Joe Mortell, the 3D Artist Crafting Surreal Spaces You’ll Want to Inhabit

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Joe Mortell
Winchester RiversideCourtesy of Joe Mortell

Joe Mortell’s familiar yet otherworldly work evokes a longing for places that don’t exist

Have you ever felt homesick for a place that doesn’t exist? Joe Mortell is a 3D artist who captures this unique sensation, crafting surreal social spaces so inviting it feels like you could reach out and touch them.

A former student of Central Saint Martins, Mortell now works as a designer for the New York Times. He created this series of images and animations as a personal project over the past year, forming social environments that feel familiar, yet otherworldly. His work has proved popular on social media, especially with travel curtailed and new locations limited to the imagination. “It’s always nice to hear when it sparks a memory,” he explains over the phone. “Or I love this particular feeling about it. People will see the scenes in different ways.”

Striking a balance of believable compositions of vintage furniture, surreal backdrops and thoughtful details are building blocks to each scene. Mortell explains how pairing these conflicting elements is a process of trial and error. “Sometimes it’s not going to be a good outcome. But if you sit down and mess around with these programmes, you’ll find something interesting.”

Mortell explains that movies are a key trigger for new ideas, “I love anything that has a great surreal dream sequence, like Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.” He also cites classic sci-fi, like Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a key influence. But instead of the slick, minimal spaces often found in science fiction, the area must appear lived-in to work. “It seems a bit too sterile. In reality, it’s not always completely clean, like it is in those movies.” A strategically placed pair of slippers or a partially open magazine adds the realism and humanity that bring each ethereal tableau to life.

Mortell also finds inspiration in the ingenious worlds of Nintendo video games, citing Zelda as a formative influence on his work. He replayed the games recently and realised how much of a subconscious imprint the levels had left behind. “There’s so much forest and wilderness in these games, I think this is why I’m interested in making those sorts of scenes myself.”

Created predominantly over lockdown, Mortell channelled the frustration of his own static environment. When you’re stuck within the same four walls each day, who wouldn’t dream of relaxing in a lush jungle, or dining in the clouds? “I’ve noticed things in my living room appearing in my scenes that I didn’t plan on,” Mortell says. “The only things I’m looking at all day are the objects in my house. They make their way into my work without me knowing.”

The ultimate ambition for Mortell’s project is to see his scenes brought to life on a larger scale. He explained his disappointment that these expansive worlds have only been viewed on a smartphone screen. “The biggest aim would be to make one of these spaces physically,” he says. “When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect – it would be a great feeling to walk into a space that you’ve created.”

Explore more of Joe Mortell’s surreal worlds on his Instagram.