Zune Originals: Interview with Chris Stephenson


Zune's next move takes their support of emerging artists and literally puts it on their sleeve. Zune Originals is a collection of 27 original works by 18 international artists designed to be engraved onto the back of the device. (Click images for detail.) On the Zune Originals site, launching tomorrow (13 November 2007), visitors will be able to customize their Zune by size, color, illustration and with up to four optional lines of text—all free of charge, at least for the time being.

When we got a sneak peek of what the artists came up with, we were truly amazed at what we saw—one CH editor even wants one as a tattoo. (See all 27 of the illustrations and the artist bios after the jump.) A project six months in the making, we decided to check in with Microsoft's general manager of global marketing, Chris Stephenson, to learn what went into it.


How did this project came to be and what role did your background play in it?
I came out of the music industry. I was at MTV, I worked in fashion, I ran a record label, Ministry of Sound, and I had my own consulting business in music and design. And the thing I was used to was creating. I was into creating, making mistakes and making stuff that really resonates with people.

So, from day one we committed ourselves to authenticity and action, to supporting arts and giving artists the opportunity to express themselves. The first foray was Zune Arts and we put absolutely no restrictions, just asked artists to participate. We thought, 'wouldn't it be interesting to take this love of art to the device.'

It was a way of saying, 'let the consumer get involved let them do the customization.' It's like NIKEiD for the MP3 player. We looked at Nike a lot and we also took inspiration from something as pedestrian as MySpace. That's what the internet is about, it makes readers into writers. It's putting self-expression into the consumer's hands.


What was your strategy in curating this group of artists?
Quite honestly, what we did is we sat down, we have great team of illustrators and designers, and we created a list of 60-70 artists that we love, a wish list.

We realized after the first 12 calls that everyone was like, "Yeah we'd love to do that." So after that we just fine-tuned that to the people that we were really excited about. We had a really high conversion rate. There are some who don't want to have anything to do with anything corporate and we respect and understand that. Others were excited for the exposure and I think we have some of the best contemporary artists and illustrators.

I noticed a strong international representation, how did that play a role?
It was very purposeful. I think it goes back to my years at MTV. Some of my responsibilities were getting the best animations and it was amazing where they came from. They came from Poland, from India, Bulgaria. If they just came from the U.S. and Eurpoe, it'd be different. From day one we said this is our goal. We'd already worked a lot with South American illustrators, we've been global in our aspirations from day one.


What was the directive?
The brief that we had for ourselves and for artists was that it had to be something that would work as a tattoo on the back of a device. But what you create needs to works as line art but also as a poster, because what happens is you get a beautiful poster that you can frame and a set of cards. We wanted it to be a deeper experience.

Otherwise, the directive that we gave was very loose. We have a couple of brand themes that we really believe in and one was sharing and also community, but we made it very loose. When you look at someone like Catalina [Estrada] (pictured top left) she has these great themes so we didn't want to over brief. But some of the Japanese art is playing on vibrant communities. Someone like Kenzo [Minami] (at left), you just love the architectural side of it. His work looks almost like Frank Lloyd Wright in a way. It has that something that you didn't want to lose.


What did you discover along the way as far as trends in art?
The one thing that I'm noticing, not just this particular project, but I think there's been a very clean aesthetic for a long time, in the '90s and with Apple. Now, you look at wallpaper, there's so much Fluer de Lys patterning, paisley—we're seeing much more richness, seeing flocked wallpapers, seeing some great companies like Timorous Beasties and Flavor Paper.

The Apple cult and homogeneous art, homogeneous culture—things are opening up. Look at Artful Dodger, look at some of the clothes hip hop kids are wearing. The quote is, 'were just opening up color again.'

Ami, I have to tell you, I'm sitting in a room right now at Microsoft and on the wall I've got wallpaper with tanks and airplanes and rainbows and clouds that we made. And we live this because we love it and it's very much a part of the culture that we're trying to build there. And it's not a project, it's coming to life in natural, intuitive way. It's really just who we are.

Also on Cool Hunting: Anthony Burrill: One For Me, One For You, BPMW Zune, Zune Giveaway