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Javier Mariscal:

Mariscal's Miracles

Photo of Javier Mariscal by Laura Pennack

My first brush with Spanish design wunderkind Javier Mariscal was in 1981 through Art Spiegelman’s oversized “graphix” showcase Raw, where I was swept away by his wacky cartoon duo Los Garriris. Spiegelman later commented, “He was the only joyous, not-terminally-depressed artist in our Raw gang, I marveled, still do, at his fearlessness and exuberance and the beauty of what he has made.”

A year later, I felt like I was inside a Mariscal comic as I downed beers and tapas with his fellow Barcelona comics rebels in the bar/café Sukursal (a pun on “sweet or salty”), all the funky retro decors and furnishings designed by Mariscal. It wasn’t until 1983, that I finally met him and interviewed him for Escape, the comics magazine I was co-publishing. He was in Paris for a solo expo and book launch. Between his English and my Spanish we got on famously, as he whispered to me, jokingly, “I only work in public relations! I don’t do anything myself. I have some little boys in my house drawing for me and I always say it’s by me. That’s a very big secret!”

It’s only taken another 26 years for Mariscal finally to get his first major show in Britain. Meeting him again at the Design Museum in London, lettering more words in chalk onto one of the gallery walls,  I found Mariscal, “Xavi” to his friends, to be as warm and fired up as ever, that mischievous glint still in his eye, amused at his Catalan-accented English. Over the years, within Spain and the global design field, Mariscal has grown into a phenomenon, but somehow he’s still like a big kid.

Even those unfamiliar with him probably know Cobi, his iconic symbol for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and the most strikingly simple yet sophisticated mascot ever conceived for the Games. Since the early Seventies, he’s been an unstoppable force, bringing his natural spontaneity to everything he touches. His dizzyingly diverse output is instantly recognisable by its maverick exuberance. He has set an example by showing how important it is to stay creatively free and true to yourself and to keep on experimenting across multiple media. Mariscal is no longer a “big secret” now that he headlines his Design Museum exhibit and next year premieres his debut full-length animated movie at the Cannes Film Festival. Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, hails Mariscal as “the nearest thing to Walt Disney from the counterculture.”

A 1995 silkscreen print of a comic
starring Los Garriris and Julian the fishing dog,
limited signed edition of 100.

The colourful cartoon world in its broadest sense has illuminated his vision since his Fifties boyhood in Valencia. Javier Errando Mariscal grew up with the sun, the Mediterranean, reading “tebeos” or children’s comics and scrawling his own, and taking part in the extraordinary Catholic street festival of San José. “Every year people make these ‘fallas’, very big sculptures made of paper and cardboard, some are ten metres and more high. They put them in the street for a week, over 200 of them, all over the city. Some are more realistic, others are like Disney or Crumb, more crazy and exaggerated. The colours and forms are very baroque. And on the day of San José they burn them all. When I was a child, I made a little one every year. The fallas are something very inside of the people of Valencia.”

As a long-haired philosophy student, Javier moved to Barcelona in 1970 to study design at the Elisava and Eina art schools but soon dropped out. “I didn’t like the school and I don’t believe you can teach design at school anyway. So I left and started drawing comics and editing and selling them myself.” One of his professors put him in touch with the pro-democracy magazine El Ciervo, where El Señor del Cabillito, part-man, part-horse, his first zany character, devised in 1969, reached a broader readership starting in February 1972.

The following year, a fateful autumn meeting in Barcelona’s Opera Café brought Mariscal together with Nazario and the Farriol brothers, who combined to initiate Spain’s first underground comic, El Rrollo Enmascarado. They were strongly inspired by America’s flourishing hippy comix, as in X-rated, prohibited in Spain but pirated or smuggled in from trips abroad. To young Spaniards, the raw, streetwise vitality and liberated self-expression of these Spanish equivalents were a breath of fresh air during the latter years of General Franco’s repressive regime. But the dictator’s censors quickly pounced on these truly "underground" publications by Mariscal and his amigos, forcing them to flee the city for Ibiza for two years. Other titles would rise up - Nasti de Plasti, El Sidecar, A la calle - and Mariscal would contribute to them all.

Even so, there was always a distinct identity to Mariscal’s comics, different from his peers’ penchant for outraging with imagery of sex, drugs and violence. He preferred to tap into wider influences from art and architecture, design and illustration. In his panels, Herriman and Disney collide with Miró and Kandinsky to conjure up Mariscal’s Mickey Mouse-inspired critters Fermin and Piker, Los Garriris, who ride their Vespas and eye the girls on the beach with their fishing dog Julian. Acclaimed Dutch artist-designer Joost Swarte, who would publish Los Garriris in Holland, notes that "Mariscal is very vivid, he’s life itself. His strips are just the way he is - going out, having laughs, going to the seaside to see the sun, have dinner, meet nice girls. His spirit is very optimistic." It was Swarte in 1977 who identified Mariscal as a pioneer of the “Atom Style” of comics, a wave of European artists at the time revisiting the post-War confidence in technology and modernist design of their youths. This style spread across Europe, the English Channel and the Atlantic to permutate into a vibrant international “movement”, culminating this summer in an exhibition, spotlighting Mariscal among others, fittingly in the space-age 1958 Atomium monument in Brussels.

Furniture designed by Javier Mariscal

Much as he loved the medium, Mariscal was not content to confine himself to crafting comics in black and white and so, parallel to these, he set out to explore colour, paint, sculpture, posters, product and furniture design, interior decoration and video. In Mariscal’s mix-and-match, high-and-low worldview, everyday settings of bars, supermarkets, petrol stations and kitchens are refashioned with modernist aesthetics and cartoonish eccentricity. It all came together in 1977 in Barcelona’s Mec-Mec Gallery in his breakthrough solo gallery exhibition, Gran Hotel, an installation which filled an imaginary hotel to bursting with his fantastical, retro-future bravado. It summed up the national mood after Franco’s death in 1976. “We all felt free, it was like an explosion in every sense, most importantly on people’s customs and habits, but also in art and design. Through these we could do a lot of new things to bring changes in our country.”

These would be heady days, as exciting opportunities and collaborations kept coming up, allowing Mariscal to transform the ideas he drew on paper both into tangible, commercial products, such as the now-classic Duplex barstool, or the Milan Trolley for Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis show in Milan, and into real buildings, including the interiors of the Gran Hotel, Domine, which opened in 2002 opposite the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Mariscal helped put Barcelona, and Spain, on the cultural map, most notably when his concept for Cobi the dog was chosen in 1988 for the Olympics in 1992. He recalls, “I was looking always for a character from Barcelona, somebody happy, somebody who can play all the sports but never would be the number one. Happy also means he has a big stomach.” Spun off into a plethora of products, official and fake, Cobi would not be his only successful character creation; others include Twipsy for the Hanover 2000 Universal Exhibition and an undersea menagerie for Acuarinto, an interactive Dutch-themed playground in Nagasaki.

Straddling so many disciplines and serving so many clients all over the world, Mariscal shrewdly set up Estudio Mariscal in 1989 in a former leather-tanning factory in Palo Alto, Barcelona, helping to revive the district and building up his team to employ some forty talented specialists. Asked if there might be something uniquely Spanish to his work, perhaps following in the innovations of Picasso, Miró, Dalí and Gaudí, he reflects: “Each country, each culture has its own traditions which are reflected in their work. I was born in Valencia and live now in Barcelona, that’s why Mediterranean influence is always present in my work, in my use of colour, my treatment of light, in the materials at hand, and in the forms I like. We Mediterraneans have been very poor for centuries, that’s why we have had to take our inspiration from humour and optimism to be able to survive.”

New Yorker cover by Javier Mariscal

That said, Mariscal is quick to dismiss any pigeonholing of him as specifically Spanish. The fact that his concepts seem to have a truly global appeal, from Swatch and H&M to Absolut Vodka and Amnesty International, owes a lot to the broad international range of his interests and inspirations. He singles out the brilliantly inventive Romanian emigré Saul Steinberg, famous for illustrating covers on The New Yorker, a magazine which Mariscal has also drawn for. “I never met Steinberg, but Françoise Mouly, art director of The New Yorker, told me she was showing him some of the modern covers she’d commissoned, to try and persuade Steinberg to draw some more. The only ones he liked were mine. It gave me goosebumps when I heard that.”

As a compulsive, forward-looking draughtsman, Mariscal deliberately avoids any sort of chronological order or retrospective cataloguing in his Design Museum exhibition in favour of plunging the visitor into an immersive experience, swimming through a sea of imagery, from the opening “shower tunnel” brimming with cascades of 640 visual ideas, to walls jammed with merchandise, logos and typefaces and floor-to-ceiling “curtains” of magazine covers or bags for Camper for Kids shoes. Mariscal has also written and drawn diagrams and quotes directly on the walls, filling the Señor Mundo “chapel” with the words in chalk for dozens of worlds (“poetic world”, “frozen world”, “magical world”) or sketching a huge coastline. Up to the last moment, he was adding finishing touches. For him “the images continue evolving, because pieces are never finished.”

In 1998, Mariscal diversifed again by branching off an audio-visual division of his studio, named Muviscal. As well as producing animation series, he and his team were soon at work realising the multi-screen, multi-media, stage performance, Colors. Mariscal scripts and directs this, using a robot narrator, music, animation, dancers and live drawing to explain his personal history of everything through colour. He has also been “discovered” by the contemporary art world, notably his 2005 sculpture Crash!, a true-to-scale reproduction of an exploded 1959 Chevrolet Impala, bought for a hotel lobby in Valencia.

Still, in his view the art market as wary of him because he is seen as a designer, and not a true fine artist. Meanwhile, with Fernando Trueba, whose Grammy Award-winning Latin jazz CD Lagrimas Negras sold over one million copies, Mariscal is bringing to life the animated film Chico & Rita. Out next year, this love story between a jazz pianist and an exceptional singer takes them from their Cuban roots in Havana, 1948, to winter in New York and decadence in Las Vegas and Beverly Hills.

As he approaches sixty, he is proud of his daughter Julia, a rising conceptual artist based in London, and his eight-year-old twins Alma (“soul”) and Linus (after Charlie Brown’s younger brother in Peanuts) who have already been immortalised as the names of sturdy kids’ chairs and tables. Mariscal himself seems to be not so much in his second childhood, as still enjoying his first childhood: receptive, inquisitive, intuitive and open to whatever challenges each new day brings. Whatever the technologies, processes, collaborators and assistants involved, for Mariscal it all begins with drawing. “I think drawing is a kind of writing, where you explain many things with a very simple line, like a letter.”

Gary Panter, father of punk anti-hero Jimbo, sees more to Mariscal’s drawing than meets the eye. “Mariscal’s work is sunshine engendered. It looks very friendly and light, but there is gravity underneath. It is not fluff. He’s found ways of preserving his spontaneous line so that the line never dies or gets boring. The gravity and sunshine may be Picasso and Jean Arp.” As another admirer, designer Ron Arad, sums it up, “If you took everything away from Mariscal and just left him with paper and pencil, he could still produce the work of a genius.”

Book Review: Drawing Life by Javier Mariscal

This is by far the best book I have seen about Mariscal, because it is also by Mariscal. He explains how he conceived it: “This book is the result of playing with all the images we have generated over the years, ordered and selected according to highly personal criteria… There’s no chronological order and the book’s internal rhythm calls the shots. We have made great use of the systems of cutting, pasting and blowing up images… When we considered the design of the pages to be finished, we added a final layer of drawings, dashes, blobs and written comments, to underline or reinvent all this work.” As you turn over the 300 pages in this oversized dustjacketed hardback, you can’t help feeling warmed and charmed. This is most definitely not an exhibition catalogue - Mariscal doesn’t think like that in terms of captions, dates, media. All that technical detail is shoved to the back.  What is left over the majority of the pages at the front is something organic, free-flowing and consciously unfinished. It has his personal touches throughout, in doodles, overlayed shading and lettering, accretions, composites and layers of drawings, paintings, comics, fonts, designs, photos, brought together on every spread. One favourite of mine near the front is a lovely page of Julian the fishing dog sheltering on the beach in the shadows of makeshift tents, a stone wall or pile of rocks, or a windswept tree.

Mariscal is also very present in written form through his revealing commentaries. There are recollections of his childhood - “I had comics for breakfast, lunch and tea, and reserved Tintin for dinner”. He explains his discovery of being dyslexic and how he could understand more through drawings. “Reality is very real and has many nuances, reality hides an infinity of information. Drawing is schematic by nature, drawing is symbol. It connects with people’s thoughts better than reality. Our species has evolved as a result of our ability to communicate to each other through lines and sketches, dots and dashes.” His handwritten typos of English words actually add human imperfection and fresh surprise here - “I would also like to apologise for all the spelling mistakes that may crop up - although I think that mistakes also help create a freer, more enjoyable and more unpredictable atmosphere.” I particularly loved his Beatles lyrics - “She’s Living Home” -  and the evolutionary misspelling, “Darwing Life”.

He also writes his thoughts on how he works and his astonishing trajectory, and that of his inspirational Estudio Mariscal, into all of the worlds of design, through mascots, logos, type, identities, product, interiors, editorial and the Chico & Rita animated movie, plus one section of personal sketches and collages called “The Joie de Vivre”.  As he writes, his whole life is about “Drawing Life, A whole Life Drawing. Drawings of Life, Drawings with Life. Drawings made with Life.”  I know the blank spaces are left here for design and readability, for air and balance across each spread, but they seem to me to be waiting to be filled with more drawings, by Mariscal, or maybe by me? His drawing seems naturally to inspire more drawing. Open any page and I find myself smiling and just itching to draw something for myself, uninhibited like the child inside me. Can I resist filling in those inviting empty spaces? Where is my pencil?

Posted: September 13, 2009

An edited version of this article is published in the September 2009 issue of Dazed & Confused magazine.


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Article Links

Javier Mariscal
Phaidon Press

Javier Mariscal:
In Conversation

Design Museum,
30 October 2009

Javier Mariscal:
Animated Conversation

BFI, London
2 November 2009

Mariscal: Drawing Life
Design Museum, London
till November 1, 2009

In Search Of The
Atom Style

The Atomium, Brussels
till September 20, 2009

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Javier Mariscal:
Drawing Life