John Warwicker, Co-founder of Tomato

by NoD Staff | January 15, 2007

John Warwicker

Design company Tomato
( ) was founded in 1991 in London by John Warwicker, Steve Baker, Dirk Van Dooren, Karl Hyde, Richard Smith, Simon Taylor and Graham Wood. In 1994, Michael Horsham and Jason Kedgely joined.

tomato specializes in: Architectural Design, Consultancy,  Drawing, Education, Electronic Interactive Media, Film & Commercial Direction, Graphic Design, Fashion, Motion Graphics, Music & Sound, Strategy, Branding & Identity, Photography, Publishing, Title Sequences, Typography, Writing.

In 1997, tomato interactive was formed with Tom Roope, Anthony Rogers and Joel Baumann. Tota Hasagawa joined in 2001 when tomato and tomato interactive became one and the same.

Baumann has since become Professor of Interactive Media and Communication at Kassel University in Germany and is still a member of tomato. Roope is a lecturer of Interactive Media Studies at the Royal College of Art in London.

Currently, tomato has studios in London, New York, Tokyo and Melbourne.

Laura Schwamb interviewed one of tomato’s founders, John Warwicker. Aside from his involvement with tomato, John Warwicker’s book “The Floating World,” is expected to be published by the end of 2006.  He also works with the band “Underworld,” with tomato co-founders Karl Hyde and Richard Smith. Since 1989 Hyde and Smith have been “Underworld” and have released 7 albums to world-wide critical acclaim and had their music featured in several movies, the most notable being the film“Trainspotting,” for which tomato created the title sequence. tomato creates all the band’s sleeves and videos. Released in 2000 ‘Everything, Everything’, Underworld Live was released on CD, Vinyl and DVD. The DVD was at the time one of the most technologically sophisticated DVD’s released and went on to achieve Gold in its own right on the Japanese Music Charts. Apart from the accolades and awards Underworld in 2004 was voted the most influential Dance/Techno band in Japan in the last 20 years.

Some of tomato’s clients include:
ABC (Australia), Adidas, AOL, Bacardi, BBC, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Scotland, BMW, Casio, Chanel, Clinique, CNN, Coca-Cola, Daidaiya, Dell, Downsview Park (City of New York), DoCoMo, MTV, Nescafé, Nike, Nikon, Nokia, , Playstation, Porsche, Quest, Rado Rado, Reebok, Renault, Royal Mail, Sapporo City University, ScottFree, Seiko, Time Warner and many more.

Q: Tell me a bit about yourself and your current situation.

John: I was born in London in 1955. I could have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge University to study math or philosophy but I chose art school at Camberwell in South London because I wanted to find out how I could describe through experiences and thoughts—art gave me a greater possibility to play with language. (The real reason was that the girls were prettier at art school!)

I finished my B.A. and then got my Masters Degree in “Electronic Interactive Media,” at Birmingham Polytechnic. Being the end of the 70’s, I had to write my own course. I spent the 1980’s mainly working for the record industry, but by the early 90’s, I had a portfolio of jobs that others (clients) liked, but I did not.

At this time other friends of mine were going through a similar crisis or needed to be re-energized or re-focused, so I got them together in the same room—not all of them knew each other…and the conversation has continued under the guise of ‘tomato.’

I’m still part of tomato, in contact with the studio in London each day via phone and e-mail.

Over the years, I’ve traveled a lot (About 40 counties), sometimes for work, sometimes to give lectures or hold workshops; received a few prizes (The most cherished of which is that I became the first foreign member of the Tokyo type directors club); joined a band (in the early 80’s as a video DJ) and left but still kept in contact with the members.

In the early 90’s that band became ‘underworld’ and the members are founding members of tomato, too. And since then I’ve been a ‘member’ of the band again. I’ve written some articles, I’ve done a countless amount of press, written a book (out this year?) and contributed to the 5 books that tomato has had published and I’ve been a consultant to the British government on the ‘creative industries.’
I’ve basically drifted for 25 years—mainly in the company of people who I really like, love, and respect.

I guess it has been a struggle. One struggle is getting paid enough money to keep myself and my family going. I was married for 15 years before this marriage, and have two lovely children, Poppy and Angus, from that marriage, on one hand and on the other hand is my “art.”

So, do I think I’ve succeeded or accomplished anything? Besides the personal things like my children and my marriage with Naomi—all of whom I adore and tomato itself, I think the answer is ‘no.’ Actually, I know the answer is no.

Q: What message do you try and teach your students?

John: I often ask students “Who are you?, Who do you want to be? And how do you want to get there?” and like them, I would still have problems answering that. And every now and again one has to take a minute to seriously ask those questions. It’s important because one can get so easily diverted and submerged by the ‘commercial’ world. Now, if someone is happy about that, then great. This is not a qualitative judgment, just a recognition that I can sweep you away from who you are.

Also, I think education has a lot to answer for. A lot of art education around the world fails in its basic requirement to help and support everyone. The ironic thing (and the most difficult one to be objective about) is that neither tomato nor I would have worked on the projects that we have for the ‘a’ list of global clients if we believed that there was such a thing as the ‘industry.’

We are asked to work on projects because we are not part of the ‘industry’ (although the industry might think we are). Life is too interesting to be constrained by method. It’s too reductive. Both tomato and I take as much care over a humble black and white a flyer as we do designing a building or directing a television commercial for Nike or Chanel.

This is not trying to disown the commercial projects that I—or tomato—have done. As long as one learns something (which is often the case) than it’s valuable. But this learning has to be focused towards an aim. And in this multiple-media, post-modernist world of distractions we all live in, the focus and the aim is not only very hard to define, but also very hard to keep hold of.

All through my commercial ‘life’ I’ve pushed on with my own personal work, which has in part acted as R&D for the commercial.

And I hope my book, which was started, in some ways, when I was studying for my M.A. –has benefited from taking such a long, enforced time.

Also, I hoped that moving to Australia would provide the break in the commercial habit and need, but so far that hasn’t been the case. In fact, quite the opposite. On one hand, I’ve been very lucky because I’ve had lots of work, all of which have been interesting and challenging, and this has been needed because moving one’s family is always far more expensive than one can imagine. But on the other hand, I’ve had less time to myself, or more accurately for myself. So, this question has caught me at a time of irresolution, but that’s nothing new!

John: When it comes to creating, the most important thing is to keep the spirit of what you are trying to achieve fresh throughout this process. I often think of this ‘spirit’ in musical terms, of a note or a series of notes…and that the process is akin to hearing something, writing it down, getting it played and recorded.

Q: Tell us about your favorite project. What was it?

John: Despite what I said earlier, I’m proud of many of the commercial jobs that tomato and I have undertaken. In some ways tomato itself is my favorite project. I guess the answer to your question is my book “The Floating World” because even though it isn’t everything I would want, it has gone some way to laying down a foundation that I can now build upon. “The Floating World” is 400 pages of thoughts, drawings and photographs. It’s a journey recorded and journeys reflected upon.

Q: Where do you go for inspiration? Any must-have magazines?

John: Everyone and everywhere is the truthful answer. There’s no method to it. Sometimes, one can look at a book or magazine containing the most wonderful work with ‘dead eyes’ and then, for no apparent reason, something might ‘catch’ my eye while I’m walking down the street and ideas just explode. There was a wonderful African band called Osibisa that had some popularity in England in the early 70’s. One of their first tracks had the wonderful lyric of  ‘…criss-cross rhythms exploding with happiness.’ That’s what I experience when something ‘clicks’ inside of me. But as to its trigger, it’s wonderfully unpredictable.

Out of the hundreds that I come across, these magazines are my “must have” ones are:  Idea (Japan), Eye (UK), and Creative Review (UK)

Q: You handle many projects on a daily basis. Can you give us a sense of how many, what kind, and how you keep track of so many?

John: The best way to answer this is for me to list exactly what I’ve been doing this week:

1. Creative direction and rebranding for the rejuvenation of the Hotel Windsor, including the design of 150 different items. Writing the interior design brief and supervising the choice of architects and interior designers.

2. Submission of a proposal for an interactive film for Chanel in Paris (with tomato).

3. Submission for a proposal for a Hewlett-Packardtelevision commercial for Asia.

4. Designing an identity for a large property development company here in Melbourne.

5. Designing a website for an English-speaking culture guide to Paris.

6. Working with Rick and Karl of ‘Underworld’ on a multitude of projects. New Book, Online Publications, 12″ ‘House’ Bag, 12″ Sleeves for Remixes…

7. My own work/experiments.

8. Research.

9. Preparing for a workshop and my keynote talk at the big design conference, AGIdeas, here in Melbourne next week.

How do I keep track of them? Mainly in my head rather than noting them down!

Q: Do you often have to go the extra mile? If so, how often? Give us your most extended example.

John: I suppose my book, ‘The Floating World’ is my most extreme example. Without knowing it, I’ve been ‘writing’ it all my life. It started when I was researching material for my Masters degree at the end of the 70’s and then took 25 years to slowly accumulate and get to a critical mass that seemed like it had formed into ‘one thing.’

In 2002 I started ‘designing’ the book, pulling all the disparate thoughts, writing and visual material together. I must have designed the whole book (400 pages) 4 or 5 times before I was satisfied with it.

And then the task of finding a publisher began. The first tomato book was published by Thames and Hudson so I took “The Floating World” to the editor that I knew. He really liked the book, but said it was too ‘difficult’ for them to publish. The sales team wouldn’t understand it and wouldn’t know how to market it.

Then through friends I approached another publisher who was very keen to publish it, but unfortunately, after a promising start, the company folded. Michael at  tomato suggested that I see a mutual friend and writer, Liz Farrelly, who had several contacts in the publishing world. She was very enthusiastic about the book and sent me on my way to see a publisher called Michael Mack.

Michael immediately said ‘yes.’ However, this was not the end of the saga. At the start of last year I was visiting my parents-in-law in Melbourne with my family. The plan was X-Mas and January in Melbourne, then back to London then off to Germany to supervise the printing.

Well… my mother-in-law suffered a slight stroke 3 days before we were supposed to return to London, then the next day my wife pulled a ligament in her knee and had to have surgery. So, I had to stay on and look after them all and I missed my print ‘slot.’ A year later, I’m still waiting but it looks like the book will go to press this June.

Add to influences: Lawrence Weiner, James Burke, Sol Le Witt, Carl Andre.

Q: What has been your highest pressure situation to date?

John: It is, and always will be, the first mark on the paper or screen.

Q: When you’re designing a project, do you keep the personal out of it and make all your decisions based on solid research, trends, and related information?

John: I find it so important to not take things personally and keep design as a business, so I’m curious to hear how other designers feel about this and if it works either way.

I couldn’t care less about research, trends, and so on. when they are ‘quantified’ for the industry. partly because by the time the ‘industry’ has caught onto something, it’s long gone and mutated into something else.

And for those who are reading this who do believe in the ‘industry’… I have been a consultant to a global ad agency and I was offered the job of creative director of JWT in New York (Which I turned down because they wouldn’t embrace the flux of the 21st century). I know how misplaced this method of quantification can be.

John: I don’t worry about ‘keeping up.’ I just feed myself with things that I do not know about. There’s always a problem with ‘keeping up’ and current trends—by the time you know about them they’ve been done.

Q: Considering the importance of keeping current, how do you keep up? What are the current trends in packaging, color, design, architecture …

As you know, I have thousands of books and thousands of magazines and I’m always interested in what’s happening, but a titan painting is just as contemporary as a website. It always depends on one’s approach.

Q: Tell us how you start a typical day from when you first wake to when you finally get home.

John: Up at 8:30am (Unless our little boy Noah has jumped on me in his boundless enthusiasm earlier!)E-mails, phone calls, and work throughout the day and also meetings. I stop around 2-3am on average, 7 days a week. This is, in part, caused by the fact I’m here in Australia and London/Europe doesn’t start their day until 6pm my time.

Q: Do you travel much? How much? Where? Tell us all about your favorite work/travel experience.

John: Over the last 10 years, I’ve traveled internationally constantly- to give talks, to work etc. probably 5-10 times a year. Antwerp, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Stockholm, Tampere (Finland), Tokyo, Sapporo, Sao Paolo, Rio, New York, Sicily, Rhode Island School of Design, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland, Iceland, Montreal, Cape Town, Milan, Istanbul, Castellon (Spain)  being some of the places I’ve visited. I never tire of New York, Tokyo, or Paris.

But the ‘best trip’ was probably the week or so Naomi and I spent on Stromboli, the volcanic island just off the coast of Sicily. Neither of us are passive travelers—we tend to do work (drawings, photographs, writing) whenever we’re on holiday anyway. But Stromboli is just an active volcano, black beaches, good food and the Mediterranean. Wonderful.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of your job? Photo shoots, travel, meetings, presentations…?

John: Learning. Finding something new no matter in what context.

Q: Who or what has been your biggest design influence—and why?

John: The true answer is everyone I meet and everything I see or hear. Obviously, everyone in tomato, and my friends. But there are other people (often dead) that I look to. And by the way, I don’t think about ‘design’ in influences. It’s all about someone or something that influences ones approach, and thinking, as well as craft.
I suppose my first influence was my grandfather. He was the catalyst for my young imagination. He was a mathematician and was also interested in art and philosophy. Through his notebooks, I became entranced in mark-making and typography.

At 6 years old, there’s no way of understanding his equations but he tried to explain them anyway. The idea that a letter or symbol could mean something else was alchemic. This started my interest in typography and his notebooks in combination with a chance discovery of the work of Katsushita Hokusai in a book on Asian Art ignited my lifelong immersion in and interest about art and ideas.

My wonderment about Hokusai was initially juvenile; I was 6 after all! I read that he had made 30,000 woodcuts during his long life as well as a prodigious number of paintings, drawings and books. This sort of fact always fascinates small boys (Even though they might now be over 50!)

And what was (and still is) of equal importance was that his articulate, life-full images were of the world around him and not the posed artifice of all those brown European paintings of the 17th-early 19th century elsewhere in my grandfather’s books.

In addition, there were visits to the museums in London, such as the British museum and the more idiosyncratic ones such as the Horniman’s museum near to where my parents lived. London and Southern England are themselves rich ‘museums’ of art and ideas. Everywhere I traveled, everywhere where my parents or grandparents took me, was rich with artifacts and stories— evidence of the long journey.  All of which acted as signposts for my imagination.

This is how I’ve assimilated this list of ‘influence’ not as a ‘copy book’ but as a personally assembled lexicon of ‘ways of doing, ways of being’.

Q: How is working at tomato working for you in Melbourne?

John: I don’t know! I really haven’t had time to say ‘Hello, here we are.” I’ve been too busy. This might change after I give the talk to 2,000 people at a conference next week.

Q: And last, what were you doing right before you decided to answer these questions? And if there was a CD or a radio on, what were you listening to?

John: I was trying to get to sleep but we foolishly have been allowing Noah into our bed at night and tonight he was on full rotation so rather than suffering more hours of being battered. I gave up and at 3.30am started this questionnaire! I was listening to Treatise by Cornelius Cardew.


This post was authored by NoD staff. Notes on Design is a design industry blog sponsored by Sessions College for Professional Design.


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