As a consequence of my fascination with graphic design history I've developed a rather romantic image of what it must have been like to be a graphic designer in the sixties, when the profession was being shaped, when processes were relatively manual and when everything was that much slower. When London was swinging; all dark suits and slim ties, I remember black and white photos of Alan Fletcher from the Design Museum retrospective last year, probably smoking a Gauloise (or maybe not). Very cool. And then I check myself and think, naa...
Well two years after its publication and Design Museum exhibition I've eventually got around to reading Emily King's book about Robert Brownjohn, the oh so perfectly titled (Atelier Works designed) Sex and Typography. And the message you get from that is, yes, it was super cool to be a designer in the sixties; well, if you were up at the top anyway. Bob Gill, quoted in the book, puts it superbly, "London in 1960 was amateurs-ville, it was like shooting fish in a barrel. We were so obviously number one, there was no question. We ended up doing everything".
Now perhaps it's just me, I had a less than conventional design education, but in my world Bj has always been a kind of shadowy, cult figure that only the most informed designers knowingly referenced. He reminds me of those bands that only the coolest kids were into at art school, the ones the rest of us had never heard of (like Felt, somewhere described as the most influential unknown band of the eighties). Perhaps it's not just me, certainly some of the blogatry around two years ago goes a little way to suggest it's not.
If you haven't read this book, you really should. It starts with 75 pages of short quotes from those that knew him best which at first, and to my subsequent shame, I thought was slightly lazy writing (it felt a little disjointed) but as I got into it those very personal memories began to paint a vivid picture of a turbulent life typical of creative genius.
And then, before I knew it, I found myself almost one hundred pages through the book and I haven't seen any work - not one piece of work. Despite that I'm utterly gripped...and moved...at the end of this first section Bj dies, in August 1970, from a massive heart attack, encouraged by his excessive lifestyle. Really sad.
But during his life he broke ground big time, pioneering and championing techniques we take for granted now, he hung out with (amazingly!) Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Warhol in the US then in the UK is listed alongside Polanski, Caine and Jagger on the guest list of the coolest and most exclusive restaurants and clubs. He was quite a dude.
Of course there's much more to the book, I'm not trying to do a review here, my point really is that, as I suspected, being a graphic designer in the sixties really was very cool.
For Bj anyway.
As a footnote, one of the things I really love in the book is this drawing by Fletcher. Everyone who was anyone in the London graphic design scene is there: Forbes, Facetti, a rather wonky Crosby, Henrion, a self-portrait of Fletcher, Games, Hawkey, Garland...well, you get it...everyone.
* This was how he described himself to Bob Gill, infering that Gill was head honcho.