The designer and artist shares the behind-the-scenes stories on creating iconic looks, Instagram filters, and masks for the musician
It’s 10.30am in Brussels, where James Merry is in his hotel room getting ready to watch Björk rehearse for the first night of her ambitious, hi-tech Cornucopia tour. “It’s on a scale we’ve never done before,” he says of co-creative directing the mammoth production. “There are different layers, moving screens, choreography and new visuals. It was a huge undertaking, and I’m really proud of the result.”
For the next month, he’ll travel with Björk across Europe to oversee the tour production. “We’re traveling mainly by train for environmental reasons, but it’s so much nicer,” he tells me. “I have a serious phobia of flying, it knackers me out!” It’s a far cry from his day-to-day life in Iceland, where he lives just a stone’s throw away from Björk – a small detail which demonstrates the strength of their creative relationship, which began in 2009 when Biophilia was merely a creative seed.
Despite self-describing as a creative child, Merry says he truly became an artist after meeting Björk. Prior to that, he spent time making butterfly paintings under the direction of Damien Hirst, but his photographic memory led to him taking on “more of an admin role” and cataloguing the butterflies. Now, his creative mind is encouraged to wander; not only does he create spectacular masks and accessories for Björk, the duo works closely on various visual projects to bring ethereal, beautiful visions to life.
Here, Merry delves deep into their shared archive and reveals the stories behind their career highlights.
“The first mask I made for Björk was latex; it looked a bit like a stingray, and it was actually a birthday present for her. We did two album covers for Vulnicura: one with Inez and Vinoodh and another with Andrew Thomas Huang. The Huang cover we shot on Björk’s birthday in Iceland, and she ended up wearing the mask in the “Family” video. Then, the first live performance was at the Governor’s Ball in New York. We had this crazy, neon moth-shaped dress by Nikoline Liv Anderson, and Björk was looking for a mask to wear with it. At the time, she was sending lots of photos of moths, so I disappeared into my room and embroidered a mask – and it snowballed from there.
At first, I said I would make a new mask before each concert – which I did, but it was too much! Sometimes finding a shape, structure and material that works will take months of prototyping and testing. Other times, I get to the hotel the day before a show, pull the kettle and TV off the desk, make a little studio and make a new mask in two days without sleeping. It varies to both extremes, but I see the masks as pieces of fruit; our day-to-day work is the tree, roots and branches, but sometimes these headpieces pop up as little bonuses.”
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“This was my first significant project with Björk. We put together a team but we were overseeing it, and then Scott Snibbe kind of took over as producer later on. Everything felt – well, it still does – especially exciting and fresh; it was my first time properly traveling everywhere. We went to the National Geographic Explorers’ Convention in Washington DC as part of our research, which is like a series of mini TED talks. We were like the best university students ever; we went to every talk with our notebooks and pens in our hair. The CEO said, ‘Nobody has ever attended every single lecture like you guys have!’
My background is in academia – I studied Ancient Greek, so I really enjoy the research. Even with creative stuff, half the fun is in researching a bone, a flower, a mushroom. I remember at one point Björk wanted to write a song with a magnetic pendulum, so I just built one of those in the garage. We actually lived in Puerto Rico – we made this little Biophilia research station on the beach and had friends and collaborators stay there. My driving license is actually Puerto Rican, which surprises people!”
“Björk’s team is small; it’s quite punk and DIY, so we’re all quite good at taking on different roles. We’re enthusiastic about new things, so we’ll start a new project and say: ‘Oh okay, I’ll become a virtual reality person!’ With Björk: Digital we had virtual reality videos in our lap, but not many people had headsets. I play a lot of computer games and am tech-literate but I don’t have one in my living room – it’s not there yet, so the exhibition was a way of allowing people to try VR for the first time.
It was also intentionally a work-in-progress – in almost each city we premiered something new. It was amazing to be in the room; it was this kind of silent disco vibe, but people were gasping, crying, and talking to Björk. As a fan, it’s such a unique way to have this private concert – some of the videos are just these 360° camera recordings of Björk performing eight inches from your face. We hadn’t reckoned for those reactions, so it was cool to watch.”
“Around Vulnicura, Björk was feeling embroidery as a textural reference for the album. I had embroidered gifts for friends in my 20s, but around that time I picked up a Nike sweater and embroidered an Icelandic flower and some moss onto it. People messaged me wanting to buy them, so I decided I wanted to make more, but not mass-produce – I always resisted that.
Humberto (Leon) from Opening Ceremony got in touch to commission a capsule collection, so I ended up going to New York – it sold out in two days! After that, I started making two or three and selling them through Instagram, but I want to get back into it next year: it’s basically breathing new life into vintage sweaters with a needle and a thread, so it’s hugely eco-friendly. James Blake actually bought a few, sometimes he wears them during performances!”
“I made lots of new pieces for Utopia, but I also started exploring new crafts. One was sculpting, casting, and painting silicone by hand to make these face pieces; the other was hand-cutting and polishing metal to make more sculptural headpieces. I was on-set for the Biophilia and Vulnicura cover shoots, but I was more involved with Utopia; it was me, Björk, and Jesse Kanda. It’s a shocking, amazing image – I love it.
We had done a few shoots beforehand with (make-up artist) Hungry’s makeup, my silicone facepiece and this wig, this hairstyle that Björk imagined for the character; this funny, wild animal-like hair on the side of the head. We did a few test shoots to form this character, but Jesse took it to the next level. Björk always has very specific visual references; she knows how to feed you these seeds, but she lets you grow your own plant. She’s all about nurturing, and bringing the best out of you.”
“I usually try and make Björk a new mask ahead of filmed interviews, but with her Instagram Live Q&A for Dazed, I thought it would be cool to do it digitally. I taught myself to properly sculpt in 3D and use the augmented reality software for the filter; I released that mask just in time, so Björk wore this digital headpiece that was then available to the public. On these train journeys, I’m actually sculpting a new filter that I can hopefully release before Christmas. I really want to make digital versions of all of my old masks!”