The end of the decade was a very busy period with all three partners working as separate entities but contributing to the company pot. This inevitably set up a spirit of competition, which I have never liked (too much like school). But we would still comment on each other’s work and take or give constructive criticism.
Both Nicholas and Ken were keen to develop overseas clients and seemed to relish the prospect of jetting around the world. I on the other hand couldn’t think of anything more boring, I’ve always hated the process of travelling.
At the time I’d made a mental plan to attract clients from the arts - film, music, television, theatre, dance and opera. I worked on the premise that if you targeted areas that you have a passion for, it follows that you would give more of yourself to them. My ideal was to have all of my clients within a square mile of the studio. And that’s exactly what I eventually achieved.
Ken travelled to New York for a project and Nicholas to France and later India. Meanwhile I stayed in our delightful studio in Bloomsbury, cafetière to hand, classical music gently purring in the background and a view of laburnum blossom from my window. Bliss.
But things were to change in 1990 when Ken left the company for personal reasons. It was a sad time, but with growing staff to pay and clients to service, we picked up the pieces, regrouped and in that great British spirit ‘carried on’.
Poster for LCO 1990
Our work for London Chamber Orchestra (LCO) had caught the attention of English National Opera. I went to see them knowing that they had already seen five other consultancies. I got on so well with ENO’s director of corporate affairs, Keith Cooper that he sellected us to create their new identity before I’d left the meeting. For me, this was to become another of those projects of a lifetime.
The story of the creation of the logo is worth a few lines. I used to live in Islington and travelled to work on the 38 bus. This is well before mobile phones. So it was a great place to think. And over the ensuing years I would clock up a lot of thinking on that bus. So there I was trundling down the Kingsland Road thinking about the essence of English National Opera. I started scribbling singers, arms out stretched, opened mouthed. I looked down at my drawing, zeroed in on the face and had one of those rare ‘eureka’ moments. The face turned into an E and an N for the eyes and a large O for the mouth. Later that day in the studio it became this...
That’s how things happen sometimes, quickly and effortlessly. And the art of looking beyond what is before you is crucial to capture the unexpected. I presented the above sole option to the client. I was so sure it was right, and it was. We went on to overhaul everything, and for many years working for ENO were a real joy and I gained, and still have, a soft spot for opera...
The new identity was so successful for Keith Cooper that he was poached by The Royal Opera House and became a minor celebrity in BBC 2’s The House, a fly on the wall documentary charting a year in the life of the company.
Now I have to admit that I’ve never been that good at working with assistants. I’d have a thought and want to pursue it from beginning to end with as little help as possible, in a kind of school boyish, arm shielding kind of way. I’ve always been like that. But the company had grown and we had a lot more clients.
So, taking a leaf out of Nicholas’s book, who was an ace delegator and never sullied his hands with Cow gum or a scalpel - something that used to irk Ken and me. We’d mutter, ‘He doesn’t seem to do anything’. But of course he did, but in a different way. He knew just how to get the best out of his assistants. I bit the bullet, and started to work more closely with my little group, but could only cope with the brightest of the bunch.
During the early 90's at Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell I had some fantastically talented assistants. Too many to list here but there are some exceptions who worked very closely with me, so I’ll name check them. Barbro Olhson, a fiery and passionate Swede. Fernando Gutierrez a gloriously laid back Spaniard and the delightful and military camouflaged obsessed Rebecca Foster. There would be more to come.
But I digress. After Ken’s departure we spilt the studio into two large teams and worked our way through the economic downturn of 90’s with many companies in our industry folding. The biggest casualty was the Michael Peters Group who had grown to an enormous size and consequently fell from a great height. We pottered along like busy little worker bees virtually oblivious to the financial maelstrom raging outside.
The 90s saw two major high street brands commissioning substantial amounts of work with very generous fees Boots and W.H.Smith. They both had external design directors advising on and appointing outside design groups to work on projects. Pentagram’s John McConnell headed up the Boots operation and the more ‘off the wall’ Michael Wolff handled all of W.H.Smith’s commissions. They couldn’t have been more different in their approach.
At the time many of the major London design consultancies clamoured to get on the rosters of these two companies. We worked for both. Of the two, our most creative solutions were realised via Michael Wolff who, with his enthusiastic, child-like, inspirational personality, managed to engender a spirit of great work.
Over at Boots things were far more formal. There was a design steering group, headed up by John McConnell, whose job it was to approve all of the design work. Once that had happened your were passed on to the relevant Boots managers and buyers of the products. Many of these individuals appeared to resent being press ganged into using ‘fancy London designers’, rather than local Nottingham based groups. Consequently they could make life difficult. A sudden change to a cheaper production method or an off the shelf pack could often compromise or destroy the integrity of an already approved design. And there was little one could do to save it. On top of this it was a long slog up to Nottingham, where you would often be kept waiting for 45mins for a meeting that only lasted 30 minutes. We tended to be given the talcum powder, eau de cologne and bathroom products to package. Nicholas did the lions’s share of work with great aplomb. I always felt that I was pretty useless at packaging, useless it was 2 dimensional.
One year John McConnell had the nice idea of inviting all of the design consultancies working for Boots to a drinks party at Pentagram along with the client. I seem to remember Ian Logan Design, Madeline Bennett and Lewis Moberly among many others, being there. It was the first time that all the competing design groups had been brought together. It became evident that there were mutterings of dissatisfaction permeating the room. The sound of a glass being tapped silenced everyone. John McConnell made a lovely little speech. He then welcomed an exchange of ideas and views between all present. There was an ominous pause with no one taking the initiative until Robert Moberly, of Lewis Moberly asked why we were always referred to as ‘suppliers’? He found the term rather demeaning , considering that our job was to help Boots enhance their products in order to make them appealing to the public.
This broadside opened up a flurry of criticism from the assembled designers. The party was reduced to a bit of a slanging match. There followed an embarrassed silence with poor John McConnell looking shocked and disappointed. Shortly after everyone left.
There were no such ‘get togethers’ at W.H.Smith, just Michael Wolff eulogising over a particular colour that had taken his fancy that day. ‘Just look at this yellow’ he would say, holding up a carrier bag, ‘Isn’t it fantastic?’ He is still exactly the same today. Bless him. Here is some of our best work for WHSmith much by Nicholas and his team...
Packaging for W H Smith 1991
200th Anniversary logo for W H Smith 1992
Above recruitment brochure for W H Smith 1992
During the early 1990's Nicholas and I embarked on a new idea. Sponsoring the arts...
Our poster for our sponsorship of the Cindy Sherman show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1992
We also put in place a succession plan for the long-term future of the company. This started out as one of the most exciting and optimistic periods for the company. But, in the event, it turned into a car crash. But there was something both exciting and far more frightening on the horizon for me. To be continued.