Tomato’s John Warwicker on Designing Underworld

Published: by Khouri.

Designer Heath Killen initiated last month on his Website a new series of articles examining the relationship between design and music with a must-read feature on Underworld, arguably the most successful union of designers and musicians. In the piece, Killen goes in-depth with John Warwicker, longtime friend of Underworld and member of Tomato, the art and design collective of which Rick Smith and Karl Hyde are also parts.

“On hearing the initial versions of the tracks and in conversation with both Rick and Karl the (reborn?) energy was evident and ‘of its time’. A counter-point to ‘Oblivion With Bells,’” Warwicker told Heath, referencing the artwork for Barking. “Of course our conversations are not purely about music or imagery they are about many things, including general cultural and social matters. All of this combined to make the colourful deconstructed ‘mess’ that became the cover.”

In addition to his interview with Warwicker, Killen provides his own learned insight into Tomato’s work with Underworld, spotlighting and commenting upon most of the major releases and campaigns, some of which we’ve excerpted below.

Underworld’s third album, [Dubnobasswithmyheadman] their first under the visual direction of John Warwicker and Tomato, marked a significant evolutionary jump in both the musical and visual identity of Underworld. The artwork is dark, chaotic and typographic. The music is layered, hypnotic and narcotic. This release signaled that there was something truly special about the band – from the signature sounds they were making, to Karl Hyde’s steam-of-consciousness vocal poetry, to the indecipherable and utterly compelling artwork it was packaged in. – Killen

We are in constant touch with other so the ongoing conversation shapes what we all do. When asked about how tomato works i’ve always replied ‘it’s a bit like alcoholics anonymous, it’s a support system and critical forum’. Of course there are certain moments when this support and criticism is more pertinent than at other times but the effect of this rarely manifests itself in a major way it shapes and guides on a day to day basis. – Warwicker

At my most personal I see words and ideas like musical phrases (more poetry than literature) and typography as having similarities with music … tone, timbre, rhythm, ‘voice’. That is what I am trying to achieve, as in my book ‘The Floating World‘ and ‘Mmm… Skyscraper, I Love You’ as examples. – Warwicker

Tomato is different to most design groups that I know about, in that there is not a ‘style’ that dominates or shapes any expression. Tomato was initiated as a conversation/support system/critical forum rather than a studio interested in modernist expression (as an example). Tomato is set up to support the individuals on their own exploratory journey and whatever form that might take. It is expansive rather than reductive. This is not a criticism of other studios, far from it. it’s just how we are. the onus on everyone is to bring back something different whether it be an improvement in craft or something radically different, something unexpected. – Warwicker

One thing that all Underworld covers share is the sense of the hand-crafted, the use of material, ink, paint and paper. Even when the work is purely digitally, there’s still a rawness and grittiness to it all that makes it feel special and unique. – Killen

For more of this excellent material with John Warwicker, including anecdotes specific to several designs, please visit Heath Killen’s site.