We slid seamlessly into the 90s while all around were fighting with their banks. In 1993 we were voted number 1 in three categories of Design Week's yearly survey: identity design, editorial/book design, annual report design and poster design. Various publications ran profiles on the company including Graphis and Blueprint…
All very flattering. We were in a good place and the attention was a great morale-booster, coupled with the company running smoothly and profitably.
Above brand identities for the South Bank Centre 1994, Our Price 1993, Docklands Symphonetta 1994 and the Design Museum 1995. Sadly all no longer exist.
Things were going so smoothly, in fact, that Nicholas and I started to think about the long-term future of the company. We had turned down an offer from a major advertising agency in order to keep our independence, but we also realised that we needed a succession plan.
The problem was - and still is - that very few 30-something designers could afford the share value; most have marriages, mortgages and children to pay for. So we hit on the idea of setting up a new company.
Annual reports for The British Land Company from 1991 and 1992. We continued to work with the company for 2 decades.
We called it CDT Design. Removing the individual personalities would allow new designers to surface and hopefully shine. We had identified 4 staff members who were good designers in their own right. Sadly one of them, Fernando Gutierrez, came to tell me that he was leaving to move to Spain to work. It was an emotional moment for both of us, as we’d worked so well together over the years. So off he flew. The others - Iain Crockart, Ian Chivers and Neil Walker - became Associate Directors. We divided up our clients between them and gave them responsibility for their own teams and profit centres.
Stained glass window Christmas stamps for Royal Mail 1992.
We had a 5 year plan at the end of which - depending on their individual performances - they would become full share-holding directors. Leaving Nicholas and I retaining controlling interest of the new company. It all sounded fine and dandy. Contracts were drawn up and signed. But we had been fore-warned that the chances of all three making it were pretty slim. Ever the optimist, I thought it would work out.
In 1994 we designed the physical shape for the South Bank area signage with a nod to the famous Skylon from the Festival of Britain.
In addition to the 3 Associate ‘Design’ Directors, we also gave our in-house finance guy a small share allocation too.
CDT Design. Clockwise from the left: Nicholas Thirkell, Ian Chilvers, Mike Dempsey, Iian Crockart, Neil Walker and (centre) Ashwin Raithataha.
To dovetail with the creation of CDT we published a book of our work in 1993. A very rare find these days.
It was the beginning of what could be considered a high-risk strategy. But we soldiered on and trusted that things would bed-in and run smoothly.
Nicholas told me that he wanted to leave in 1999. He admitted that he was losing interest in the rough and tumble of the design world and wanted to pursue more gardening which was a big passion with him; and he hated the dreary British winter months and planned to spend that time of the year in India. So the die was cast, there was no going back.
In July of 1995 I learned that I was going to be made a Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) but had to keep it under my hat until the awards were presented by the RSA later in the year. I’d just turned 50 and was deeply honoured to be in the same company of so many design greats. I remember, at the very first RDI meeting that I attended, there was Abram Games puffing away on his pipe, Herbert Spencer chatting to Robin Day, and Alan Fetcher sharing a joke with Derek Birdsall and Dennis Bailey. At the head of the table sat the sartorially immaculate Jean Muir and next to her the great textile designer Enid Marx and illustrator David Gentleman. And that was just a few of this exclusive cross-disciplinary design fraternity. It was astonishing.
In our new roles at CDT, Nicholas and I spent most of our time mentoring and hand-holding. The strengths and weaknesses of each Associate were bubbling to the surface.
In 1995 we embarked on our third art sponsorship - once again with the Tate Gallery. This was ‘Art Now’ an experimental gallery space within the original Tate building featuring new works. The first in the series was installation artist and film-maker Mathew Barney...
Mathew Barney OTTOshaft Hypoxia-Hypertrophy-Hubris Thr AI Davis Suite.
By this time I was well into my second marriage with two more children, making it a total of 5 from both marriages. I was living in Islington and had also had a cottage in Dorset, where my family and I would spend the holidays. I’d also thrown myself into photography having discovered Polaroid’s 35mm Polapan film, which was an instant black and white transparency, with a beautiful grainy quality. Whenever I decide to pursue something new I absorb as much as I can. These are just some of the books I consumed...
I had set up a studio at my home and began by photographing friends, family and then moved on to models, in fact anybody I could find…
Above: 2 of my photographic efforts used in our ENO work.
While out one sunny Sunday morning, I spotted a very attractive oriental girl walking past Tavistock Gardens. I stopped my car, which at the time was an old 2CV, and asked her if she would be interested in being photographed (I know, it all sounds very dodgy now). She agreed and this was one of the shots…
A short time after the above shot was taken she moved back to the West Midlands. But she was to reappear again, but not for 16 years.
The first few years under the new CDT Design banner had gone well with rising profits. But all was not well with me. I’d started to feel a little under the weather and eventually went to see my doctor who referred me on to a specialist. This culminated in my having a biopsy, the result of which I was supposed to get before a Bank Holiday Weekend. The Friday came but no letter. While at work I phoned the consultant - but he’d gone off for the weekend. I was told that a letter had been posted. “What does it say? I need to know”. After a bit of persuasive pleading, I managed to get the secretary to read the contents. Everything went a bit fuzzy after the word “Positive” filtered through. It appeared that I had prostate cancer. My world froze at that moment. I thanked her, replaced the receiver, went to the loo, locked the door, looked at the blank wall and felt tears cascading down my face. I spent the next week hidden from sight in the local library, reading everything and anything I could lay my hands on about the condition. The more I read, the more paranoid I became. After taking advice from a range of medics I underwent a major operation.
1995. This is a very special project for me. It was the last thing that I worked on before going into hospital. Although I'm not a great fan of packaging, I loved every moment of this job and subsequently became great friends with the owner. The labels have never changed.
While still in a state of post-operative euphoria, brought about by the most fantastic drugs, my three Associate Directors arrived clutching a rather nice frosted glass award. Apparently on the day of my operation we had won the ABSA Arts sponsorship award, the first design company ever to do so.
I was away from the CDT for about 8 weeks and it took me many months more to recover from the operation. But even then I managed to work on a project that I really wanted to do...
Film title sequence for David Hare's The Designated Mourner 1997. All shot at my home in 1996, while convalescing.
But the moment I got back to work I was able to quickly engage my brain in problem solving - something that has always fascinated me.
I was also very involved with D&AD, as it had been announced I was to be the next president in 1997. That news enabled me to divert my mind from the thought of the cancer returning, which tended to gnaw away in the background.
The whole horrid experience of 1996 dramatically changed my view of everything. I was no longer interested in next year, month, week or day. I had made up my mind to ‘live in the moment’. Life was suddenly a very precious thing.
The final 10 years of my time at CDT Design were to be rewarding, challenging and traumatic in equal measures and I rediscover painting. (To be continued)