If you had told a young Jean Jullien that one day he’d not only become an internationally renowned illustrator, but that he’d see his simple line drawings become sculptures, clothing, lamps, even the interior of a sky-high bar in France, he wouldn’t have believed you. Long before the world came to know his work through the Peace for Paris symbol he drew to commemorate the November 2015 terrorist attacks in the city, Jullien was finding his way through a string of art schools, learning graphic design basics, and worrying about the limitations of his skill set.
At the recent Pictoplasma Conference in New York, he told a young crowd of animators and illustrators about how changing up the format his work takes keeps his ideas fresh, how daily “creative gymnastics” combats commercial job fatigue, and how he learned to stop worrying and love his drawing style.
As a self-conscious graphic design student, Jullien spent his first few years in school attempting to hide the fact that he could only draw one-liners. While he kept a private visual diary in which he explored his illustration practice, for class assignments he turned to art direction, creating and photographing small worlds out of three-dimensional paper shapes. But the time it took to build mini sets (even simple ones) and shoot them in a studio didn’t suit his more fluid work style. Meanwhile, in his sketchbook, Jullien saw that he was developing a unique visual language of his own. Sometimes his drawings included text and graphics, but more often than not they stood alone, and this is where his nuts-and-bolts graphic design education really kicked in. Looking over his work, Jullien realized the importance of communication, particularly in wordless images, and that the ability to relay an idea quickly and directly without text is its own special kind of visual language.
Most often these ideas are humorous. Likening his line work to a stage set with only the most basic props required in order to suggest a scene, Jullien can convey all the complexities of a bizarre social situation in just a few strokes. Among his favorite topics are our absurd relationship with technology, food, cities, and of course each other.
“When something bugs me, I try and work it out with an illustration in order to find the humor in those situations.”
And when a socially ridiculous situation doesn’t jump out at him, Jullien relies on his daily practice of what he calls “creative gymnastics,” creating a (Christoph Niemann-style?) drawing around a nearby object. Just as some people start their day with a jog, Jullien considers this his morning workout before setting down to any commercial projects he might have that day—not that he considers his commercial work uncreative. Whereas you can–perhaps dangerously–work on a personal project forever, “Commercial work comes with a safety net,” says Jullien. “You have to hand it off and send it into the world where it takes on a life of its own.” Consider his recent work for Uniqlo. On the flat page, Jullien admits the figures he created seemed a little lifeless, but blown up to a massive scale and pasted up in the streets of London, they take on an entirely new energy.
Changing the format of his work has become something of a regular practice when Jullien needs to shake things up; thinking about how two-dimensional work might behave in real life is a great way to fight creative stagnation. Jullien cites his collaborations with sculptors, product designers, and musicians, namely his younger brother Nicolas, who he creates work with under the moniker Jullien Brothers.
Collaborations with people outside your own little world not only spark ideas you would never have thought of, getting you to view your work in unexpected new ways, but Jullien has found that working in one new medium often begets another. For example, illustrating a cover for food magazine Fricote led to the 2015 Petit Appétit show at Colette and l’Imprimerie in Paris, where he worked on the interiors of the shop’s basement cafe.
Which brings us back to what Jullien says is one of his proudest projects, his 2012 interior design for Le Nid, a bar at the top of the Tour de Bretagne building in Nantes, France. Responding to an exceptionally open brief that asked only for the space to be completely rethought as an art project that people could also access and use, Jullien suggested a bar themed around the idea of a bird’s nest. The result is a retro-future world set with tables and chairs that look like hard-boiled eggs, a 130-foot-long swan sculpture whose soft neck doubles as seating, and of course the bar itself, housed in the body of the bird (the bartenders come and go through its butt). It’s a massive undertaking for anyone, let alone an illustrator who was still relatively unknown at the time, but Jullien downplays the effort in his characteristically self-effacing style, describing it simply as, “One stupid idea that we worked on with lots of different people to bring to life.” Sure, and his drawings are just a couple of lines thrown on a page.