California's happily married illustration duo collaborate in every sense and as Julia Sagar discovers, global clients just keep knocking at their door.
Young, hugely talented, and with an enviable list of clients and exhibitions under their shared belt, Kozyndan - otherwise known as Kozy and Dan Kitchens - are a creative force to be reckoned with. The dynamic husband-and-wife illustration team have been seducing viewers with their irresistibly surreal style of artwork since the late 90s, proving that business and pleasure can combine to create a winning partnership.
The pair met while studying illustration at university. Friends to begin with, they started dating after a year and have been inseparable ever since. "Our first collaboration happened randomly, after we'd been together for about two years," recalls Dan. "I saw a long doodle of the interior of our apartment that she was drawing for a class project, and really liked it. I decided to scan the drawing and colour it in Photoshop. Kozy joined me in the colouring process and we had a lot of fun doing it. That became our first panoramic, and the beginning of Kozyndan."
Famed for their intricate, hyperreal cityscape illustrations, Kozyndan's artwork often portrays a theme of conflict between nature and the industrial world, with a signature dash of surrealism worked in. Take their ongoing series of panoramics, for example. The latest, Nakano in Spring, paints a mystical happening one day in spring, when a sakura tree mysteriously erupts in the middle of a Tokyo bus depot.
"We're always tickled by odd and magical occurrences going mostly unnoticed by city dwellers," says Dan. "With our panoramics, we take very real places and insert absurd things. We like to make stuff that people will buy and hang on their wall and then, six months later, still discover things in it that they never noticed."
Inspired by a Japanese neighbourhood that they visited during Sakura season, Kozy and Dan came up with the concept of the piece jointly. "We've been doing these images since we started working together eight years ago, so we pretty much have our system down," explains Dan. Kozy agrees: "Yeah, generally, very little planning is done in the early stages of a project. We just decide on an idea and I start drawing."
In fact, it's an intricate, time-consuming process that sees Kozy drawing out the image on paper measuring just over a metre long, and less than 20cm wide, using a tiny .03 mechanical pencil to sketch in the contours. Dan then cleans the image in Photoshop, while Kozy forges ahead with the figures and imaginary elements, before passing them back for compositing. "We pick different parts of the image to work on, and paint until everything is filled in," he says.
"Nothing is particularly easy about any of the panoramics, to be honest - the whole process usually takes about a month and a half. We think we did a good job here though, as people have already pointed at the piece and cried out 'Nakano!'"
Their pieces are so popular that, amazingly, Kozyndan have never pitched for work. One company that recently approached them was Puma, who liked their series of panoramics so much they asked to build a clothing line around them. A radical departure from anything they'd ever done before, the pair concentrated on producing the artwork, letting Puma use it as required.
"We created one new panoramic for the project, and remixed an older one," explains Dan. "We're not really in tune with who Puma's audience might be, so we didn't take too aggressive a role in the look of the clothes themselves - we just treated the whole thing like any of our other panoramics. Probably the most difficult aspect of the whole process was working with such a big corporation. We had a good rapport with the designer, but it's still such a collaborative process to make the final clothing line."
It was the first time they'd worked on a major piece while travelling, and not in their studio, but both were pleased with the outcome. "I'm so proud of having made them fit together seamlessly at the edges so that it's a 360 degree angle," he enthuses. "From the architecture to the flood to the characters themselves, it's really fun to look at the piece up-close and see all the detail and texture. Apparently the line did well - they've decided to make another for winter 2010."
Beneath the playful tone of their work, however, often lies a deeper message. "To us, depicting our President's foreign policy mistakes is no different than drawing magical monster creatures having a tea party," says Dan. Kozy agrees: "We live in a screwed up world and a particularly screwed up country. A lot of what we see going on in the USA strikes us as absolutely insane, and it's hard to believe that people really have the beliefs they do, or act the way they act. It's all absurd to us, and so far from mankind living in harmony with the world around us."
Recently the couple tackled an issue that lies particularly close to their hearts: whaling. Commissioned by London-based ad agency Brooklyn Brothers, Kozyndan created a label for a tin of whale meat in a traditional Japanese style, to be used in a campaign by the Discovery Channel. The label was affixed to several "gigantic tins" placed in train stations across the UK, and featured in Whale Wars, a television show depicting the struggle between an anti-whaling group and Japanese whaling ships.
"We were given clear reference material, and instructions from the creatives at Brooklyn brothers to recreate the traditional Japanese style that we'd used on some previous pieces, so we didn't have to search too far for inspiration. However, we did have to work very fast - the label only had a one week turnaround, and had to be pretty large as it was going to be printed 15 metres long," recalls Dan.
The process was hectic, with minor changes from the client proving problematic due to the sheer size of the piece. "We had to rush from the comp stage and begin working on the final artwork before they could tell us what size it actually needed to be. We started scanning elements at 1,400dpi, and didn't find out until colouring began that we only needed to build it at 10 per cent of the final size. Even then the resulting file was well over a gigabyte, and took Photoshop one hour of computing to resize." He smiles: "It all came out really nicely though. Also, neither of us are graphic designers, but we managed to pull off a label that mimics those old Japanese food labels - I wasn't sure we'd be able to handle that aspect of the brief going in."
So what's the secret to Kozyndan's success? According to Dan, it's working together as husband and wife, best friends and as a team. "We know each other so intimately, so intuitively, that we know who will have a good idea for a project, and who should execute that project and take which role, without ever discussing it. From the outside we probably look like we're not even communicating at all."
The two claim not to have fixed roles, although over the years Kozy has taken on more of the drawing and painting, while Dan handles the technical side of production. "Kozy is a far better artist than I am," Dan admits. "When I do come up with characters or compositions, she'll redraw them. She has much better hand skills, and can draw and paint in tiny meticulous detail that I can't achieve. We may come up with ideas together, but I play the production bitch during the execution most of the time," he grins. "Kozy definitely does all the landscapes."
That's not to say they don't make changes to each other's contributions; quite the opposite, in fact. "That's where the blood and magic happens. Usually the more we fight over the details, the more successful the final artwork turns out to be."
Interestingly, they don't always collaborate on work. Their new book, The Unknown Portraits, is a personal project collecting a series of Kozy's drawings, while Dan crafted their Seasons of the Bunny posters by himself. "If it's a big project it will probably require both of us, but if we have a lot of time and the project is more intimate we have no problem signing something we made individually as a Kozyndan work," says Dan.
Living and working together can, of course, have its drawbacks, and they've had creative disagreements in the past. "That's the real test," says Dan, "and the unique part of working with your spouse. In a design studio you can't really pout or make personal attacks at your colleagues, but with the love of your life all bets are off! The flipside bonus is that when you work for a company you can't usually have make-up sex with your creative director, either." As Kozy points out, it's all about putting your creative fights into perspective. "We don't ever let that stuff affect us for long though. We're like: 'This is just a work fight, let's forget it'."
For both of them, the advantages to working together professionally as a couple far outweigh any disadvantages. "More than anything, our inspiration and the choice of commercial projects that we work on stems from our life as a couple, and our mutual beliefs that we have developed as we've experienced the world together over the last 10 years," reflects Dan. "It makes working together under one name easy, and the obvious thing to do. That's the best part: how seamless it all becomes."
With big-name clients actively seeking them out, Kozyndan seem to have unknowingly stumbled upon a winning formula. "People like that we work together as a couple," says Dan. "It seems like an ideal storybook sort of life: to meet your soulmate early in life, and start a globe-trotting art career with them - it seems so romantic." He smiles: "I don't have any complaints. Sure, on a day-to-day basis our life can be as mundane as any other - our art and fan base has simply afforded us a bigger platform through which to share the fun."