"Difficult people make beautiful things."
Dreams are not just built by one person alone, as we know it takes many people to construct a vision. One man who knows this better than anyone else is the Canadian multi-disciplinary designer Willo Perron.
You might not have heard of him, but will surely know his work, his resume, full of lavish industrial creations gracing the stages and records of superstars such as Rihanna, Kanye West and Jay-Z. His hands are all over pop culture, his ideas represented in every industry from the retail world to publishing and even furniture.
Willo Perron emerged from humble beginnings in a middle-class neighbourhood of Montreal, fed on a basic diet of hip-hop and museums. In 2002, his first real calling came when Dov Charney the now shamed CEO of American Apparel asked him to put together a vision for his retail empire which soon enough took him across the world.
In 2006 he met Kanye West on the cusp of global stardom and the rest is history. Willo Perron is a design purist at heart, but what makes him so unique is his ability to weave together intellectual references from artists such as German director Werner Herzog, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or the photographer Ari Marcopoulos with enormous amplification. He is able to subtly sew his ideas into mainstream consciousness, what they call today high brow meets low brow.
If he is not scrutinising the concept for Jay-Z’s 4:44 album artwork and tour then he’s putting together 200 drones, a flying Ferrari (yes you read right) and a 3D basketball court for Drake’s 2018 Aubrey & The Three Migos tour.
He has chosen to remain anonymous throughout his two-decade-long career for fear of popularising himself through his work. But now the director comes out of hiding to give us an exclusive in-depth insight into his body of work and what it’s like to be the designer for Kanye West’s mind.
Aubrey & The Three Migos Tour, Drake, 2018 (concept Willo Perron)
You are a dark secret in the creative industries, known as a highly influential creative director, a set designer for some of the biggest stars on the planet but not many people know who you are. Was it always intentional to keep yourself locked away from the press?
It was very intentional not to do press. I always felt what I said was going to come across as gossipy, so I just avoided it altogether. I think that if I did talk it could end up becoming a celebrity pull quote or be misinterpreted. It was never going to benefit my work.
"Every day I get outrageous requests. I think that you write comedy by not having limits to what you can say."
Willo Perron on working with artists
Were you being offered interviews? Were there people wanting to know who Willo Perron was?
We’ve always been asked about it. It wasn’t necessary for us. As we’ve grown, we established our vernacular but it is a difficult thing to explain, this studio is just about problem-solving.
We don’t attach ourselves to any medium exclusively, a big part of not doing media was about not being typecast as the guy who does shows for big personalities. A large part of our time is spent doing interior work, furniture work, publication work as well as design. I did not want to be known as the guy that does Kanye’s store because if I did, then that is what would come through the door.
Talk to me a little bit about where you came from because you’re from Montreal, your brother’s also a designer. It seems you take inspiration from everywhere. You’re a polymath regarding how you approach your projects. So what did your parents do?
I have a pretty artistic family. Everybody in my family does some creative work, whether it’s professionally or not. It has always been a really important thing in our world. I and my brother went to these hippy art schools when we were young. So we’ve always been surrounded by that.
It has been said of you that you are the type of guy who will disappear for days and watch a million documentaries to get inspiration. How do you approach pulling in references for your work?
It varies dramatically. Sometimes, we will get a mandate saying “Can you do this interior? This show? This book?” And instantaneously the idea comes to me quickly, as in I know exactly what it looks like, as well as drawing on research and a bank of images.
Does that bank of imagery and inspiration sit on a computer or a brain vault?
It’s a mix. I have tons of references on the computer, but I know everything that I have on my computer. I can remember every image that I put in a folder on my computer. So they work in correlation with each other. But I think the computer for me is more about storage. I am not flipping through it and saying, “I didn’t know I have all these things.” I know what is there.
So you’re working with St. Vincent let’s say on the recent record MassEducation, which got you a lot of acclaim. Did she come to you or you go to her? Was it a meeting of the minds where you discussed influences, inspiration, creativity or you see a bunch of films together. How did it work?
We’d done previous albums together, but, in general, I would gather ideas that felt like were her. One of the big through lines for me in that project was thinking about her as a person; she’s got a great sense of humour. I started thinking about women in pop and rock; I felt like they were always portrayed as sexually or beauty forward.
At the same time, I didn’t want to diminish that because she is this really beautiful woman. I didn’t want people to read it exclusively as that, there have been people in popular culture that were beautiful and sexy, and at the same time were able to take the piss with a sense of humour in an almost absurdist way.
So a lot of it was about digging around, thinking about icons that had done that, the B-52 girls for example. They were cute and looked cool and at the same time, they could have a sense of humour.
I was at a book fair, and I saw a Cramps poster, I was like, “Yes! I love the Cramps” Poison Ivy from the Cramps was like a Beetlejuice character. But she was also hot, in an absurdist way. So I started looking at that era as an intersection of progression and sexuality and comedy that coexisted. We said, let’s go heavy on this colour palette and incorporate this absurdist sexuality where it still has a sense of humour.
MassEducation LP by St. Vincent (concept by Willo Perron)
It’s exciting to hear you talk about your love of the Cramps, poster art and book fairs, and then go off and work with these huge stars. In your world you are always drawing on bits and pieces, I’m always interested in how you can incorporate the intellectual world into the commercial world?
Well, I believe in broadcast, success stories for me are the ones where something great gets done in a big way without compromise. Like Bowie, Apocalypse Now or Apple. Once you prove you’re successful you don’t have to compromise, you just have to stay the course, and the course is rid with fearful, insecure people that don’t believe in what you do, if it’s communicated to a lot of people then a lot of people will stay the course with you, that is crucial.
Are you saying as long as it is broadcast to enough people the sort of ideas that you have will be massaged into a larger audience?
I think it is more that you don’t have to compromise the message to get to a larger audience, where you are not tricking anybody. I think that people want real things, beautiful things. Sometimes it is the people making something that think the audience is dumb. They think you need to change the chorus, the verse, and the bridge so that people will understand them. But some of the greatest songs in the world have no chorus or no have no bridge. The point is you don’t need to compromise vision for broadcast.
When you see your creations and they are creations in majestic size. Do you think to yourself wow that was cool or do you to go into a stadium to see Drake’s enormous sci-fi 3-D creation to say “Holy shit, I put that together.” Is that a moment where you have to take a moment to breathe that in?
Let me think about that. I don’t have that in me. I believe that it’s very much about me being in the project. I’m just trying to make the project as great and as beautiful as possible, there are no self-congratulations in there. I’ve never been, “Oh shit look at what I did?”. It all scaled up organically, I had a full design career previously to doing shows. It wasn’t like I stumbled into something and I had a hit overnight. But I’m also impressed when somebody buids a bridge or puts a rocket on the moon.
So what’s the most outrageous request by an artist that goes unfulfilled to this day?
I feel like every day I get outrageous requests. I think that you write comedy by not having limits to what you can say. I think outrageous requests aren’t outrageous when you look at them as part of a starting point. But the point is your trying to make something that hasn’t been done before.
No one has ever said, bring me an island or something ridiculous?
Honestly, that happens every day, and the thing is I don’t think it is ridiculous.
But there’s stuff you can’t do.
Well, there was always stuff you always could not do. You used to not be able to fly a plane or shoot a rocket to the moon. I mean there are air bubbles in our shoes now. Having something that’s completely outrageous is just a start.
“I think he’s an artist and I’m a designer. I’m a very pragmatic person; I start with the problem. I don’t start with the dream. Dreams come after the problems.” – Willo Perron on working with Kanye West (Yeezy studio designed by Willo Perron)
Let’s shift to your work with bigger creative personalities. Your agency has worked with Coldplay, Miguel, Rihanna and Drake and Jay-Z. How do you deal with ego, these artists are adored by millions. You are working with a team but you’re working with someone who is an individual as well. How complex does that get?
I think there are two parts to it; I think I probably have an ego. And then the second part is, these relationships have been long working relationships that have taken different forms, and I think there’s respect in those things.
I’m oblivious to all the noise, and it’s not sent in my direction. I don’t interface with all that too much. It has to be collaborative, an open space. We’re not a production company, we’re not a service supplier, we don’t just deliver goods.
I deal with difficult people, but difficult people make beautiful things. People that accept the status quo make status quo things. And I think I’m difficult, so it’s just a part of the whole process. We sometimes have to argue, sometimes we fall out with each other, but it is the same with family or friends or anything.
So have you argued with Jay-Z or Kanye in the past over these projects?
You are hilarious [laughing]. I’ve definitely argued with artists for sure.
One of the most interesting projects I saw you did was the Wildheart Motel with Miguel, where you created these rooms as a three-day art installation. I thought that was fascinating, a mix of the conceptual and real world? How does all that work regarding timings, budgets and operational aspects?
I don’t have a set phase. The pressure cooker is a good motivator. Everybody is pressing us, and sometimes it’s good to be under the gun. That thing, in particular, came together quite quickly. We first went scouting for motels and then we mapped 25 rooms together, we did the concept for twenty-five, but we ran out of money after 20, so five rooms never got built.
We put it together quickly. It was about the beauty of its messiness. I didn’t want it to feel like a promotion, you go to a lot of those things, and you have to check in somewhere with a lot of security, they’re serving one type of sponsored drinks, and there’s a photo booth. All this bullshit makes people not enjoy themselves, or feel they are under a microscope. We took that away – we would fill fridges with booze and give people keys to different rooms. In America I feel like there is this suing culture, everything becomes dumbed down for fear of liability. We took that away and said if something happens we’ll deal with it.
I love that. A messy hotel for three days.
Initially, the concept was Miguel living at the motel for a week or a few days. Conceptually the rules and aesthetic of the whole thing was about studying him and his temperament, and we said how do we map him into physical space.
"You don't need to compromise vision for broadcast."
Willo Perron on the commercial world
Jay-Z 2017 LP 4:44 (concept by Willo Perron)
Let us talk about your relationship with Kanye West, he is seen as a go-to guy for design. If it is not music, it is furniture or architecture. There’s not an industry he doesn’t want to go into, so it’s interesting to know that there is someone next to him that has worked with him creatively in the design space as well. Talk to me about how you would describe Kanye West, the kind of titan he is and the enigma he is and the kind of strange tangent he’s on at the moment.
Kanye absorbs so much information; he has a great filter for all of that. If you look at the contemporary landscape of fashion and the arts and music, somehow he has been directly attached to whatever the biggest thing is at the moment. From Virgil being at Louis Vuitton to the Travis Scott’s and Drake’s of the world being trailblazers.
Going back to my conversation earlier about artists and the absurd. It is essential to allow artists the space to try new material without putting them through this puritanical judgment every time they say something, and unfortunately, the 24-hour news cycle has to be fed, and people love scandal and drama. For me, the world is composed of a lot of different opinions, darkness and light and the thing that we have to be is compassionate and loving, especially when it comes to our society’s most sensitive who are usually artists. But Kanye and I have been longtime collaborators, and he is one of the most inspiring people I know.
So when you say longtime collaborators do you have your design philosophy and then he has his design philosophy?
I think he’s an artist and I’m a designer. I’m a very pragmatic person; I start with the problem. I don’t start with the dream. Dreams come after the problems. So it’s about budgets, days and timing. Then it is about the dream, the outer coat of the problems. The artist minds are about how they can try to circumvent pragmatism to get to the dream, and sometimes that’s a conflict. Sometimes it’s better to be in the dream; sometimes it’s better to be pragmatic.
"A genius piece of modern design."
There’s nobody doing victory laps having designed it. It also happens to be one of the most democratic things ever made, I just love that it transcends gender and geography. A genius piece of modern design.
"It just doesn't stop."
Going back to that idea of absurdist requests. I guess you can’t have a worse experience making a film, it just doesn’t stop. It’s incredible that somebody managed to document that in those days and under those circumstances.
"I've always been a behind the scenes type of guy."
I’ve always been a behind the scenes type of guy, crafting from a non- public place and I don’t do interviews. So I’ve always been fascinated by Tony Wilson and the Manchester thing as well as Malcolm McLaren, for me Tony Wilson is better.
"I love when people can come together."
I love when people can come together and start movements to make incredible things. The 70s, 80s Italy felt really really rich – such as the Memphis movement et. al. I just think that it only takes one person or five to leave this massive mark on music or art or design.
"He should be ten times bigger than he is."
I have played his record to the point where I’m going to wear out Spotify if there is such a thing. He’s nailed a contemporary style of dancehall and I have been really lucky to work with him – I have directed some videos for him. It’s definitely by far my favourite record of the last couple of years and he should be ten times bigger than he is.