interview by Jonathan Freemantle
Porky Hefer, that’s quite a name, how did it come about?
That was probably the only bit of branding my older brother has done in his life. At first, like most clients I suppose, I hated the name, but it’s grown on me, and working for me now.
How did you begin a design – Are you a visual guy first, or an ideas guy?
I studied graphic design and got into advertising as soon as possible. There I met the concept and realised it was even more alluring than the execution. The concept should dictate the execution rather than the execution dictate the concept. This is not to say that the execution and appearance is not important, just that once you have a clear thought out concept, the execution should be clear.
Your work regularly challenges/subverts our relationship with our everyday environments or objects, often playfully. It inspires us to look again at things we normally ignore. You seem to see much beauty in the ordinary, functional, discarded. Is this important to you, that your work refreshes the banal?
Using the everyday as a starting point helps as it is usually understood. It’s a great entry point for people as they feel familiar with it. I find most art and design nowadays tries to do this with weirdness, shock or other methods that exclude viewers rather than trying to include them. My head master said to me the one day when I arrived to school with a Mohican, “Mr Hefer, if you need to cut your hair like that to get attention, it doesn’t say much for your personality.” I guess I have tried to do this with my work.
I think it is important to attract and inspire more and more people to be creative, to bring out the creativity in everyone, rather than making design and art more exclusive. If you make it too exclusive, we will land up talking to the mega rich, the nouveau riche and gallerists only and this will be very sad.
Where is your favourite space in the world (physical or imagined)?
A world where ideas are more valuable than money and intellectual property is understood, respected and paid for. A world where the originators of ideas are more rewarded than those that finance it. And a world where all animals are truly equal.
You’ve won awards, run agencies, made large public sculptures. You’ve had an impressive career so far. What are you most proud of?
People don’t listen anymore, they are always thinking how they are going to reply or tell you an idea they had. Putting something tangible in front of them makes them listen. So over the last few years I have taught myself to draw. It was my one skill I was ashamed of. Now I can express what I am thinking with little misunderstanding.
You were creative director of a major advertising agency and left to set up on your own, what made you take the leap?
As you get deeper and deeper into advertising, you personally stop creating. You become a manager, a damage controller and the fall guy. You also have to deal with, dine with and talk to more and more people you have less in common with. The more experienced you get the more inexperienced people tell you what to do. You get the job for your ability to think and create but the better you get the less of this you do. I wanted to make things again and make things I was proud of and that actually made a difference in some way in the real world.
You were the first person I know to acknowledge the genius of Ai Weiwei; in fact you had conversations with him years before he became widely known. He’s currently being held in jail in his native China for his stance against the regime. I see parallels between your work and his, is this why you were drawn to him initially?
The first time I was attracted to Ai Weiwei was actually a picture of him and not his work. His confidence and completeness really struck me. He looked like a man who was happy doing what he was doing and excited by what he was about to do. On starting to read about him, the name of his design company was the second thing that got to me – FUCK DESIGN. I can imagine that in his native China, this means nothing much, just a name. But when viewed through western eyes it takes on a whole new meaning. Ai Weiwei continually tries the impossible but in the execution shows how possible it all was. It’s a state of mind. You must be willing to push things into a new space rather than maintaining the current status quo. His work is also very simple and easy for everyone to understand, like his work is made for the people rather than the elite. When something is easy to understand it’s easy to work out how to act in response to that emotion.
I think for a lot of people he is the first Chinese artist they know. The other night I asked a group of educated people how many names they knew of people living in China, most could only say Ai Weiwei, the others had nothing to offer.
I just actually did a design calling for his release. The type is made up of sunflower seeds inspired by his sunflower seed exhibition, which I was lucky enough to see at the Tate Modern. It’s either a t-shirt or poster – I’m just trying to work out how to get it somewhere where it can be seen and have some effect.
Your work crosses the border into fine art but keeps a foot firmly in the functional. In many ways this distinction between the two is defunct, Leonardo designed helicopters, and painted portraits. Where, if anywhere, do you see yourself in the spectrum?
I think the concept is firstly the most important thing. The execution of the idea should be the most appropriate to demonstrate the message or concept. Even in this it is functional. I try to make sure all my work has a function of some kind – a wooden light that lights your room but also demonstrates that LED lamps burn at a much lower temperature, so they use less electricity, so they save you more money and at the same time they cause less damage.
Who or what inspires your work most?
A different point of view.
If you could assemble a dream-team of creatives to work with, living or dead, who would be there with you?
Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto, Olafur Eliasson, Buckminster Fuller, Ai Wei-Wei, Warren Lewis and Yelda Bayraktar.
Final question: What is art for?