Posted by : Anand January 8, 2009

Happy new year 09


“Get Happy!!” poster for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1980

Barney Bubbles has a unique place in British graphic design. Even more than Robert Brownjohn, who also died much too soon, Bubbles feels both known and unknown. If only we could interview him now we could finally get some answers. Why refuse to sign your designs when you knew they were so original? Why the repeated desire for anonymity when your work sometimes includes stylized self-portraits, a blatant assertion of your presence on equal terms with your clients, in a way that most of your colleagues in graphic design would never have dared at the time? Bubbles’ suicide in 1983, at the age of 41, ensured that we will probably never get to the bottom of it. Only one hesitant interview with him exists, reluctantly undertaken and published in The Face two years before his death.


Colin Fulcher (aka Barney Bubbles). Photograph by David Wills, 1966

No retrospective article about Bubbles — not that there have been many — neglects to mention his anonymity (he was born Colin Fulcher in 1942) and how this has obscured the full extent of his oeuvre and restricted a proper appreciation of his work. It makes a nice myth, but it has been overplayed. Younger post-punk design colleagues such as Neville Brody, and in particular Malcolm Garrett, have publicly praised him as an innovator who inspired them, and Bubbles’ key designs of the New Wave period, from 1977 to 1982, are well known to anyone familiar with the music scene of the time. But Bubbles had been around longer than that. I first noticed his name as a teenager in 1971 in issue 38 of the wild underground magazine Oz, where “the magnificent Barney Bubbles” is the sole editorial credit (he didn’t do the cover). I must have seen it again in my copy of Hawkwind’s extraordinary folding, hawk-shaped In Search of Space LP, bought the same year, though here, too, it wasn’t clear to the uninitiated exactly what Bubbles did. “Optics/semantics,” it says. Known but unknown.

The design establishment overlooked Bubbles, but this is hardly surprising. After three years working for the Conran Design Group he turned his back on the emerging London design biz and joined the counterculture, swapping Habitat calendars — see the 1966 Design and Art Direction annual, where he’s still Colin Fulcher — for rock concert lightshows (whence the bubbles) and record sleeves. Despite the impact of music graphics as popular culture, as something thrilling you might genuinely love, this branch of design wasn’t taken seriously by the profession. Even if the perennially shy and periodically absent Bubbles had been prepared to talk, which is doubtful, there were few British design magazines to do it in back then, and profiles focusing on individuals were rare. That began to change with the arrival of the monthly Creative Review in 1980 and the significance of music graphics — the place where the most exciting design was clearly happening, if you had half an eye open — could no longer be ignored.


“Existence is Unhappiness” fold-out poster from Oz no. 12, 1968

By 1987, Bubbles had been given equal billing as an influential New Wave designer alongside Brody, Garrett, Peter Saville and Vaughan Oliver in design historian Catherine McDermott’s Street Style: British Design in the 80s, published by the Design Council. When we ran a 16-page profile in Eye in 1992 (now available online), it seemed the case for his significance had been made, at least for British readers, and this was confirmed by his appearance in Richard Hollis’ Graphic Design: A Concise History (1994). There was still a lingering sense, though, that somewhere out there must be some amazing unsigned work that still needed to be tied firmly to the BB oeuvre.

What Bubbles has lacked is international recognition as an important designer. How does he fit into the global narrative — or, more correctly, narratives — of graphic design? Philip Meggs overlooked him in three editions of his history, and the 2006 posthumous update by Alston Purvis didn’t correct that omission, though Oliver was finally given a dutiful mention, and Saville will make a belated appearance in the fifth edition, now in preparation. The key question that needs to be answered, if we think Bubbles merits more than local attention among a nostalgic ageing fanbase, concerns the nature of his achievement as a designer. Are there aspects of his work that makes it of enduring wider significance to design history, beyond his secure position in the history of British rock music, spanning the hippy counterculture and the New Wave?

Bubbles badly needed a monograph and now, finally, he has one, Paul Gorman’s Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles. Gorman has pulled off a feat no one else has managed and I wish I liked the book more. Bitten by the Bubbles bug as a teenage music fan, he is a journalist and music writer, with an interest in fashion, and he published an excellent oral history about the music press.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t know enough about the history, culture and practice of graphic design to analyze the visual aspects of Bubbles’ work with any precision or nuance, or to locate him with authoritative detail on the maps of British and international graphic design. The book continually asserts BB’s brilliance without explaining it convincingly. Gorman has structured his text as a chronological narrative heavily based on what Bubbles’ friends such as David Wills and Brian Griffin, and admirers such as Garrett and the singer Billy Bragg, have told him. He threads brief, prosaic descriptions of individual pieces into the biographical story, with no attempt anywhere at deeper thematic or contextual analysis — Bubbles’ interest in concrete poetry, for instance, is noted in passing but not explored. The haphazard placement of images in Reasons to be Cheerful, far from where they are mentioned, is a pain: the book is not well designed. My guess, having spoken to Gorman during his research, is that he sees all this as a strength, a way of connecting with a broader (less demanding, less design-aware) readership. But Bubbles is first of all a graphic designer and it is on an understanding of his designs, rather than on the affection of his fans, that his reputation must rest.


“Lives” exhibition postcard for the Arts Council, 1979

In an attempt to establish Bubbles’ greatness, Reasons to be Cheerful makes a predictable claim for his work’s status as art. “Bubbles broke out of the commercial constraints of his given trade and emerged as a pure artist, one whose silent influence lingers,” claims Gorman. Peter Saville, who contributes a self-involved essay about Bubbles, imagines the work plucked from its context and placed in the white cube of the gallery; there, he suggests, it would get respect. If Bubbles really shared this view — “He wanted to be an artist with a capital A, not a graphic designer,” says Pauline Kennedy, who worked with him — then this is no different from the envy many designers feel about the freedom and acclaim enjoyed by fine artists. In the Face interview, Bubbles is skeptical about record sleeves as art, yet he also declares that “commercial design is the highest art form.” This ambivalence is not unusual among dedicated designers who bruise themselves on the shackles of the trade, convinced of their own talent yet painfully aware that the world doesn’t get it.

Gorman shows a few examples of the paintings Bubbles did for friends in the last years of his life. They use the same motifs found in his earlier designs: bars, rules, dots, zigzags, splatters, squiggles, planes of intersecting color, ragged lines playing against sharp edges. They are good but they are not as original, measured against other paintings, as his record sleeves are, measured against other designs. Bubbles had a finely calibrated graphic sense (it’s present in the paintings, too) just like a drummer has a natural sense of rhythm, but it needed the boundaries of the printed rectangle, the tension of a smaller frame, to concentrate it and make it special. Paintings are big and ponderous. Surrounded by white space in the gallery, endowed with a dignity they might not deserve, they make large claims for their importance. Bubbles — it’s there in his name — is a master manipulator of fleeting, everyday optics and semantics, to be absorbed browsing the sleeves in a record shop, or lazing about at a friend’s house listening to the music. The speed, ephemeral lightness and disposability of the mass-produced image made it the perfect medium for his humor, his love of visual games, puzzles, diagrams and codes, and his delight in marginal devices such as inexplicable symbols, which add a layer of intrigue to sleeves, pages and ads that could have been ordinary in someone else’s hands.


“Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” 7-inch single sleeve for Ian Dury and the Blockheads, 1978

The intricately reflexive nature of his work made Bubbles a true original in his day. No previous British designer had produced mass-market graphic communications this playful, personal, freighted with allusion, or tricksy. Bubbles was a postmodernist before this new category of graphic design had been identified and defined, and he is as significant an innovator as his American contemporary April Greiman. His designs refer to art history (Mucha, Lissitzky, Van Doesburg, Kandinsky, Picabia, Mondrian, Pollock); to popular culture and kitsch (the wallpaper on Ian Dury’s Do It Yourself, the shagpile rug on the Attractions’ Mad About the Wrong Boy); to graphic processes and the nature of the printed medium (the color bars on Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, the scuff marks on Get Happy!!); and — never letting us forget his “anonymous” authorship — to the designer himself. Two of these oblique self-portraits, showing Bubbles’ large nose, are well known (Costello’s Armed Forces and Dr Feelgood’s Fast Women & Slow Horses), but there are other graphic faces placed where you wouldn’t expect to find them, such as the image on the copyright page of the “Lives” exhibition catalogue (1979) designed for the Arts Council, and the monumental (block)head in Brian Griffin’s book Power: British Management in Focus (1981), which could be intended as cheeky substitutes for Bubbles’ inevitably absent design credit. When The Face asked to photograph him, he made them a picture out of fragments instead.


Barney Bubbles by Barney Bubbles, 1981

Attempts to hoist Bubbles out of graphic design and claim he was an artist all along do him a disservice by downplaying his achievement as a designer, and denigrate design by implying that anything this good must belong in another category. In reality, Bubbles’ work, like Greiman’s or Saville’s, revealed what can sometimes be possible within applied visual communication, in spite of all the constraints, when a gifted graphic designer finds imaginative client collaborators willing to allow some space to experiment. Compare his work with many classic late 1960s and pre-New Wave 1970s record covers: usually they are composed of a single commanding image with the artist’s name and title. Bubbles’ sleeves are graphic constructions, offering multiple points of interest, dispersing the viewer’s attention. He showed that the visual language of design — type, symbol, pattern, shape, often reassembled in unfamiliar configurations — could be a powerful, exciting and subtle medium for involving a popular audience. Although conditions often conspire against such freedoms now, he is a leading figure within the evolution of intelligently reflexive design. Known but unknown. It’s about time the slower moving design history books caught up with him.

devobestiff12v

devobestiff12r1

Hi folks. Not sure of the details on this Devo cover, I know it is Griffin and Barney’s work, but beyond that I’ll rely on the legions of Barney Irregulars to fill me in.

I was directed to the source of these great works by AlphaInventions who told me of a French speaking person, Vivon, whose address is:

http://vivonzeureux.blogspot.com/2008/12/devo-be-stiff.html,


Barney B plays guitar at 307

Funky Paul reports from deep in Ladbroke Grove, March 1970, at 307 Portobello, with Barney on guitar at left. What chord is Barney fingering on what Paul thinks is an L5? Paul’s painting of the Monopoly board on the wall.

Barney B in studio

Barney laughing at right at 307 with John Rewind, 1970. Rewind is playing the guitar named, “American Pickle,” a 335 that Funky Paul painted for him at Funky Features in the Haight Ashbury (on Central where the Church of John Coltrane would later be) just before he left for England to arrive on December 21, 1969.






Robert Brownjohn
the most innovative graphic designer


Robert Brownjohn at the Institute of Design,
© Eliza Brownjohn

Combining audacious imagery with ingenious typography, illustration and found objects, ROBERT BROWNJOHN (1925-1970) was among the most innovative graphic designers in 1950s New York and 1960s London, where he designed titles for James Bond films, graphics for the Robert Fraser Gallery and artwork for the Rolling Stones.


Watching Words Move, 1959
Experimental typography booklet
Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar
© Eliza Brownjohn

Throughout his life Robert Brownjohn loved music. Many of his closest friends were musicians and his most playful and inspiring work was related to music. When it came to designing an album cover for the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1958, he fused his love of music and of typography by transforming blocks of disused wooden type and wooden bricks from his daughter Eliza’s playbox into a striking graphic composition which is also a commentary on the process of typographic production.


Obsession and Fantasy, 1963
Poster for the Robert Fraser Gallery, London
Robert Brownjohn
© Eliza Brownjohn

He did so by replacing the orderly arrangement of type by a skilled typesetter with a higgledy-piggledy collage of wooden blocks. The type on the sculpture runs from right to left, and, to make it legible, the photographic image was reversed. Witty and intriguing, the wooden collage typifies the intellectual rigour and underlying humour that characterised Brownjohn’s work. It also demonstrates the appreciation of the everyday objects that tend to be taken for granted that he had inherited from his teacher László Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design in Chicago during the 1940s.



Brownjohn and Margaret Nolan on the set of Goldfinger, London 1964
Photograph by Herbert Spencer
© Mafalda Spencer

Famed for his flamboyant lifestyle as well as for the quality of his design ideas, Brownjohn was an influential figure in graphic design in both 1950s New York and 1960s London before his untimely death of a heart attack in 1970 a few days before his 45th birthday. In his audacious choice of images – from the bare breasts on a poster for Robert Fraser’s Obsession exhibition, to the gold-painted female torso in his Goldfinger titles – Brownjohn captured the experimental spirit of the 1960s by introducing the progressive ideas of Moholy-Nagy to popular culture in inspired juxtapositions of type and image.


Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed, 1969
Album cover – front
Photography by Don McAllester
Robert Brownjohn
© ABKCO Music & Records, Inc

Born in New Jersey in 1925 to a British-born bus driver and his wife, Brownjohn’s artistic talent was encouraged by a teacher at his New Jersey high school, who helped him to win a place at Institute of Design in Chicago. Arriving there in 1944, Brownjohn became a protégé of Moholy-Nagy, the Bauhaus émigré who had founded the new Bauhaus, as the Institute of Design was first named, as a modernised version of the original Bauhaus in Germany. “The goal is no longer to recreate the classical craftsman, artist and artisan with the aim of fitting him into the industrial age,” opined Moholy-Nagy. “By now technology has become as much a part of life as metabolism. The task therefore is to educate the contemporary man as an integrator, the new designer able to evaluate human needs warped by machine civilisation.”




Despite the financial and administrative difficulties of the Institute of Design, it was a stimulating place to study and Moholy-Nagy was an extraordinarily inspiring teacher. Fired by the belief in “the interrelatedness of art and life”, Moholy-Nagy was intent on liberating modern design from commerce and infusing it with social and spiritual purpose. Determined to produce thoughtful and intellectually open students, he organised lectures on mathematics, science, philosophy and literature as well as art, design and film. Gifted and engaging, Brownjohn was among the most receptive students. For the rest of his life, his work bore many of the formal influences of Moholy-Nagy and he remained intellectually inquisitive, an avid reader with a love of film and music, particularly jazz, a passion he acquired in the clubs of Chicago’s South Side.


Stationery for Michael Cooper
Robert Brownjohn

After Moholy-Nagy’s death in 1949, Brownjohn forged a similarly close rapport with his successor, the architect Serge Chermayeff, who appointed him as an assistant. Brownjohn combined his teaching at the institute with freelance design assignments and a stint at the Chicago Planning Commission as an architectural planner.

In 1950 Brownjohn moved to New York and spent several years financing a drug-infused, jazz-club-based social life with freelance employment for clients such as Columbia Records and the American Craft Museum. He forged friendships with the musicians Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, and the artist Andy Warhol. Brownjohn only settled down when he married Donna Walters in 1956 and, the following year, teamed up with fellow designers Ivan Chermayeff, Serge’s son, and Tom Geismar to form Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar.


Poster for Nagata & Brownjohn Ltd., 1960s
Robert Brownjohn

Renowned for its industrious but informal atmosphere, BCG began by designing book jackets, album covers and letterheads, but soon won more substantial commissions, often through Chermayeff’s architectural connections, including the US Pavilion at the 1959 Brussels World’s Fair. There they created a Streetscape inspired by their love for the vernacular graphic imagery of the New York streets by filling part of the pavilion with a three-dimensional streetscape. Many of the signs and symbols in the streetscape were found on exploratory outings to Coney Island with fellow graphic designers such as Tony Palladino and Bob Gill.

Among BCG’s most important corporate clients was the Pepsi-Cola Company, which commissioned Brownjohn to design the 1959 Christmas decorations for its imposing new headquarters designed by the architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on the corner of Park Avenue and 57th Street. He created a spectacular over-sized ripple of Christmas tree baubles that filled the lobby and drew crowds of admirers on the pavement outside, day and night. Elaborately constructed from multi-coloured baubles embedded in an armature of chicken wire, the decoration formed a giant wave supported by pilotti to curl like ribbon for the full length of the lobby.


Poster for the New York Peace Campaign, 1969
Robert Brownjohn
© Eliza Brownjohn

Brownjohn and his colleagues combined their commercial projects with experimental work, such as Watching Words Move, a series of typographic jokes inspired by the games they played during quiet moments in the studio, when they amused each other by constructing visual jokes from words and symbols. They pasted carefully selected letters and words by hand into this booklet in The Composing Room, the experimental typesetter used by BCG and other leading New York graphic designers of the era.

By the end of 1959 Brownjohn’s drug habit had caught up with him; BCG disbanded in 1960 and he moved his family to London hoping to benefit from the UK’s liberal approach to drug use.

His arrival in London was perfectly timed for the city’s fledgling graphic design scene, which was energised by the addition of US designers like Brownjohn and Bob Gill. Urbane and impeccably connected, he played an important role in making graphic design a glamorous profession and in commercialising modernist graphic concepts.

After spells at the advertising agencies J. Walter Thompson and McCann-Erickson, Brownjohn formed a film company with the producer David Cammell and director Hugh Hudson. His leap from print to moving image appeared effortless and bore the influence of László Moholy-Nagy. Simple, yet spectacular, Brownjohn’s first film sequences, the titles for James Bond’s From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, took audiences by storm. Moholy-Nagy had experimented by projecting light on to clouds; Brownjohn took this idea to the mainstream by projecting on to women’s faces and bodies.

As in New York, Brownjohn excelled at conceiving brilliantly simple graphic ideas, and executing them without frills or fussiness. In a poster for the Robert Fraser Gallery he used the nipples of a model’s breasts to represent the Os in the exhibition title, Obsession. The last work he completed before his death in 1970 was the Peace poster in which an Ace of Spades card is pasted between the hastily scrawled letters P and E, and a question mark.



BIOGRAPHY

1925 Born in Newark, New Jersey as the third child and only son of Herbert Brownjohn, a British-born bus driver, and his wife Anna.

1943 After graduating from the Arts High School in Jersey City he studies at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

1944 Enrols at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he studies under the Bauhaus émigré László Moholy-Nagy, who publishes one of Brownjohn’s student projects in his 1947 book Vision in Motion.

1946 When Moholy-Nagy dies, Serge Chermayeff becomes director of the Institute and appoints Brownjohn as an assistant.

1948 Joins the Chicago Planning Commission as an architectural planner.

1949 Returns to the Institute of Design. Within the US design community, his friends include R. Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Breuer and Mies Van Der Rohe.

1951 Moves to New York, where he works as a graphic designer for the furniture designer George Nelson.

1953 Works briefly at Bob Cato Associates and teaches at Cooper Union and Pratt Institute, while designing freelance for Columbia Records, The American Crafts Museum and Pepsi-Cola.

1956 Marries Donna Walters and their daughter Eliza is born. Designs the American Jazz Annual for the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. His New York circle of friends includes Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and Andy Warhol.

1957 Co-founds Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar with Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, where he continues to design for Columbia Records and Pepsi, while working on corporate identities and exhibition design projects including the US Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.

1960 Leaves New York and Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar to move to London, where he becomes a creative director of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson.

1962 Joins a rival agency McCann-Erickson. Donna leaves Brownjohn by moving to Ibiza with Eliza.

1963 Designs the title sequence for the James Bond film From Russia With Love. Begins a relationship with the fashion designer Kiki Milne.

1964 Creates the titles for the James Bond film Goldfinger.

1965 Works with the film makers David Cammell and Hugh Hudson, with whom he founds Cammell, Hudson and Brownjohn. Begins work on the five year series of ‘Money Talks’ cinema commercials for Midland Bank.

1966 Creates the titles for The Tortoise and the Hare film, directed by Hugh Hudson, for Pirelli tyres.

1968 Designs the artwork for the Rolling Stones’ album Let It Bleed. Plays a cameo role in Dick Clement’s film Otley.

1969 Cammell, Hudson and Brownjohn disbands and he forms Nagata & Brownjohn with the Japanese-American director David Nagata. Plays a cameo part in Dick Fontaine’s film Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising. Designs the Peace? Poster.

1970 Robert Brownjohn dies in London of a heart attack. Bob Gill organises a memorial service at the US Embassy in London.



Typography by Barnbrook Design, 2008

Jonathan Barnbrook works as a designer and typographer in London. A monograph on his work, The Barnbrook Bible, was published in 2007.

For additional perspective on eight years of the Bush Administration, do not miss this oral history in the current Vanity Fair.


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