Photography By Margarita Corporan

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99U Salon: How Artists Maintain Their Voices When Working for Big Brands

Photography By Margarita Corporan
99U Salon: How Artists Maintain Their Voices When Working for Big Brands
Published October 30, 2017 by Emily Ludolph

On a recent autumn evening at Ace Hotel New York, 99U hosted its first salon, an evening designed to elicit candid conversations about a meaty topic in the design world (over cocktails, of course). The question of the night was: How can artists maintain their unique perspective when working for big brands? An audience of creatives including designers, artists, photographers, animators, and entrepreneurs swapped stories about the struggle to balance their style with client projects. “Can you name a time you’ve compromised on a project?” someone in the crowd asked another. “Sure,” confessed a musician, “There is a Christian Rock album that has my work on it, but the name is a pseudonym.”

In a conversation moderated by 99U’s editor in chief Matt McCue, artists Laolu Senbanjo and Jon Burgerman shared their thoughts on the subject. Burgerman has drawn whimsical figures into everyday scenes for an Instagram-sponsored show at the Tate Modern and made elaborate doodle-filled walls for Apple stores around the globe. Meanwhile, Senbanjo’s line work electrifies Bulgari perfume bottles, Nike sneakers, and even Beyoncé and her dancers in the "Sorry" video from Lemonade. Both grapple with preserving their undiluted voice across projects like these.

99U Salon - Matt McCue, Jon Burgerman, and Laolu Senbanjo McCue with Burgerman and Senbanjo

When asked what to do when brands try to take creative control after promising stylistic independence, Burgerman shrugged. “I say: 'Why would you ask me to do something if you don’t want me to do my kind of thing?'” To Burgerman, giving up creative control is a slippery slope and not just because it’s important to do work that you’re proud of. “If you do something and you think it’s crappy, that’s the project people are going to love,” he said. “And they’ll ask for more of it. Then you’re in your personal hell.”

9U Salon - Jon Burgerman "Why would you ask me to do something if you don’t want me to do my kind of thing?" said Burgerman

The night was as much about practical tips as defining values. Senbanjo, who in an earlier career practiced full-time as a human rights lawyer in Africa, dug into how he builds his contracts. His contracts are designed to match the way that he delivers work, using incremental payment clauses for each step of a project he completes – first draft, rounds of revisions, final submission – as opposed to one big final payday. The times when Senbanjo has been disappointed by a client, he acknowledged he didn’t clearly define the relationship. “I didn’t ask for creative control like I should have,” he said.


Senbanjo wore facepaint and a custom blazer featuring his signature 'Afromysterics' aesthetic

The British Burgerman and Nigerian Senbanjo hit it off onstage, and their compatibility didn’t stop at the arts. The pair were a stylish duo: Burgerman wore an electric yellow jacket made by Jeremy Scott for Adidas and Senbanjo sported a black and white jacket of his own design, and matching face paint inspired by his Yoruba heritage.

Burgerman and Senbanjo held court after their discussion, talking with the attendees. “I wish I had buttons for everyone,” Burgerman said when someone asked about the pink lapel pin on his breast pocket. “I made this today. Someone brought a button machine into my studio. Do you want a sticker?” He pulled a roll of googly eyes out of his pocket and debated where to guerrilla place them—the cheese and charcuterie board, someone’s nose, the Ace’s fire alarm. “Let’s not tamper with that,” he decided.

99U will explore more topics like this at upcoming salon events, and at our annual 99U Conference, taking place May 9-11, 2018 in New York City.

99U Salon - Liz Jackson with Jerron Herman Inclusive Fashion + Design Collective's Liz Jackson with Jerron Herman 99U Salon - Tina Roth Eisenberg, Kyle Baptista, Michelle Ishay-Cohen, and Jon Burgerman Creative Mornings' Tina Roth Eisenberg and Kyle Baptista with Michelle Ishay-Cohen and Burgerman 99U Salon Guests take in the conversation at Ace Hotel New York's Liberty Hall 99U Salon - Jon Burgerman and Laolu Senbanjo Burgerman and Senbanjo's signature aesthetics were reflected in their footwear, too


More about Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph is a director at West Wing Writers. She has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Artsy, Airmail, Eye on Design, JSTOR Daily, Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. 

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