Studio Visit

Eamon Donnelly

Melbourne illustrator Eamon Donnelly has an unusual obsession with the humble Australian Milk Bar. He has spent the last 15 years documenting hundreds of old Milk Bars, Australia wide.

Over the past year,  Eamon has taken his project even further, developing his archive of photographs into a 300+ page coffee table book, titled Eamon Donnelly’s MILK BARS – Milkshakes, Memories and Mixed Lollies. The book, which Eamon is writing, photographing, designing and publishing himself, is due for release next year.

Lucy Feagins

Eamon Donnelly working on page spreads from his upcoming MILK BAR book. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Details from the studio of Eamon Donnelly. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Details from the studio of Eamon Donnelly. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files

Eamon Donnelly’s home studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Details from the studio of Eamon Donnelly. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files

Upcoming shots to be featured in Eamon’s MILK BAR book. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Studio details. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

Lucy Feagins
25th of March 2016

Once could say Eamon Donnelly is obsessive. This is a guy whose affection for the ordinary Australian milk bar has become an all-consuming odyssey. Eamon has spent a size-able chunk of the last 15 years documenting hundreds of old milk bars, Australia wide. This project, documented online and soon in print, has captured the hearts of many – Eamon has appeared in print media, on TV and radio sharing his enthusiasm for the iconic Australian convenience store.

Over the past year,  Eamon has taken his Milk Bar project even further, developing his archive of photographs into a 300+ page coffee table book, titled Eamon Donnelly’s MILK BARS – Milkshakes, Memories and Mixed Lollies. The book, which Eamon is writing, photographing, designing and publishing himself, is due for release next year! A signed and numbered selection of photographs from Eamon’s milk bar series is also available to purchase here.

It’s worth noting, this Milk Bar business isn’t even Eamon’s actual job. First and foremost, he’s an award winning commercial illustrator, whose clients include Nike, Rolling Stone, ESPN, American Airlines, GQ, Rip Curl, Red Bull, Mountain Dew and many, many more. He’s also the creator and editor of The Island Continent, a website which celebrates all things ‘Australiana’.  Launched in 2012, The Island Continent has become a dense archive of photography, signage, printed matter and other uniquely Australian imagery.

I guess you could call Eamon a historian, of sorts.  I’ve no doubt, in years to come, his extensive archive of photographs and rich pop-cultural ephemera will become an invaluable resource, and a vivid snapshot of suburban Australia in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Tell us a little bit about your background – where did you grow up and how did you originally become involved with illustration and graphic design?

I grew up in East Geelong. Growing up I was the kid that could draw. A creative only child could spend hours upon hours drawing, honing skills and immersing themselves into the creativity and imagination of childhood. Most of us are born with this creativity, all children draw but then at some point it’s shaken out of them and we are steered into a direction that is more stable and accepted as a profession. A ‘real job’ as creative people often hear! Thankfully my parents nurtured what they saw was a natural talent, with quite a lot of resistance from teachers.

I always wanted to be an animator and draw cartoons for Disney, at that time is was all still done by hand so that was a natural progression for a kid who adored Saturday morning cartoons. But as I got older I began to move my focus towards traditional illustration of the likes of MAD Magazine and American underground comics.

So in high school it was all about illustration, caricatures and also design or ‘graphics’. The natural progression towards a ‘real job’ was to go onto study design.

Once at RMIT I was still finding ways to illustrate and I saw that I could become a professional illustrator. After graduating and working various design jobs I went freelance, and started from the bottom. I always wanted to give the illustration dream a go. Drawing for a living was always my childhood dream. It was hard work starting out, but slowly after a long period of building up a style and aesthetic, promo work, and struggling to make a living from it, commissions started to trickle through.

I was illustrating full time from 2008, after years of on and off work in design. My first international job came from ESPN magazine that year, and from then it was a good solid 5 years full-time working predominantly for the US market from my one bedroom flat in Melbourne.

How would you describe your work, and what influences your distinctive aesthetic?

Geelong of the ’80s has been the biggest and most important influence in my work aesthetic. Imagine the excesses of Australia in the ’80s: the colour, fashion, design, culture.

The Milk Bar is the epitome of my aesthetic, the colour, design, advertising, summer, suburbs, graphics and great memories. My work evokes this nostalgia I hope.

What has been one of your favourite recent projects?

Last year I completed a two year book project designing Angus O’Callaghan Melbourne, which was self published through a hugely successful kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. Angus shot a Melbourne book project in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and failed to have his work published. Forty-five years went by and his photos were rediscovered, and I helped bring them to print. It was a very rewarding project seeing a man’s dream finally come true, and I was humbled to be able to be a part of it all.

Besides your own creative practice, you also edit your own website called The Island Continent that covers all things Australiana in pop culture, media and beyond. How did this fascination with Australiana begin?

Growing up with American influences in illustration, animation, comics and cartoons I wanted to develop a style that was distinctly Australian in flavour. Although my technique was influenced by the American artists, my experience was based on growing up in Australia. So they both naturally came together.

I started to look back at my childhood and what it was like at the time for inspiration. I began collecting books on Australian life, old advertising, ephemera, old commercials from VHS, going through the entire back catalogue of Australian films from the 1970s New Wave through to the ’80s Ozploitation, lost documentaries and anything that sparked a memory and could take me back to those days.

It all acted as an Australian recent history lesson. This collection became my inspiration for personal works and projects, therefore The Island Continent acts as a public version of my private collection and inspiration. All of the content is sourced from my archive, now it acts as a resource for others to learn and research this colourful period in our culture.

Stemming from This Island Continent, you also started to photograph iconic suburban Milk Bars of Australia – Can you tell us a little more about your soon-to-be-released Milk Bars Book?

The Milk Bar project started when I was really looking back at my childhood and the ’80s. We moved from East Geelong around 1990 to the other side of town where Milk Bars didn’t exist, it was a brand new development area. In around 2001/2002 I was visiting Mum and Dad and decided to take a trip down memory lane and look at our old house and visit the Milk Bar on the corner. Sadly, it was closed and only some signage remnants were left, a memory was all I had. I took a photo of the façade for a keepsake.

Then as time went on I began photographing the other old Milk Bars I had grown up with, and soon noticed things had changed, and I wanted to document this change. I was essentially collecting photographs of old Milk Bars, preserving the facades, old faded signage and interiors before they became resigned to history. I published a small softcover of photos from the project when I launched The Island Continent, and this is when the project took off and I realised I had tapped into something special, an important part of our history.

So I began to take the project further and develop it into a large 300+ page coffee table book, titled Eamon Donnelly’s MILK BARS – Milkshakes, Memories and Mixed Lollies, which I am writing, designing, photographing and self publishing.

In 2012, I put a call out to any past milk bar owner’s families to contribute memories, stories and old family photographs, and the response has been incredible so far. I began to photograph shops all over Melbourne and embarked on a Milk Bars road trip to Sydney through New South Wales and regional Victoria in 2014. Now my archive of Milk Bar photographs is in the thousands with a selection available as signed and numbered limited edition fine art prints via here. The book is in it’s final stages with a publication date set for 2017, and this week as a lead up to the book release I launched to continue the story and project in a dedicated online home.

Can you give us a little insight into the process behind your Milk Bars project? How have you discovered each milk bar, and how do you go about documenting each one?

I usually find the milk bars randomly while driving around, although when I went to Sydney I spent a day on Google Maps looking for them and saving the directions in my phone. In Melbourne there are usually only a few really sunny days a year, and I always try to shoot a Milk Bar when the sun is shining. Getting the shadows under an awning, the light hitting the facade and colour suits really suits a Milk Bar, evoking that sense of a warm summer ice cream purchase.

I even plan the time of day to shoot one, thinking about where the sun is during certain times of the year. Once I get my shots of a shopfront, details of signage, decals, interiors or a portrait of an owner if they are not shy, I’ll then do some post processing, straighten up the angles and bring out the colour. It’s all about the colour with this project. For one Milk Bar I can take around 20 photos just of all of the details. I’m essentially archiving them.

Which other Australian designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?

1. The life’s work of Alex Stitt, one of my biggest influences and heroes. He is Australia’s most iconic animator, illustrator and designer. Responsible for creating Norm, Life.Be.In.It and the Slip Slop Slap campaigns. I have a treasured signed and dedication print of Norm from Alex and his wife Paddy.

2. Ken Done. I find all of my current influences are always ones that stem back to my childhood and Ken, like Alex, is another image that is deep seeded in my psyche as a major influence. Ken and Alex’s colour palette is subconsciously referenced in all of my work. I have been lucky enough to meet Ken and chat about the ’80s, Milk Bars, art, design and Australiana.

3. Rennie Ellis. My first encounter with the work of Rennie was when I stumbled upon a book in a second hand shop from the 1984 titled Aussie: Australian’s At Play by Phil Jarratt, Australia’s foremost surfing journalist. The images in the book where by Rennie; beach culture, artists, designers, nightlife, cricket crowds ect. It was incredible and is one of my favourite books in my collection. Plus he shot a few great Melbourne Milk Bars, which I am planning on featuring in my book.

Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?

1. Sifting through hours of old commercials and TV station graphics from my VHS archive. Both creatively inspirational but also very humorous.

2. Flicking through my collection of photography books from the 1960s to the 1980s that captured the Australian way of life of the time. A Day in the Life of Australia, Life In Australia, This Is Australia, the list goes on…

3. YouTube for when I’ve watched all of my old VHS commercials, I can turn to YouTube to watch even more. I’m glad I’m not alone in this hobby.

4. Instagram. I am working with a Melbourne signwriter called Ted Hanna, he’s hand painting all of the chapter titles, cover art for the Milk Bars Book and site. So at the moment I’m obsessed with signpainting. I’m loving finding people all over the world that are traditional signpainters on Instagram.

5. Lastly my own archive is a huge source of inspiration.

What has been your proudest career achievement to date?

In 2014 I collaborated with the City of Sydney to curate my Milk Bar Photography Project for an art festival run yearly called Art & About. The festival runs for three weeks in September and the city’s streets, parks and surrounds villages are taken over by various art installations. Each year they invite an artist to take over the 500+ flag banners throughout the city, essentially transforming the traditional advertising banners into art. The end result was 500+ vertical banners of Milk Bar signage, shopfronts and interiors flying throughout the CBD, Redfern and Kings Cross. Milk Bars took over Sydney for three weeks. To have my banners lining Martin Place which is in fact the birthplace for the first ever Milk Bar, the Black & White 4d Milk Bar, owned by Greek Migrant 1932 by Joachim Tavlaridis aka Mick Adams, was very special.

What would be your dream creative project?

Definitely publishing my Milk Bars book and launching it with a large exhibition that could tour around Australia! Complete with a popup Milk Bar selling the book, milkshakes and mixed lollies!

What are you looking forward to?

There are a few iconic Milk Bars left to visit for my book. I am hoping to travel to Broken Hill this year to photograph the Bell’s Milk Bar. And some trips to South Australia and Western Australia to photograph their delis and delicatessens, which is what a Milk Bar is known as over in the west.


Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Albert Park is just a beautiful spot, being a beach kid living in the city, it’s important to still be close to the water, it’s good for my soul. I love being able to stroll around the lake and through to the beaches along the foreshore. The tree lined streets of Albert Park are just stunning.

What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?

A chicken parma from Mrs Parma’s on Little Bourke Street.

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Out in the sunshine, if I’m lucky, photographing Milk Bars, visiting family or just relaxing with a cup of coffee on the couch reading the papers with my wife Monique in our minute apartment with our minute pets, three Red Cherry Shrimps in our planted aquarium cube.

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

It’s close proximity to the Torquay Surf coast and the Great Ocean Road, the beautiful Dandenong Ranges National Park and of course the footy.

Eamon Donnelly at his home studio. Photo – Annette O’Brien for The Design Files.

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