Shop Talk with Tom Hancocks Vol. 5

10/30/2020

RBW

In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with Rich Brilliant Willing’s friends and collaborators on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.

Our latest conversation is with Tom Hancocks, a self-taught, New York-based designer and artist known for bringing objects and spaces to life in the digital realm. Evocative and often surreal, his cinematic renderings have attracted commissions for a wide range of projects, including motion projections for Lauryn Hill, set design for Cole Haan, and more recently, new virtual interiors for RBW.

This year, we invited Hancocks to launch RBW’s visual artist residency, a new series of artist and designer collaborations aimed at creating unique visual experiences. As our first resident, Hancocks designed three immersive and stunningly detailed fictional environments—two workspaces and one resort—for RBW XR, our 360-degree, extended reality platform for viewing our products in situ. Here, Hancocks walks us through his subconscious approach to design, and describes the perks of cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Virtual Lounge — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual lounge area — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual Hallway — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual Hallway — Created by Tom Hancocks

How did you get your start, and how did that lead to where you are now?

Let’s start with your background. Being a self-taught artist and designer from Australia, how did you get your start, and how did that lead to where you are now?

Self-taught always sounds like a cool thing to tell people, but really, it just means I’ve done things on my own behind a computer rather than in the typical way—I’m pretty introverted and a socially anxious person. I also have dual citizenship, and because Australia’s design community isn’t a big, resourceful place, I thought I’d head to New York for a year or two to see what happens. I got lucky meeting a few of the right people, and I’ve been here since.

Virtual Lounge with Latis, Centro, and Radient

Virtual Lobby with Cinema

What are you working on at the moment, and how do you distinguish between what you do as a designer versus as an artist?

In the last few years, you’ve applied your skills to a wide variety of work, ranging from narrative images to magazine editorials to fashion ads. What are you working on at the moment, and how do you distinguish between what you do as a designer versus as an artist?

I always hate answering this question, but it's a good question. I think that the distinction between artist and designer is where I have to actually put in creative thought and where I don’t. A lot of the projects I do are renderings or 3D modeling of other people's projects; at the moment, I’m 3D-modeling handbags and animating them for campaign videos, and I’m also creating 3D assets for a website, which is super different. That's a lot of fun to do every now and then when you don’t want to have to think too much about creating things, but if you do too much of that, you feel like you’re not being creative at all. Finding a balance between those, and doing more projects where you're actually designing things, is important. For the last year, I’ve been trying to develop my own furniture, real furniture, which after doing 3D projects for so long, is kind of a new direction.

What was the collaborative process there, and how did that evolve into a visual narrative?

For your residency with RBW, each of the work environments that you created has a distinct mood, and the sense that its occupants have a specific story to tell. What was the collaborative process there, and how did that evolve into a visual narrative? Were there any iconic workplaces that you did, or specifically did not, want to emulate?

RBW was very open. They just asked me to make a space that I would make on my own, and to put their products inside. A lot of it was pretty subconscious; I started with the Latis piece, and I think because they’re so utilitarian, but very stylized with their own unique character, I tried to translate that into space—somewhere very open, like a warehouse with tall ceilings, and a lot of concrete everywhere. That was the foundational part, followed by the nooks that lend themselves to more interesting moments that the fixtures could live in.

As for emulating iconic workspaces, I wish I could say it was as conceptual as that, but it was a lot more exploratory than referential or researched; I basically asked myself what kind of space I’d like to work in. When I used to do a lot more research a few years ago, I felt like the work that it created was maybe less exciting—I knew what certain references were and where things came from, and that wasn’t from a subconscious place or an exciting idea. I started moving away from too much direct influence and tried to create situations where I would subconsciously come up with something I could explore on its own, in a vacuum. Really, an idea will pop into my head, and I’ll want to know how it looks.

Virtual Office — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual Office — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual Office — Created by Tom Hancocks

Virtual Office — Created by Tom Hancocks

How do you define atmosphere, and what role does it play in the work that you do?

Atmosphere is something that we talk about at RBW as a foundational part of our design philosophy. How do you define atmosphere, and what role does it play in the work that you do?

Atmosphere is pretty underrated. Because of the way we consume everything these days, everything kind of boils down to getting a good picture of it. No picture is going to equate to anything experiential, but when you're simulating being in a space, you can at least pretend there's an atmospheric element to a certain extent. The primary thing is lighting, obviously, and then materiality. Materiality is what blurs that line between shapes and colors on a screen, and then something where you can imagine what it would feel like if it were real.

Do you have a dream collaborator, living or dead? Or are there architectural spaces IRL that you still dream of visiting?

Do you have a dream collaborator, living or dead? Or are there architectural spaces IRL that you still dream of visiting?

Architecturally, there’s probably no one with whom collaborating would be a good idea. But as far as fashion designers go, I'd be interested to see how Rei Kawakubo or Margiela would create a space if they were to wear the architect hat for a day. Interdisciplinary crossover creates something interesting or unique, which I think is in a lot of ways more important than something overly designed. The furniture I've been working on, even as I try not to be overly referential, is inspired by fashion tropes or fashion influences that I thought were more interesting. Culturally they might bring something more to the furniture or design world that doesn’t already exist there—so much furniture exists already.

Tom Hancocks

Artist & Designer

Tom Hancocks is a self-taught artist and designer. In both his personal practice and commercial work, he digitally captures the atmospheric qualities of objects in space, having created sets, animations and renderings for Cole Haan, Lauryn Hill and a number of other fashion and industrial design brands. In 2020, he became Rich Brilliant Willing’s first resident visual artist, and designed the virtual environments of RBW XR’s immersive extended reality platform. Hancocks was born in Australia, and moved to New York City in 2013.

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