Trainers. Backpack. Baseball cap. Arriving at the studio on a stiflingly warm day, Lee Swillingham could certainly have fooled us about the 20+ year gap between now and his days as a Central Saint Martins student. His promptness, however, betrays a well-versed professionalism.
Since CSM, Lee has gone on to define the visual identity of some of the world’s leading magazines, and now runs creative agency Suburbia in North West London. Surprisingly, a hatred of Shakira becomes a topic of conversation, following a recent job working with the Hips Don’t Lie singer on an album cover. “It was the worst experience of my life”, he says. Naturally inquisitive, the interview begins with Lee asking the questions. “What’s your favourite magazine? How is school going? What’s CSM like now?”. Luckily, the train that runs alongside the building provides timely three-minute distractions, an opportunity to reverse the questioning. Our turn!
What was your first experience with magazines?
I graduated in 1991. We made a magazine like you guys called CSM91. I was really into magazines so, me and my group of friends made one for our final project. We were all on graphics, so it was a magazine strictly for that course. We got Levi’s to sponsor it. For the time, it was super fancy. We got every student on illustration and graphic design. That was the end of year project, and by that time I was already working at Arena.
Did you always know that you wanted to work on magazines?
Yeah. My mum was a graphic designer and I was really into magazines. I used to collect them as a kid. Back then, without the internet, it was hard to get books on anything that wasn’t super mainstream. I remember buying some Helmut Newton books, and having them at Saint Martins and people looking at me as if I’d brought porn into college! That’s hilarious to think today – one of the most influential people in fashion, and people were disgusted by it.
What was your experience like there? Do you think Saint Martins shaped or changed you?
I loved the location of the school. Soho was where everything was happening, so to be there was fantastic. The freedom at Saint Martins was the best thing. If it had been a real button down, must-sit-at-your-desk place, I probably wouldn’t have been good. There’s a really great cliché about Saint Martins… ‘the Saint Martins graphic design course made me the great guitarist that I am today’. It’s like, you don’t end up doing what you went to study, it’s more the people and the place that make it quite a catalyst. Did I actually learn anything? Probably not! You don’t go to Saint Martins to learn stuff! One thing is for sure, you can get away with a lot more there than anywhere else.
A lot of people form a circle of friends that they work with for the next twenty years. Did you meet anybody that you continue to work with today?
I knew Giles Deacon a bit, and David Kappo, who is now a tutor? I knew Lee McQueen in the early days, more socially than actually from art school. I worked with him a bit when he started his company. And I worked for Dior, which was Galliano – but he was way before me. There were some great people on my course, but I don’t think I’ve stayed in touch with anyone. It was difficult because I worked at the same time. It would take two weeks to make an issue, so I would disappear from art school for two weeks.
And what was working at The Face like?
When I got there, it was already quite a big office with quite a lot of people. Before then it was run in a bedroom or something, but when I got there, it was like a proper fashion magazine. The budgets were quite low but people still got paid to work there.
“The genius of The Face was they all had really good taste of who to put in the magazine.”
Was your success based on the fact you were so young?
It’s all to do with ideas and what you believe in. Ultimately, I was always confused why there were good photographers in London who weren’t getting published in a magazine. I just assumed that was because they didn’t understand the right things, or some other reason – then when I got there, I realised that wasn’t true. The reason these people weren’t getting commissioned was that no one had the confidence to commission them. I thought I’ve got to start working with these people, because I knew they were good. If you know something’s good, then that’s all you need.
How were you discovering them in those pre-internet days?
Back then, the way you’d promote yourself as a photographer was to send people cards in the post. There would also be anything between ten and 30 incoming portfolios every day. Then we’d have days where loads of photographers would come in, and I’d meet people. Pretty quickly I knew what I liked. Within the space of 18 months, I’d commissioned people like Elaine Constantine and Inez Van Lamsweerde. I saw Inez’s work and thought it was the most incredible stuff I’d ever seen, so commissioned her straight away. We were using people like her, and it took a while for other British magazines to get it. They were still using all the old guys, until all of a sudden they were like, ‘ooh these people are quite good’. Sometimes you have to see it printed in another magazine– not me – but a lot of the art directors were like, ‘The Face are using this person, so they must be good’.
Do you remember a photo shoot you did of Kurt Cobain for The Face magazine in a tiger suit…?
There were so many of those shoots, and Nirvana were just one of the bands we did. At the time, Kurt was just the guy in Nirvana. The reason why that shoot is good is because it’s subsequently become iconic. There’s a lot of mythology around that shoot, that he wasn’t styled to look like that. All that stuff is what Kurt had with him: the dresses, the animal suit. It was just the right time. The genius of The Face was they all had really good taste of who to put in the magazine. We also did a really good shoot with Courtney Love where she’s sitting on the sofa with other guys in the band.
“The first thing I got off Katie Grand was her very high energy level. It doesn’t surprise me that she didn’t graduate – why waste another year?”
When did you meet Stuart Spalding – was that at the time you were at The Face?
Stuart was on my art foundation course in Manchester, and we both went to different art schools. He worked freelance when he graduated doing really great graphic design stuff. I got the job at The Face and called him and said, ‘listen, there’s a lot of work to be done and we need to redesign it,’ and he said ‘great, let’s do it’.
Because Suburbia is the two of you, how do you make decisions?
Well, Suburbia is an advertising agency. Depending on the brief from the client, we brainstorm and work in a very collaborative way. Often we’re doing different things because there are different clients to work with. It’s all based around ideas – everything comes from an idea.
Do you ever want to kill each other?
Not really! The magazine got stressful sometimes – not with each other, but production issues. Boring technical stuff. Deadline stuff. When we started The Face, it was done the old-fashioned way and then we transitioned doing it on the computer. That was quite a big jump. I learnt a lot at The Face – I also learnt what you should and shouldn’t do when running a business, which is what I’m doing now.
Can you tell us when you first met Katie Grand – what was your first impression of her?
The first thing I got off Katie was her very high energy level. It doesn’t surprise me that she didn’t graduate – why waste another year? I related to that, the fast generation of ideas and making something quickly. When I started working in the commercial world, I was really surprised by how much longer you have to work on an advertising project compared to a magazine. When we were doing The Face, we had two weeks to put it together, a week off then start on the next one. When you work on some advertising jobs you have months.
“I think a famous fashion magazine is a brand, and it’s how you make that brand relevant to the here and now.”
When you worked on Pop, it was your first year working together on a big project – the two of you, completely from scratch. What were the biggest difficulties?
I think what you have to remember is that by then, Katie and I had worked on a monthly magazine for a few years, so when you switch from doing a monthly magazine to doing a magazine that comes out twice a year, it’s actually quite easy. I think the only thing that was different was the challenge to do something new from the magazines that we’d worked on. It was a different publisher. It was about doing an exciting bi-annual fashion magazine in a very British way, because I don’t think there were any then.
Any epic stories? Overdoses?
Unfortunately not! By that time, everyone was your friend because you were working with everyone in the industry for 6, 7, 8 years. When you work with friends, it’s really fun. There was a lot of going out, hanging out. By the time we were all doing Pop, I’d left The Face for about a year. I was already starting to work on fashion advertising, branding, graphic design. I started Suburbia back then. Why, do you know any stories?!
No, we were hoping you’d have some! How do you think online and print can work together now?
With mainstream magazines, their circulations are dropping. They haven’t figured out how to make them live digitally. Online is just different. In a way they have to understand how these great brands are going to survive – if I was a publisher that’s what I would be trying to figure out right now.
Do you think it’s vital to have the complete package now – like Vice?
I think a famous fashion magazine is a brand, and it’s how you make that brand relevant to the here and now. I always think it’s about ideas and communication. I don’t get so worried about the technical side of stuff, because that’s constantly changing. Apps are strange though – no one is downloading magazine apps, are they? You get 9,000 downloads and you’re at the top of the market, which is ridiculous; some of the really big magazines have 10,000 downloads a month. If that’s the future of publishing, that’s a disaster.
“One of the best was working at The Face and getting a phone call from Tom Ford, who said ‘I’ve just looked at the new issue, I love every thing you’re doing, and want to talk to you about doing the Gucci campaigns.’
How was it different working on Pop Magazine and LOVE? It was the same team but a different publisher, so how was that really different?
It was different… we left Emap who published Pop, and got approached by Condé Nast, and they let us do what we wanted. We started working on LOVE without even knowing what the name of the magazine was. That’s how much confidence they had in us.
They approached you? You didn’t have a concept or anything?
Yeah, Katie is the editor-in-chief, so she’s responsible for a large part of it. The art direction, graphic design, design of the logo, and name of the magazine, I came up with because that’s what we do at Suburbia. The first cover was fantastic – we’d done a shoot with Steven Klein and Beth Ditto, and Katie thought it’d be quite interesting to put a naked Beth Ditto on the cover of a new Condé Nast fashion magazine. It got quite a lot of press. We did all that handwriting typography [on the cover]. A lot of the stuff we do at the studio is by hand.
It’s so popular now, lots of magazines copy that.
If you think of the Kate Moss issue of Pop, where we did the big handwriting, that was 2006, no magazine was doing handwriting. Now everyone does it. We didn’t do it for the first time, but we brought it back for the 2000s.
What has been one of the best moments in your career so far?
One of the best was working at The Face and getting a phone call from Tom Ford, who said ‘I’ve just looked at the new issue, I love every thing you’re doing, and want to talk to you about doing the Gucci campaigns.’ Stuff like that is fantastic! One of my first breaks in fashion advertising was Tom. That was when Gucci was getting really big in the 1990s. Generally, people are quite enthusiastic in this business. There’s a lot of enthusiasm because a lot of people are doing what they want to do! It makes them happy people.
With all your experience, would you ever like to teach at CSM, or mentor a younger generation?
What I don’t like doing is sitting in front of people who don’t want to be there. I don’t know if that answers the question. I know you have to inspire people, enthuse them, but if they literally don’t want to be there, that wouldn’t work for me. I’d be like ‘piss off!’. The best talk I had at Saint Martins was Peter Saville – I really liked his New Order record sleeves. He came in with a box of record sleeves and was like, ‘this is what happened when I did this one and that one’. He wasn’t teaching, he was just talking about his stuff. That’s the best thing about Saint Martins – for me it was being in a place where people did their own thing. Oh, and the parties they had in the car park!
Words by Olya Kuryshchuk
Illustrations by Francesco Rogoli
This feature originally appeared in 1 Granary Issue 2