By Published on .

BRITISH TYPOGRAPHER/DESIGNER Graham Wood is describing what inspires the layered and atmospheric graphics for a Nike spot or an MTV promo. "I've always been interested in people who come from different angles and use design in their work," he explains, citing as inspiration the poets Mallarme and Apollinaire, who sometimes shaped words on the page, the painter Cy Twombly and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. "There's too many people hooked on the technology and not enough on the poetry," Wood suggests. Rather than looking at the latest computer generated pieces in awards books, he says, "I'd rather get lost on a train somewhere," assemble found objects into an ad "and stick Nike at the end of it."

Wood is a member of a loose British collective that goes by the name of Tomato, and his sentiments embrace what the group of eight designers, musicians and filmmakers is all about: Rather than put forth easily digestible linear narratives in its commercials and print ads, its members lean toward solutions that can appear random or obscurely emotional, derived from personal experience and fine-art work. Messages offer as many interpretations as the media they work in. "We're working in the postlinear world, which kicks back possibilities, suggestions and dialogue-any form of communication," explains John Warwicker, 38, who is the oldest and most outspoken member of the group, and whose work has spanned the worlds of music, interactive interface design and film.

For instance, a Tomato-juiced catalog for Swiss sportswear company JetSet is a volume of art and poetry, with an occasional glimpse at the new clothing line. The information structure and new logo for the BBC's online service bears Tomato's signature stain-the logo is a minimalist pattern of overlapping white and blue circles-reflecting how Warwicker interprets the station's role in an online realm. A newspaper spot, which Wood art directed last year during a nine-month stint at London's Leagas Delaney, and which is one of five finalists in the BBC's design awards, is a barrage of text seeping off the paper's front page. A hypnotically fleeting sequence of images and words like riot, war and hate (each designed by a worldwide cast of avant-garde typographers including Ed Fella, P. Scott Makela and David Carson) flicker in garish colors against a cacophony of shouting voices. Finally the blast of words subsides like a dissipating mob, and title cards explain that since this is "the language," The Guardian is "the interpreter."

Over the last three years Tomatoites have churned out everything from dance club hits to award-winniTomatoesos, while winning a string of projects from clients as varied as Philips, the BBC and Nike.

Based in London, with a few ancillary members in New York, Minneapolis and New Zealand (they're repped for commercials work in the U.S. by New York's Curious Pictures), Tomato embodies a global multimedia arts lab in a no-frills setting. Its members include musicians Rick Smith and Karl Hyde, two-thirds of the band Underworld, whose album "Dubmyheadwithnobassman" (just released in the States on TVT Records) has scaled the British dance club charts. New Zealand-based Greg Rood, who shoots documentaries and is currently working on a series of films for Julian Schnabel, has directed some station IDs for Tomato client Shower TV, a Japanese music video channel. Petra Langhammer, the only woman, who's currently art directing at in New York, contributed to the JetSet catalog. The rest of the group comprises Warwicker, Wood, Dirk Van Dooren, Jason Kedgley and Simon Taylor. Taylor who just opened a clothing store in Tokyo, also paints night club murals and has designed a restaurant in Japan. They all juggle roles as ADs, typographers, designers and directors.

Tomato "should be described as the space that we work in and the ideas that come out of it," explains Taylor somewhat obscurely. "We don't want people to think we're just a bunch of mad creatives working in this space." The fact that they've broken down the structure, operating as individual units, "allows us to think about the creative side rather than worry about the business side." Tomato members, who may be approached on a collective or an individual basis, are called on to supply everything from a typographic treatment or a special project for an ad agency to an entire campaign or corporate identity project for a client.

When Wood "does his nihilistic treatment, it's because he's learned the craft," explains Wieden & Kennedy CD Steve Dunn, who art directed The Guardian spot while at Leagas Delaney last year and is familiar with many of the Tomatoes. "It might be wild and abstract, but it's not without a concept."

This approach is revealed in a Nike spot from Wieden & Kennedy/Amsterdam for the World Cup in which footage from a Brazilian soccer match is overlaid with the illustrated dance steps for the samba, which speed up and overlap as frantic players zig-zag on the field. Another compelling example is found in a commercial that Wood directed for the U.K. tabloid Today, which is rife with double entendres in which news footage is overlaid with sociological data-in one spot, for instance, a shot of Clinton at the Middle East peace talks is juxtaposed with a graphic that announces "1 in 3 marriages fail."

Their advertising and design work, which they like to call "information sculpture," is frequently imbued with the spirit of their personal endeavors. "Personal work is the core, and everything around it is backed up by that," explains Taylor. "But that's not to say we're not professional in our approach," he adds, noting that for Philips, Warwicker wrote a lengthy strategy report to accompany a new logo he designed for its ambitious DCC audiotape format.

"They're kind of like messengers back from the front," says Leagas Delaney's Tim Delaney, who's employed the freelance talents of Tomato's Taylor and Wood on Adidas as well as The Guardian spots. "What we're seeing is a necessary blurring of advertising and design," he says of Tomato's style. "It's a good example of where advertising meets the outer limit." Another sign of the outer limit is Tomato's proclamation that it can't solve a client's communication or identity problems, it can only "offer responses" to them. Moreover, Warwicker says these responses can easily vary from day to day. He likens the process to a journey in which "the work is a map," one used mainly "to show where you've been." Adds Taylor, "I think it's a bit dishonest to say you can solve client's problems, because all you're actually doing is giving your interpretation of their problem."

And Tomatoites don't like to be dishonest. On the second day of judging this year's British D&AD Awards, Graham Wood walked out in disgust. He explained himself in a letter that was published in a recent issue of the British trade magazine , attacking the design portion of the show: "It lacks guts, conviction, honesty, truth, beauty, passion, rage, fun, humanity," he wrote, adding it attracts "all but the most staid [design] participants." What's missing, he says, is something that inspires debate, "innovation, foresight, understanding/misunderstanding-the art of what we do."

For his part, Warwicker, who has a design degree and currently lectures at St. Martin's College, came to the art of what he does after two years in the '80s studying interactive media at Birmingham Polytechnic, where he explored its psychodynamic and linguistic possibilities. He later worked at A&M Records, where he art directed albums and videos for groups like the Cure, then became creative director at a design firm called da Gama. But it was at Vivid I.D., the print department of a London production company, where Warwicker met Taylor, Wood and the other Tomatoes, all of whom trickled through its doors on various projects.

While the aesthetic in Tomato's portfolio is diverse, textural arrangements echo repeatedly in many of its films and ads, a reflection of influences as various as the Beat poets, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the paintings of Franz Kline and the abstruse musings of Wittgenstein, from whom they borrowed the line, "The world is all that is the case" and set it to a 14-minute Underworld video.

A project inspired from the lyrics appearing on the sleeve of the Underworld's album takes the textural arrangements a step further. Warwicker and Hyde wrote a 250 page book of concrete poetry-a style in which words are arranged to reflect the poem's content-culled from conversations overheard on New York streets, called "Mmmm ... Skyscraper I Love You." The unpublished volume is being prepared by Chrysalis Records for release as a CD-ROM, and a documentary will be shown on the BBC.

Indeed, the balance at Tomato seems to be shifting more toward the artistic, collaborative work; the aforementioned Japanese Shower TV IDs were divvied up between Wood, Taylor, Warwicker and Rood, and while each is drenched in a consistently chic attitude, they're all individually stylized. A cinema spot for London's Trustee's Savings Bank was a joint effort as well-Wood directed it, Taylor and Warwicker designed the type and Hyde and Smith composed the music.

Warwicker is optimistic about Tomato's future. He's talking to MTV Europe about image work and Music Awards promotions; there are plans to design an installation for the Melbourne International Arts Festival; and a project is in the works with Pompidou Center architect Richard Rogers. In a world that "recontextualizes itself second by second," Tomato's open-ended style is built to retain its relevance. Good design "opens up debate," he says. "The really good stuff opens up the debate endlessly."

Most Popular
In this article: