How the graf legend progressed from subway cars to art-world stardom without losing his cool.
This feature is a part of Complex's Futura Week.
PART ONE: THE FRENCH CONNECTION
It’s a cold, wet April day in Cognac, France. A small group of intrepid travelers is huddled around a fire. But while the brief respite from the chill is more than welcome, the blaze isn’t there for comfort. Nope, they’re learning about how barrels are constructed.
“Does anyone want to give it a try?” The elegantly dressed Frenchman guiding them through one of Hennessy’s oldest facilities wants the group to experience firsthand the craft that makes the world’s leading cognac special.
A master cooper in blue work clothes is pulling on a massive contraption that tightens metal rings around heated oak staves, the same way they’ve been doing it here for 250 years. Nervous smiles abound. Leonard McGurr, better known as Futura, isn’t shy. He jumps right in, not afraid of getting his hands dirty. His excitement is contagious. “It is amazing to be brought here to learn the process,” he says after mastering the centuries-old technology and successfully putting together a barrel. “This stuff I can learn in a book, but it’s more impressionable to learn on site. I want to sponge up on everything and then I can better explain the brand."
We’re in France because, four decades into a storied career, Futura is sitting on his largest project to date — a collaboration with Hennessy that’s placing his signature atom design on 360,000 bottle labels worldwide (200,000 in the USA alone). His gusto for barrel-making is indicative of his appetite for adventure and learning—the same qualities that have helped the former graf legend solidify a place in the art world and even beyond that—in the real world. This Henny collabo is a project that encapsulates a career, and more importantly, a life.
Hennessy is no stranger to the arts. Since 2007, the brand—which merged with Moët et Chandon in 1971 and then in 1987 became part of Louis Vuitton, creating LVMH, one of the world’s most esteemed luxury conglomerates—has released limited-edition packages of Hennessy XO (extra old) Cognac, working several times with the brilliant industrial designer Arik Levy. Perennially popular street artist KAWS (Brian Donnelly) joined Hennessy’s collaborative ranks last year, kicking off an annual series of collectible bottles of the brand’s best-selling VS (Very Special) Cognac. This street art series has expanded the firm’s art projects, sharing them with the largest possible audience.
Futura embodies the notion of ‘never stop, never settle.’
—Rodney Williams, Hennessy
"Futura embodies the notion of ‘never stop, never settle’ with his cutting-edge design of our new limited-edition bottle," Hennessy USA's Senior Vice President Rodney Williams says of their latest collaboration. "Spirited and unbounded, Futura's bottle design captures the unique energy and bold colors that have made him one of the world’s most sought-after graffiti artists. It’s a fresh adaptation that brings together Futura's artistic roots and the DNA of the Hennessy brand in a novel, highly creative expression that commands attention."
“Given what Brian had done, I was super excited to do something possibly better,” Futura says of his entry to the Hennessy lineage, “I just thought, Wow, I could flip something cool. I also look at my own French connection as an awesome additive to all this."
Futura loved France long before hooking up with Hennessy. It was one of the first countries to embrace him as an artist, and also the place where he met his wife. “Everyone wants to reflect back on when they were somewhere, when they did something,” he says. “For all the bullshit that goes into historical references this is one is legit.”
His name notwithstanding, history is important to Futura. “I was a history major as a kid in school—technically World War history,” he recalls. “I want to know why things are the way they are.” This, then, is a story about how things got to the way they are, about the context of a collaboration and the consummation of a career. It's a story about how a street artist became a true pioneer and—perhaps even more remarkably—how he maintained and expanded his relevance over an extended period of time. So let's take it back to the start.