Hugo Guinness is a British artist and writer, born into the banking branch of the name-brand family that’s also famous for brewing a certain stout. His sisters did things like date Prince Charles (and, later, marry Tom Stoppard) and start important charities. Mr. Guinness ditched the banking world for creativity.
He is known for his popular, often humorous drawings and paintings of everyday objects, as well as his design collaborations with brands like Coach and J. Crew. Guinness has collaborated on multiple films with director Wes Anderson, with whom he was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
I met Guinness via Instagram in 2014, and have exchanged comments, likes, and a handful of private messages with him. He gamely agreed to meet me for the first time near the home he shares in Brooklyn with his wife, artist Elliott Puckette, and their two daughters.
Jack: I don’t know how I ended up following you — I think through Clemmie Hambro. My Instagram account is private, but of course I approved your follow request.
Hugo: Mine is too. But then, anyone who wants in…I just say yes pretty much to anyone. I don’t check who they are. So I might as well be open. I mean there aren’t many categories are there? It’s pretty much children, food, pets.
Jack: You’ve been on Instagram for at least a couple years now, right? So you’re an early adopter.
Hugo: Which is very unlike me.
Jack: How did you get into it?
Hugo: I don’t remember. I really don’t know. But I think a lot of the appeal of it for me is, working alone, it’s quite nice to get some reactions and get to feel a part of the human race.
Jack: We’re less isolated.
Hugo: Yeah. And it’s…I go through phases. I’m sure you do, when you do Instagram more often than normal.
Jack: When I’m traveling I tend to do it more and I kind of I hate myself for it. But I get so excited in exotic locales.
Hugo: Yeah. Because you’re just seeing it for the first time.
Jack: Well, my people are quite spread out around the world. I come from an area where people don’t tend to leave our very small town.
Hugo: Where is that?
Jack: In the Midwest. I grew up in the country. I’m thinking, “I hate airports,” and “I hate packing.” And people there who don’t have the opportunity to go to these places say, “I feel like I see the world through your Instagram.”
Hugo: It’s true. It’s powerful stuff, these images.
Jack: But if somebody already has 100,000 followers or something, I’m not interested.
Hugo: Yeah, neither am I. I certainly can’t be bothered to like them.
Jack: You’re not a daily poster. But when you’re not posting a lot, are you still looking?
Jack: You’re lurking.
Hugo: I have to say, I do look every day, I’m sure. And on the topic of lurking, newspapers like the Daily Mail in the UK now go on Instagram and dig stories out of things they find there. Because they can’t bug people’s phones anymore, they just look at people’s Instagram accounts and just grab photos and write stories about them. I don’t think they do that in the U.S.
Jack: A little bit. And the Daily Mail is very much in the U.S. now, so it’s global. At least one of the Kennedy daughters has gotten herself in trouble with her Instagram. I mean, I’m nobody and I still don’t want everyone looking at my stuff. So if I came from the Kennedy family or the Guinness family, I would be locked down. I’m always amazed when I see that kind of openness.
Hugo: That’s true. I am too. But I think that’s also an age thing. Privacy is such a concept that’s changing, isn’t it? I think, what the young consider private, and what older people might consider private, is much different.
Jack: What those two groups are willing to give up is different.
Hugo: I mean, personally, I am prepared to give up privacy for attention.
Jack: Lines like that are why I’m recording this.
Hugo: I mean on my own terms, of course.
Jack: That’s key: On your own terms. It’s only right to give me the agency to define the context and the nature of my relationship with you, whether it’s an app or a friendship or a community. No force.
Hugo: And what do you get forced into?
Jack: Well, I come from this tiny rural place where everyone knew my family. And I had to move to another continent to have my own turf.
Hugo: Yeah, I never experienced that. But I know, Elliott, my wife, she definitely wanted to get out of a small town. She’s from Sewanee, in Tennessee. And everybody knows everybody else, most definitely. Or at least that’s how she felt.
Jack: Everywhere you go, everyone knows you and wants to talk to you. It’s a bit much. But don’t you find that you run into the same people over and over here in New York? I do, and I find it comforting here.
Hugo: Well, I do. Within a 10-block radius. But I work alone, so that’s okay — to wander out and see people I recognize. You’re right, the contrast with the anonymity I usually feel in New York does make it a bit special to know people around the neighborhood.
Jack: In terms of working on your own, do you have a set routine that you have to stick to, a structure to your day?
Hugo: The only thing I would say is, I’m basically a morning person. I’m best early in the morning — 6:00, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 10:00. And then I sort of fade throughout the day. I usually have a nap in the afternoon. I have to. I’m like a baby: After eating, I have to be put down. Which I like. I just read a book and fall asleep. And then it’s another day.
It brings us back to the Instagram thing. Basically, you have to learn to be alone. Because that’s the only way you’re going to get anything done. And it’s a battle, sometimes. But, now, it becomes a habit.
Elliott, my wife, she goes off to the studio at 10:00 in the morning. Gets back at 6:00 or 9:30pm. And she loves being alone. She gets her sanity from being alone. Whereas I, actually, I’m quite social. I need to listen, and I need to talk. So, for me, I have to make myself sit down and be alone and get on with it.
Jack: Are you deadline-driven?
Hugo: Yeah. Who isn’t?
Jack: Well, are you working like a marathoner or sprinter? Do you go slow and steady or, “Oh gosh, it’s due in a week, when shall I start?”
Hugo: No, I’m quite good at pacing. I hate being rushed. That never helps. And then, when people like what you do, it’s really nice, and you feel like you’ve done a good job, and done something different. It’s satisfying.
Jack: I have a few friends that are from marquee-named families like yours. And some people think, “You don’t need the money“ and expect them to do work for nothing.
Hugo: I think that does happen to people. And it did happen to me when I was younger. And it’s an experience, and you learn from it. I have a pretty good bullshit detector. And you can just tell. It’s usually people who want lots of meetings. That’s the other thing I try to avoid, is any sort of meeting as much as possible.
Jack: Oh, sorry.
Hugo: No, it’s okay. Because I was intrigued by the Instagram thing. But you can really get sucked into time-wasting meetings, when nothing’s really achieved. Especially in the TV/movie world, that sort of thing.
Jack: I’ve gotten more selective about which meetings I take as I get older.
Hugo: I think that’s the word: more selective. And I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why I like Instagram. Also, the desire to amuse people. Just to make them laugh. That would be the common link to most of the things I do, I hope — humor.
Jack: Would you write a memoir or something about yourself?
Hugo: Yeah, I keep meaning to. I would like to do it. And would like to do some more illustrative books and things with more text. And I’m working on one at the moment, which I don’t know how it’ll work out. But the idea is I go on some trip with my mother. And I drive the car. But I’m only taking her with me so that I can use her disabled parking permit.
Jack: Did this happen? Or, is it going to happen?
Hugo: I have made her get in the car when I think it’s going to be easier parking if I take her. And, in Europe, you can use the disabled parking disc in every country in Europe. So the idea would be I would just have to take my 80-year-old mother around everywhere with me just because I couldn’t deal with parking without that disabled access.
Jack: It seems writing would make you feel much more vulnerable than painting.
Hugo: Writing is much more revealing isn’t it?
Jack: So much more. Do you mind feeling vulnerable?
Hugo: Well, that’s why my writing is not personal. I mean it’s all pretty much fiction. But I really admire writers who reveal it all. I think it’s wonderful, and it’s very powerful. And I never…it’s a huge act of courage. So I’m just full of admiration of people like that. And respect. You have to be brave. And honest.
I feel I reveal a lot on Instagram. I mean, sometimes I think, “Oh God, should I have done that?” But then, I don’t really care.
Jack: I have a friend who says, never write any emails after 9:00 at night. And never post anything on Instagram after 9:00 at night.
Hugo: I’m afraid I do. That’s the problem. Not as bad as when I bump into people who say, “I follow you but you don’t follow me.”
Jack: That’s so rude.
Hugo: It’s just that I’ve lost track now. I tried it. I follow quite a lot of people but you can’t do that many. It’s like a job.
Jack: I mostly only follow people I know. And a lot of florists.
Hugo: I like interior decoration and design. I like all those craft ones. But I think you’ve got to be careful with what you post more than who you follow. I don’t think there are any pictures on Instagram that I would mind being public. I don’t think so, anyway. I have to go and check!
Jack: Sometimes you post something I wouldn’t expect. Like the one of your teeth. You’re a real American now.
Hugo: I think loss of ego really helps get through in life. Most battles that you have with people are all with ego. And I think just from a more practical point of view, it’s quite important not to be aware of ego, and all that vanity in your work. Ego’s really harmful.
Jack: The enemy.
Hugo: The enemy, yeah. You have a certain belief about yourself.
Jack: “Don’t you know who I think I am?”
Hugo: I switch it off as soon as I feel it.
Jack: One thing that’s really interesting about you is that you are your own brand. Hugo Guinness is the product. And just as luxury brands have figured out how to make money with more accessible products — if you can’t afford the $4,000 Burberry trench, you can at least buy a scarf — you’ve done the same. Someone can say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t afford one of his paintings. But I can get something from his Coach line,” or some other entry point. And your Instagram is a great platform for people to build affinity with you, feel close to you, and want to buy your work. It’s quite clever.
Hugo: I don’t think it was ever conscious. But I’d like to be affordable. The prints are really quite cheap. I’m a sort of stack them high, sell them cheap type of guy.
Jack: That’s the last way anyone would expect Hugo Guinness to describe himself.
Hugo: I mean, this just comes from being a people-pleaser. But, I just think if someone likes something, I want them to be able to have it.
And the artwork is so expensive in giant paintings. And even the collectors, they end up having to build buildings to put their pictures in. I just think the scale sometimes is a bit crazy, and the prices are a bit crazy. And I’d rather just do my own thing. Not that I compare myself with them. But, I don’t know. I’m so egalitarian, I suppose. Is that the word?
Jack: Well, that’s one word for it.
Hugo: For me, it’s entirely personal. Every creative person has a different take on it. And I get suckered into doing jobs all the time for different things. Which, I don’t know why I say yes.
Jack: People pleaser, you said?
Hugo: Yeah. But then, on the other hand, quite interesting things can come from that because you’re doing something different. You’re not doing the usual. And I just don’t have any kind of snobbery.
At the moment, for instance, I’m doing some tiles for someone. I’m doing a whiskey label. Some copy for an English clothing designer. Maybe I’d be much better off saying no to everything. But on the other hand, why not be open to something different?
Jack: Well, you seem like a humble man. But you could really inspire slavish devotion in millions of people who would line up to buy your merchandise.
Hugo: Well — world domination? I’ll have to think about that.