Sam Chirnside: Interview

Harri Thomas
Dec 27, 2019 · 7 min read

By the late 1960s, the psychedelic art movement had achieved an unbelievable degree of cultural diffusion and dissemination. As psychedelia enjoyed its moment under Aquarius, diffracting patterns, rubber lettering and organic softly drawn typographies jumped the expanse from the counter-culture into mass consciousness. In doing so, it was adopted into the very system of capitalism that the hippies had struggled so hard to change. All the rules of what it meant to be part of a sub-culture had been lost to the abyss of commercialism and capital intrigue, stripping the movement of the potency which had driven its appeal. Psychedelic art was suddenly very uncool.

Portrait of Sam Chirnside by Colby Vincent Edwards

Psychedelic and its hallucinogens soon gave way to punk, liquor and party pills. As punk made its mark with apathetic shades of grey, psychedelic art faded unobtrusively into the back ground. Contrasting colors paled. Hippies cut their hair. The once vibrant culture had begun to slip away into forgotten photographs, in forgotten albums people never looked at.

But the colors didn’t die.

Swirling in kaleidoscopic patterns just below the surface of design manifestos, color served its time, waiting patiently for technology. Making a quiet return over the last couple of years, psychedelic art and it’s gentle hysteria was forgotten just long enough for its boundaries to be re-imagined, but not so drastically that its current form is unrecognizable from it’s last. Once again the movement has re-emerged as a meaningful, legitimate and popular form of self-expression.

A key figure in reviving psychedelia is Australian born, Brooklyn based artist Sam Chirnside. Sam’s work is informed by altered states of consciousness, bright colors, collage elements, oil-like pastel distortions and bizarre iconography. This free flowing exploration is contrasted by his interest in the clean lines of sacred geometry; a study anchored in the belief that the ordered nature of natural elements (such as the perfect hexagon in honeybees combs or shells forming a logarithmic spiral) is proof of cosmic significance and divine design intervention. That these interests coexist serves to amplify the free form nature of Chirnside’s body of work, and the resultant effect is as close to a disorientation of the senses as design can achieve. And that is just how he likes it.

We spoke to Sam in his apartment in Williamsburg about opportunities, the future, influences, growing up in the Australian bush and dream clients.

So tell me, how did you end up as an Australian in NYC?

I arrived at the beginning of last year. I knew I wanted to make it over here from Melbourne at some point, but the idea really only kicked off when I received an email from Doubleday and Cartwright who had seen my folio and reached out to me. It gave me the initial incentive to pack my shit and pretty soon I was here — I didn’t really know what it would be like but I was ready for a change. I was lucky enough to be given an ongoing position in the studio — which is where I still am. It keeps me busy during the day and has given me some great opportunities to work on campaigns for Redbull, Nike and even put together Danny Brown’s latest album cover. Any remaining time I have left, I try and work on as many freelance projects as possible, which I love doing. Most of the time the freelance work I take on ends up being closer in line with my personal work than what I do at the studio as clients generally approach me with a brief that gives me complete creative reign on a project, and we go from there.

But you are originally from a farming property in Victoria, Australia aren’t you? I think most would agree it’s not a traditional progression for designers, talk me through your influences growing up.

Yeah that’s true. I grew up riding dirt bikes and thrashing cars around in the bush, although I was always into painting and drawing growing up.

The country never restricted me from being creative. I had a lot of freedom and space to roam. If anything it has made me want to search more to discover what’s out there, which I think has ultimately helped broaden my horizon and outlook. I always knew I wanted to be a creative of some sort and it wasn’t until my final years of school that I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer — although I don’t want to restrict myself to only this discipline, just yet.

You have done quite a lot of album cover work; how did you get into this and is there a genre of music that you think fits your design sensibilities better than others?

I started off making personal mix tapes which I did the covers for and after a while I wanted to design physical covers, so I reached out to a few labels that I admired and heard back from one of my favourites, Planet Mu. They signed me on to do one artist (Tropics — Parodia Flare), and it just sort of grew from there.

In terms of a genre, psychedelia inspired music is usually right up my alley. Although I’m very open minded to all sorts of stuff and find myself switching constantly in search of new sounds. Anything from Electronica to Jazz to Krautrock; they all interest me and influence my work.

So, if you could design an album cover or poster for anybody, dead or alive, who would it be and what would it look like?

I’ve always found Sun Ra to be a huge inspiration, not only for his music but also because his outlook and approach to life was way beyond what anyone was else doing in that era. He thought he was from a different planet — a definite weirdo but he kept at it. All his artworks are amazing so it would have to be something that is pushing the boundaries once again.

But for something a bit more current, I am currently really digging Clark and Legowelt, so would love to do some art for them. Or anything put out on Brooklyn based L.I.E.S, those dudes are doing some rad shit –but all their vinyl jackets are blank. It suits their aesthetic, but if the opportunity came up, I would jump on board for sure.

Talk me through your creative process. A lot of your work is collage based. Where do you find the images that you end up using?

What I usually do is pull a bunch of references from a personal archive that I have going and go from there. It includes scans from vintage magazines, old vinyl covers, posters, ads, anything striking or slightly unusual. I always start with an image and then it spirals out to colours, patterns, compositions and experimentation.

A lot of my work is derived from trial and error and normally falls into place quite organically. There’s a hidden spot near where I live in Williamsburg, where I have been going recently to source some images and inspiration. It’s a thrift store and the basement is stacked wall to ceiling with milk crates, filled with old vinyls. There’s some amazing cover art down there.

So once you have an image, where do you turn to next?

So I then look for other references amongst the various themes that reoccur throughout my work.

And what would you say those are?

Tribes, cults, dreams, sacred geometry, altered consciousness and ancient civilizations, just to name a few. But I also turn to work produced by artists who explore similar themes; Strom Thorgerson, Rene Magritte, Superstudio and Herbert Bayer. Their strange juxtapositions and surrealist images have been a massive influence of mine over the years.

So, where to from here?

This year my plan is to focus on getting back to producing more personal work with the hope of showcasing some of it later this year around NYC. For now, I’m working on a collab with a couple of buddies that should launch soon and feeling very settled in New York, although Australia will always be home.

Make sure to check out Sam’s work here

Harri Thomas

Written by

Co-Founder of Respondent

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade