To know JP Williams is to enjoy the pleasure of his company while being continually surprised by his relentless aesthetic sensibility. He’s a creative director and designer, a Southerner who’s traveled widely. He maintains his singular blog and just happened to have been painted by the late Richard Merkin. He wears white shoes and drinks gin year-round, which is a lesson for all the kids out there. He has an exhibition opening tonight at Mondo Cane in Tribeca, Little Things: A Flaneur’s Finds, that’s full of brilliant, idiosyncratic objects that are carefully considered without losing their light touch.
JP’s range of knowledge is unmatched, his perspective is even better. What follows is one of the most wide-ranging interviews we’ve ever conducted. He’s a friend of ACL. and believe it when we tell you we’re proud of that fact.
David Coggins: Let’s talk about your collections and the objects you made.
JP Williams: I have different categories of collections. And one of them is that when I travel around the world I always buy a ball of twine. I go to a hardware store or a market. So each one that I’ve had cast is from a different place, one of them is called Florence, one is called Dusseldorf. This one is from the Paris flea market, it must be from the 1840s. There’s a little bit of a character to them. When the economy was poor, instead of buying things I started looking at my collections. That’s why I started the blog. I started to revisit box after box of things. Then I started writing the stories behind them. I have a great memory for detail.
DC: And do you trace your habits in collecting things to when you were a boy?
JPW: Yes. When I was a child on Sundays my dad and I would go out to the outdoor market in Fairfield, Alabama. And he would buy me coins. It’s easy for a kid to collect coins, you could find a 1955 double dye in your change. Then we would go to the coin shows. Objects really started when I was in college in Virginia. I would start hitting the antique markets. I went to six colleges. So I went to every little town and really loved finding the local food and local people and I always wanted to be a townie. Whether it was Indiana or Harrisonburg, Virginia. I would buy cigar boxes. Not a lot, but I was killing time. I played a sport and then when you finish soccer season you had three and a half hours a day—what are you going to do? So then on the weekends I go around and I had a car and I loved riding around the countryside.
DC: It was the process of finding them and seeking them out—not just design. And it seems like you respond to things with a history and a utility to them.
JPW: That’s right. It’s mostly about form. I always loved Morandi—and I always studied art history. Even in high school, my mom took me to the Birmingham Museum of Modern Art and I took watercolor lessons. I would see all these amazing Hudson River School paintings and my mom really wanted that for me. My mom would drive me 52 miles and sit outside while I would have private watercolor lessons. And I had lessons from Wayne Spradley, the South’s most famous watercolorist. He’s like this ex-iron worker with hands the size of claws, but he would hold these little brushes. He used paper that was 60 inches and take this giant brush and I would sit and learn with him. And then soccer became important and I stopped doing that. Then I went to college and played soccer and found myself an art major. And I loved Hopper and Morandi and Chardin and loved the 19th Century French Romantics.
DC: Morandi and Chardin are two of my favorites.
JPW: Yes, and Latour. Then I started to study typography. It’s easier than dealing with a white canvas. Then you have a square and you put some dots on it and it activates the space. Frankly, it was a lot easier.
DC: Because there are parameters with an endgame in mind.
JPW: Yes. There was a goal. Then I transferred to Rhode Island School of Design—that was the fifth school—and I finally got comfortable. And I finished playing soccer and I got that out of my system. I wasn’t going to be the next Pele.
DC: It’s probably good to know that you’re not going to be the next Pele—or the next Picasso.
JPW: Yes. I learned that way too late.
DC: Too late in that you were disappointed?
JPW: Disappointed, yes, and delusional. Somebody should have told me that it’s not going to happen—you’re 5’11” and weigh 118 pounds.
DC: Your collections are very well arranged. Do you have hoarding issues—do your collections breed more collections?
JPW: I’ll show you. See those boxes up in that closet, and then there are more in my closet. I’m a member of the Ephemera Society of America. And you’re supposed to list what you collect. My category is collections of collections. This is a child’s practice book of handwriting and someone went back over it and put their wax seal collection. These phrases they’ve written again and again are something: “choose good books,” or here “quietly bear pain.” As you evolve through the history of collecting then people would collect letterheads. So these are drawings that this woman has made from stationery. They can put the most arbitrary things on a page and I love that.
I read a book a couple of years ago called “The Most Arrogant Man in France.” Some people said it was very appropriate. It was about his painting and he’s meeting his patron and he’s meeting his second and his hat is off and it’s all coding, very specific to 1855. And unless you know the coding it’s just a nice thing in the countryside. And that’s what I really love. And in design that’s really important to inform your viewer that you have as much of that information as possible. How we make signs.
You look at collecting something and then you can look at it on another level. In these objects that I’m casting and there are so many cool things you can cast but I tried to choose things that are not my favorite things. It should be a puzzle and think a little differently about it. That’s how design should be. You design a website and think how can you make it fresh?
DC: There are also books in the show.
JPW: Yes, when I travel and read a book I’m manic about marginalia. I always write my thoughts in the margins of the book. I put whatever I saved in there—here, I stopped at Colette, here’s something from a museum in Cologne—so I made five facsimile copies of my book with everything I wrote on every page and everything in it. So you can travel with me from Vienna to Dusseldorf and follow what I was thinking.
DC: So when you look back at these things does it’s like a portrait of what you were thinking at that time.
JPW: Well this is Ed Ruscha, and I’ve always been interested in him. It’s appropriate because I’m not a painter. And I think he approaches his work not like a painter. He thinks of words or what’s interesting. When I was in grad school I did a newspaper of one issue—or two issues. And it was called “Moist.” And it was for people in our department and I wrote an essay about walls in our house and how I was unhappy about the design department and how they weren’t doing what I thought they should be doing. And the next issue was called “Threshold.” He likes to make lists and I like to make lists of paintings I’ll never paint. And it was funny because I got on the plane with this book and somebody got on the plane with the book and I just smiled because it’s out of print and they probably got it at the Strand just like I did. It was about memory and nostalgia, but not sentiment. So this book is about found things, but also about thought and where I went and how I went there.
DC: I like that.
JPW: In the book they ask “why paint, why photography, why do a collage, when it’s all been done—how can you do it any better?” It can be a very cumbersome thing. And he talked about Robert Motherwell, who was a great art historian, who talked about how difficult it was to stand in front of a painting and know it all, know what had been before you. And I’ve always found that very debilitating.
DC: And you make collage books.
JPW: They’re collections of my detritus. A lot of them are visual exercises.
DC: This book looks like it’s filled with the inside of envelopes.
JPW: That’s right. I love these, and who does design them? I just put them in a book.
DC: Right—they’re also interesting because they’re hidden.
JPW: Envelopes from European countries are very different than ours. I have boxes of these. Boxes of things I didn’t throw away. I was telling my shrink I must have 10 boxes of things filled with collage material. I could make work for a year without leaving the apartment. He found that amusing and said “Well, why don’t you?” And I said, “Well, I have a mortgage.”
DC: So the show has objects as well as books.
JPW: I remember when I was on the Martha Stewart Show she held up a ball of my twine balls—the one I paid the most money for, from Paula Rubenstein—and said “My next guest thinks this is not a ball of twine but a work of art, so much so that he’d like to bronze it.” And I laughed, and after she went to jail I decided I’m really going to make it—before I had just thought about it. So I had it bronzed, and while she was in home confinement, or whatever it’s called, I sent it to her and said “I hope your ordeal is over soon.” And then she called us and she had us over for dinner while she still had her bracelet on. I got the seat right next to her and her mom was on the other side.
DC: You also collect—maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise—paperclips.
JPW: One of the photographs in the exhibit is a photogram of my paperclip collection. There are some pretty rare ones if you can believe it. There’s a book by Henry Petrowski.
DC: “The Evolution of Useful Things”?
JPW: Yes. And he wrote beautifully about paperclips.
DC: Didn’t he say they were the perfect use of space?
JPW: Right. I started to think about how we put documents together. You used to seal them, and then cut them apart and then the could staple them because they have a new machine. DC: I love that, because it’s part of the solution to something else. You want to read something and this is what facilitates that—and it’s probably invisible to the public at the time. It’s like a portrait of progress.
JPW: I would buy packets of documents just for the paperclips. But I would never tell the buyer’s that—they would think it was too weird. Then it evolved into one shape. But in the last few years there have been shapes like dogs and other things and it must be because of China. They’re able to do the wire technology that much more efficiently and cheaply than we used to.
DC: Let’s take a step back and talk about being a creative director and a designer.
JPW: We started our business, Allison and I, in 1993. I was the art director at Bergdorf’s when they launched the Men’s Store. And I was basically there because they didn’t want to hire a firm. I did the packaging and everything related to it. So we started doing retail. And corporate identity—now it’s called branding.
DC: Which term do you prefer? JPW: Corporate identity, without a doubt. I do think there are brands. I don’t think one store in one city is a brand. Identity speaks to soul, and what more you want to say. Brand is like putting a lot more sauce on your spaghetti. And a lot of times you don’t need that much more sauce. There’s a comfort value when you hire design firms. When we’re hired we’re partners, not dilettantes, and we’ll give you our opinion. You make the decisions and we go along with that but there’s an expertise that everybody has and that’s important. It’s like that panel with Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They asked what was the difference between the two and Steve Jobs said “Bill has no taste.” And it’s about taste. Most of our clients come to us because we share a common trait, a taste.
DC: When you do a new job—like a hotel—is that exciting getting out of your comfort zone? You have to come up with solutions to things you may not have even thought about going into it.
JPW: Yes. But the downside of that is that you come up with it but then don’t get paid for it. When you prod people, when you give them suggestions you do it in a way that’s a partnership.
DC: That’s the danger of being an idea man.
JPW: Yes, that’s right. I like being the idea generator. That reminds me of the article in the New Yorker about the designer at Nintendo.
DC: That piece was great—I knew nothing about him and then couldn’t stop reading it.
JPW: Right, I read it twice. It was one of the best articles I’ve ever read about the creative process and about play. It was brilliant. It gave you a thoughtful presentation about how to think. I’ve always been interested in how people think, in where ideas come from. How can you facilitate things to make someone else make a creative leap they hadn’t made before?
DC: You’ve worked on hotels before and you travel a lot. You must have some favorites.
JPW: I like considered hotels. When we travel we send out our laundry just to see what it will look like when it comes back. We would take photographs of how it was packaged. My ashes will be thrown at Amandari. It’s changed a lot since we were there, but we spent the millennia there and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s about details—not the level of service so much, but the level of thoughtfulness. I like to feel refreshed by someone’s point of view, even if it’s not mine.
DC: There’s something else we should discuss. When we met you were wearing white shoes, and then when we met again you were wearing white shoes again and it wasn’t a coincidence.
JPW: No, it wasn’t. That definitely comes from my father. He was a dandy. When he died he had 56 pairs of shoes. My father shined the bottoms of his shoes. He was in the Korean War. And the most beautiful Johnston & Murphy’s you could possibly imagine. And when I was 15, I went to the local Son’s & Hardwell, which is the Paul Stuart of Birmingham that’s no longer there. My dad bought me a pair of white bucks and I’ve had them ever since. I graduated high school, college, and grad school in a seersucker suit and white bucks. And I wear them all year long and I’ve had them custom made because they don’t make them any more the way I like them, and I’m very particular about the seams. I polish my shoes. I think shoes separate the person—I really do. It’s about consideration.
Interview by David Coggins.