French artist Hervé Tullet knows about ideas. They fizz around inside his head, connecting things he’s seen and heard and half-dreamed of, and he pursues them in his studio and elsewhere, playing with them and asking questions, inviting them to take him somewhere intriguing, somewhere different, somewhere that makes him sit up and say yes.
Sometimes Hervé’s ideas become books – to date he’s created about eighty playfully-interactive titles for younger readers and their adults – and sometimes they become other things, like exhibitions, apps and games. But all his creations share the same aesthetic language, and everything from activity book to gallery installation is driven by a belief in the importance of really good visual material for developing minds together with a compulsion to take his ideas as far as they will go.
Hervé explores colours, shapes and other concepts in ways that challenge our assumptions about what a book can be and do, and is passionate about letting his audiences create their own experiences with his work. Constantly innovating, both in his studio and at the large-scale workshops he runs in galleries and other venues, Hervé’s work is enjoyed by millions worldwide. His books – including bestselling titles such as Press Here and Mix it Up! - are not only great fun to share, they also say something profound about art and aesthetics, about how we connect with ourselves and others, and about agency and power. When the youngest of readers can tap and shake a book or arrange its pages to suit themselves, when they can build with it or shine a light through it, when adults and children create a new experience every time that book is opened, it’s their fingers and eyes and imaginations that are in charge.
Although diverse, Hervé’s books clearly share a DNA, and until recently have made their impact by showing, not telling. Hervé has happily directed his audience (“take a little bit of the red and rub it on the blue”;” shake the book one more time”) but has avoided explanations, allowing his work to speak for itself and make its own impact. In his most recent book, however - ‘I Have an Idea!’ - Hervé addresses his audience directly and informally, in a way that makes his thinking plain. In the interview that follows, he acknowledges that this book represents a change that is, for him, an important step.
The business of having ideas and being creative is notoriously hard to pin down and many adults routinely expect children to be inventive and imaginative without enabling the behaviours and conditions that encourage creativity, such as a willingness to take risks and the ability to learn from mistakes. So it’s especially welcome to find a picturebook addressing aspects of the creative process such as being curious, making connections, interrogating and ordering and hitting a dead end - and even more welcome to find it wearing its expertise so lightly and having such a warm heart.
I Have an Idea! is a book that draws Hervé's work together and he wrote it “as if it would be his last.” But of course, it won’t be. Hervé’s creative energy and commitment to “communicating a desire to play, to take ownership, to amuse oneself and to learn” is all-encompassing and this instinct will not leave him. In fact, it’s been taking him into exciting new territory. This year Hervé launched the Expo Idéale, an artistic project which he describes as an “Hervé Tullet exhibition that people can make without him.” Inspired by a series of unique and appealing online videos in which Hervé demonstrates ideas and techniques, children and their adults are invited to create artwork and display it anywhere from a shoebox or bedroom to a library or gallery. The only stipulation is that the outcomes must be shared.Hervé wrote many of his books in France where he raised his family but he now lives and works in New York.
Welcome to CoT, Hervé, and thank you for talking to us. I’d like to start by asking about your early career. When and how did you decide to make books for children?
I found my vocation very late, when I was about 35, after a career in advertising. But as soon as I became an illustrator I understood how wide the field of young people’s literature was and how immense the possibilities were for expression. At that time I also understood the possibilities of engaging with children in less advantaged places, in terms of becoming an ‘author-partner’ with people such as teachers and librarians who do such incredible work out there on a daily basis.These two thoughts came together and led me to develop my work as a book designer alongside working in schools in diverse, varied and even unusual ways. These two occupations nourished each other.
Advertising was a difficult environment which didn’t suit me, but I learned to be tenacious about finding solutions and responses to the problems with which I was presented.
At that time, I didn’t have a strong enough idea about what I wanted to do, everything came a little by chance – advertising, illustration, why not a book for children?
And then, little by little, everything became clear and made sense. But it took a lot of time!
Why does playful interaction feature so strongly in your books? What does playfulness look like from your perspective as an artist and creator?
Playfulness has lots of elements. Firstly and inevitably, there’s the surprise – the game of turning the page, the playfulness of the surprising idea which creates a dialogue between author and reader, between the reader and the book, and most of all between the adult reader (with all their prior associations) and the child reader (who doesn’t yet know how to read and who is waiting for a story or a game). I often try to create a game between adult and child throughout my books.
I don’t consider my books as being ‘finished’, it’s the reader who will finish them by inventing their own reading.
I work by soliciting chance and inventiveness - which shows, I think, in the drawing and which I hope inspires a desire to play and take it for one’s own, because often this graphic vocabulary is very simple, and therefore accessible.
You’ve described your most recent title - I Have an Idea! - as an ‘important book’ for you. Why is this?
It is indeed an important book because this is the first time that I’ve spoken directly to the reader. In all my books, I come up with ideas, I engage with them and play with them, I amuse myself on the pages. I’m always trying to innovate in my books, but I never say anything. So ‘I Have An Idea’ evens things up a bit. I’ve created about eighty ideas-based books, and here I’m giving readers an insight into what I mean by an idea, how one finds them and what the point of them might be. I wrote the text - and it took me a very long time to find the right words.
Here, in this book, I’m clearly explaining the meaning behind all my other books and workshops. It’s a little bit like my version of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and I wrote it as if it would be my last book. But of course, it won’t be my last!
How do your own ideas arrive and how do you develop them?
At all times, I work using intuition, impulsiveness and improvisation. When I’m looking for ideas, I keep on looking. When I find them, I feel a kind of energy, an incredible desire to express the joy of the idea that I’ve found. It may work or it may not, if it doesn’t work – if it isn’t rich enough or strong enough, if it doesn’t satisfy me, then I wait, I look again, all around. There’s no need to be in front of a table for that….
When I’ve found an idea – really found one – I feel the same urgency about finding a way of expressing this idea as an image. This speed allows room for risks, for accidents, for unforeseen events.
It almost always happens in this way, that I work with a sense of urgency.
Some people worry that digital devices and online access will destroy children’s interest in traditional printed books - but with apps, websites and other innovations you have embraced digital opportunities. How do you feel about digital versus printed formats?
I love the act of being creative, in whatever field. I do find myself a bit uncomfortable about digital formats, because on an ipad, even if the app you’re looking at is good, it’s still really easy to click on another that isn’t.
I believe that everything deserves creativity, innovation and purpose – but with digital I too often see unchallenging or repetitive commercial strategies that don’t add anything.
I think that digital could be a wonderful instrument for raising awareness and educating, but it should be isolated.
You’re known for leading big, exciting workshops with children and families. Have you any tips to share with people who also lead creative activities with children? What’s really important? What doesn’t matter at all?
I think that children love seeing us adults simply amusing ourselves with them, rather than having a strategy or plan. Sometimes they see us coming heavy-handed, and they soon learn that we want to teach them something.
I am not trying to teach them (I don’t know how many pictures I’ve created that play with the idea of right and left, and I still don’t know my right from my left!)
When I’m doing a workshop I really want to enjoy myself (but at the same time it’s serious in that I’m directing it, I’m in control) But I am genuinely having fun and I think that time spent doing something together is more important than the result - even though the result is often superb!
What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened when you’ve been leading a public workshop? The most moving? The most challenging?
It’s always very surprising, challenging and moving. Each experience is unique, whether it’s taking place in New York or Malawi.
Sometimes I can sense a little bit of chaos, it’s challenging and it worries me. I have to pull myself together and let the fear and turmoil pass, and then all of a sudden I can tell things are taking a particular direction, things are falling into place, it’s working, it’s functioning, and it’s surprising, and moving – the looks, the smiles, life, humanity…
Your new project – Expo Idéale – sounds amazing! Tell us about it, and how we can get involved.
Expo Idéale is an artistic project. It’s an Herve Tullet exhibition that people can do without me – in a shoebox, a child’s room, a classroom, a library, an art centre, a museum, almost anywhere you like (even a virtual space)
It’s basically a set of very simple processes that you can see at my website. The Expo Idéale fits all situations and all ambitions. There’s only one rule – you have to create an exhibition or installation from what I propose.
The artistic project is the sum of all the ideal exhibitions taking place across the world.
If you want to take part in the Expo, just get in touch via the site at https://lexpoideale.com/en/ to get access to all the videos.
From my point of view, I also create Ideal Expos here and there, sometimes for an hour and sometimes for a day, in a school, gallery or museum of contemporary art.
You’ve published many titles in many different countries. Do you have a favourite? Is there a book you think deserves more attention? What do you recommend we read, explore and share?
Each of my books explores a new idea or aspect of my work, and together the books form a whole, a sort of logic that started with my first title How Daddy Met Mummy.*
Books about ideas, activity books, games, workshops and now Ideal Exhibitions – they’re all talking about the same thing, communicating a desire to play, to take ownership, to amuse oneself and to learn.
Press Here is the best-known, so I recommend it for people who are new to my work.
*Comment Papa a Rencontré Maman was published by Seuil Jeunesse in France, 1994
What have you learned from interacting with audiences and partners around the world? What would you like to learn, or do, or create next?
All these adventures have given a meaning to my life, so I expect to continue along the same path – one of creativity, experimentation and diverse experiences which are often communal, large-scale, ambitious (whatever the venue) and joyful. I will continue to search, and not plunge into readymade commercial formulae. And I hope one day to bring all the aspects of the Expo Idéale explorations from around the world into a catalogue which I hope will inspire others to take part.
Do let us know when that catalogue is available, Hervé, and keep us in touch with your emerging projects. And thank you so much for your time and thoughts!
For Herve’s blog and website click here
To find out more about Hervé’s Expo Idéale and how you can get involved, visit his Expo Ideale website
To read an article in the LA Times about an Expo Idéale that Hervé ran at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in Summer 2019, click here
Some of the content in this post first appeared in an article that I wrote in 2014 for the online magazine Books for Keeps, when Hervé Tullet was Artist in Residence at Seven Stories, the UK’s National Centre for Children’s Books.
You can read that article here
The Scribble Book published by Tate Publishing, 2008
Press Here published by Chronicle Books, 2011
The Book with the Hole published by Tate Publishing, 2011
Help! We Need a Title! published by Walker Books, 2013
The Game Books, published by Phaidon 2011 – including The Game of Finger Worms, The Game of Mix and Match - 6 titles in total
The Big Book of Art published by Phaidon, 2013
I am Blop! published by Phaidon, 2013
Mix it Up! published by Chronicle Books, 2014
Let’s Play published by Chronicle Books, 2016
Say Zoop! published by Chronicle Books, 2017
I have an Idea! published by Chronicle Books, 2019
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