mini animals awaits. Once inside we stumble about the store in hushed awe, reaching over a book of minuscule carpet samples/ family of miniature otters to tap a tiny bell.
Whether you’re looking for something to entertain your kids, your friends’ kids or that particularly large man child in your life, you might just have lucked out. Snug are hosting an open air screening of The Incredibles next Saturday evening. There will be tasty sourdough pizzas from Sodo Pizza (Upper Clapton) and ultimate authentic curries from Rice n Spice, Northwold Road.
Coming soon to a Tufnell Park near you is a whole new vegetable patch of delights / wheat field to run vicariously through. It’s time to get excited for Ceremony: a brand new bar/restaurant serving modern British veggie cuisine. Although the website remains tantalisingly mysterious, you can glean more info from their well stocked insta.
Sound baths, pit parties, fake cheese and nipples, these are a few of our favourite things, said no one ever. Bored of drinking down the pub every evening? Unlikely, but bare with me. Sometimes you just want to let down your hair, shake it off and do something down right odd of an evening... followed by a pint at the pub.
It’s been a few months since the last instalment of Online vs Offline. I deleted Bumble, Happn and Tinder, flirted with the idea of match.com, went to a friend’s wedding, heard the vicar call my name instead of the Bride’s and reflected briefly on the crushing inevitability of my own spinsterhood before realising everyone was laughing in the pews and I should probably join them.
Gluten-free cake consumers, vegan cheese enthusiasts, craft beer connoisseurs, lovers of pies and drinkers of tea; your time is now. Buy food of a quality & variety you can’t easily find in the shops, from organic meat to vegan cheese, fish caught that morning to pickles which have been fermenting for months, at Stroud Green market.
Who’s up for free entry, free cake and free folk (except for a jaunty little hat that is passed around for donations)? Get down to The Finsbury this Wednesday eve for a little mid week hootenanny and celebrate some of the best in new live music from the ‘acoustic, singer-songwriter & indie-folk scene’. Host with the most, Zoe Konez (“Ridiculously talented, Konez handles her guitar like she was born with it” - For Folk's Sake) will be deftly introducing each act from gin soaked folk popster herself, Penniless Cove to German indie band, Kalon.
What if you could mix the joys of your local Sunday car boot and all it’s dog perving potential with your favourite vintage clothes shops and high end antique markets? Within the sparkling depths of Dalson’s former ABC cinema, you’ll find The Big London Flea: London’s largest indoor vintage market.