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Written by Luisa Mitchell
Deanne Cheuk is a New-York based art director, illustrator and artist from Perth, where she studied graphic design at Curtin University before going on to become the world-renowned artist she is today, working on numerous publications, including Tokion Magazine. She attained her first job as a magazine Art Director at the age of 19, right after graduating from uni. Since then she’s been commissioned by major companies such as Levi’s, Nokia, Nike, MTV, The New York Times Magazine, and more.
Now, she’s published her own novel—Mushroom Girls Virus—and launched her own product line, self-publishes a non-profit graphic ‘zine every now and then, and has judged in competitions for art direction.
Grok spoke to Cheuk about her early influences at Curtin, her contributions to Grok Magazine, and how she worked towards the success she’s achieved today.
You studied Graphic Design at Curtin University in the mid-90s. What was Perth and campus life like in those days?
I was there in 1992, 1993, and 1994. To be honest I’ve actually thought about this a lot because my daughter has to think about college in America now, and my husband is American and went to college here. So, I’ve thought a lot about the differences between the Australian and the American system. For me personally, at the time, university in Australia was different to high school, but it wasn’t that different. Whereas in the US it’s more of a huge rite of passage.
Perth was always quite isolated. Now when I get back it’s so cool and it’s changed so much, but it was a long time ago when I was at uni there; there were no design book shops, there were only two museums, there was nowhere to buy cool magazines or books.
How did you survive?
I was talking to some uni friends who went to college there with me 25 years ago and we were saying how we were there at such a unique time. We were there before the internet, before Macs came in. I think our year at Curtin might have been the first year that they started teaching us how to use Macs.
So, I think because of that, that really shaped all of our work in a different way that wouldn’t shape anyone going into design now, because we didn’t have that immediate access to what everyone else was doing, we didn’t have all those influences. The only design books in the library were Neville Brody and David Carpen, so we didn’t have immediate access to what everyone else was doing at that moment.
You must have entered uni at a really young age to have already graduated at 19. Were you so sure of your dreams and your career ambitions to be an art director and an artist?
I started uni when I was 16 turning 17. That was normal! I don’t really know how it happened. I think that’s how old everyone was in my year; I mean we had mature age students, but everyone else in my year was born in the same year as I was.
But no, I wasn’t sure [of my career] at all. Before I went into Graphic Design my number one choice was actually to be an Art Teacher, but then apparently not enough people signed up for it so they cancelled the course [laughs]. So, Graphic Design was my second choice only because my art teacher had suggested it—I actually didn’t even know what ‘graphic design’ was.
And then even when I was at Curtin doing Graphic Design in my third year I was really into photography class and I was thinking about changing my major to photography, but I thought oh well, you’ll graduate with Graphic Design and can come back and do photography then. But I ended up getting a job in Graphic Design straightaway after graduating… I was really just figuring it out as I went along. I’m still not sure what I’m doing.
Your work has spanned so many different forms and methods. Did you learn most of your skills at Curtin, or elsewhere?
Curtin gave me an amazing foundation. But computers really only came in afterwards so in my first job I having to figure out how to do desktop publishing on the fly. Everything else I learnt on different job projects.
Design by Deanne Cheuk.
While you were at uni you did some design work for Grok. What are your memories of the magazine then?
I’ve got to say it’s really vague; I was paid and working on the layout. But I think I must have seen an ad in the paper and I went in…
I do have a vivid memory of going in to apply for a job and they were just really vague about it. They were like you can, “you can try this,” and even when I was hired, I wasn’t sure I was hired. But I do remember spending a lot of time there and it was lots of fun.
Do you still apply the skills you picked up doing Grok with the world-famous magazines you produced later?
I did learn a lot about copy-setting there but I actually haven’t done a lot of desktop publishing recently, so I haven’t worked on a magazine in a while.
Now I do different art direction stuff for different clients. I art direct a lot of photoshoots, I work with accessories, catalogues, advertising, all different types of art direction.
You’re now mostly based in New York and your work experience is quite extensive. Did you believe when you were a young girl that one day you could become so successful?
I don’t think I dared to dream! I did have a lot of self-doubt at first, but when I moved to New York I started working for a graphic designer who’s quite well known, David Carpen, and once I was doing that I became quite confident. I went okay, my work is his work, so my work is as good as his. I was confident from then on.
What’s the work you’re doing now that you value most?
I do a lot of charcoal on paper artwork. That’s my favourite at the moment. I just love how messy and dirty it is and how I’m able to be able to create something from nothing.
‘Being Dreaming’, by Deanne Cheuk. Charcoal on paper. 2013.
What’s your advice on entering the publishing and arts industry as well as you did yourself?
I always just took any job that came my way, so that’s always my advice to young people. You’ll learn from any job that you go for, and just don’t be picky. Just think about what you can learn from each job you take on.
If you were back on campus now, where would you be and what would you be doing?
I would love to visit our old building and see how it’s changed. It would be cool to see the Grok offices too. I don’t remember where they would be now though… I’ll have to have a look on Google Satellite Maps!