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Review: Tweet-a-Brief Exhibition at 71a Gallery and an Interview with Handsome Frank’s Jon Cockley

An interview with co-founder Jon from East London-based illustration agency, Handsome Frank. The exhibition Tweet-a-Brief launched at 71a gallery, Shoreditch on 12th July 2012.

Written by Abi Renshaw

Handsome Frank Tweet a Brief

The Church of London Gallery 71a where Handsome Frank held their debut exhibition Tweet-a-Brief

If only all briefs could be confined to just 140 characters. Imagine that? The East London illustration agency, Handsome Frank, struck gold with their first exhibition and made this happen. How? Soon after seeking exhibition brief advice from their followers on Twitter, it was quickly realised, they’d found their answer. Handsome Frank watched as their Twitter account exploded with ideas, and Tweet-a-Brief was born. Plus, as a lucky follower to have had mine selected, I had to hear about the phenomenon that was #hftab from co-founder Jon.

Handsome Frank was co-founded by you and your cousin Tom, such a nice story that you named your company after your Grandfather. How long have you been up and running?
We set the company up in the summer of 2010 so we’re only two years old. A lot has happened in a short time!

What background have you and Tom come from?
I spent the last decade working in publishing for the design and advertising titles Creative Review and Design Week. Essentially it was media sales and I ended up as a Commercial Director at the company. So my experience has always been on the commercial side of things but within the creative industry.

The Handsome Frank logo as a neon light designed by Malika Favre for the brief All things bright and beautiful

The Handsome Frank logo as a neon light designed by Malik Favre for the brief All things bright and beautiful

Tom has a creative background working for advertising agencies such as Ogilvy, Chemistry and LBi as a digitial designer. When I had the idea to launch an illustration agency, I approached Tom to ask if he could build me a website on a small budget. The more we discussed the idea the more we realised it made sense to work together on it. Between us we had a good mix of skills with my business and publishing experience and Tom’s knowledge of the creative process and how agencies operate.

Sounds like an ideal creative pairing indeed. Can either of you draw?
I was the best drawer in my class at primary school but I don’t think that early potential really developed. Tom is definitely a better bet when selecting Pictionary teams.

Illustration by Stephen Cheetham in response to the brief 140 characters

Illustration by Stephen Cheetham in response to the brief 140 characters, very clever indeed

Who was the first illustrator on your books?
We decided we would launch the agency with ten illustrators and set about finding some talent. To our eternal gratitude we convinced the first ten people we approached to come on board and at that point we had little to show for ourselves apart from a lot of enthusiasm and ambition. Our first signing was Emma Kelly, who remains one of the most popular illustrators on our books.

How many do you represent right now, two years on?
We’re up to 26 illustrators in size and although we wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a couple more signings, we feel we’re operating at an optimum size now. We’re big enough to offer a great selection for commissioners, but small enough to have strong relationships with everyone on our books.

You work pretty closely with Paul Pensom of Creative Review and the guys at Church of London. You work together to put on various talks and use the new 71a Gallery in Shoreditch. How were these relationships founded? Are they like mentors to you?
Paul is someone that I know from my CR days and a very talented chap. We represent his agency StudioPensom, who specialise in magazine and editorial design. The Church of London were actually our first ever client. They commissioned Tony Easley to create a portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat for HUCK magazine and that’s where it all started really. We kept in touch since then and when I saw their plans for developing the 71a gallery I was convinced it was the perfect venue for our first show. Rob Longworth and Paul Willoughby are a big inspiration and great guys to work with.

Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief exhibition 71a Gallery Private View

Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief exhibition 71a Gallery Private View

I have a Willoughby screen print I treasure very much. So #hftab, the Handsome Frank Tweet-a-Brief idea is genius. Was it one of those ‘on the back of a beer mat in a pub’ ideas or more a slow burner? I know you wanted to showcase the talent you had on your books, but how did you decide Twitter was right for this?
We’re big fans of Twitter. We’ve always had a strong following and we’ve always embraced it as a place to ask questions, seek advice and treat as a sounding board. We get a lot of musical recommendations from Twitter. When it came to doing a show, we bounced around a few themes but they were all a bit obvious… Olympics anyone?! One day I decided to ask Twitter and see if anyone had any bright ideas, so I tweeted “what should our exhibition be about?” Almost as soon as I pressed ‘send’, it dawned on me that that WAS the theme.

Did the name Tweet-a-Brief come easily? What others did you cast aside?
The credit for the name very much goes to Tom. My suggestion was probably something really snappy like ‘Send-us-an-idea-and-our-illustrators-will-draw-it’.

The legend that is Tim Burgess from the Charlatans submitted a brief. You must have been thrilled! Any other celebs as such? I hear you had over 200 briefs…
Yes, I’m a bit of an indie kid at heart, so I was chuffed when Tim got in touch. I knew he was really into Twitter so thought he was a good bet. A couple of other celebs were approached but to no avail. Shame on you Jonathan Ross!

Illustration by Emma Kelly for Tim Burgess of the Charlatans brief Blue Monday

Illustration by Emma Kelly for Tim Burgess of the Charlatans brief Blue Monday

Shame on Ross indeed. Heard that before. Was it more successful than you imagined? Handsome Frank #hftab was trending!
We trended? Wow, I didn’t know that. Chuffed.

Did you and Tom sit down and pick your favourites, or did you let your illustrators decide their own briefs?
There was a lot of debate as to the best and fairest way to distribute the briefs. In the end we decided to send a document containing all of the briefs to all of our illustrators and ask for their first, second and third choices. As it turned out there was not much overlap. Most of the guys had a very strong idea of what they want to do and thankfully most of them wanted different briefs.

Illustration by Alexandra Bruel of Kubricks brain

Artwork by Alexandra Bruel of Kubricks brain

Phew! I was so thrilled Helen Musselwhite picked my brief “a strong urge to see wallpaper coming to life in a doll’s house”. I was blown away when I saw it at the Private View. WOW. It was the star of the show for me.
I’m glad you liked what Helen did. It was a bit of a show stealer wasn’t it. Really lovely.

Artwork by Helen Musselwhite in response to my brief of wallpaper coming to life in a doll's house

Artwork by Helen Musselwhite in response to my brief of wallpaper coming to life in a doll’s house

Everyone obviously worked their socks off. Your collection of illustrators have done Handsome Frank proud. Are you already thinking up the next idea to get them all working together?
Funnily enough we had an idea on the day of the Tweet-a-Brief Private View. It won’t be until next summer though. We need to concentrate on some other projects first.

I’m sure Sunday will be a sad day when you have to take the exhibition down. Do you have to return the work back to the artists or will it stay up on the walls of Handsome Frank HQ?
The plan is to tour the exhibition around a little. We’ve had interest from a couple of agencies who would like to hang it on their walls. I’d also like it to move around the UK and possibly take it overseas.

The Tweet-a-Brief exhibition runs until this Sunday (22nd July) at 71a Gallery, Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS.


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