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I would really like to design rides for amusement parks, like teacups or carousels,” says Finnish illustrator Janine Rewell.

© Kimmo Metsäranta

And that ambition doesn’t seem too unreasonable at all. We sit in the converted church where Rewell and eleven other creatives work, in Helsinki’s Kallio district. She has been going through her portfolio, showing me large-scale projects she has designed for shopping malls in the Far East. For instance, at the Lotte World Mall in Seoul, South Korea, Rewell’s charming illustrations representing spring, summer and autumn were turned into life-sized 3-D window displays across three seasonal campaigns during 2016. So a Janine Rewell–style theme park experience seems the next logical step.

For her project with Lotte, Rewell watched the company’s creative team bring her illustrations to life. “I did some key illustrations for them, and then they had their 3-D rendering team turn the elements into three-dimensional objects,” she says. “It was really fun to see how they interpreted my forms in 3-D, and I think they did a good job.”

All done in the artist’s colorful, modern Finnish style, it’s fascinating to see the setting spring from the 2-D page into a diorama that people can walk around in and explore. Tulips, trees, cats, rabbits, bees and hummingbirds—areas of the shopping mall, coming to life in a way Rewell could hardly have thought possible when she began her career ten years ago.

“I want to give experiences to people, like everybody in this field,” she says. “But it would be great if they could go inside the illustrations, where the experience is more whole.” 

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This explosion into three dimensions is the latest phase in Rewell’s career, and it hasn’t come about by accident. A few years ago, she decided to take a course to learn how to make dollhouses. Courses like this are very inexpensive in Finland, where ongoing education is well funded. The result was Rewell’s NOOKS Dollhouse Collection, a self-initiated project she released in 2015. Cut, built and hand-painted by Rewell and her assistant, the elegant little structures come complete with furnishings and animal inhabitants. The project didn’t just inspire Rewell; it brought in clients who are just as ambitious and inspired as she is.

“In China, [clients] saw the monkey house–themed dollhouse, and they wanted to build it at human size for Chinese New Year last year,” says Rewell. “So they contacted me and said, ‘Could we buy the usage rights for the monkey house for the Year of the Monkey?’ They wanted to build it inside a shopping mall where people could go inside it. They changed the color palette, but they did an exact life-sized replica.”

Rewell often does self-initiated projects with a view to landing boundary-breaking commissions. When she was a speaker at the 2013 Beyonderground festival in Hasselt, Belgium, the organizers invited her to paint a mural in a window space on the main square. She designed a pink, blue, beige and white setting featuring animals, umbrellas, sailboats and more—then painted it by hand. Meanwhile, her friend Sami Salmenkivi captured the process to produce a time-lapse video, which was then shared on Vimeo.

“A year later, Samsung got in touch,” says Rewell. Its creative team wanted to do something similar for Samsung’s Galaxy tablet. “The original video got barely 3,000 views, but somehow the right people in Samsung headquarters saw it,” she says.

The next thing she knew, she was in Barcelona, on set with 50 people, ready to be featured in two advertising films. “I thought they would film my hands drawing, and then all of a sudden I’m being given direction on how to act, like an actor. I didn’t know my face would be in it.”

In the films, shown at Christmastime on outdoor video screens in Amsterdam, London, Milan, New York, Singapore and Toronto, as well as in Samsung’s online campaign, Rewell creates one of her illustrations on the Galaxy and then paints it onto a window by hand. “This sounds like a commercial, but it was a really handy device. I had it for a year before it was stolen, but I really enjoyed using it,” she adds.

I want to give experiences to people, like everybody in this field. But it would be great if they could go inside the illustrations, where the experience is more whole.”

Attending Beyonderground also inspired her to push her personal work in other directions. While there, she listened to a lecture by Paul Jenkins, who talked about his idea to create a glass running shoe, which could also be a goldfish bowl. He took the idea to Nike, Japan, which commissioned a campaign around it.

“I talked with him afterwards and told him I had an idea about using my illustrations and body paint, but I didn’t have a client for it,” Rewell says. “Body paint existed only in this weird, fantasy, sexy, tacky world. Nobody did body paint in a classy way. He encouraged me to just pick a client and pitch the idea,” she says.

She went to Minna Parikka, a high-end shoe designer in Helsinki, who loved the idea. Rewell created some artworks that were painted onto models; the painted models danced in the front window of the Minna Parikka shop in the city. In addition, four prints were made of the models, photographed in body paint on backgrounds that Rewell designed.

In a twist of fate, the first client the body paint project attracted was Nike. The company asked her to create a pattern similar to one of the prints, which was used for a shirt in its LeBron James collection. But the body paint effect didn’t end there. Color authority Pantone also saw the prints Rewell created and licensed two of them to go on the covers of its swatch books.

“The body paints weren’t Pantone colors, but the company thought it was an exciting project,” Rewell recalls. “This project that I did in 2014 is still making me more visible and bringing more opportunities, and now these Pantone charts are going to be in the hands of a bunch of art directors. And my name is on the front page, so… ”

Rewell’s latest self-initiated work is set to bring her further exposure in the Far East. In 2016, she was invited to judge the China Illustration Biennale in Shenzhen, China, an honor that included a solo exhibition at the Guan Shanuye Art Museum. At the same time, a museum in Visavuori, Finland, also asked her to exhibit. She decided to create a series to span the two exhibitions.

“Again, I wanted to try a new medium,” Rewell explains. “When I created the dollhouses, I fell in love with water cutting. When you cut [material] with water, it doesn’t leave any burn marks like laser cutting does, so it’s much more handy when you build stuff. I did these water-cut wooden artworks, which are three-dimensional and went on display
in Finland. In China, I showed prints of the artworks.”

I normally do my sketching with just a pencil. I create each character and element separately, then I start the composition in Photoshop because it’s faster.”

The artworks’ vector shapes and flowing curves play with nature and human forms in a strong, but limited color palette. They tell personal stories about Rewell and her sister as children, playing in the Visavuori area, where their family has a summer cottage. They can be seen selling flowers they picked, saving ladybirds, rowing on the water and playing with a dollhouse.

Nature, memories and the imagination are all themes in Rewell’s work, and development of her style is ongoing. Early on, she drew everything by hand, but decided to pursue vector graphics when studying graphic design at the University of Art and Design Helsinki and later at Rhode Island School of Design. Using geometric shapes gave her Nordic and Slavic folklore influences a new twist, and the clean vector style helped her break through, partly because so many others at the time were using Photoshop to mix digital photography and effects.

Rewell sees her Mac as a tool, not a means. “I normally do my sketching with just a pencil,” she says. “I create each character and element separately, then I start the composition in Photoshop because it’s faster. Then, when the client has approved the identity, I move into Illustrator and make it into vector shapes. Sometimes, I bring it back to Photoshop to put some textures in.”

She’s brought variety into her work by using vector gradient fills, as in, for example, H&M’s 2015 global Christmas campaign. Depending on the job, she has used wood grain, stone and, for a subtler and more artsy feel, handmade watercolor textures.

Graphic design history, art deco posters and the work of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint are Rewell’s biggest influences. Klint created radical abstract, geometric art in secret, before the likes of Wassily Kandinsky came onto the scene in the early 20th century. “So she never got the credit for it, but she did amazing work,” says Rewell. “She’s the artist whose posters I have on the wall at home. Not only do I respect and sympathize with her through my gender, but abstract art [like hers] is definitely the foundation of my illustration.”

When Rewell creates an illustration, she looks for the perfect core idea of whatever it is she’s drawing—whether it’s a tree, a deer, a boat or a building. She studies the shape of everything as she works, using Google to find images. Yet as simple as each form is, together they make rich, expansive compositions. Her work often looks complicated and detailed, but every shape is a beautifully simple ideal.

It’s a compelling juxtaposition, and it engages the viewer both emotionally and intellectually. “Plato talks about his world of ideas, and I see abstract and geometrical art in the same way. I’m somehow trying to grasp the core of things; this is something that continues to interest me,” she says.

“Sometimes my friends say, ‘You’ve been doing the same stuff for ten years. Don’t you get tired? Don’t you want to change styles?’ I say: ‘No, I’m still far from creating what I can see in my head.’ I feel like I’m still learning, and I’m still perfecting the visualization of different characters, but that said, I don’t feel like I’m that tied to geometry anymore. My style has become much more fluid and softer, and there’s more variation. That’s something I do very consciously. I have a core style and then have a lot of variations of it—flat pictures, the three-dimensional approach, plain vectors, gradients, more geometrical, more fluid—but they are all strongly in my own style.” ca

Garrick Webster is a United Kingdom-based freelance journalist, editor and copywriter who has been writing about and working in the creative industries for the last seventeen years. His favorite areas include illustration, fantasy art, typography and graphic design. In 2011, he helped create the Memories Book, a 172-page publication featuring 12 stories and the work of 144 artists and designers in support of Maggie's cancer charity.


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