After moving back to Australia, and juggling his painting with a role as Creative Director of J Walter Thompson in Sydney for a few years, finally, at the age of forty, Ken made the decision to leave the ad game behind once and for all. Since then his works have been shown in prestigious national awards including the Archibald, Sulman, Wynne, Blake, and Dobell Prizes, and he’s been involved in all manner of high profile art and design projects, such as creating a series of works for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. In 1992, Ken received an Order of Australia medal (A.M.), for services to Art, Design and Tourism, and just last year, he was inducted into the Design Industry of Australia’s Hall of Fame.
Some of Ken Done’s earliest supporters have been international collectors, and in particular, the Japanese market. As he outlines below, Ken’s original paintings featured on the cover of popular weekly Japanese magazine Hanako for over ten years – a relationship which propelled his entry into the Japanese market and beyond. Over the past twenty years Ken’s business has swelled and contracted with the market – at once stage he had over 15 stores and over 160 employees, but these days his business is a tight knit operation employing a core of trusted staff, and headed up by Ken’s son, Oscar, and daughter, Camilla.
These days, aside from selling Ken’s original paintings to a stable of both local and international collectors, Ken Done inc. generates modest quantities of high quality branded merchandise, of which the latest example is a collection of beautifully printed ‘art tops‘. The days of doona covers and tea towels are behind him, Ken says.
I must admit, since our recent opportunity to meet Mr Done in person and photograph his truly incredible home studio, garden and surrounds in Mosman, Sydney, I have become aware that not everyone is as enamoured with the iconic Australian artist as I am. This was news to me! Since announcing excitedly to friends and family that I had been planning this story, I’ve become aware of a small (but seemingly rather vocal!?) minority of people who seem to wholeheartedly dislike Mr Done and/or his work, for reasons quite inexplicable to me. I’m not sure if it’s the actual paintings, his history in the advertising game, the incredible success of the Ken Done brand as it has diversified into printed products and souvenirs, or perhaps, his trademark moustache!? I guess we’d have to simply summise that artists with a particularly ‘commercial’ background or outlook often seem to generate this kind of response. Well, to quote the man himself, ‘bugger that!’. I often feel that one of Australia’s greatest cultural failings is the prevalence of ‘tall poppy syndrome’, and it’s my firm belief that talented creative people should not have to apologise for having an entrepreneurial spirit, or, indeed, making money from their work!
I’m completely chuffed and more than a little starstruck to share Ken’s story with you today! It’s a little long… forgive me. I love to share the ‘full story’ where we can!
Tell us a little about your childhood, background and early career. How did you first get into advertising, and then what prompted the transition to painting in your thirties?
I was born in Sydney in 1940, and then in 1945 we moved to a little country town on the North Coast of New South Wales called MacLean. So I had a kind of idyllic Australian North Coast country childhood. Living by the river, you didn’t wear shoes to school, there was no homework, fishing after school. I thought it was wonderful.
Then we moved, first to the Blue Mountains for a couple of years, where I went to Katoomba High School, and then we came down to Sydney, and I went to Mossman high school. They didn’t teach art to boys in those days, but I convinced them that I should at least be able to look at art books during a period, but they said I would have to give something up. I suggested it would be really good if I gave up algebra, because I thought – actually I still think – algebra is almost totally useless! But, I had to give up sport, which was really boring, because I quite liked sport.
Anyway, I passed the intermediate school certificate, which is like the equivalent of year ten, and I was only 14 and a half. I got a special exemption to leave school to go to art school, which at the time was called East Sydney Tech, but is now called The National Art School. I was the youngest to ever start there, and I was there for about four and a half years. So by the time I was 19, I’d finished, and I wanted to travel and be a designer.
My first job lasted for 2 weeks. It was in a design studio in Sydney, they were paying me £14 a week, and then a guy who ran an advertising agency offered me the unimaginable sum of £28 pounds a week (!!) like a 100% increase in my salary, and the real clincher was, I could paint my office whatever colour I wanted! It was 1959, and I painted it purple. There were not too many purple offices in Sydney in those days.
So I was a young art director for a couple of years, and then I opened my own studio, with another friend of mine, another young guy, called Visual Communication. This is in the early 60’s. And we then set ourselves up as a kind of design consultancy and creative consultancy, outside of agencies. Now that happens a lot now but it didn’t happen then.
But I really wanted to travel. And so I first went to Japan, because I was very interested in contemporary Japanese design and traditional Japanese design. I went to Japan for a while, I got some work there, and then I came back to Australia, and I wanted to travel even further.
So I went to America. Most Australians went to London in those days, but I went Sydney, Tahiti, Acapulco. The flight actually went Sydney, Tahiti, Acapulco Mexico City, Bermuda, London. It was called the ‘Bahamas route’. Anyway I got as far as Acapulco. And I met two girls, one of them lived in a town just outside of Mexico City, and the other one came from Texas, and they had a white Thunderbird. I’d never seen anything quite so grand as this, so I cashed in the rest of the plane ticket and I drove with these two girls up through Mexico. I went up to Los Angeles, where I got some work, and I took a bus across America. You could get 99 days for $99 dollars. I didn’t take that amount of time, but I saw a lot of America.
I got to New York, and I had one introduction, to a man who ran a really good design studio. I went to see him about 11 o’ clock in the morning, and he seemed to be impressed by what I was showing him, and he said, ‘look, once every three months we have this big lunch with all the heads of all the design groups in New York. It happens to be today, and it’s at the Plaza, would you like to come?’. Well of course I’d like to come.
So suddenly, I found myself in a private dining room with guys in the Push Pin Studios, and Milton Glaser, and really terrific designers, and I’d shoved a few of my things in my pockets so if someone said ‘can you pass the salt’, you know, something of mine would fall out on the table, because you have to take those opportunities. Anyway, the guy I sat next to had a design studio in Rockefeller Centre, and he asked me to go and work for him. I didn’t have a Green Card, but he said it didn’t matter, and offered to just pay me in cash. Which either tells you how little they paid me, or how big his cashflow was! Anyway, I worked for them for a few weeks, and soon realised that the thing that they were most interested in, whether I was good or bad, is that I could do lots of things. The Australian experience put me up to that. I would be asked, ‘can you do a poster?’. Sure. ‘Can you do an annual report?’. Sure. ‘Can you do a small black and white drawing?’. Sure. In Australia you had to be able to do lots of things. Whereas in America, all the guys working were highly specialised.
I had another introduction to go and meet a bloke at J. Walter Thompson. I turned up, and they offered me a great job. I showed them my work, they said I was going to be on the Ford account. Well. I am mechanically illiterate and I was slightly worried about that. This is the time of Mad Men. This is the time of all of that. At Thompson’s, on the 7th floor everybody sat in kind of cubicles, but on the 8th floor, you had your own office and you could decorate it however you wanted. So there was a guy in the office next to me whose room was like a sea captain’s office, with a wheel and model ships and portholes and things like that! Further down the corridor there’d be a guy whose office would be all Shaker Furniture and things like that. SO I suddenly inherited two things – this grand office with big leather couches, which I liked very much, and part of the Ford account to work on. And here lies the trouble. I mean. I know nothing about cars at all, but you have to pretend that you do. So, for a very brief period of time I was responsible for a thing called the ‘Twin I-Beam axle’. It’s something that goes on Utility vehicles (I actually still have no idea). Anyway, in then end, I couldn’t get a Green Card, and they asked if I’d go to the London office. I went to London.
I worked in London as an art director for 5 years. I worked mostly with Llewelyn Thomas, who was Dylan Thomas’ son, who was a terrific writer. I worked with Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, who went on to become The Goodies. We won the Cannes Gold Lion for Cinema commercials for Campari.
I had the Bacardi account, and convinced them we should shoot it underwater in the Caribbean. This was at the time of the first Bond movies. Dr No had just been made, and there was a whole sensuality about white spirits. I designed some ads to be photographed underwater, with a bottle of Barcadi in amongst the coral, and a lot of little fish around and people diving down to get it. They asked, ‘well, can you do it!? And I said sure… but of course we couldn’t, so Judy, my wife, who was a model then, we had to go and learn to dive in the White House Hotel swimming pool in Regents Park in the middle of winter, so that we could get our diving certificate, THEN fly to Nassau, hire a boat, bring the photographer from London, have an underwater camera housing made (this is the 60’s you know!) and do the campaign, which we did. That that led to was us doing a Bacardi campaign every year for five years. We went to Acapulco, The Great Barrier Reef, Antigua, we shot in Portugal. It was much more fun than the Ford account. In those days, you had to do it for real. If you wanted to shoot something underwater in the Carribean, you had to go there.
In London I also started to paint. I had a small studio, and I saw my first real Matisse exhibition, which I think really did change my life and attitude to colour. I knew that I wanted to be a painter. So, after 5 years in London, I came back to Australia, we had our first child, we bought a house, and I became the creative director of J Walter Thompson in Sydney. I was 30.
I took over from Bryce Courtenay at Thompson’s, and I remember going to the chairman one day and saying ‘look, I only want to work 4 days a week, I need the money, but I want to spend a day a week working as an artist’. He said ‘well, look, don’t come in on a Friday, we’ll just tell the clients you’re not available’. There were a lot of long lunches on a Friday in those days anyway. But I said ‘No, I won’t come in on a Monday, because I want to start the week painting’.
So, I did that for a couple of years, and then I left when I was 35, although I still worked freelance a little bit because I needed the money, because we had a house and our first child Camilla. I had my first exhibition when I was 40. For that first exhibition I made 12 T-shirts to give to the press, with just a very simple blue and white drawing, something you would wear with a pair of jeans, and the girls from Vogue thought they were great and wrote a very nice little write up. People responded very much to the kind of things that I did in those days.
That really is how the first exhibition lead to all of the products we did. We never really set out to make those things, I just wanted to continue to paint. We did some bedlinen for Sheridan – people really loved it. We did some bags for Oroton, then I had a licensing arrangment with a company in America that made Ralph Lauren boyswear, so suddenly we were in Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales, and we then got a licensing arrangement in Japan.
So, all of these business things were happening, and they were always getting in the way of the painting. I was painting all the time, but people would often see a small amount of things that I did, very widely circulated. And some things were incredibly ‘cute’, because that’s what you needed to do. If I was doing a piece of design for Japanese girls, you had to make it cute. And I could do that. So some people would look down on that. Well… that’s design. That is solving a design problem. Whereas the paintings are not solving any problem, they’re satisfying me, and hopefully you… but that’s the difference between art and design.
From the very early days, you’ve had a strong following in Japan. How do you think that came about?
I think in all honesty it was young Japanese girls who first really understood what I was about, and really responded to it. Because Japanese society was changing a lot at that time, and young women didn’t want their husbands to be kind of grey, suited salary men. I got a call from a man who was the editor of a business called ‘Magazine House’, a huge publishing company in Japan. He said he’d seen lots of Japanese girls come back from Australia with things they’d bought of mine, and he wanted me to design the cover of a new magazine, and the logo. It was called Hanako.
We made an arrangement, and I thought that was it. But he wanted me to do every cover, and so my artwork was on the cover of Hanako every week for 13 years in Tokyo! Every week, for 13 years. Every month or so, we would send over transparencies of whatever I was working on, and they would use those images, as the covers. Sometimes they’d use a section of the image, occasionally I would respond to something, if they had a special issue. Of course, on a very crowded outlet of magazines, this magazine always stood out, and always looked different.
The thing I’ve also found interesting, both culturally and graphically, is that because I wrote the word ‘Hanako’ initially for its first graphic use, I own the expression of the word in that form. So, if they want to use this logo mark for other things, which they do, like for a Hananko car, for instance, or Hanako chocolates, I’m always referenced. Even now, my name is underneath the logo on their magazine cover, as being the person who made that mark. That wouldn’t happen in Australia.
The Australian landscape has been a recurring theme in your work since the very start of your career, from literal renderings of the Sydney Harbour and iconic Opera House, to more recent depictions of The Great Barrier Reef which blur the line between figurative and abstract forms. Can you describe a little about your affection for the Australian landscape, and give us a little insight into why the Australian landscape has always been such central focus in your work?
As a boy, I lived by the mighty Clarence River. I loved to see it, especially in flood with large clumps of purple hyacinths floating on the river. I always thought that the rest of the world was just somewhere on the other side of that river, and, of course, it was.
I’ve travelled extensively throughout Australia, from the Barrier Reef to the outback to the Bungle Bungles and the remote deserts of Western Australia. Every brushstroke that any Australian painter makes tells you about his affinity and joy of the landscape. Over the last few years most of my paintings have involved the feeling of being under the water, around the various reefs of the country. I’ve never wanted to literally or photographically try and reproduce the landscape, but just as Fred Williams made marks on a canvas that remind us of the bush, I hope my marks can remind Australians of the pattern of a summers day at the beach or the joy of discovery amongst the coral reefs that border this wonderful land.
Much of the way people respond to your work seems to be tied to the way that Australians see ourselves culturally. We can be a pretty self deprecating bunch, and there’s often a ‘cultural cringe’ factor comes into play when referencing iconic ‘Australianisms’. What are your thoughts on this peculiar cultural conundrum, and the way your work is perceived both locally and abroad?
When I first went overseas, I didn’t go over with a chip on my shoulder thinking we Australians weren’t any good. I knew what I could do. Even going to New York, I wouldn’t say I was the best, but I wasn’t the worst! There’s that magazine called Apartmento, well, they came here and did a piece, it was a very nice piece… and you know, if you look through that whole magazine, there’s someone from LA from, Tokyo, there’s me, we’re all the same. It’s not ‘well, gee I’m Australian, I’ll just hide over here in the corner’… bugger that!
You know, there’s a cycle. You start off, and no one knows who you are, and then they start to see your work, and they respond to it, and people think it’s great, fantastic, and then they think it’s everywhere… well, it’s not everywhere… but a lot of the feeling behind it is everywhere, and then there’s too much of it, and they don’t like it… and then it starts to come back ‘round again, and before you know it they’re saying ‘hey… that was really good.. we could collect some of that on eBay’!
So I’m not sure how many times you go around this circle, but I think probably if I started at 6 o’Clock in the morning, I’m hopefully at about 8.30 or 9.00pm now. But I’m 74 so it’s not forever. I can’t waste a minute. I have to spend as much time as I can painting.
I notice you’re so varied in your materials, in the studio there are oils, watercolours, coloured pencil, pastels, do you work across all these mediums simultaneously?
Mostly I’m just working with oil nows. I can draw, in a disciplined sense, with coloured pencils if I want to, but really I just need to be involved with colour. It’s all about the colour.
But I could draw with a piece of vegemite on the back of a piece of toast if necessary!
How has your day to day work routine changed from when you first started painting to now. Are you more driven or more relaxed, more structured or less structured?
I’ve always been a disciplined worker, I’ve always liked to work. I work a disciplined day, in the sense I start about 8.00 or 8.30am, I work up until about lunchtime, I might have an hour or two off, and then I’ll be back in the studio through the afternoon. But at 74, I’ve been painting since I was 14.. so I guess there’s 60 years of work behind me, you should start to be able to have some control over what you do.
But I’d like to have it all again. Also I’d like to be younger, taller, slimmer! I don’t have much to complain about though. I had prostate cancer, which is less than amusing, but what can you do, you have to deal with it. We’ve had all the ups and downs that you have in any family life, but to be married for almost 50 years, well that’s a great achievement too.
Day to day, your business has grown and changed, swelled and contracted with the market. Your personal focus now is painting, however the business itself is still a very busy, successful operation. Do you still see yourself as ‘CEO of Ken Done inc’, or are you more of an invisible force behind it all these days?
Well, I have great respect for my son and daughter, and they’re doing fantastic things in the business. I really have very limited abilities, and I the one thing I think I always did know, is to stick to the things that I’m good at.
My daughter gave me a Birthday card a couple of weeks ago in the shape of a kind of feathered headdress, and inside she called me ‘The Big Chief’. So, who knows where you fit? But, if I was called anything, ‘Australian artist’ would be good. I reckon that’s enough for me.
What does your business look like these days, how many do you employ across the various facets of your business?
Well, at one stage we had 15 shops, and about 160 people. We have no shops now, apart from the one at the gallery at The Rocks. But we are making, again, things to wear, like our ‘art tops’ which are absolutely beautiful.
So we’re making less things, but really beautiful things. We’re not interested in mass production of T-shirts or things like that so much these days. And even though a lot of people would love us to get back into swimwear and duvet covers, we don’t want to do that. One gallery, and the gallery shop is more than enough.
What key media or other resources do you read or tune into daily?
I must admit I’m not even looking at your site, because I don’t have a computer. I mean everybody else in our office does, and everybody knew who you were and how important it was… but I didn’t, because I don’t have a computer. I don’t even have a mobile phone! I mean… otherwise people would ring me up and ask me questions all the time.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Working as a family, with my son and daughter. No question about that.
What are you looking forward to?
New exhibitions, and the ability and the drive and the health to continue to work. This last piece of your life, you just gotta go for it. No time for not working. I’ll never retire. I’m just not interested in that.
Whatever endeavour you are doing, once you get past 70, you should be taking more risks, you shouldn’t be slowing down. You should be winding up.