When Nicholas Thirkell joined us in 1986 the economic climate was still flat. But for us, this was a new beginning and we looked forward to exciting times. He arrived complete with assistants in tow.
There is always an uneasiness when new folk enter a well established nest, and it has to be said that Nicholas looked more suited to the world of banking or academia than design, but for the fact that he smoked roll ups. Looking back now, it must have been difficult for him to make his presence felt, in a company where the two existing partners were so closely linked.
But we all pulled together to crack a project that Nicholas had brought with him. The Independent was to be the first serious broadsheet newspaper for 150 years. Two of paper’s journalists, Geoffrey Chancellor and Nicholas Garland were disappointed with the proposed dummies of the paper, produced in printed dummy form before they had arrived on the scene. They incorporated full colour production featuring a slab serif headline face. The overall effect had a mid market, Daily Express like feel, certainly not what they had expected. Chancellor apparently remarked to editor Andreas Whittam Smith, “ I thought we were joining a serious paper.” Garland contacted Nicholas Thirkell and asked him to produce a new design at breakneck speed, as publication day was a matter of weeks away.
There was a blur of activity in our studio with each of us taking responsibility for a section of the paper. We honed the design right down; discarding the idea of colour, because we felt the quality was not good enough at that time. Instead we proposed the notion of high quality black and white photojournalism. This was set against an understated typographical backdrop with a distinct literary feel.
Clutching an oversized portfolio, all three of us went to meet The Independent’s Editor, Andreas Whittham Smith and his key journalists. We stood like schoolboys in front of this formidable group. The meeting lasted mere minutes with Whittham Smith turning the pages aggressively, as he became increasingly red in the face to the extent that I thought he was about to have a heart attack. He hated what we'd done. I think it was more because it was so far removed from the designs that he had originally commissioned.
We left disappointed and dejected. But the next day Nicholas Garland called and explained that they'd had a change of heart. We where back in the frame. Nicholas went on to oversee the launch of the paper, which became an instant success and was short-listed for the first BBC Design Awards in 1986. In an ironic twist, a guy who worked in the production department at The Independent, and responsible for implementing our design, attempted to claim total credit for the design for whatever strange reason. However both D&AD and Blueprint Magazine accurately recorded our part in the story with Blueprint Editor, Dyan Sujic writing a very detailed and critical piece on the paper’s creation.
It is hard to remember the effect of that original design because there have been so many changes in the past quarter of a century. A little later we went on, with Nicholas at the helm, to design The Independent on Sunday, along with its large format colour supplement. An altogether more satisfying project and with, in my view, a far better result than The Independent.
As the eighties progressed, our industry was flirting with the City. Michael Peters floated on the stock market followed by others. Companies began to borrow, expand and bolt on additional design disciplines. We took a far more cautious view and stuck to our core expertise and began to notice an increase in the volume of work.
In late 1986 we moved from Regent Street to a quiet Mews in sleepy Bloomsbury...
Our loos where created out of the building's old kiln.
We had the then relatively unknown architect David Chipperfield design the interior and on a very tight budget. He made a fantastic job of the space...
Our then trusty secretary Jo Maude installed in our shinny new reception.
Ken Carroll in the pre digital age main studio at Brownlow Mews.
Now the proud owners of a whole building, all be it courtesy of the bank, we rolled up our sleeves and entered into the most creative and prolific period of the company.
Nicholas Thirkell played an important part in sharpening up the financial running of the company. Ken and I had always used an accountant who had clients in the show biz area and he put forward a candidate to keep our books in house and would liaise with our accountant for more complex issues. Within a very short space our new in house chap dispensed with the services of our long serving accountant. Our bookkeeper and Nicholas began a good working relationship and set about transforming the running of the company. Time sheets were introduced and bi monthly ‘Board’ meetings and new external accountants appointed. Our turnover started to climb along with our efficiency and profitability.
One of the many beautiful little books that Nicholas Thirkell designed
At that time advertising agencies were taking an interest in the design world. One morning, I received a call from a top agency. In strictest confidence they wanted to set up a meeting to outline a proposition. This took place in a cloak and dagger atmosphere of a private room at a well known Charlotte Street restaurant.
At the meeting we were told how much the agency admired our work and thought that we would make a good addition to their rapidly growing group, which at the time had been acquiring complimentary companies. By the end of the meal and some excellent wine, it all sounded rather wonderful. We would receive a substantial sum of money, part in cash and the rest in shares. Half of this up front and the rest in what was termed a three ‘earn out period’ during which were expected to attain 15% growth per year.
After a few of weeks of soul searching and advice, we reckoned that with hard work and determination we could earn the money on offer from the agency and still own our company, so we turned the offer down.
Following the success of The Independent Nicholas went onto redesign The Scotsman...
Taken in 1987. Our growing staff outside our building photographed by Ron Alexander. Most of us are waring French style work overall that I had designed and made.
I met a young conductor called Christopher Warren-Green at a recording session for a film that I had been designing the title sequences for. The meeting was to be very fortuitous because not long after he phoned to say that he was forming a new chamber orchestra. It became the London Chamber Orchestra (LCO) and he asked me to create the identity. He was keen to embrace a younger audience and that became the brief. It was to be one of the key projects of my career. While Nicholas and Ken were steeped in editorial design I put my heart into the LCO. This was the result...
Meanwhile personal issues were to disrupted my life. In the late 80’s as I embarked on the road to divorce after a long marriage. For a while I was homeless and Ken kindly allowed me to stay with him at his Camden Mews house until I got myself sorted. Needless to say there was a lot of philosophising about life between the two of us. In times of difficulty I have always found that my work has kept me sane.
By the end of the eighties unemployment had fallen from 3 million to 1,600,000 and the city was awash with champagne drinking, Porsche driving traders kitted out in their Hugo Boss double breasted suits. It was the age of greed and deep social divisions between the North- South were widening. We were riding on the crest of a wave becoming increasingly busy. But we where not all pulling in the same direction and there was some rocks on the horizon. To be continued.