An artistic intersection
“When I was a kid, I used to have these little Darda wind-up cars,” recalls Los Angeles-based British artist Nico Sclater. “They were very cool. You’d push them backwards and forwards, pop the top off and get the little engine out. And I had a little graphite grey Porsche 911 that I carried around. It was the toy that I would grab first when we left the house.”
Today Nico – who works under the nome d’arte of Ornamental Conifer – finds himself in demand for his exciting, fresh, design aesthetic. It’s one that combines playful typography and signwriting talent with fun, impactful messaging and a distinctive, cheeky, pop art feel.
And that little boy with the toy 911 – “I’d never seen a real 911 growing up in south Wales” – is now being commissioned to work on the actual cars themselves. What he calls the “ultimate, beautiful canvas”. So far, Ornamental Conifer’s vehicle lettering and art has adorned three Porsche cars: a 1977 911, rebuilt by Hamburg-based engine experts Wicked Sixes to resemble a 1974 911 Carrera 3.0RS; a 1970 911T for a customer in Texas, and a friend’s very special 935 that was shown at SEMA Auto Show in Las Vegas last year.
The results are extraordinary, a kind of artistic clash of classic race car decals, advertising slogans and Nico’s singular brand of wordplay and idioms (which he calls ‘Coniferisms’).
Ornamental Conifer: from hip-hop and graffiti to car art
Growing up in south Wales and Cambridge, England, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Nico fell in love with rap music, graffiti and BMX culture. The influence of each is apparent in his work as Ornamental Conifer, whether it’s cars or clothing, motorbikes or surfboards. Coniferisms, says Nico, are rooted in the tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating wordplay of mid-1990s British hip-hop artists like Braintax. The 1977 911, for example, is adorned with phrases like ‘The Future Is Our Fault’ and ‘Never Beyond Repair’.
“They weren’t rapping about being gangsters,” he says of these homegrown hip-hop heroes. “They were rapping about waiting for the bus in the rain to get to work, when all they really wanted to do was go home, make a cup of tea and write lyrics.”
A love of contrarianism and healthy disrespect for life’s norms lie at the heart of Ornamental Conifer’s work. Even as a young man, while other friends were into football, he still had a shelf of Lego and GI Joes. “I always loved the graphics that went with toys, like Tamiya RC cars,” he explains. “When I visited foreign supermarkets, I’d photograph logos on cereal packets and cleaning products. They seemed so exotic.”
When I visited foreign supermarkets, I’d photograph logos on cereal packets and cleaning products. They seemed so exotic.
Today, this manifests itself in what Nico calls “creating my own language and library of [unique] logos that you could be fooled into believing really existed”.
A single-minded approach
Before moving to Los Angeles, Nico worked from an east London studio – “I was living very much hand-to-mouth” – where he would customise classic motorbikes with Coniferisms and oil-based enamel paints using techniques learned from the world of signwriting. Nowadays his biggest projects are of the four-wheeled kind. They may look like wraps or printed decals but, like all Nico’s art, the cars are hand painted. He’s keen to point out, however, that he doesn’t consider himself a signwriter: “I’m an artist who uses typography.”
There’s no doubt the three Porsche projects he’s finished so far are beautiful, living, moveable works of art. And great fun too. However, when you commission Ornamental Conifer, part of the deal means accepting Nico’s total control over the project. Demand a facsimile of, say, a classic race car design and he’ll send you packing. His designs are light years away from what we usually see in the world of motoring. “Why would you want a copy of someone else’s design?” he asks incredulously.
Instead, Nico sends you a proposal, explaining the messages that he wants to spread and the “aesthetic” he’ll apply. Usually, the next time you’ll see the car is when it’s handed back to you at the end. There are no renders created to aid you (Nico always designs directly onto the car). Instead, clients' only visual guides are the paintings on display in Nico’s studio and an agreed set of colour palettes. Then off Nico goes.
“I measure and put tape down to work out where things will go,” he says. “Then I ask for a leap of faith from them and tell them to come back in two weeks when it’s finished. It's genuinely a surprise, but they've all been happy. So far.”
You really get to know cars well when you’re cleaning them. All the little corners that you wouldn't necessarily see unless you got down on your hands and knees and looked
Getting to know you
He uses an old tailor’s measuring tape to size things up and butcher’s paper and sticky tape to try things out on the car, leaving them for a couple of days to decide whether they work or not. Meanwhile, he’s mixing paint colours up. Nico chiefly employs signwriter’s paint which he prepares in large batches in order to get a uniformity of colour, although he also uses water-based latex applied with an airbrush and even regular spray paint.
As for the painting itself, Nico describes it as being a bit like how tattooists ink a whole body. Larger, central pieces happen first (roof, wings, bonnet) and then come the fillers, which happen “extremely organically”. With its trompe-l’œil stylings, Nico’s typography doesn’t so much as pop out as poke you in the eye. And what happens when he’s finished? “They give me the cash and I leave the car behind – with me in floods of tears, because after two weeks I feel like I own them!”
A subcultural phenomenon
“I’m not interested in being a poster artist,” says Nico, who is also art director for automotive creative agency and ‘culture hub’ Race Service. “But putting a poster graphic onto a car creates a new dialogue. I’m attracted to objects. I’ve always been a collector of things. The surfboards, skateboards and helmets that I do [clients for the latter include Australian F1 star Daniel Ricciardo and Porsche Factory Team driver, Patrick Long] all come from a world of action, sport or danger. Of hobbies and subculture.”
Finally – that name. Why Ornamental Conifer? “I honestly don't remember!” admits Nico. “I love my Norwegian roots and I'm a big fan of conifers. It’s just a name that’s ambiguous enough to potentially be memorable.”