With the advent of the personal cell phone, and more notably, the smartphone, the usefulness of the traditional wristwatch has been questioned. But instead of being labeled ‘obsolete’, the wristwatch has taken a turn: It has become sentimental, it has become analog, it has become nostalgic … valued as both a tactile and stylistic representation of its owner’s values.
We live such a digital life nowadays that even the process of ordering something online feels analog: You place the order for your item, and by the time you actually get the physical product, it already feels like part of the past. But for things that are truly analog like a wristwatch, they become nostalgic. This is exactly the feeling Steven Harrington has addressed with his new collaboration with Nixon and Disney.
As we continuously move forward into the increasingly connected digital world, the wristwatch has redefined its meaning. Now, collaborations are more popular than ever, but it’s collaborations like this that stand out from the crowd: collaborations that are intentional, well thought-out, and, timeless, that give us something real and tangible to wear.
With Los Angeles-based artist Steven Harrington’s latest collaboration with Nixon, the artist and brand had the unique opportunity to work with Disney, and use the iconic character of Mickey Mouse for a new watch design celebrating his 90th birthday.
Dew Tour’s Creative Director talked to Harrington about the collaboration, the process, and everything that went into designing a brand-new interpretation of Mickey.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Seiver: So what can you tell me about the Disney/ Nixon collab? How did that come about?
Steven Harrington: I had worked with the guys at Nixon a couple of years ago, and I think they liked our general approach to stuff. The playful attitude of the art we make, it speaks to a certain type of person, and then once it gets applied to product, it can be this very subtle, tricky thing to kind of do right.
I think that sensitivity to the application of the art, once applied to product, is this subtle but rare thing. I’m even finding, as I work with more and more brands, not everyone understands that. Even at some of the larger companies we’ve worked with, it’s hard to find individuals that kind of “get it.” And I think that first phase of work that I did with Nixon, it resonated well with the vision for the brand, and then it resonated with the crew that worked there, and then in the end, with the product also.
SS: It’s nice to work with people like yourself that just get it. Taking something like a Disney character, and this really youthful, playful pattern, and presenting it in a mature way, in a refined way. And that definitely shows through. Were you excited about the initial offer to work on Disney? Were you nervous? Did Mickey Mouse or any of the Disney cartoons have an impact on your art, at an early age?
SH: Yeah of course, it was like one of those weird “dream come true” kind of pitches. I don’t really collect anything, but strangely enough, before my first collaboration with Nixon, I had collected Mickey Mouse watches for a couple years. And cartoon character watches in general, and that was something that I had pitched with them the first round, and I think then it was like a little bizarre. And I just told them, ‘Dude, if you ever build out a cartoon character watch, I would love to do it, because I’m just not seeing many of those these days anymore.’
I’m seeing these characters featured with the greats, like Snoopy on Rolexes and Pop Eyes on Rolexes, and I’ve always been a fan of those collaborations, where you have a high-end watch, but do a collab with these really kind of quirky cartoon characters. I’ve always loved that playful attitude, it’s kind of the perfect mix of sophistication meets this over-the-top, kind of quirky cartoon land, and for me that was always something I wanted to do. I threw that out there and then when Nixon came back with Mickey, it blew my mind a little bit. I freaked out. Especially since this is like an actual Disney license, we actually collaborated with Disney. We had to go through all the hoops of all that stuff.
SS: Mickey is one of the world’s most recognizable characters. How did that feel? Or how does it feel to have your art alongside such an icon?
SH: It feels cool, man. What’s really interesting about it is the kind of trajectory of my actual work has become more graphic, cartoon, hand-drawn, that drawing actual Mickey and the world around him, it felt so natural. A lot of my work was already referencing that world.
Everyone has their own relationship with Mickey, and I feel like the relationship that I have with him and that world, for me personally, feels very intimate. So much of what I do on the day-to-day is drawing, kind of bubbly, cartoon-esque kind of characters, that it just felt like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m just referencing Mickey and just drawing him in my studio.’ It didn’t really feel like much of a big deal. It’s much more now, in retrospect, seeing the final product make its way out in the world and everyone freak out on it, and excited about it, that I’ve now realized this project is pretty incredible, to have worked with such an iconic character, and then re-working this face, that classic watch.
Taking that classic Mickey on the watch that everybody knows, and then turning him into an artist, is I think, now I’m kind of like amazed that I was able to get away with it. Redrawing him with his tongue sticking out was a really big move for Mickey.
SS: Its amazing when you see what its like in the world, people go crazy for that stuff. You redrew the character, and put your own spin on it, right? Were you nervous at all to change it up?
SH: I wouldn’t say it was necessarily nerve-wracking, I would just say it felt weird that I had Mickey pulled up on my computer. And I was actually drawing him, and I knew it would be an actual, legit Disney project. That part felt weird, and I think it made me really kind of sit with it, and really consider every move, and really think ‘Well why am I going to do this?’ How am I going to speak to the legacy of Disney, and how can I justify Mickey interacting with my artwork?
These collaborations can get so strange, especially with folks that have passed on, or with the artist not being around anymore. I had to really think ‘Well, would he be okay with this?’ ‘What does Disney in general think of this?’ So my way of justifying that was basically just giving him a really goofy smile, sticking his tongue out and being overly playful, and just having a bunch of fun, and then sticking the paintbrushes and pencils in his hand, and coming up with the idea that I’m not trying to alter him too much. I want to keep him Mickey, and I don’t want to turn him into a form that isn’t Mickey anymore, and that led to the idea of ‘Well what if since his arms are moving, and he can be placed over the top of this artwork, what if the idea is when you wear this watch, Mickey is painting my artwork for 24 hours straight?’
So that was kind of the whole idea: I’m not necessarily reworking Mickey too much, I’m trying to still leave him as the Mickey Mouse we all know, but instead he’s celebrating my work through painting it over this span of time. If we’re going to have him on a watch, rather than just sit there and putting clothes on him with my patterns and graphics on them, what if we could try and leave him Mickey, but have him do something really cool?
SS: It reminds me of what you said in your interview on the skate-able sculptures: It’s meant to be experienced, like moving through it. And in a sense, this is meant to be experienced as time is moving, and that’s part of the experience, which is kind of brilliant.
SH: It’s that whole notion of time. We have time, now let’s make Mickey – the classic watch is him simply pointing, and it was like, ‘Okay if he’s going to be pointing, maybe there’s something underneath him that he’s interacting with.’ So it became much more about that.
SS: It’s great. The way some of the elements line up with the brush, it almost looks like he’s filling in the palm tree. It’s really cool. Was Mickey one of your favorite characters growing up, or did you have a favorite Disney character, or movie?
SH: He’s definitely one of my favorites, especially considering with this project, they sent over the PDF that’s just hundreds of pages, of Mickey through the years – you don’t realize how many iterations Mickey has gone through. I think in seeing that, it really changed my perception of Mickey in general. None of us realize it, but Mickey is evolving just as much as we are. He still continues to evolve to this day.
The Mickey that I used was specifically the Mickey from the 90s. He’s got the really big feet, and he’s really bubbly, and I just wanted to have a throwback to that era. But you don’t realize, he has so many different styles. I became fascinated with that. Even though he seems like this static character, he’s really gone through these different phases of style.
SS: Did you choose the 90s because that’s what you grew up with, and that’s what you’re familiar with?
SH: Yeah, and I think the form just fit in with what I was trying to do with the actual face of the watch. They’re bigger and rounder, and for me they’re just a little bit more fun to look at.
SS: Did you have any other iterations that you did that you were stoked on that Nixon and Disney didn’t want, or was this the first try?
SH: I had come up with a bunch of ideas, but I liked the concept for this one. Where it was like he’s painting my art in this weird psychedelic land, on the actual watch. We had some static versions, where he’s kind of just standing there, where it was closer to just the fingers pointing idea, but I really just liked this concept.
SS: It just seems really intentional and thought through. It’s epic, and it makes sense looking at it.
SH: It also felt the most celebratory too, like this big kind of celebration of this stuff exploding all over the watch. In a lot of my work, I’m playing around – especially with products these days, because everything is just so digital, even products themselves are starting to feel analog.
We’re so online these days, once you finally get the t-shirt, or the watch, or the shoes or whatever, it can feel really throwback. Part of what I’m trying to do is play around with that, making that funny 80s Olympic, Mickey celebration watch. Where it’s got that really playful, really unfiltered celebration of creativity, that’s really pure.
SS: Well I hope you’re proud of it, man. I don’t know if as an artist, sometimes it’s hard to be like ‘Yeah, I’m stoked on that, and proud of the work I’ve done.’ I hope you are.
SH: Yeah, I’m excited about it. I’m hoping that this just feels more like a true celebration of Mickey. And less about my work. It’s about celebrating Mickey’s 90th birthday.
SS: What’s next for you? Any other partnerships on this level that you’re looking toward? It seems like you are getting to do the things on your bucket list.
SH: Yeah, this is definitely one of those. At this point, I’m just excited to see where it goes next. The journey has been kind of crazy so far, and at this point I just want to remain consistent, and just stay fresh, and I think that’s my main focus. And now, going a little more inward.
I’m developing and working through this next solo art show that I’m working towards. Because in my opinion, I do feel that everything revolves around that, where I get to see and push the unfiltered stuff. And burn some of this cash that I’m making on all these other cool projects on fabricating some stuff the way that I want to fabricate stuff in the studio, just as art. Regardless of where it ends up.
I think that’s what I’m most excited about. It’s something that I’ve been talking about with my wife a lot lately, like man, there’s all these projects and collaborations falling from the sky, and she keeps putting me in check, like ‘Well remember, don’t forget about the art.’ From there, anything is possible from there. It can go out into anything.
Thanks to Steven Harrington for this interview, and if you’re interested in his collaboration with Nixon, check out more here.