Sex & design

It's naughty, funny and shocking; which is why so many designers use sexual imagery to explore their creativity and comment on the world around them. Graeme Aymer investigates..

It's not that sexualised imagery didn't exist in the media before, say, 1994. But that year, Loaded magazine hit shelves and suggested to lads that it was okay to be leery. Or perhaps it happened after the British Board of Film Classification reviewed R18 film certificates in 2000, liberalising access to hardcore porn. Maybe it's just society in general, in the UK and elsewhere, loosening up. Whatever the case, it seems that sexually explicit material is everywhere, from music videos to Sunday supplement up-skirt shots. Virgin 1's Sexcetera and Showtime's Porn: A Family Business indicate a normalisation of hardcore pornography - so much so that, in February 2010, psychologist Dr Linda Papadopoulos published a Home Office-commissioned report warning of the dangers of 'pornification' for British teenagers, complete with recommendations to stymie its 'drip drip effect'.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of it all, it's a subject close to the hearts of many designers, who are choosing to twist, distort and subvert sexual imagery and erotica. They do it to make a comment, and they do it because it gets a reaction. Some of them even do it because, well, it's fun! But what's common to all is a drive to actively engage rather than passively titillate viewers.

The erotic and the designed
American motion graphics artist Matt Lambert is one of the subverters. One of his most celebrated pieces is entitled 'Fickmaschinen', or 'Fuck Machines' in English. The film features looped, though obscured, pornographic film footage that makes the action seem mechanical and unreal. It comes from Lambert's long-held view that the mass production of pornography and routine viewing of graphic sexual imagery has transformed something personal and intimate into an industrial process. Furthermore, by watching it, Lambert started thinking that, in our minds, when we're involved in a sex act, we're merely trying to replicate a series of scenes we'd seen before.

"There's an argument that says there are no original ideas," Lambert notes. "The same argument can apply to sexuality. Everything that we're doing, especially the younger generation, is just recreations of what we've seen in pornography." Hence the film concludes, "We are nothing but fuck machines."

The prevalence of sexual imagery is also central to many of Brighton-based designer Jasper Goodall's ideas. "It's quite easy to have a person naked and people having sex, and for [viewers] to either be very attracted to all that or feel disgusted or upset by it," he says. "I think it's got to a point where that's not really good enough anymore, because there's so much sex going on in advertising and in pop promos - everyone's taking their clothes off and everyone has got so used to it. For me it's like a completely pointless thing to draw someone [just] looking sexually appealing."

It has led to what could be dubbed a duality about his work: on the one hand, it is erotica, but on the other, because of his attempt to instil in his images other levels of meaning and to toy with convention and clich, his work is also about erotica.

But you should enjoy it!
Other designers are driven by different motives. "Everyone relates to sex and smut, and gets a certain pleasure from it," says London designer Julie Verhoeven. "The dirty drawings are certainly more fun and pleasurable to produce and research. I use sex in drawings to reach out and shout for attention."

"Sex sells!" adds Toronto designer Kathryn Macnaughton. "It's such a tease. I'm really just flirting with the viewer." Her flirtation includes a series of posters, Filthy Rautten, created for her friend DJ Filthy Gorgeous, which consists of 1970s pornographic stills that the designer loves because of their "lust and passion".

In fact, there's a lot of stylisation in modern erotic design, whether that's using 1970s retro as Macnaugton does, the fetish imagery of Jasper Goodall, or the B-movie poster references of Charlotte-based designer Josh Vanover. Goodall argues that it's not that much different from what Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite masters were doing when they sought licence from Greek antiquity for their nude creations: "Probably what those artists wanted to do was just paint a picture of a naked woman because it was titillating and exciting, but in order to make that okay, [they had to] say it's based on Greek mythology. You can go to the National Gallery and look at Botticelli's Venus. It doesn't look very sexual to us, but they were very sexual images at the time."

It's not to equate himself with Botticelli, he hastens to add, but he has certainly chosen to re-imagine Greek classics himself in a series entitled Amorous Liaisons of the Olympians, itself referencing the work of Aubrey Beardsley, with Goodall-esque fetishist twist.

Californian designer Tansy Myer's erotic work deals with femininity. "I'm trying to show the different sides of a woman's personality: the contradictions, the vulnerabilities and how women use beauty to define themselves," she explains. "My Girl series is about identity and how women use their appearance to define who they are in our appearance-obsessed culture. I use the world 'girl' because, no matter what a woman's age is, she still has that perception of what it is to be beautiful or desirable that she learned when she was young."

The trouble with clients
Josh Vanover is a lucky man. While most designers are confined to the personal realm when it comes to the risqu, he gets commissioned for it. "They said, 'We want guns and we want girls'," he says, describing a brief from an upmarket snowboard brand. He concedes, though, that his larger clients, which include Nike, are a little more squeamish. "Nike, I think, did reference some of the [pieces] with the girls, and they're like, 'We can't do that'."

He adds: "It seems that in the past few years the larger brands have started becoming more open. I was thinking about it the other day. 'Make it weird' - that's some of the direction I get. Five years ago, you wouldn't get that."

Advertising and music videos are generally designed to appeal to young audiences - teens and 20-something adults with spare cash to burn - and what better way to do that than through sexual imagery? Sex drives both a desire for the product in question and an aspiration to have or to be like the model or artist central to the piece. In those contexts, sex appeals on a very primal level.

"It's something that is perceived by the animal side of your brain and pushes your rational side to desire something," says Bruno Sells, creative director at Barcelona-based studio Vasava. "We don't think there's anything wrong with that; we can't avoid the fact that sex and lust still drives our lives."

There's a caveat, of course: "Obviously, there are elegant and smart ways to seduce," Sells continues. "The problem is when it becomes coarse and offensive, and it just depicts a 'flesh market'. It's hard to say where the boundaries of this are. 'Try not to offend too many people' is probably a good reference point."

Matt Lambert's upcoming music video for New York dance artist J.Viewz is also very sexual in nature. Although it's the antithesis of the previously mentioned 'Fuck Machines' piece. The video echoes Bruno Sells's brand of elegant and smart seduction, promoting the intimate rather than the coarse. But it enables the artist a degree of freedom of expression despite the commercial nature of the project.

"It's fun stuff to make," says Lambert. "It's primal and it's visceral, and it's so not about design and it's not about logic. There's always a concept behind it, but it's freeing to make."

Work of a sexual nature can definitely lead to more work, but without the sexual element. That is, the techniques and feeling behind more experimental pieces can derive similarly styled non-erotica. Jasper Goodall tells a tale of being commissioned by the Girl Scouts of America to update its Saul Bass-created logo from the 1970s.

"The art director was really nervous about talking to me," Goodall says. "He was very afraid that the end client would find out what my [other] work was like. He even asked Big Active, my agency, to [take down] a particular section, which is called 'Erotica', on my page of the website while the press of this new logo was out and about. He was quite cagey about the whole thing."

He adds: "All credit to the art director. He was able to look at a piece of work and see the skill in drawing and the use of positive and negative space. Obviously, he had to get past the sexual bit. I really enjoy that side of my work, where it's utilitarian and it's doing a big job. It's very satisfying really."

"Very little makes it on a commercial front," says Julie Verhoeven of her more overtly sexual material. "In fact, it has become a pattern that on commercial jobs there is always an uncomfortable moment when the client adds a verbal 'no smut, please' clause."

Lack of public opprobrium
Whatever the clients feel, the viewing public doesn't shy away from erotic design, sometimes much to the surprise of the artists themselves. "So far, all I've had is really good reactions to my work," says Josh Vanover. "With my work, if you looked at it, you wouldn't think a lot of people would like it, but even my mom and my aunt like it. I would think the naked girls, the in-your-face, really raw looks, would turn people off, but I'm seeing the opposite reaction."

It's similar for Jasper Goodall, who was raised by a staunchly feminist mother. "My mum, she died 10 years ago and I never really did anything sexual when she was around," he says. "I guess I imagined she would have disapproved quite a lot. In a way, her passing unlocked something... It actually surprises me how much that part of my work gets accepted by people, because, I guess, of the ghost of my past, my mother and people I do still know. Perhaps I worry more than I need to about whether people are going to be offended."

"Women try to identify themselves in my work," says Tansy Myer. "I've had many girls write to me and say my characters look just like them, even asking me if I somehow modelled one of my characters after them, which is impossible since I draw all of my girls from my imagination. Or they pick out the one they'd like to be. I think men pick out the one they'd like to be with." Kathryn Macnaughton reports much the same, but adds: "I try not to take the provocativeness too far because it could become offensive to some."

When design goes graphic
There's always a nagging question about when something suggestive and erotic nudges into the realm of Ron Jeremy and Seymore Butts.

"I have to make the decision about where pornography is, and where erotica is," says Jasper Goodall. "There were a few images I have made that were maybe bordering on being pornographic in my mind. I think I moved away from that because I decided that that's not what I wanted to do. Not that there's anything wrong with people drawing images for pornographic purposes, but I kind of made a point: is the material just there for masturbatory purposes or is it telling a different story; has it got more levels of meaning? I think there's a line where it kind of passes from being one thing to another. So I always try to stay the right side, in my head, of that line."

"I think the main point is to have a clear goal," says Mexican motion graphics artist Leonardo Mendez. "It would be very interesting to do something really vulgar, yet aesthetic. I remember, as a teenager, looking at Penthouse magazines - the feeling that I was looking at something forbidden was quite intense. On the other hand, images had excellent colour schemes and very good photography, but in the end it was porn. I would love crossing the line between sexy and aesthetic, keeping the feeling that something is forbidden and sensual."

What does an artist's sexual representation on screen or paper say about the creator; how does it work as a portrait of the artist? Julie Verhoeven admits to having "no idea" what her erotic art says about her, before offering, "I assume I must come across as sexually repressed, a frustrated yet curious 'eternal adolescent'."

"My Nerd and Girl series are two sides of the same coin," says Tansy Myer. "My slick, pretty Girl series is the character I might try to portray to the world, whereas my raw, dirty, awkward Nerd series is who I really feel like inside. I think a lot of people can relate to this. I think they both share a vulnerability and, in a sense, a sort of exhibitionist attitude, as in they are all looking at the viewer and saying, 'Here I am'."

"I don't know! It's kind of scary!" Josh Vanover responds. "Women's faces taken off! They're naked! Something's going on in my mind! I've seen a lot of crazy stuff, man, so this stuff is naturally going to pour out of me. I think people naturally connect to it because they sense a realness in it. It's not constructed, it's not phony, it's not fake - it's real stuff inside me."