ToMAHto / TOMATO

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Tomato is surely a known quantity, having been around for 14 years. The London-based design/production collective has grown from its original group of eight to 13, and it even includes German and Japanese members now, though, curiously, there aren't any women in the ranks. But what exactly is known about the Tomato quantity is another story, which can be as confusing as deciding whether its namesake is a fruit or a vegetable. When asked where the group is going, in the theoretical sense, Tomatoite Michael Horsham says, "That's a very interesting question. I'm not entirely sure I have a definitive answer for that. At the moment, we're trying to formulate a number of directions. Some are complementary, some are contradictory. There's always been a mainstream commercial element and there's always been a more obscure personal element. One feeds the other; they're symbiotic."

Here's Tomatoite Jason Kedgley, on the same topic: "We try to keep the definition loose. There's a graphics and type-based area, as well as commercials, short films, multimedia and installations-in different parts of the world you get a different feeling for what we're known for. Originally, it was typography and print-based work; then it became type on television, then we moved into commercials. But in Japan we're known for corporate work for Sony and others, and for Underworld." Underworld being a techno-ish band comprised of original Tomatoites Karl Hyde and Rick Smith. Underworld "is huge in Japan," says Kedgley. OK, but is there possibly a unifying aesthetic background among the members? "No. We all come from different backgrounds, we're of different ages, we went to various art schools. None of us started out as filmmakers, however."

"We don't want to define too much what we've done or what we can do, because once you do that, that's what you become," says founding member Dirk van Dooren. "Tomato originally came about because there were a bunch of us who felt that the talents of the human being, if you will, weren't really being represented in the world of design. We formed as a sort of comfy jumper, in a way, so we could all be together and do the sorts of things we wanted to do." Now we're getting somewhere-Tomato is a comfy jumper. Let's move on to the work.

WISP

Coming this spring is a PS2 videogame project, in conjunction with Sony. The working title for the game is WISP, as in Word Image Sound Play-as you might've guessed, this ain't no Crash Bandicoot. "This is a project that comes largely out of the fact that we spend a lot of time making things for ourselves," says Horsham. "It's a result of all of us making music, film, writing stories, taking photographs and the like, and the PS2 gives us a platform where we can combine all this in an interactive way. This project should be unique to console gaming; it's not a goal-oriented game, and it will provide deep and unpredictable experiences. It's not one game per se, it's a set of disparate experiences. Some are sound based, some are music based, some are image based, some run in parallel. Underworld and Johnny Conquest are doing the music." Yes, Johnny Conquest is another Tomato band, as well as being the name of a Tomatoite.

TV Asahi

TV Asahi is one of five terrestrial channels in Japan, explains Michael Horsham, and Tomato's 2003 "corporate branding exercise," as he calls it, is apparently huge in Japan, just like Underworld. "We've rebranded TV Asahi onscreen, online and in other media. and one thing Tomato is doing now that we weren't doing years ago is writing our own code. We get to do a lot of brand consulting, and of course we've noted that there are a lot of brands that are fixed entities, their branding is repetitious. With TV Asahi, we're trying to expand the vernacular through an evolutionary process and invent brand languages. They're more akin to 'behaviors' than fixed iterations of one particular shape. For Asahi, there's an on-air identity, an online identity and a fixed identity, say on stationary and the way the logo appears on buildings and trucks. What we tried to do was invent a system that had a number of means of replication that allows one to recognize the thing as TV Asahi, while allowing for many iterations within the program we developed. This 'behavioral' aspect is one of the things that's driving us to make new kinds of work."

Hence a fascinating onscreen visual conceit of pulsing blocks that change color, hue and density. "The way it works is the announcer's prerecorded remarks between programs are fed through our program, and the cadences of the voice affect the behavior of the family of shapes that make up the logo," Horsham explains. "The scale, the camera angle, the hue, everything. In these corporate jobs, we seem to be moving away from fixed iterations of corporate logotypes. We're coming up with stuff that has a potential to grow and have a life. It's not a Paul Rand fixed approach to logotypes, which almost defines the history of logotypes." Are Japanese clients more receptive to this sort of thing? "Well, we haven't been asked to do it by any American clients. There's something about Japan that's refreshing in that, as a corporate culture, they seem very willing to take risks. They're early adopters who are willing to explore new things and who will take a chance on something in order to see how it works out. They seem quite happy to work with us when we come up with an idea, simply in order to see what it's going to be. It's a lovely way to work, it's mutually enabling. We want to make something new and different that hasn't been seen before, and they're basically willing to put money into this."

Alberto Aspesi

Dirk van Dooren has been doing the design, copy and photography on Italian print campaigns with what he calls a "dream client" for about a decade. Early on in the relationship, Aspesi, of the eponymous fashion line, "would simply send a box of clothes over and I'd send back an idea, and I think for the first five or six projects he liked every one. I'd photograph the clothes, write pieces of text-do whatever I wanted to do and he basically just went for it. His only brief was that he didn't want 'fashion.' He wasn't interested in draping the clothes on typical models. Every time I go over, I bring an empty suitcase, because he gives me so much stuff. I haven't had to buy clothes for my children in years."

But above all, this client "wants something different every time," says van Dooren. One campaign was based around "the idea of the photo album; a common, lo-fi, everyday thing that most of us possess but that is never used as a means of advertising fashion." Another was inspired by "experimenting with one function on a Canon EOS 500 35mm camera. It could take as many as eight multiple exposures, and the resulting images were accompanied by texts based around comic books and existential wonderings."

In 2003, it was "fuzzy felt silhouettes, exploring the patterns that they make, in terms of positive and negative space. The idea is to make things that are childlike, sort of magical kingdoms on the page. The brief to myself is: 'What haven't I seen?' " When asked what he'd like to do that he hasn't done, van Dooren is startlingly specific. "I was just about to e-mail Bj"rk. She's someone I'd love to work with."

Barcelona Forum 2004

This five-month-long multicultural expo of sorts is set to open in Spain in May, and founding Tomatoite Simon Taylor has been working on the "Voices" exhibit for the better part of a year. "It will explore diversity through linguistics," he says. "It involves cultures from around the world, and how they communicate in their own individual ways. We look at communication through gesture, facial expression, language, the written word, music, clothing-everything." The exhibit is based around a 10-minute film, directed by Taylor, but that's not the half of it. The walls of the sprawling, dome-shaped facility "are made largely of screens of different sizes, so it's a very immersive environment," says Taylor. Another part of the exhibit features a 100-meter wall that wraps around the dome, which is also a series of screens. The result is films that are "synchronized to merge in a moment of 'collapse' at one point in the 10-minute show," he explains. "All screens are controlled by a central server that feeds information to individual screens. Effectively, I'm showing 56 different films simultaneously. Sometimes the screens show the same image everywhere; other moments feature different images on every screen. What I've tried to do is show the various chapters, if you will, of communication, from A to Z. The challenge is combining all these chapters to make it an entertainment as well as an education."

Moreover, the wall-wrapped screens will showcase 96 languages, "some endangered, some widely spoken. What we see here are talking heads complemented with maps, graphs and statistics that show how many people speak that language," Taylor adds. "The result is an overview of communication. The message is, within 100 years, 95 percent of these languages will be gone. Which is something to think about." Yeah. But we bet we'll still be calling Tomato a comfy jumper.

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