Fabien Baron is a French director, art director and magazine editor. He is best known for his iconic ad campaigns and work as editorial director of Andy Warhol's Interview magazine. We caught up with Fabien in his New York offices before the pandemic, and his sentiments hold true.
Julia von Boehm: You are a very good friend of mine, and I always knew that you had an extraordinary talent, but after having seen this book, I am so blown away.
Fabien Baron: Are you really?
JVB: I am, because I knew everything you were doing, but you rarely see everything in such a concise and put together way by you. It is perfectly edited; it’s a feast for the eyes.
JVB: Yes, very much, even my kids thought so! Yes, it is so well done. It is quality, it’s rare these days and it’s wonderful to see everything you have done and experienced with quality. To me that’s heaven, because it doesn’t exist anymore, and I am even prouder to be your friend since I saw the whole impact, it’s nice to see it all in a book— I’m wondering how that feels? We are all really weird about stopping, I think we are very similar in never stopping or patting ourselves on the shoulder — we don’t really do it, we don’t have time for that, it’s like: on to the next.
FB: No, I don’t like that actually—
JVB: I don’t like it either, I get it, but I was feeling very good about you putting out this book because it’s so monumental, how did you decide to do it?
FB: It’s been in the air for a while, a long time, and I never liked the way it looked. I never liked the feeling of doing something chronological or something that was, you know, in a specific order. I didn’t think my mind worked that way. I tried to find a way to make the book work as who I am and best representing myself.
JVB: I know, I know, I totally get it.
FB: It’s a self portrait —
JVB: — so how can I make it of a quality that I am okay with?
FB: — I didn’t put things in that I didn’t believe in. I took out so many things that politically should have been in there —
JVB: I’m sure, which is what makes it so special.
FB: I wanted the book to be really more about me and what I represent—
JVB: About you but not about you, edited by you instead of celebrating yourself, that’s what comes across to me.
FB: What do you mean by celebrating myself?
JVB: Well, it’s always uncomfortable for people, I think, to say I did this, I did that, dah dah dah…
FB: Ah like the amount of work, this work, that work, the most important work so it has to be in there…
JVB: Yes, you edited it down to what you loved.
FB: I did, down to (for example) Madonna’s look, I could have put so many in there but I put the cover and one picture, and it’s not even Madonna in there.
JVB: So it is not obnoxious, it is just very well edited which is what you always do.
FB: It’s something I felt was more representative of who I am, and it worked because I sectioned the book into mindsets, like all the different sides of me that together represent who I am. There is one side that is extra minimal, perfectionist, clean, super clean, cold, almost like a razorblade, super graphic and there is another side that is more playful.
JVB: But it’s always effective.
FB: Yes, I hope so.
JVB: Even my parents saw the book in Berlin and were like ‘Oh my god, I didn’t realize what he did, he influenced so many sides of Fashion, it becomes very clear how much you’ve been an influence across fashion.
FB: Well, good then.
JVB: Very good, because it always feels honest, you have always been very honest and true to yourself.
FB: Yes, very honest. I tried the book many different ways for many years, I tried to work on it like this, like that, for a few weeks, I gave it to someone else to design, I didn’t like it, and tried that again and didn’t like it, so I was thinking what is it? And then one day I came across these pictures that I had taken, these pictures that were actually fashion and these graphics, and these objects, and everything, and when I put them together I realized this is all the same—
JVB: Yes but no, but yes—
FB: They all are really pointy, or they all are really square, I started to realize, wait a minute—
JVB: You actually understood that you have your language, which you never understood before. People always understood it around you, but…
FB: Yeah, maybe, or I have a point of view for sure, but I take that same point of view across different mediums.
JVB: Yes, of course, which is to me so necessary, and especially for success in these days because everybody is confused and nobody knows where to go and the future is not really clear, so when people see a solid thread and a wonderful interpretation that is appropriate for the time that we live in, that is the most secure thing we can see.
FB: Yea, something else that was important, is that I want all the images that were included, that when you opened the book it felt like today, and not yesterday, or nostalgic, or 70s…
JVB: But it doesn’t, for me your work is ‘en temporal’ iconic, it stays modern, like Helmut Newton, and you have this language that very few people have.
FB: What was interesting was to realize that a picture taken in 2017 next to graphics from 1980’s next to a piece of furniture from 95 next to a drawing from 2001, they had all the same things I’m drawn to, they relate to one another. So what became important was to separate the thoughts I had in my mind then, to separate the thoughts in kind of like this is one aspect of me, this another aspect of me, this is the color of me, this is…The way the mind works. You know, the similar aesthetic across the board but different mindsets, more dangerous, more crazy, elegant, pure, sophisticated, throw away, messy, crazy.
JVB: But all with the same signature which is Fabien Baron.
FB: Yes, so I organized things in that way, instead of you know more sectarian, almost religious in some cases. I found that, for someone not being religious at all, there is something there, this need of something not religious, but spiritual. There is some side of spirituality in what I do, right? So it was interesting to connect with myself, and for the first time—
JVB: You never do! You have no time!
FB: I’m just a worker, and I just do that work so it was interesting and very complex to put the book together and section it in these ten parts.
JVB: I think you did a great job, to be honest, really really, I get it.
FB: And it was interesting that way, rather than doing chronological work. It more timeless because just looking at the imagery you cannot say definitively oh this is this year or that year.
JVB: It makes more sense, I think, that’s a very modern approach, it makes sense because sometimes we go back to the past because we have a need for it .
FB: I don’t think we can put a time on the work this way, which is why I put the dates on purpose on each piece of artwork, to see that oh, this feels more ahead than some stuff of 2019. It’s interesting that —
JVB: But you’re a wonderful visionary.
FB: — interesting that at the end, it’s the same. I think all of this, what’s in the book is my vocabulary. It’s the words and ideas I like to work with in general. My spectrum is not as narrow; people thought of me before the book as like, oh the guy that does graphics.
JVB: But I mean, all the graphics you did are insane, and so perfect, all of them. Nobody does it like that anymore.
FB: No, I know. It’s not that many graphics in the book even, there’s more pictures.
JVB: But they go in hand with graphics, they have the same signature.
FB: But here are a lot of pictures, and film work as well, so it’s interesting, and there are a lot of objects as well. The balance between the magazine works, objects— I was very careful with that not to put too much of one thing because I don’t want to have a sticker, I don’t want to be the type of guy, for many people I am that, nobody realized i was taking so many pictures. Many people said oh whose picture is that? It’s mine!
JVB: Because if you don’t publish it, they don’t know.
FB: People didn’t realize I was doing all these drawings, landscapes—
JVB: There comes a point in life when you are ready to share it with people, and I think you did it wonderfully.
FB: So that was one aspect of the book. The second aspect of the book is that many people know I do magazines, furniture, film work, fashion pictures, perfume bottles, packaging, whatever. They know that. Dior, Clavin Klein… one thing they have no idea about is that all along this way I did the same amount of work for my photography, my drawings, and this is the first time they’ve been published. So I mixed them together to show a thread and the thoughts. To see Calvin Klein next to Iceland, done in a very specific way, or to see a seascape against a set design for someone else, or an experimental set for myself and then a Dior campaign or a magazine like Bazaar and then a drawing that has never been published is interesting because it’s more about the process and how I used my personal work for the professional.
JVB: This brings us to a question about work and creativity, the process and how you approach personal vs professional?
FB: That’s a very good question, because it’s a big dilemma that is kind of disappearing more today as artists now work in both commercial and artistic ways, for example Daniel Ashram. There are many more artists today who are willing to work in both ways. Before, if you were a commercial artist— which I was — and legitimate, I could never be a proper artiste. Form the 80’s it was this way. If you work at Bazaar, you are not an artist. All my life I did my own work because I believed it and I loved it and I needed to do it. I collected my own artwork, almost. What is in the book is 0.1%, a tiny percentage of that body of work.
JVB: It is very well done because people get to know you through the book.
FB: Well, it’s a sample. It’s a sample of the tree pictures, a sample of the sea pictures, a certain type of drawing, it’s just one of, but each of these is a full portfolio. The forest pictures, I must have 5000, sea pictures i must have 10 000. The thing was to liberate myself from this concept of commercial vs personal artist. No, I am who I am and I believe in doing type, film, fashion pictures, but I also believe in my own artwork and it’s fine and okay to mix the two because it’s my vision and it works together. Today it is more acceptable, you see brands associating themselves with artists all the time, working together on ideas. For example, when Richard Prince or Jeff Koons does LV, he is still an artist, and he is able to work in a commercial way. The lines are much more blurred than they were in the 80’s.
JVB: Thank god.
FB: Thank god, yes. So I sprinkled the commercial work throughout the book with the artwork, and I did that because I felt this is the other side of me so if I am doing a book I have to show this. Not in a big way, but to show there is more than having CK ads.
JVB: People are very thirsty for these kinds of explanations, things are all over the place right now so it is reassuring, to recognize the work of someone right away without being repetitive.
FB: The intention is to explain that the artwork is here, it’s not something I feel the need to hide anymore. I took an atelier upstairs (from my office), it’s my playground, just my stuff. I am going to make prints, and there are white walls where I can do whatever I want. I am going to print all the work I have, an archive that has never been seen in print, even by me.
JVB: It always gets pushed under the carpet because we don’t have time—
FB: No it’s not that, I never had the acceptance in my head to say that it was valid work, you know? It’s artwork, and it’s much more than I think I even realize it is. Gallery work, museum, that’s what I want to do. Fuck it, why not?
JVB: Exactly, work with people you appreciate and also appreciate you own work.
FB: I really put so much work into my personal collection. If you think I’ve done a lot of commercial work, like Bazaar, Calvin, I’ve put almost as much time and work into the other things, and people don’t know that.
JVB: But let me tell you this, it never felt commercial to me, always like art, whatever you did.
FB: Sure, fine, but it was to the purpose of commerce. This is to the purpose of just me. That was commerce, I made money from it, I sold myself, I was working for brands, for this for that — it was commercial.
JVB: Okay, but it never seemed like you sold yourself.
FB: Fine. But the other thing was just me, myself and I, going with my camera and taking pictures, doing things on my own, like doing artwork on my own, drawing on my own, the things I wanted for me.
JVB: I like that.
FB: Like Jeff Koons does it, you know? And that side people don’t know about, but I’ve collected a tremendous amount of work over the years, from the 80’s up until now is a lot of time. I must have put a third of my time into it, at least.
JVB: It is about time, I am very pleased that you are sharing it with the world.
FB: So now the process is looking at this archive, and printing everything.
JVB: I like it! It must feel good.
FB: Yeah, me too I like it, it feels great, amazing. When I see some of the pictures I took in 1982, how many do you think I have… imagine how many I have?A crazy amount. Enough for, I don’t know, three books (of seascapes) same with the forests, I think I put five or six of the forest, but I have thousands, from 15 years of going to the forest taking pictures.
JVB: So now you are going to play with them in your playground. How did you get started on your path?
FB: Oh the beginning? My goodness, that’s a long story. In Paris, going back to that time?
JVB: Yeah, when you started working?
FB: Seventeen, I started really early I left school after one year of art school. I left to work directly in magazines in France with my Dad. I was 17. I think I packed up some years of knowledge when kids were doing parties. I didn’t party that much, I worked. And then when I was 20 I moved here (New York City).
JVB: How did you decide to move here? Why?
FB: I moved here because it was impossible in Paris with my dad being an art director and me wanting to do something — it was too tight.
JVB: It wasn’t functioning well?
FB: No, I think it was a little bit complicated…
JVB: Okay, let’s talk industry climate. For me it is actually so fascinating, it’s like everybody is lost—
FB: You mean where it’s at today? It’s a big change, it’s the digital age that is changing everything. The digital has changed the approach to communication and to the way people perceive imagery and perceive anything visual at all, actually. We’ve entered the age of visial communication.
JVB: We don’t read anymore.
FB: The word was the most important thing, and now the words have become captions and the image has become the substance of what we’re looking at.
JVB: Mainly the bad image, unfortunately.
FB: Because there’s a lot of it.
JVB: Too much of it, it’s not edited.
FB: Of course there are too many images, of course, but there is so much because now the voice is for everyone. As digital democratized imagery, and the phone, the tool itself democratized taking pictures and video and making it something very common. Also the fact that everybody is on a device, everybody is on Instagram, everybody is on the internet and social media, has allowed everyone to have a voice and click and post. It created a sea, like a tornado of visuals where, in it, there is very little that is good, but the intention is not be good I think, the intention is in a new form of vocabulary, a new form of expression— it’s like a language, people talk through visuals, they say things through visuals. They add a few words when you don’t get it, but most of the time you don’t need the words, like you know some people do long captions but those people don’t read.
JVB: Even if it’s just like three lines people don’t read them.
FB: Visual are meant to be chewed in a second, half a second.
JVB: That’s the problem, there’s so much out there that you can’t give time to anything, which I believe is dangerous, because not reading things at depth is a danger to me. You miss out.
FB: I come from the generation where imagery was respected as a thing that you use carefully, that you thought about, mannered, precise. It’s very hard for me to dialogue in this slang way of doing visuals. It’s very difficult, but that said the new generation they communicate only like that. Short videos—
JVB: But funnily enough we turn to our old values.
FB: But they do not attach aesthetic to it. It’s a language, so it’s mode of communication, so yes they don’t attach aesthetic to it. We do, because we’re from that generation so very few people are adding anything to the equation they are just passing by. That’s why when you scroll on instagram, and you go up and down, and you put your phone down and I tell you like, what do you remember image wise? You don’t.
FB: I remember images when people do flashbacks like old movies, because I remember them anyways. But there’s so much, I don’t even look at Instagram to be honest.
JVB: I do. I’ve learned some things— like I learned about the slime museum today for my kids, which is great— but it’s crazy how it became the news channel.
FB: It is, it has become what the magazines were about, it’s a service. That’s where the learn what new restaurant is cool, what to eat, how to dress. And now it’s a shopping mall.
JVB: I stopped reading emails, because it became the same thing.
JVB: Yea, and I feel so much better. I tell people to text me if they want or really need something. I’m at 1900 unread… But it helped me, I feel so much better since I stopped because the people who actually want to get me, will anyways.
FB: Between Instagram, email, Facebook— which I don’t do— social media, that can take half a day, just dealing with it.
JVB: I agree that it’s important… But it’s all too much. Normally when we walk in the streets we look at things, we don’t go on email, listening to music while someone is calling you, I think it’s confusing to the people.
“It’s something I felt was more representative of who I am, and it worked because I sectioned the book into mindsets, like all the different sides of me that together represent who I am.”
FB: I don’t know if it’s confusing, you are able to do multiple things at one time, I think it’s fine.
JVB: But I think it’s tough, it’s an overflow of information to me, at least. That’s why I like to sit down with a book and read, and it gives me a sense of peace and quiet, and I try to do that with my kids in front of the fireplace to really feel it.
FB: The thing is whether you want it or not, this is where it’s going. This is the future. And we’re here and we have to deal with it. The thing is, these tools we have at our hands, what can we do creatively to make it a solid proposition. To me, I don’t have a problem with it. The problem I have is when people don’t do anything, or don’t add anything more, or don’t bring anything to the party. You have to say what you want to say, but you need to bring something to the party. I think that’s very important.
JVB: And staying true to yourself. Which a lot of people lose through this.
FB: They don’t have anything to say and it shows. They don’t want to say anything or they don’t want to make an effort to say it properly though pictures, in words or whatever. But the voice is open to everyone, everyone has a microphone and can sing on the stage.
JVB: It’s a problem.
FB: Yes, it can be a problem.
JVB: I wasn’t a less is more situation, to buy less for example, but you have always been like this no?
FB: I was never a consumer, I’m a worker, I’ve thought about that a lot.
JVB: How can we change the climate, or what should we be looking for?
FB: I think it’s up the individual. In this device, you can be anywhere in the world with everything at your disposal. You have a camera, you can film, you can do a good quality picture now with three lenses, and these machines get better. You can do anything you want, you can write on it, draw on it. So you have the technology that is pushing you to communicate whichever way you want and on any platform, and be out there in a millisecond. So now, the question is, what do you have to say? It’s not the tools, the tools are fine. Whether it’s a pen, or guache, or a camera, or a big film camera, it doesn’t matter, it’s a tool. How do you use the tool to your advantage to help you communicate what you have to say?
JVB: And not get confused.
FB: Brands get confused, everybody gets confused. And it’s very basic. We are professional communicators. I am a professional visual expert. Every time I’m going to use something visual I’m going to do my best, it’s my job. But that said, it doesn’t mean that people can’t do it, but it’s not good to have the tool take you on a ride instead of taking the tool on your creative ride. So many people get eaten by this (picking up iPhone), and it should be, you should use it to your advantage. People ask me all the time or say, “I don’t take my photos on an iPhone, but I do there’s not one picture on there that’s not iPhone. That’s the point of my instagram, it’s all iPhone.
JVB: But you show it with incredible quality, which is the opposite of this content I mentioned.
FB: And that’s why I’m doing my instagram, that too. It’s not looking like my book, or looking like my landscapes either, because it’s not supposed to. It’s a different thing.
JVB: And it’s curated.
FB: Yes, absolutely.