Unleash creatives from around the world into a white cube gallery. Give them a single theme to respond to. Flatten the result to a thin, roughly 7” x 7” magazine. This is kult: an 80-page visual feast oozing with illustrations, graphics, and photographs of all shapes, colors, and styles.
From “AIDS” to “Fortune,” and its upcoming issue on “Cars,” kult has been using the visual language of advertising to sell messages on social issues since 2009. It all started when designer Steve Lawler wanted to share works from an exhibition he curated a decade prior. Once he quit his job at Ogilvy’s Singapore outpost after becoming disillusioned with the industry, the interactive designer with a truly international calling card (born in Iran, raised in Hong Kong, studied and worked in Europe, and now based in Singapore) turned to making prints and curating art shows. For a 2006 group exhibition, he invited artists like American illustrator Andy Rementer and Singaporean artist Andy Yang to respond visually to the theme of “Trust.”
“What happened was the show was only on for two days and we had all this amazing art work and it seemed dumb to waste it,” said a burly Lawler as he chomped down lunch in his office cum gallery. “That became the first issue of kult magazine without us realizing it.”
Organizing group exhibitions also unexpectedly became Lawler’s new career. When companies such as Tiger Beer and Yahoo! started commissioning him to curate art for their brands, he founded the marketing studio kult3D in 2007. This eventually helped pay for kult’s first issue, “Trust,” which he set loose on the streets of Singapore.
Jam-packed with page after page of visuals and very little copy, kult bids its readers to not only be wary of their favorites ads, but to literally to “tear [them] off the walls when they see [them].” It takes inspiration from the famed COLORS, a magazine where Lawler worked at in the early 2000s as a new media designer. kult is smaller in size and focused on graphics and illustration, but it retains an “international aspect” similar to the Benetton-funded magazine “about the rest of the world.” Both kult and COLORS believe in visual communication for the social good, and work on universal themes that cross languages and cultures, but also showcase the world’s diverse point of views.
In kult’s ninth issue, “Earth,” we see how different the dreadful state of the planet looks across the world. On a neon pink pop art cover, Singaporean Adeline Tan’s recasts environmentalist cartoon hero Captain Planet as a skull with industrial plume puffing out of his eyes. Inside, Japanese artist Masakatsu Sashie realistically recasts our world as a sphere of vending machines peddling soft drinks, while a few pages down, Italian Mauro Gatti draws up a cartoonish advertisement to sell an unhappy Earth.
Serving up a broad spectrum of visual styles in each issue is also Lawler’s way of combating a “homogeneous Helvetica nation” in Singapore and promoting originality in a globalized world. “If you’re a minimal designer who uses a bit of type at the bottom and a couple of fucking squares and lines, I could go and knock that up in Photoshop in 20 minutes,” he says. “We do embrace the sort of chaotic, mad, maximalist type of artists because I think that’s hard to mimic.”
Nowhere is that aesthetic more evident than at kult’s headquarters, atop a serene hill on the city’s edges. The kult logo appears to melt across the entrance of this art dungeon, where artworks, silk screens, frames, and supplies are strewn over the gallery’s paint-spotted floor as Lawler is in the midst of installing a new exhibition on the bizarre and grotesque, a topic that reflects his personal fascination with the messy visual culture of Asia. While it’s an interest few once shared in squeaky clean Singapore, clients have since warmed to the language as a means of reaching out to a younger generation lapping it up. Last year, all four issues of kult were paid for by the city’s library board, a local indie cinema house, The Projector, and multinational General Electric. Lawler is quick to add that none of these issues suffered creative compromise. Moreover, the magazine has helped differentiate the studio from its competition and offered an avenue to explore alternative publishing platforms, including translating content into an interactive window display and an arcade game machine.
“We realized pretty quickly that we’re not going to get this magazine paid for by advertising. Let’s just look at this as a social tool to get people thinking along the same lines as us.”
Six years and 17 issues in, kult has gained a following in Asia as well as a network of collaborators, including a host of young Singaporean illustrators such as Sheryo, Kristal Melson, and Eric Foenander. Speak Cryptic, who has become one of the nation’s go-to representatives for international art events, credits kult for encouraging his black-and-white drawings inspired by comics over the years. “In many ways, kult has been the beacon of light for many creatives in Singapore especially for ‘lowbrow’ artists like myself,” he says. “kult and the gallery has provided many visual artists the platform and the vehicle to create freely, to experiment, and to really just go nuts.”
While Lawler refuses credit for the success of artists he features in the magazine’s pages, he agrees that it’s a stepping stone for young and exciting creatives. In a sense, it gave him his second career, too. Despite how busy the studio has become, Lawler remains on the lookout for fresh talent, as producing the magazine still perks him up.
“There’s something very exciting about that when it’s deadline day. When all the artworks are getting emailed in and you’re like ‘Ohhh… what’s it going to be? What’s it going to be?’” he says. “Especially when a killer one comes in, you’re like, ‘Oh that’s dope!’ You really get a boner! It’s like, this is so much fucking fun!”