The Philosophy of Ill

Skateboarding, high fashion and great visual puns. All in a days work for Ill Studio.


A couple of months ago I started putting together the bare bones of an article that was supposed to be about the graphic design scene in Paris. Since the Electro explosion of the mid 2000s, and all the music-based design and image-making it spawned, I’ve had this notion of the French capital being a hub of graphic creativity; of music producers and art directors rubbing shoulders with DJs and illustrators on a daily basis, concocting plans for mind-bending record sleeves and trippy live visuals. So I got in touch with some of the people I believed to be at the centre of this scene, and shortly after my editorial idea fell apart. The replies came back thick and fast; “No there’s no graphic design scene to speak of.”

“I’ve met him but we’ve never worked together.”

“It’s just not really that kind of place.”

Shit.

But then I spoke to Ill Studio who, although confirming what I’d already been told about Paris, mentioned that they did indeed have a network of collaborators — though not really the kind I had in mind.

“I think you know more than we do about the graphic design scene in Paris to be honest,” Thomas Subreville, one of Ill’s founders, tells me. “We have a whole community that we work with but it’s not necessarily designers. The way we work is different. We don’t consider ourselves to be designers, art directors, fashion designers or whatever; we don’t see ourselves as any of these specific jobs. We just do them all.”

Bally, 2014
CAPC Poster

Thomas and his partner Léonard Vernhet have been not doing any specific jobs since 2007 when they co-founded Ill Studio. Having met in their teens and skated together around Paris they set up their own skate magazine, Chill , in 2004 to channel their interest in the sport into something more productive, and to create a vehicle for their design aspirations. “Chill was kind of just about experimentation for us. It was a blank slate every month and we didn’t have a specific aesthetic, but it was very much an early 2000 type of look; hand-made fonts and illustration, that kind of thing. It had nothing to do with what we do now. It wasn’t really skateboard-related either. We love skateboarding but we’ve always been into the practice of it rather than skate graphics and the culture.”

Neither Thomas nor Léonard had any formal design education, going straight from school into the magazine business. While their peers were finding out about the history of art, Ill were cutting and pasting the pages of their own publication. Some might see that as a disadvantage, but the guys insist it’s a factor that still drives their design philosophy. “We just learned everything over the years from scratch and I guess that’s one of the reasons why we’ve never really known where we’re going. That’s still the vision of things we have today. We didn’t learn a specific job so that provides a kind of freedom for us to do whatever we want. Today we could have no jobs on or we could have 20 very different ones — we just take them as they come. Whether we’re doing design or publishing or directing a video it’s all the same to us because we didn’t learn any of that from school.”

In spite of its success and the freedom it afforded, both Thomas and Léonard knew from the start that Chill wasn’t their true calling. After dissolving it in 2006 they set their sights on an entirely different venture. “When Chill stopped we had this studio thing in mind, because we knew we didn’t want to do a magazine forever. We’d grown up being into skateboarding and music and that led us to fashion, art and all sorts of things. We had the idea of creating a structure like an empty shell that could allow us to pretty much do whatever we wanted; to put all our ideas together. So we cut the C and H off Chill and turned it into Ill Studio.”

Christophe Lemaire, Növo Still Life

Seven years on Ill Studio are one of the most respected, experimental creative studios going, counting Louis Vuitton, Nike, Lacoste and Chanel among their clients; The New York Times, i-Dand Nowness too. They self-publish books, hold exhibitions of web-art-themed sculpture and have even made their own range of motorcycle helmets. They’ve also grown since the early days, taking on Nicolas Malinowski, Thierry Audurand, Pierre Dixsaut and Sebastien Michelini to bolster their output. Although the scale of the studio has changed and the projects evolved, the core of what they do is still motivated by skating.

“Skateboarding is not our lifestyle and we don’t skateboard anymore, but it still has an influence on the way we see the world. We realised over the years that the fact that we grew up skating and had been doing it for over 20 years had a much bigger impact on our vision of things; of art and architecture and movement. If you look at our book Neapolis, at the selection of art pieces, all of them are skateable, and that’s why we were attracted to them. It was totally unconscious but we all felt the same.

“When you grow up skateboarding you look at the world very differently. You can look at a simple curb in the street and you think ‘That’s cool. I can skate that.’ And after that, whether you want to or not, you look at a curb as something you can skate. And we have this with everything around us. Even if we don’t skateboard, or read skateboard magazines or watch skateboard videos anymore we still look at a curb the same way as we did when we were 15 years old. It changes your whole perspective.”

Joakim, Bring Your Love (still)
Joakim, Bring Your Love (still)

What’s definitely changed about the studio since 2007 is Ill’s sense of self. When they started Thomas says, they were very insecure and their priority was to be the best at everything. Over time he and Léonard have had to learn to do their own thing. “I don’t know how many projects we’ve done over the past seven years — maybe 700 or 800 — but after a while you become more confident about what you do and don’t necessarily look at others to make sure you’re still relevant. At the beginning people call you because they’ve heard about you and it’s all aboutsavoir faire, and then later they call you because they want something specific. Now they call Ill Studio because they want the Ill Studio vision of things, whatever job it is, and I guess that makes you think differently. Once you’ve done 800 projects the pressure is not the same as when you’ve only done ten. And that just comes with age.”

Seven years from now Ill hope to be in the same situation; getting paid to have fun and working on any number of great projects. But Thomas stresses that to all of his team, change is vital. “It might sound like a childish vision of things but I think we have this in common; we don’t want to be stuck doing one specific job. In seven years yes, we’d like to still be working together, but if we’re doing the same types of projects then that’s not where we want to be.

“There’s a lot of people who still don’t really know what Ill Studio is, and they’ll call us because they’ve heard of us but they don’t know what we do. The goal is to preserve that kind of blurry situation, where we’re privileged to be able to do a lot of different things. If we turned into a big agency of course we’d be richer, but that’s not the main goal for us. We do this because we want to be free.”

Ruby Helmets

Originally published in Printed Pages Winter 2014.