10 ?'s with designer and artist, Ben Kelly
A highly influential designer whose work spans decades and genres from interiors, exhibition design, record covers and more. Ben Kelly is probably best known for the design of The Haçienda but that just scratches the surface of his practice.
Off the back of working with Virgil Abloh and recently exhibiting at 180 The Strand, we hit Ben with our 10 Questions covering all aspects of his career from his own identity and style to his favourite music and places.
Despite discovering Acid House decades after its moment, its energy and impact hit me like a freight train and it drew me to find out more about the people behind it, not just the musicians but the artists and designers too, which led me to you, Ben. So when you replied to my random email and wanted to participate in our 10 Questions, I was so pleased to get to know more about you. So let’s go.
Firstly, what does a day in the life of Ben Kelly look like? Do you try to stick to a set routine or is every day different?
Every day is different, it depends on where I am and what is happening. I may be in my studio in London or I may be in my studio in Pett Level on the South Coast. I may be working on a commercial project or I may be working on one of my own projects.
These days I no longer run an office, I work on my own unless I collaborate with another design practice or I employ freelance people. My work these days can be either interior design-based projects or my own art projects. I currently have an installation at 180 The Strand as part of the show Future Shock and later in the year, there will be a second installation there.
You're also known as ‘The Photo Kid’. Who is The Photo Kid and how did that name come about?
The Photo Kid evolved sometime in 1972 when as a student at the Royal College of Art in London. I completely changed my identity/image when I discovered Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Let It Rock on King's Road, and the shop Mr Freedom on Kensington Church Street. I scalped my hair and morphed into The Photo Kid.
The name was given to me by a fellow student at the RCA who had noticed that people were constantly taking photos of me – as a result of the new image, wearing crepe-soled Brothel creeper shoes, fluorescent socks, gold belt, tight black jeans and brightly-coloured shirts etc. He looked at me and said, “you are The Photo Kid”. So The Photo Kid is my alter ego.
We know you’ve been asked a million questions about The Haçienda and you yourself have called it “the monkey on your back”, but we have to get one in.
It was one of the most important nightclubs and helped to define club culture in the UK (and the world?). Amongst other things, do you think that it being in the North of the country was integral to its success and how do you think things might’ve been different if it was in London?
Yes, I have been asked a million and more questions about The Haçienda.
Yes, I do think that being in the North of the country was integral to its success and I do not think it could have succeeded if it was in London. It took a certain attitude from Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton and New Order to make it happen in Manchester. It wasn’t driven by a remit for profit. It was specifically for Manchester and specifically for the young people of Manchester and its environs.
Its name, its look and its attitude could only have happened in Manchester.
Yellow and black striped hazard tape is your signature style and although you’ve never been able to copyright it, have you ever been asked to apply it to something really strange?
Cushions and coasters, beer cans and merch.
But most importantly an installation where I collaborated on with Virgil Abloh called RUIN at 180 The Strand, London.
International Orange colour is also a signature of yours and much like hazard tape, it’s intended to be noticed. If you had to pick a favourite of the two, which would it be and why?
Yes, both International Orange and Yellow and Black hazard stripes have become signatures of mine. However, I think I have to pick International Orange from the two as a journalist wrote in 1992:
“Ben Kelly rescued the colour orange from the scrapheap of style”.
This quote is printed on collectable t-shirts available from 180 The Strand.
What’s your favourite museum in London to visit?
It’s impossible to pick one.
There are a few projects that I regard as important to me, which are DRY 201 (Manchester, 1989), Bar 10 (Glasgow, 1991), The Basement at the London Science Museum (1995) and more recently RUIN at 180 The Strand (London, 2018), Park Hill (Sheffield, 2019 – with Brinkworth).
But these wouldn’t have been possible without the early projects that allowed me to develop my design language: The Art Bar (RCA, London, 1973), Howie (Covent Garden, London, 1977), Seditionaries (shop front, London, 1977/78), Sex Pistols rehearsal room (Denmark St, London, 1978) and Smile (Kings Road, London, 1983).
None of them still exist but they were foundational.
You’re known predominantly for your interior design work, but you have also been a graphic designer and have won numerous awards for it. One of my favourite pieces by you is OMD’s self-titled debut album (designed in collaboration with Peter Saville for the record label Dindisc). Of which the band themselves said, “most people probably bought it for the sleeve design over the music”.
Do you agree?
A bit of both!
The sleeve was ground-breaking at the time; die-stamped perforations on an album cover had not happened before!
That being said, what kind of music do you listen to regularly?
Finally, in 2014 Kingston University named you as “one of the UK’s most influential designers”.
How does being held in such high regard make you feel and what do you hope your legacy will be, especially to younger designers and students?
I hope my legacy might be to encourage and inspire young designers and students to follow their instincts and ambitions.
Ben Kelly is one of the UK’s most influential designers. He has directed successful and innovative projects across the UK, Europe and Asia.
He is best known for his interior design of the legendary nightclub, The Haçienda in Manchester. His practice has produced influential work for 180 The Strand, Virgil Abloh, The Sex Pistols, The V&A, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, Factory Records, 4AD, The Science Museum, The Design Council, The Natural History Museum, Gymbox and BIMM.
He has been extensively awarded for exhibition design, record cover design and interiors.