Inside The Artist's Studio: Dan Fern

Written by: Sophie Taylor

Like a mountain goat, Dan enjoys being up a height: atop mountains, hills and on the top floor of his home studio.

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.

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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.

It starts to become apparent Dan has a fixation with paper.

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. 

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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.

It was amazing because I was free from the bureaucracy of the education system.
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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.”

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I have a lot of time for Brian, he’s a very inspiring thinker.

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’.

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“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.”

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There’s something wrong with the system. It’s crazy.

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.

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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.

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Dan Fern exudes an infectious level of inner calm it’s hard to imagine him needing to feel more serene.

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.

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North London has improved enormously in most ways.

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.

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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.”

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Their house is now the family home where his children and grandchildren can consistently return to and stay temporarily between moves.

It’s so beautiful, I felt so good there.

“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.

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It’s given me a lot of time to work up in the mountains and make large sculptural work.

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.”

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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. 

It’s an ideal spot for a family home-meets-studio and an artist so at peace, high on the hill.

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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.

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