Some call him the bad boy of web design; others say he's a pioneer. Adrian Sandiford discovers that, ultimately, Joshua Davis is an artist looking for patterns.
Joshua Davis lives a chaotic life. An icon of web design, a technological pioneer and a digital artist, the 35- year-old's existence in New York revolves around his own commercial studio and teaching at the city's School of Visual Arts. And still, he finds the time to work on more personal projects, exhibit in museums, travel across the world to speak at conferences, and, last but not least, take on our cover commission this month. Chaos, indeed - but, crucially, it's controlled chaos.
Herein lies the key to understanding Joshua Davis. His work is based on the idea of design as chaos theory. Or, to be more precise, he is an artist who develops computer code that randomly creates patterns out of his own drawings. In short, he combines self-created technology with self-produced art.
"I'm still the artist but I like to write programs that take my handmade drawings and generate things," explains Davis. "The idea is that a lot of things can be described as patterns. If you look at our world, for example, it's based on boundaries. There's gravity, there are certain forces like wind, and all of these things play into how our world exists and acts."
What Davis does is to write computer code that duplicates the random patterns he sees around him, and then throws his artwork into that system. He may, for instance, write a program that creates the movement of a tornado inside a sealed box. Off to the side, he'll do some drawings - say, a rooster, some trees, flowers, an umbrella and a cat.
Inside the box
He'll then ask the program to draw 300 things inside the box with the added stipulation that it can only use his drawings, which it will start to randomly choose and duplicate. From a foundation of five hand-drawn assets, Davis will then get an array of images. Combined with the tornado, the result is a random selection of predetermined artwork being spun around. Davis can then pause the program and look at the position of the abstracted images.
Roosters may have been fragmented into feathers, umbrellas distorted into new forms. The different elements are duplicated and reconfigured so many times that the original drawings are often hard to discern. If Davis likes the composition, he can extract it. If not, he'll stop and start the program again. The final image is then tidied up and refined in Illustrator.
"The basic idea is that I'm programming pattern makers," says Davis. "My systems are literally based on things like the movement of water or wind. I really will program these environments, throw my artwork into it, freeze it and that will then become the elements for a poster." It's as if he's trying to synthesise his own art with the beauty found in nature. Or, as Davis would have it, "Every time I ask the system to run and pause I'll get a completely unique set of patterns - just like a snowflake. I may have to run a program a few hundred times. It's a truly random and chaotic event but it's one based on rules."
Those rules are the controlled boundaries that Davis sets in the code he writes. In this case, the program will only use artwork he's told it to, the tornado will follow the properties that he's dictated and the colours will be limited to those he's selected, which all adds up to the following: "When I ask this thing to generate, I'm going to get the same look and feel every single time, but the image will always be completely unique."
It wouldn't be overstating the case to say that this way of creating images has brought an entirely new dimension to art. Although his interest in controlled chaos may well echo the work of Jackson Pollock - whom Davis says he identifies with conceptually - the boundary-pushing use of technology adds an entirely unique perspective on creative expression, pioneering an area previously unexplored in graphic design.
"By writing these programs, the act of creating artwork ends up being much quicker than if I had to do it manually," says Davis. "Imagine if I had to duplicate everything manually. Some pieces are over 40,000 layers in Illustrator. I've done a piece that was 70,000 layers. It would take forever to do that manually.
"The other thing is that I'm able to start over. Having my work run inside a program means that I can have an infinite amount of compositions. I can ask the program to run again and it will present a completely new and unique piece of artwork," he says, before adding the aside that he first struck upon the idea when looking at the structure of traditional gift paper while on holiday in Japan.
It's no surprise that the commercial world loves Joshua Davis's sumptuous images and cutting-edge 'cool', whether it be an interactive web-based piece or a print derived from one of his programs. Clients, to name just a few, include big hitters such as Motorola, Nokia, Nike, Diesel; musical acts such as Kanye West and Tool; and magazines such as Surface, Issue One and Wired. If you add exhibitions at London's Tate Modern and Design Museum; Paris's Centre Pompidou; and New York's P.S.1/MoMA, you have a man well placed to shed some light on how this area is likely to develop in the future.
"I wish I had the answer to that," came the reply. "But I don't really think about the future. I have this fear that if I do then I'm absolutely going to go in that direction. If I don't think about where this is all going then I'm free and open enough to write the future as I walk it. The future doesn't matter. When I get there, I'll get there."
While the future may be up for grabs, the past is already written - and in the case of Joshua Davis, extensively so. Most people tend to focus on his extensive tattoos, history of drug use and reputation as the "bad boy of design". Davis, however, regards all that as "irresponsible and lazy bullshit taken out of context". It's a position supported by the fact that he's been sober for 13 years and is possibly one of the most amiable, hardworking, focused people you're likely to meet. The tattoos are, quite simply, "a pure, spiritual thing", while the real reason he speaks so openly about his former addiction is as a lesson to young designers.
The real story of Davis's path to success begins in Colorado, where he was a painter in high school. After coming second in a statewide art competition in the late-80s, he ended up doing some artwork in the lower downtown art scene in Denver. "It was a small pond," he says, looking back. "It didn't take me long to get bored and aim for bigger things." Namely, a November 1992 move to New York.
In New York, frustration at his lack of progress led the young artist to the Pratt Institute, a respected art school. A switch to illustration coupled with rising debts encouraged Davis to send work off to a few publishers. The result? Rejection across the board. Enter the internet: "This buddy of mine said, 'You don't need to publish, man, paper's dead, books are dead, there's this whole internet thing'."
Working on his art by day and teaching himself programming by night, Davis went on to create a number of experimental, pioneering sites (such as Praystation, Once Upon A Forest and Dreamless), which went so far as to win him a 2001 award for 'Net Excellence' from the Ars Electronica, one of the world's major centres for art and technology. "I got a little bit more hip to what it was I was doing," he says. "The net became a place to create projects, art and portfolios. It all kind of snowballed from there - totally by accident." After three years with the web production company Kioken, Davis set up a studio with Branden Hall in 2001, before starting his own small company - Joshua Davis Studios - just this year.
"I could probably open a really big studio, start hiring employees and be a millionaire, but I think that the work would suffer," says Davis explaining the reason for his current set-up. "I've made the decision to stay small so that the quality of the work will always be high. I'll do three or four corporate projects and they'll sustain me for the entire year. And then I'm doing prints and art shows, which is the stuff that I truly love."
Although that's not to say the personal work gets precedence. Indeed, Davis is now lucky enough to be in a position where he actually gets hired to do his personal work. "It's almost like I don't see the difference - it's corporate, it's personal, to me it looks the same," he says. "There are studios that want to standardise things. I'm not that studio. I don't do ordinary things. I'm interested in making things that are taxing and will max your computer out. That helps progress the medium and I'm all for that." And long may the chaos continue.