Today I am excited to bring you TENANT’s October birthday long-form interview featuring Ben Alpass, the artist and designer behind the TENANT brand artwork and a human whose talent has been known to leave me speechless, or swearing.
I met Ben in 2004 when we both worked for a VFX and design house. We worked on a couple of great projects together and I recall feeling generally impressed… like I had stumbled across a talent to watch, a person who made going to work more fun, and the world a better place to boot.
The past decade has confirmed my initial impressions and taught me that Ben’s distinctive locks and sartorial style house a great sense of humour and a loyal, noble spirit. That he has a great appetite to learn and nurtures all forms of creativity, whilst continually evolving his own.
His talent is obvious to all who have the good fortune to work with him, and since going out on his own in 2012, Ben has been splitting his time in Melbourne and LA working for a various design-led brands including Nike, Chanel and SBS TV.
Ben, thanks for agreeing to be profiled this month. Firstly, it only seems right in this forum to thank you again for the artwork you created for TENANT which continues to receive many compliments – from young and old.
It would have been three years ago this Halloween that we first poured over this design. Since that time your talents have lead you to LA. Why are you there and do you miss Melbourne?
Yes this is my second extended stay in LA (I was here around the same time last year) working freelance for a production company as a designer/art director. I am living in Downtown LA, the postcode is 90015.
I miss family and friends, of course, but because I’m not permanently here I know I’ll be seeing them soon. It’s working out well, as I have managed to escape the worst of the Melbourne winter for the past two years.
What do you like most about the States?
I can’t comment too much for the rest of the US, but here in LA the weather seems to be just about perfect all of the time. It did rain for a bit the other day….and everyone freaked out!
Strangely I find driving here is a lot of fun. Maybe it’s because I don’t drive in Melbourne and I think I might drive better on the right-hand side of the road. The traffic can be horrible, but it’s kind of nice cruising around listening to music. Also, the people in this city are generally friendly, respectful, and non-judgmental.
Is there anything you are finding that you don’t much like about LA?
While I find the whole cult-of-celebrity generally interesting, over time it is also kind of annoying. A lot of people here seem a bit too obsessed with the famous, or with becoming famous. The amount of times I’ve been asked by random strangers “are you somebody?” is pretty ridiculous… it is such a stupid question. Good luck to them though!
What do you think that Melbourne could learn from LA (or the USA) and vise-versa?
It’s an obvious one, but America could definitely learn a thing or two about health care from Australia – it’s a complete mess here.
As for what Melbourne could learn from America… it is not a hugely important, but I think we need to standardise our names for lettuce. ‘Rocket’ is called ‘Arugula’ in America. It might be common knowledge to some, but hell I spent a long time in a supermarket one day trying to figure out what was going on!
Long before the lettuce wars, when did you decide to pursue a career in design and how did you come to be working in LA?
My high school offered an extra-curricular art program that coincided with the standard subjects. It allowed students to explore many aspects of design and art and ultimately graduate with a comprehensive folio. Leaving school I toyed with the idea of studying law for a while, but that was obviously just a phase.
I then studied Multimedia Design at the National School of Design in Prahran, and got my first job in the industry toward the end of the course.
Just under two years ago I decided to go freelance, enabling me to work on a wider variety of jobs and also take control of my own schedule – which has also allowed me to travel, and connect with old clients and colleagues, which led me to LA.
I’m fortunate enough to now work across a number of mediums in design – print, digital, motion and illustration. Switching it up keeps life fun. Currently I’m doing a lot of concept art and animation. The company I’m working with has large clients both locally and internationally, so there’s a great variety of work happening for clients in many different industries.
What do you draw on for inspiration and what is inspiring you right now and why?
Actually, being in a new city – Los Angeles – is probably the most inspiring thing for me at the moment. I’ve always been obsessed with the aesthetic of Los Angeles. The brutalist freeways, palm trees, shitty strip malls, billboards, the many different cultures. I find it fascinating.
It’s definitely not a pretty place (for the most part), but there is something about it that appeals to me. The inspiration I draw from here doesn’t necessarily translate literally to my design work, more to lifestyle and experience. My photography and personal work is definitely inspired by the city at the moment.
Other inspirations are photography, books, fashion and music… all fairly obvious subjects I guess. I do have a bit of an obsession with magazines, my favourites being Purple Fashion, Acne Paper, Apartamento, and 032c. They cover subjects in the creative and cultural fields, and the writing and imagery is amazing. And there are so many artists’ I admire. A recent show I saw that really impressed featured the work of late Californian artist John Altoon.
How do you approach your work, particularly when you might hit a road-block?
I don’t really have a trusted ‘go-tos’ when approaching work, and as much as I’d like to I don’t follow any particular routines… I think I get bored too easily.
Things I find that help when I hit a road-block involve completely removing myself from the actual task… Smoking, reading, going for a run… even a quick nap. I’ve found them all beneficial at times.
Do you have any particular philosophy or motto that is important to you, that informs the way you work, and you live?
I guess my philosophy with work is that it’s important to be happy and satisfied with what you are creating and doing… This would apply to life as well. Why waste time on something if it makes you unhappy? This might sound very idealistic, and in reality there are going to be shit moments, but ultimately I think it’s ok to sometimes be selfish and to pursue what you want for you and not what others expect from you. I also think change is good.
What do you dislike about your industry?
It’s cliché, but I’ve always struggled with the concept of advertising. I understand its purpose and when done well it is great – but I also find the time, money and importance placed on some pretty insignificant messages kind of disgusting. However the majority of work I do relates to advertising, so I guess it’s kind of ridiculous for me to complain.
You have worked on many fascinating and visually amazing projects, what is it that you are most proud of professionally?
Over the years I’ve worked on many jobs that have won awards, and it is nice to have recognition from your peers and the industry. That said, I’d say I’m more proud of the fact I’m now in a situation where I have control over the work I take on and afford myself the time to work on personal projects.
I’ve now published seven or eight books of personal work, which I’m also very proud of and because a lot of the work I create exists in digital format, I’ve realised how important and special it is to have a physical documentation of work.
Do you nurture an idea for a dream project…in your professional realm, or another?
Hmm that is a tough question. One job I’ve always dreamed of is taking creative charge of a major fashion house. I probably have a romanticised view of it, but the idea of designing everything from the clothes, to the shows, to the physical stores, to photographing the campaigns, really appeals to me. Creating/art directing a magazine would also be a dream.
Do you think you will live again in Melbourne?
I’ll be back in Melbourne soon. Just before I left for LA I was setting up a studio space with a few close friends in Collingwood… so I’m looking forward to getting in there and settling in. That said I could be back in LA soon for more projects.
What do you think is Melbourne’s best kept secret?
Palm Court in Ringwood. It’s a little, cheap, crappy diner that has pretty average food, but for some reason I really like it. That said, I don’t even know if it still exists… so, this pretty much a completely redundant answer.
It does, I Googled it. It sounds a little LA meets Melbourne!
What do you think Melbourne will look like in 20 years? More crappy diners? Will it feature the snaking super-highways of LA?
Day-glo apartment blocks, hover trams, you know – THE FUTURE. In reality I’d imagine it’d look a lot like it does now… except I can see the skyline of the CDB and surrounding areas changing quite a lot, unfortunately. Lots of residential development i.e. massive apartment blocks… probably with no Day-Glo.
And lastly, who is a Melburnian that you would like to be featured TENANT in the future?
I would like to introduce two people – Noko Washiyama, a lovely friend and a very talented designer and illustrator, and Christopher Frey an old work colleague of mine who is a talented director and musician.
Thanks for your time Ben, it was great to get a window into your LA world, and thanks for celebrating TENANT’s birthday with…TENANT.
Happy Halloween, I look forward to hearing more stories (and ghost stories!) from LA soon.