This is Alex McDowell…
If you’ve seen Fight Club, Minority Report, The Terminal, Lawnmower Man, Corpse Bride and Watchman then you will be aware of his work as one of the most sought after production designers in the film industry today.
Minority Report 2002
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2005
Stage design for the opera Death and the Powers 2006
But he is much more than that. I caught up with Alex recently to record an interview when he was visiting London from his home inLos Angeles. Listen to the interview here.
1996 kicked off with thoughts of my looming D&AD Presidency. With it would come a lot of responsibility – many meetings plus the expectation of a mass of print design, all for very little return. Without the infrastructure of CDT, I would not have been able to contemplate it.
Above just a few of the many D&AD projects we designed in 1996/1997.
This was also due to the fact that at the time, like so many of my contemporaries, I was an utter computer luddite, meaning I had to sit next to an assistant, in total frustration, asking them to move this and move that etc.
Outside work I continued with my photography, but I’d also started painting again (I’d given up serious illustration back in the late 70’s). This was to become another big passion as I spent more time away from CDT.
Above re-engaging with painting after 20 years.
In early ’96 I was asked to design the title sequence for a film by Australian director Bruce Beresford. It was to star Sharon Stone (she of the famed uncrossing legs scene in Basic Instinct.) It was called Last Dance, about a woman on death row waiting for the fateful day. I opted to invent an imagined idyllic childhood that the Stone character never had, and was not part of the script. I enlisted my twin sons - fresh from Central St Martin’s film and animation course - to shoot the sequence, all on 8mm movie film. We cast Beresford’s daughter, Trilby as the young Sharon Stone character and shot everything near my home in Dorset…
My sons, Ben & Joe, filming Trilby Beresford for the title sequence of Last Dance in the long hot summer of 1996.
Here are some of the frames from that title sequence…
When the film premièred it had been preceded a few months before by Dead Man Walking, which had a similar theme and had received a lot of accolades. Consequently Last Dance got poor reviews. A Guardian critic said at the time that the best part of the film was the first 4 minutes, the title sequence. That made the effort worthwhile for me.
I spent the best part of 1999 creating the identity for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (above). One of the most difficult jobs I've done, due to civil servants trying to scupper the proceedings by leaking our design work and fees to the press. It created front page new in the Sun and subsequent questions in the House of Commons.
The new Associate Directors got on with their task of developing clients and turning their teams into efficient, profit making units. A new business manager was hired to seek out new areas of work. Things settled into this developing pattern. Suddenly the company I’d started had changed. It was agreed that I would pull back and leave the 3 teams alone. So I got on with working solo, on the projects I wanted to do, and in between I chatted away to everyone in the studio – probably a little too much for my own good. But old dogs and all that.
In 1997, as the new D&AD President, I presided over a lot of changes to the organisation which were quite controversial at the time, all of which I have recalled in the forthcoming D&AD 50th Anniversary Annual published later this year.
Stamps have always been a passion, having been involved with them since the 1980’s. Royal Mail’s then Design Director, Barry Robinson, would often give us problem projects to tackle. On this occasion they needed to produce something for the new millennium and were in a bit of a fix. He asked if I could create the styling, commission, art direct and coordinate a whole year's stamp programme. It would comprise 48 individual stamps. This had never been done before. Without hesitation I said yes. It was to become another of those special projects of a lifetime.
Over the next year I, along with CDT newcomers Rebecca Oliver as coordinator and designer Simon Elliott (now of Rose Design) set about pulling the whole thing together. We had 12 historic subject areas to cover. Within each area there would be 4 stamps each by a different image-maker. And for each individual stamp we had to propose 2 to 3 different image-makers for Royal Mail and their Advisory Committee to consider. So we where pitching around 150 different creatives. I think you can begin to see just how complicated it was. Here is our original design proposal to Royal Mail for the styling (never published before) for the Millennium stamps…
Throughout 1998 we pulled the project into shape, not missing a single deadline. And I had a ball visiting some of Britain’s most distinguished artists from Bridget Reilly to Catherine Yass and Anthony Gormley to Craigie Atchison.
The 48 stamps that made up the 1999 Millennium year long issue
Plus a memorable long weekend recce of the First World War graves in the Somme area of France for Don McCullin to photograph. This was the result...
The result of all that effort was a D&AD Silver Award in 2000 for the best use of illustration. It was a great way to start the new century.
Our Millennium stamp styling continued for the year 2000 and we designed this set of 4 stamps for that year.
By that same year one of the new Creative Associates, Ian Chilvers had left. Iain Crockart and Neil Walker remained to continue with the succession plan. Nicholas Thirkell had also more or less left the company. By this time I was only working 3 days a week, as I’d moved my family from London to Dorset. So with Nicholas often in India and me part time, it would I thought, become the perfect set up for the remaining Associate Directors to spread their wings and get on with running the company.
The second CDT book published in 2001. Another rare find if you can get hold of one.
In 2001 Royal Mail’s Barry Robinson gave me another taxing project to crack. The task was to make the definitive 1st and 2nd class stamps more user friendly for people with disability, in particular those with sight and arthritic problems.
It was to be Royal Mail’s contribution towards the incoming Disability Discrimination Act. I realised immediately that this was a project where thoughtful design could make a big difference to the user. I opted to test whatever we came up with through disability groups. I enlisted the help of Arthritis Care and the RNIB. They each provided people with varying degrees disabilities to workshop with us.
At around this time a delightful Swiss designer, Christian Altmann had joined CDT, fresh from Massimo Vignelli in New York. We worked on this Royal Mail project together and decided to film of our workshop adventures. We then edited the results into a film to show the Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee, along with our design proposal…
The residue of the original project resurrected for the new large and standard letter post stamps 2006.
The early noughties became increasingly pressurised. We had quite a lot of staff at the time and there comes a point in the life of a design consultancy, when it’s like a steam train. To keep it going at full speed you need to shovel in a lot of coal.
Throughout all this we continued our long tradition of yearly studio trips to different parts of Europe for some R&R. We’d clocked up Paris, Rome, Barcelona and Amsterdam and it was always great fun to get away from the daily hurly burly. We also had a monthly visit from Iain’s wife Louise, graphic designer turned aromatherapist, who would give the entire company individual massages set against the tranquil backdrop of Brian Eno’s soundscapes.
Signage for the Royal Opera House
By 2002 our turnover was reaching £3m. We had never been busier but the increasing pressure was taking its toll. Iain Crockart, who had been running on all cylinders without much of a break, became ill and was away from the company for a time. I had to be re-engaged and worked alongside Neil Walker to maintain the clients and work flow.
When Iain returned I sensed that all was not quite the same. The event had upset him and his passion had faded. Not too long after, he announced that he wanted to leave to take up photography. I was extremely upset and told him so. “You’re turning your back on a fantastic future”, I recall saying.
But I knew that he had made up his mind, there was no going back. But I had a secret admiration for his determination to cut free and follow his dream. He has done just that, and is now an exceptional photographer, who also spends a large part of his life motorcycling around the globe aiding charities in third world countries.
Neil Walker purchased Iain’s shares making him CDT’s largest individual shareholder and effectively leading the company.
With the loss of two of the original Associate Directors, our succession plan was in tatters. This unsettled everyone. With Nicholas often out of the country and me only around part of the week, tensions began to bubble to the surface. Suddenly there were lots of accusations flying around and we each got pulled into climate of distrust and suspicion. For a short while we brought in a very senior designer from outside the company to get a better balance. But for various reasons it didn’t work out.
I art directed the RSA Journal from 2000 for five years
Back in the studio engine room we had some great people. Along with Christian Altmann there was the wonderfully enthusiastic and talented Stuart Youngs. I have always loved passionate people they help make life special. Another assistant who joined us was the lovely Sophie Paynter, whom I would often steal from the other teams to work with me.
Yet another set of stamps.This time to celebrate Britain's cultural diversity 2006
Out of the blue came a serious event that would bring the company to its knees.
There was one disgruntled, long-term member of staff. He was unhappy about how the company was run and became hell bent on destroying it. He would make calls to each director and brief against the others. The upshot was an increasing climate of suspicion and distrust. Finally it got to a point where I couldn’t stand it any more and had to put a stop to it. I called a meeting between all the directors.
5 minutes before its start a motorcycle messenger arrived brandishing 3 envelopes. They were addressed to Nicholas Thirkell, Neil Walker and me. Inside were letters from a City law firm. They made the position clear, we where not allowed to raise the topic we wanted to discuss. Our colleague, also due at the meeting, but nowhere to be found, had hired a solicitor accusing us of constructive dismissal. We looked at one another in disbelief.
That event was the beginning of an 18-month horror story, which took us through a lengthy, disruptive and highly stressful tribunal. It cost us over £60,000 in legal fees and over £150,000 in lost fee income. We won in the end. But it was something I would have rather not gone through. But the up side was that the individual had gone and with him his devious and spiteful behaviour. Human nature never ceases to amaze me.
Throughout all this I would lose myself in painting at my home in Dorset. I would easily spend 8 hours a day at my easel surrounded by music oblivious to the rest of the world.
Above, some of the many paintings I produced away from CDT, early in the new century, at my home in Dorset.
A few months after our traumatic tribunal we hired Jason Zymelka, from Design House, as our in-house Finance Director. With him came a myriad of daily printouts of our financial situation. I’d never seen so many pie, bar and flow charts, most of which I didn’t understand. But no matter, at least it was better than the often hand written financial information that we’d had in the past.
Getting more organised we'd also divided up the studio tasks to different members of staff. I had resposibility with the decorative state of the building and organising the flowers (allways white tulips, in season). Also along with Stuart Youngs I started to take on the responsibility staff welfare.
Around this time we’d had a series of promised jobs that didn’t materialise and had the horrid task of making some redundancies in the company. Never a nice thing to do and frought with difficulties - something that needs to handled with great care to avoid any serious legal implications.
The next couple of years slipped by and the company was becoming a different place. The atmosphere and spirit had changed. Creative pitches were common place – a thing I’d always vehemently objected too. Giving your talent away free just devalues you and your position. Also most of the people I’d loved working with had, or were contemplating, moving on and I was ready to do the same as I’d been working virtually solo during my final years at CDT there was no place for me anymore.
When not absorbed in a project, my time was spent looking at financial projections, balance sheets, forecast charts and endless stacks of data that bored me to death. Painting became my escape from virtually everything, as my personal life had also long since been crumbling in the background.
During a short conversation with Nicholas I suggested that we offer Walker and Zymelka a management buyout. I knew that this was what they really wanted. It was agreed and in December 2007 I found myself walking down the elegantly curved David Chipperfield staircase for the last time, after 28 years with the company that I had started with such passion and didn’t really recognise anymore.
Strangely I didn’t have one once of emotion, no lump in the throat or tear in the eye as I strolled down Brownlow Mews for the last time. I was excited about starting over, without the responsibility of staff, meetings about the future, staff and cash flow projections. I was also mindful that my second marriage had long since hit the rocks.
And so I segwayed seamlessly from the lengthy court case at CDT into another in the divorce courts. Not only was I leaving CDT, but a marriage and a home. Once again I was able bury myself in work, always my enduring saviour throughout my life. And so that was that, my CDT journey ended as simply as it had started.
Those 28 years at CDT whizzed by like 28 months. I still find it difficult to believe, but my lack of hair, possession of a freedom pass and those snatched glances in the mirror confirm the fact.
A year after I left, CDT moved from the Brownlow Mews building, which had become so synonymous with the company, to smaller premises in North London. I lost touch with them. Then in 2011 I heard that they were in some difficulty. The early part of this year confirmed that fact when their website disappeared and notices of liquidation appeared in web searches. I don’t know the full story of what happened. Apparently it was a combination of things - illness, staff layoffs, money issues and no doubt the increasingly competitive jungle that is 21st century design.
So after 33 years CDT became yet another statistic in this current economic horror story. A very sad ending to a once very special company.
A couple of years after I’d started Studio Dempsey, and now living alone and had been tapping away on this on this very blog for about a year, late one night I received an email. It said, ‘You might not remember me but you took some photographs 16 years ago…” It was that 18-year-old oriental musician that I mentioned in part 5 of this little saga, now 34. We arranged to meet up. This is her now…
We were together for 4 years. Funny how life presents itself.
You may think after reading this history of Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell that I am the very last person to pass on any ‘pearls of wisdom’ about running a company, as I was clearly not that good at it. But bear with me, I’m going to anyway.
1. Don’t go into business with your best friend because it’s highly likely that
you’ll lose them.
2. Never let the creative heart slip from the front of the company.
3. Take care in over manning (and womanning).
4. Make sure that creatives always have contact with clients.
5. Choose your staff with care.
6. Watch out for cuckoos in the nest, they can destroy your world.
7. Always try to be fair and kind.
8. Listen to your financial advisors, but don’t let them anywhere near the
creative table; they have a different and often extremely devious headspace
that is not compatible with designers.
9. Always seek out work that really interests you. You’ll put more into it and do
a far better job.
10. Don’t get into the rut of working late every night, it’s a killer.
11. Encourage everyone to soak up all of the other creative disciplines; graphic
design is not the only thing on the block, there’s far more out there.
12. If you don’t like the job you’re in, leave it. Life is too short and we only have
one (although I have hopes).
For me to be a graphic designer is a fantastic privilege and great fun. I continue to do it because I love it. As Alan Fletcher once said, “Retirement is for people who hate their jobs.” God bless Alan.
For the earlier parts of this story click here
Ironically following the demise of CDT earlier this year, it was name as the 4th most awarded design group in D&AD's 50 year history at the September awards night. A nice epitaph.