James Merry comes clomping down his garden path in snow boots, his long red hair braided neatly into two plaits, smiling warmly on a bitterly cold winter evening. “Did you find the place okay?” he asks, as we slither carefully up the icy hill to his lakeside cabin on the frozen outskirts of Reykjavík.
Inside, it’s a different story. Logs crackle in the wood-burning stove, and there are cosy throws and cushions on the chairs and sofas. Plants, books, rocks, crystals, and all kinds of interesting bric-a-brac line the various shelves and tables. James has been living out here for just over a year after buying the place with his boyfriend. “I think I’d looked at every for-sale cabin in Iceland,” he says, warming up some water for tea.
James has become a well-known face in Reykjavík’s art and music circles, initially via his day job as Björk’s assistant and, more recently, her collaborator. But he’s also a blossoming creative in his own right, rising to prominence this year with some eye-catching embroidery work that features small plants, hand-sewn over logos—FILA, Puma, Nike—like extremely dainty graffiti.
Just do it
“Each one starts as a piece of vintage sportswear,” James explains, settling down by the fire. “I’m always trying to find ones with a good central logo. I started off doing them just for myself, and planned to only do Icelandic flowers, but I had such a big library of flowers in my head from growing up, it seemed too restrictive. There’s a lot of moss in them, though—I love the smallness of the nature and the flowers in Iceland.”
His practise began when James found himself feeling creatively stifled during his degree course at Oxford. “Studying the classics was an odd choice, looking back,” he recalls. “It wasn’t creative at all. So, when it was someone’s birthday, I would start embroidering their favourite singer on a shirt. I did a David Bowie one, and an Aaliyah one for me, and then Madonna and Missy Elliott. It was a reaction to all that kind of bookish academia, I guess.”
After a long break, he started embroidering again in January. “At the time, we were working on Björk’s last album, and embroidery was part of the theme that she felt for it,” he explains. “She always has textures and colours in mind—instinctual references. So I pricked up my ears, because I’ve always loved embroidering things. I went off and started making masks and stuff with Björk. They ended up being used in videos and photo shoots. And it evolved from there.”
One of the first pieces in this strand of work was the Icelandic flowers jöklasóley and lambagras embroidered onto a Nike sweater. “I was in New York when I made that one,” James recalls. “It was a reaction to the urban environment—I was really missing Iceland, and I just started embroidering Icelandic flowers on my jumpers.” He pauses and laughs, continuing: “It didn’t really need to be analysed that much. I realised I should probably just book a ticket.”
James’s love affair with Iceland started in 2009. After graduation, he’d first spent stints interning at the Venice Guggenheim and working as an artist’s assistant to Damien Hirst, using his knowledge of Ancient Greek to catalogue the insects used in Hirst’s butterfly paintings.
“I remembered all the butterfly names really easily,” he explains. “We had to say exactly how many butterflies were used, and what breeds, for US customs. So that kind of became my job. A colleague there introduced me to Björk, and I started working with her, first in New York, and then we came to Iceland in 2009. I loved it straight away. I just knew I would end up here, actually—I love the scale of it. It feels so right to me.”
Scale—and particularly, smallness—is an important element of James’s work. His embroidered plants are often tiny, delicate and distinctly hand-made—the result of days of slow, purposeful stitching. But the twist is the contrast between his carefully rendered lupines, daisies, forget-me-nots and snowdrops and the mass-produced brand logos they sprout from. The effect is appealingly mischievous—and the online response was immediate.
“When I first put them on Instagram, people went crazy and wanted to buy them,” remembers James. “I got advice from people saying: ‘Get them made in India, that’s where the best hand embroidery is.’ But that felt so wrong to me. It’s about the process, and how it takes a lot of time. The whole point of these pieces for me is that it’s a small, organic, handmade design in contrast to the mass-produced, iconic urban logo. So sending them off to be made—that contrast was gone.”
James has most recently been working on a batch of sweaters for the Opening Ceremony designer clothing store in New York City. It’s his first “collection,” although he talks about his work more in terms of art than fashion.
“People have asked me why embroidery is so big in the fashion world right now,” he says, “but I don’t see myself as part of that world at all. I’m not at all interested in making clothes; it’s the handicraft element. I’m actually going to sit in their shop window for five days and embroider some new ones.”
It’s been a long process getting it all ready. “I can’t believe I actually did it,” laughs James. “When I got the deadline I was like, ‘Yeah I can do that.’ But I’d only really been making them for myself, on flights and things, so I hadn’t really realised how long they take. I started, and thought: ‘Fuck… how am I gonna do this?’ I actually got really lucky—it turned out a friend of mine named Mao is also a great embroiderer, so I’ve had some help realising the designs.”
The resulting sixteen pieces form a distinctive body of work that has a surprising edge to it for a medium so steeped in tradition. The work seems to offer a reminder that consumer culture—with its box-fresh, mass-produced products and Apple-store minimalism—will inevitably crumble.
“That’s definitely part of it,” says James. “The idea of nature claiming something back. It wasn’t intentionally post-apocalyptic—I realised afterwards that it had that feeling. But that contrast is central to this work—without the hard edge of the sportswear logo, it’s just floral embroidery. It has to have that edge to it, to be interesting to me.”
“It’s a lot like my personality, actually,” he finishes. “It’s rebellious, but also very English and polite. My taste is often granny-ish and domestic, and I want to fuck with that—but in a really nice way.”
Learn more at www.jtmerry.com.