He's imagined a whole universe for his bulbous-headed creations, but Jarvis tells Garrick Webster, he never set out to be a character artist.
Although he's made nearly 100 vinyl toys, the first thing we have to get straight about James Jarvis is that he doesn't see himself as a 'Character Designer'. At least, not with a capital C and a capital D. Characters are undeniably important to him - he's co-founder of designer-vinyl stalwart Amos Toys, after all - but they're just a part of something bigger and more complex.
His artistic output has been vast. James Jarvis illustrations have appeared in everything from obscure skateboard catalogues to The Face and Vogue. He works regularly with Nike, and has done projects with Sony and Nokia. He's sent gallery shows to Japan, and his recent projects include a series of T-shirt designs for StÃ¼ssy and a snowboard graphic for Burton. In some respects, his recognisable approach is almost a brand in itself, and companies that work with him often do so because he is who he is.
At the root of it all is a passion for pencil and paper. "Everything I do starts with drawing. It's my first love, the really elemental thing that I do. I draw like I breathe. I don't have to think about drawing, I just do it." While studying at Brighton and later at the Royal College of Art in the early 1990s, Jarvis was inspired by the expressive approach to comic art seen in RAW magazine, which was edited by Art Spiegelman. He looked at the work of Gary Panter and Charles Burns, and thought about the visual language of comics - he was more interested in the style than producing sequential artwork. Jarvis was consumed by skateboarding too, and loved drawing urban landscapes where skaters could be found.
Rendering these environments was one thing but, while his tutors loved his work, they pushed him towards finding ways to use it as illustration. "I started thinking about what kind of characters I'd populate these urban landscapes with, and that's what started me down the route of weird characters. I realised that I didn't want to draw people from early on. I was very into [Javier] Mariscal in my last year at Brighton. I think his Olympic mascot was out in 1992, and that had a big influence on me. Mariscal had an amazing language of characters that were sort of animals, but a bit weirder."
The first James Jarvis toy, Martin, came out in 1998. Jarvis developed it in 1997 for a company called Silas, a skate-related fashion brand. Jarvis was part of the scene at Slam City Skates in London and had been creating illustrations for its clothing brand, Holmes. When Russell Waterman and Sofia Prantera set up Silas, they invited him to work with them. Silas was hugely popular in Japan and its distributor there was connected to Bounty Hunter, the company that kicked off the artist-driven designer toy market. The idea of creating a James Jarvis toy was mooted, and it sounded like fun.
"My starting point was the characters that I'd been drawing for the catalogues, which were more human in their proportions because they were wearing Silas and Holmes clothes," he recalls. "If I look at the illustrations I was doing at the time, and then at the toy, they're quite different. It's much cleaner and simpler. I guess I made it [that way] because I thought that's what you did when you made a toy - I didn't know what I was doing. There was no model for it."
At this stage, Martin didn't have much backstory - other than being named after Jarvis' father, and having appeared in an illustration attacking St Paul's Cathedral. It was a fun promotion, people liked it and Jarvis enjoyed it, so he made several more toys for Silas, including Evil Martin, Bubba, Tattoo Me Keith and the Bearded Prophet.
Silas never became a mainstream clothing brand, but Jarvis, Waterman and Prantera saw a lot of potential for the toys, so in 2002 they started Amos. At this point, the toy design work caused Jarvis to reconsider his style. He'd already begun simplifying the backgrounds he drew, but since starting to design toys, he noticed that his 2D work was changing - steered perhaps by the requirements of the 3D production process.
"I realised the art I was making in 2D was almost being held back because I was trying to force on it all the rules and compromises that you make when you're turning something into 3D. One of the beautiful things about making something in two dimensions is that you can break rules; you can cut all these corners," he says. "As soon as you turn something into 3D, it starts having to be more physical and conform to the laws of three dimensions. It just seemed a shame that my drawings were becoming plastic and rigid, a bit like the toys, and at that point I got into making two-dimensional artwork by hand to let the toys be one thing, and the 2D artwork be something else."
With Amos up and running, Jarvis was designing various collections under the label In-Crowd. There were the ICWF Wrestlers, Zombies, Ages of Metal and the Forever Sensible Motor Cycle Club, for instance. Each series comprised six toys, and a story was included in each toy's box. For Jarvis, one of the most successful series was the Punks, which includes characters connected with different streams of punk such as The Ramones, The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The Exploited, Devo and the Bromley Contingent. People who knew punk rock could tell he'd done his homework.
"You can't just put something out and hope people think it's cool; you want them to feel they understand what they're buying into. So when we did the In-Crowd, we were going to have a range of toys that would reference pop culture, because that's the world that we talked to," he explains.
Jarvis admits that some of the backstories were a little shallow at first, but people enjoyed them. This encouraged him and Waterman to attempt a full-scale narrative: Vortigern's Machine and the Great Sage of Wisdom. Also an Amos project, this was conceived as a 48-page graphic novel. "The inspiration came from characters that I'd drawn years ago, just for myself, while I was working for Slam City and going to the Royal College. The idea was a double-act of 11-year-old boys trying to be streetwise, but who were a bit hopeless," says Jarvis.
The story centres on Rusty and Wiggs, whose friend Mr Vortigern is 240 years old and lives in a Victorian house where he keeps a curious old slide projector. Via the projector, they can step into different worlds, having adventures that relate to everyday problems. The book came out in 2006 and was accompanied by a series of toys.
"Within two weeks of the book coming out, we had calls from people in California wanting to turn it into an animated thing," says Jarvis. "We spent two years in negotiations with a studio in Los Angeles, which in the end we decided not to go with because they didn't offer us a fair deal."
There's still scope for something to happen with Vortigern's Machine, but Jarvis has had all kinds of other projects on the go. Last year he worked with Richard Kenworthy to produce Onwards, an animation about running for Nike, but what he really enjoys is live art. "I think the big-format drawings are very me, because all there is in it is me," he muses. "I don't know if that makes sense."
As we go to press, he's applying to create some public art for a development in South London. Can you imagine a giant James Jarvis toy standing outside a new building complex? It would be a surreal treat.