Illustration nuts visiting the London Illustration Fair (December 5-7 2014) may do a double take when they view the work of Rob Lowe. Not because they’ve never seen anything like it—Lowe’s mesmeric, intensely colored graphics have made their way around design circles for nearly 20 years—but because That Name, attached to those intricate, hand-teased drawings, takes some getting used to.
Until recently Lowe operated as Supermundane, a handle he chose because it means the opposite (“above or beyond the mundane”) of what you’d think. The alias created a Banksy-like persona, a canny move for an unconventional new talent. It was also a way for this child of the ’80s to finally shrug off the shadow of that other Rob Lowe.
“For a long time, a lot of people thought I was a Japanese girl,” says Lowe. And when he hit 40 a couple of years ago, the pseudonym seemed sophomoric. So, after launching a purer, more distilled graphic style in 2012, he began using it less. Yet his style precedes him still.
Lowe’s latest work will feature prominently at the three-day illustration extravaganza, which, set under the railway arches under London’s Hoxton station, is expected to attract thousands. When he spoke with me recently from his studio in Forest Hill, South London, he was working on a series of geometric screen prints and collages, designing a wall mural, and experimenting with linocuts for the first time—all for the fair.
He’ll continue his recent drift into simple line-and-color work, which he insists is as challenging, if not more so, than the elaborate drawings he’s better known for. “Because there’s so little there, you’ve got to get it all right; you don’t know where to hide. They look very simple, but they take a lot of iterations before I’m happy.”
Clients have registered his change in direction, but not all of them are on board. Lowe says his fan base falls into two camps: those who prefer the older, more intricate work, and those who “like being able to see the graft.” Working on a sunny weekend afternoon, Lowe can attest to the graft. He’s just finished painting a mural at the London offices of online stationer and sometime collaborator Moo.com, and he’s juggling speaking engagements with his regular gig teaching illustration at the Arts University Bournemouth. He’s also finalizing designs for his latest commercial venture, a range of patterned boxer shorts for Swedish underwear company Frank Dandy, which will go on sale at ASOS in January.
“Their art director bought a print off me,” says Lowe of the Frank Dandy commission. “When I emailed to say it was on its way, he asked if I’d ever done any repeat patterns. I had, so they flew over to see me.”
But success, he’s quick to say, hasn’t always come this easily.
Lowe toiled as a freelance graphic designer for years before the creative director of the now-defunct nightlife monthly, SleazeNation, came across his website and hired him. The regular paycheck allowed him to nurture his distinctive illustration style, which spread across skate culture in California, Australia, and Korea.
It took him a decade to develop his signature look, and since then he’s contributed to Wallpaper, The Guardian, and The New York Times. Meanwhile, he’s produced an impressive body of artwork, yet he’s remained small, a fact likely connected to his ambivalence toward commercial work. “Things alter so much,” he says. “You push down roots you don’t think are right because you’ve been told to by the client.”
Only in the past year, he says, have the compromises slowed. “I’ve been lucky because people are asking me to do what I do. I find that if I come from a genuine place, being honest about my work, there will always be people who appreciate it.”