It’s probably fair to say that Ben Drury is one of the most respected designers working in the UK today, and his body of work includes collaborations with the likes of Futura 2000, Nike, Dizzie Rascal, 3D (Massive Attack), All Tomorrow’s Parties and Mark Gonzales.
After graduating with Will Bankhead from Central Saint Martins in London, Drury joined forces with James Lavelle, the founder of record label Mowax, in what was to become one of the most influential creative partnerships of the era. Drury became joint art director of Mowax alongside Bankhead, and together the duo developed a house-style which lead to the label being sought-after as much for its iconic artwork as for the music itself. Drury set up his own design studio in 2000 and has since worked on a number of sneaker collaborations with Nike and Converse.
As Drury is the third artist to take part in our specially commissioned print series, we thought it was about time we showed some of his work on the Art & Sole website, as well as asking him a few questions about his sneaker-related work:
How did you first become involved in sneaker collaboration?
My first experience of sneaker design was probably at school. I definitely remember defacing my English books with sketches of trainers... my friends and I were obsessed. I suppose we were 'casuals' (although that term wasn't around at the time - let alone 'sneakerheads', which is a term I hate) and trainers were really important to us. Some of my favourite sneakers from back in the day included the Puma G. Vilas, Reebok Phase II, Reebok GL6000, Nike Air Max 1, original adidas Torsion and the Nike Jordan 1.
What was your involvement with the DUNKLE shoe, and how was it working with Futura?
James Lavelle hooked it up through Fraser Cooke and Sandy Bodecker, who were in the process of setting up Nike SB. It was around the time of the second UNKLE album, Never, Never, Land and we really went to town on cross collaboration - rather than doing it all ourselves like we had with the first album (Psyence Fiction). There were a few things with Medicom, Bape did a load of tees, and obviously the Nike collaboration. It was more a case of applying the artwork elements we already had in place for the album. That was the way we had structured the project artwork from the start - we (myself, Will Bankhead and James Lavelle) went to Brooklyn and actively art-directed the cover painting with Futura - with Will documenting the process. The prototype designs were actually a lot more subtle and less character based than the final shoe... so as well as it being my first experience of collaborating with Nike, it was also slightly disappointing. On the back of that we also had a Vans collaboration lined up which would have been amazing, but the person we dealt with in Berlin changed jobs and it never happened - I've still got a couple of samples.
The first shoe you worked on as a solo artist was an Air Max 1 for the Nike Air U Breathe pack. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for that shoe? Where did the idea of using the 3M reflective material come from?
This was a much more satisfactory result. It was all tied into the 15th anniversary of Nike Air, and the theme was loosely based on the word 'air'. London pirate radio culture has been a constant source of interest and inspiration to me, so my interpretation was pirate related - the phrases 'Hold Tight' and 'On Air', the visualisation of radio waves etc. The black and 3M elements represented the undercover nature of the whole thing - when you shine a light on it, it reveals itself, I guess like when you hit a station on the FM dial. I always find my concepts difficult to put into words, hopefully they speak for themselves and define their own context. 3M is one of those fantasy materials for me, it's kind of mystical, superhero business. Alchemy. I love contrasting materials - suede and 3M, manilla card and silver foil stamping... I'm always looking for balance/tension in my work.
The Air U Breathe pack was a set of three shoes, each designed by a different artist - does it make things different designing a shoe that’s part of a pack? Did you have to work with the other artists involved (Kevin Lyons and Hitomi Yokoyama) to make sure the each design worked collectively?
Not at all.. that's the beauty of multiple collaborations, three unique responses to the same brief.
Air U Breathe was revisited in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics. Can you tell us a little about the design you did for this? What did you think of the Air Max 90 Current silhouette?
I was slightly ambivalent to the AM90 Current at first but now I love it, maybe even more than the original... it's definitely more comfortable. My two-shoe Silent Listener/Dizzee Rascal collaboration consisted of an original AM90 (Dizzee's) and a Current (mine)... I was happy to work on the Current. Even though the original is an iconic silhouette, I think the Current presents more interesting opportunities for using materials.
Possibly our favourite collaboration of yours is the Converse 1HUND(RED) shoe which uses a subtle texture. Can you explain your thinking behind that shoe, and was there a special technique used to achieve that paricular finish?
It's probably the least known of my shoe projects and it was inspired by a dried out river bed where I'm living in Devon. Seeing as the whole Converse Red thing is concerned with African causes, it was apt to use an image associated with Sub-Saharan Africa... it's a luxury of my comfortable Western existence that I can find beauty in something that in other parts of the world is a cause of extreme suffering.
You’re well know for your working relationship with Dizzee Rascal, how did that creative partnership first come about?
Dizzee is one of the only artists I actively sought out working with... from before he had a deal. He's an amazing talent and it's been great witnessing his rise to official national treasure.
What’s it like working with Dizzee? Are the design decisions a collaborative effort?
We have a brief discussion at the start to define the overall tone of the project, then I get on with it. It's like that with all our collaborations - we've built up a heathy trust over the years. Obviously he'll get an approval on everything but I've never had any problems in that department.
Your sneaker collaborations rely heavily on choice of material and texture, rather than simply colour application. Are you interested in actually designing a shoe, instead of working with existing silhouettes?
Oh definitely, hopefully the opportunity will arise before too long... a much bigger challenge.
What are you up to at the moment, are there any sneaker-related projects in the pipeline?
I'm currently in talks... hush hush. Aside from that, I'm developing a line of fabrics and wallpapers with Adam Bray who's an amazing interior decorator that I've worked with on and off for years. I'm also doing some work on Toby Feltwell and Sk8Thg's new label C.E.
Finally, can you explain a little about the print you’ve produced for Art & Sole? What is the concept behind the piece, and why did you decide on using a high-build print finish?
The print has evolved from sketchbook work that began as a doodle referring to shapes found in sneaker design. I started doing them in a notebook I had in Paris while I was waiting to meet with Kanye West... it was a long wait (and it's a long story) and I ended up filling the whole book. When I finally did have the meeting, I felt bad that I didn't take any work with me to show him so I gave him the sketchbook. It's haunted me ever since... that original book was great. Anyway, I love the way they resemble cities of the future, science fiction being another love of mine. They're just flights of fancy really, it was nice to have the chance to take it to another level - in scale and production. The high build is just a technique to add the perception of depth.
With thanks to Ben Drury. To purchase Ben Drury’s specially commissioned Art & Sole screen-print, click here. To see more of Drury’s work, click here