It always fascinates me when so-called ‘fine artists’ wander into the commercial scene, such as last year’s Olympic posters by a bevy of Tate-blessed artists with a resulting diabolical set of posters that, had they been under the exacting brief of the commercial arena, would have all been rejected. But regular readers of this blog will know I’ve already had a rant about that.
But what about the other way round, when a ‘commercial’ artist turns fine artist? Well, in the case of Michelle Thompson, it transitions beautifully.
This is Michelle…
Michelle at work – she is rather camera shy.
This is her most useful tool…
And this is her material…
Old magazines, books, packaging, comics and catalogues all go into the mix.
And lashings of paint...
Michelle graduated from Norwich School of Art and went on to a postgraduate course at the Royal College of Art under the watchful eye of Robert Mason and Dan Fern: considerable illustrators in their time.
Collage has always been an important creative vehicle for many artists: Picasso, Paolozzi, Rauschenberg, Schwitters and Blake, to name just a few. And in the commercial arena, Cristiana Couceiro has seen great success with her surprising re-assemblages of familiar 20th-century graphics...
Cristiana Couceiro cannibalises immediately recognisable 20th century graphics in her work
And firmly in that camp is Michelle Thompson, with a wonderfully sensitive approach to this age-old genre. And as well as taking on commercial commissions, she produces a regular flow of self-published personal works as limited edition high-quality Giclée prints (a form inkjet printing that has become increasingly popular with photographers, illustrators and artists alike).
A recent piece called Flight, in this case not a Giclée print
but a good old fashioned screen print which Michelle started producing in 2010.
In recent years, Peter Blake has unleashed a plethora of Giclée printwork available in many galleries up and down the country on an industrial scale.
Above Peter Blake, James Dean at the Albert Hall 2012
I find Michelle’s non-commercial work extremely beautiful, sensitive and even moving.
Take a look…
See what I mean? When she is at her most minimalist, there is a real power and beauty to the work and she has a wonderful sense of colour and composition.
Above: Michelle’s other activity: selling prints through galleries. In this case her own yearly 'Open Studio'.
It is not surprising that her work has graced many book covers and editorial spreads around the world. It is great to see a working mum of two managing to juggle the pressures of family life with a creative heart; sadly so many women I have known have hung up their creative hats: a great loss to the design world. But, thankfully, not Michelle: long may she continue cutting and pasting.
As a young minister, Margaret
Thatcher was called ‘Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher’ for curtailing free milk
for school children
In 1971, the last Morris
Minor rolled of the assembly line. It first appeared in 1948. I passed my driving test in one of these classics.
Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange was released causing much controversy
Decimal currency was introduced causing a lot of initial confusion.
David Hockney’s painting Mr.
& Mrs. Clark and Percy was unveiled
BBC TV's The Old Grey Whistle Test was launched To be found in every designers home, Terence Conran's The House Book
John Lennon released the Imagine album
And this was me in 1971...
Just a short walk from Queen’s Street Mayfair is Shepherd’s Market – just off
Curzon Street – a mini labyrinth of passageways populated with pubs, wine bars
and fashionable eateries. It is super smart in this 21st century but, back in
1971 when I was working at Heinemann, it was a different place. Far more humble
with a couple of inexpensive restaurants, general stores, sandwich shops and a
regular street market. It was also known for its jolly pubs and out-of-hours
drinking clubs and was the heart of Mayfair’s up-market prostitutes.
today everything has been transformed, at night you will still detect red,
glowing lights nestling in upstairs flat windows and doorways sporting crudely
lettered cards displaying ‘Model top floor’, enticing potential punters. Rain-coated
businessmen, heads steadfastly facing the ground, discreetly exit these illicit
dens: certain things never change. Back in the ‘80s, Jeffrey Archer – the then high-ranking
Conservative Party chairman – was compromised with a prostitute in Shepherd’s Market.
The Shepherd’s Market I
Meanwhile, back on the top floor of William Heinemann, I am gazing out of the
window (day-dreaming as usual), only to be startled by publicity director Bill
Holden hollering “Ella! I need a Coke and ice, my head is splitting.”A few
moments later, his door slams and there is silence. Bill would consume a lot of
alcohol during the day and this would often continue at night; consequently,
mornings were not the best time to be around him.
I would get on with commissioning and artworking jackets until his door
reopened, which signalled the all-clear. I’d pop my head around the door and he
would generally usher me in, and the drinks would always come out. We’d go
through the publicity requirements for forthcoming books. Very often, an author
would come in to talk about promotion.
Peter Ustinov (above) was a regular and was
fantastically entertaining and a wonderful raconteur with stories embellished
with an array of characters, all re-enacted by Ustinov. I absolutely adored
these privileged moments and never tired of them.
Above two long-standing landmarks
of Curzon Street are G.F. Trumper (the gentlemen’s hairdresser) and the
booksellers G. Heywood Hill. It was also here from the post-war period that MI5
was situated in Leconfield House in Curzon Street, where Soviet spy Kim Philby
Bill had a delightful secretary called Alana Hornby: a true English rose who
was always well turned out in a simple white shirt and black cashmere, button-through
sweater, topped off with a pearl necklace and ear studs. But on closer
inspection, you could see that the elbows of the sweater had been neatly darned
and she admitted to me that she preferred to buy a single expensive item until it
self-destructed, rather than multiples of cheap goods.
Life for me settled into a very comfortable pattern. I would read manuscripts
in bed and think of ideas on the train going to work. There was no 9-to-5
mentality: it just became part of my life and I loved it.
This is a wonderful caricature of John Gorham
by his long-term friend and occasional collaborator, the great Arthur Robbins -
who would eventually join my growing stable of illustrators.
By this time, I had
identified John Gorham as a designer that I really wanted to commission and,
bearing in mind that the fees for a book jacket design were extremely mean
indeed, I didn’t think he would work for me. I went to see him at his studio in
Regent’s Street that he shared with another designer, Dick Weaver, in a loose
The studio was bedecked with John’s wonderful work, including commissions from
the photosetting company of the time, Face, which designer John McConnell had a
lot to do with. John Gorham was also known for his exuberant hand lettering…
This was always beautifully crafted, which had brought him to the attention of
advertising agencies. He produced a similar lettering style for a Watney’s beer
campaign entitled ‘Roll out the Red Barrel’. Well, I did manage to persuade
John to design for me and it was the beginning of a long and fruitful
relationship: one from which I learned a lot from one of the masters of
typography, illustration and all things handcrafted, not forgetting his
wonderfully conceptual mind.
Above, one of John Gorham's jackets for me in 1971, completely
hand drawn by him.
Another designer who had caught my attention was
Ken Carroll, who had been working for Marshall Cavendish on a partwork magazine
called History Makers and had also produced a very nice book on cinema for The
Sunday Times. He would also have a significant place in my life.
Above a jacket I'd seen and liked on my regular bookshop searches by Ken Carroll
My Albums for 1971
The wonderful Joni Mitchell's Blue
With a voice like an angel Sandy Denny with her The North Star and the Ravens
And David Crosby's solo album If Only I Could Remember My Name
And my films for 1971...
The Last Picture Show directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Get Carter directed by Peter Yates
Walkabout directed by Nicolas Roeg
And this is my job for that year:
Heinemann’s catalogue cover for 1971 with my lino cut
illustration aping William Nicholson who was responsible for the original
Here is the 2nd of Michael Wolff's letters to designers in India - and to all of us too.
“Remember, remember the 5th
Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night
in England and we’re celebrating the failure of his plot, in 1605, to blow up
our Parliament. My ears are full of the sound of crackling fireworks and the
sky is full of brilliant colour and light. At the same time in India, and in
England too, people will be celebrating the Festival of Diwali.
In many of
England’s cities there’ll be a glorious firework competition. I hope you enjoy
a happy and colourful Diwali.
In my first letter to you,
I wrote about going to a design conference in Oslo. I was invited to talk about
the opportunities we have as designers to contribute to making our world a
happier, healthier and better place. I was surprised because I was expecting
yet another conference with designers explaining how wonderful and significant
we are and how brilliant our work is. But here was a conference focused on
inclusive design, in which all sorts of people, including me, shared
experiences of how inadequate our antennae still are, in the way they notice
the needs of differently-abled people. How, at best, so much of the physical
world that we designers have influenced, doesn’t work well enough for many
people. And at worst, is actually callous.
In Oslo, Marcus Berglund,
Disability Ambassador for the Scandic Hotel Group, asked me how I would feel
if, when I wanted to take money from an ATM, I had to ask a stranger to take my
card, use my pin number, check my bank balance, handle my money and then give
the card and the money back to me. Obviously I wouldn’t feel good at all. No
one would. But that’s what most wheelchair users have to do because the ATM’s
are often not positioned with sufficient consideration.
Equally surprising is how
many wheelchairs don’t allow their users to raise themselves to their full
height, so, much of the time people who live in them have cricked necks from
looking up, or are endlessly looked down on, like children, by full-height
people. There’s only one wheel
chair I know that enables this flexibility, but its appearance is typical of
the aesthetically impoverished and functional aesthetic that disabled people
are offered. And it’s very expensive. I’m surprised at the beauty and wonders
of bicycle, motorbike and even small car design compared to the worthy but
gloomy ranges of products whenever disability is concerned.
There’s an enormous and
growing global population of differently-abled and aging people. It’s the elephant in the room that many of us in the design
business are still choosing to ignore. It’s a substantial opportunity for
designers and entrepreneurs around the world – an opportunity that will
handsomely reward those who take it. What’s needed now is elegant innovation
and great design that includes everyone in the enjoyment of practical and
delightful things and places. Many of the great ideas produced in our
conference in Oslo, in just 24 hours, showed how with collaboration,
inspiration and imagination, wonderful ideas can come to life and improve the
lives of millions.
Recently in the UK, there
have been initiatives to demonstrate how design can improve both the
cross-infection statistics and the respect and dignity that people who are ill
in hospitals are given. The Design Council ran competitions to generate new and
more considerate ideas. Although there were many innovative and useful ideas,
nearly all the work I saw looked like my dentist’s surgery. Most of it had that
look of implacably dull product
design, still influenced by modernism where humour, charm and the joy of colour
appeared to have little place. It seemed to me to still be a reflection of some product designer’s vision of the world, in which everything is serious, simple and plain and where pleasure, delight and human idiosyncrasy don’t quite fit.
Of course there were many
benefits in much of the innovation and nearly all of it was worthwhile and
intelligent. Although, in my view, there didn’t seem to have been enough evidence of the designers having taken
their own shoes off and having spent time living in the shoes of the people we
Being in other people’s
shoes is no different from being in any kind of naturally considerate
relationship. But it requires an extra amount of curiosity and appreciation.
That extra amount of curiosity means pushing into more intrusive and personal
details to discover deeper and more emotional things than you find out from
ethnographic research. It means a journey of exploration with your partner or client or customer – the
person who will use the results of your imagination, your creativity and design. The deeper you go and the more you can be in their
shoes, the better prepared and more effective the results of your creativity will
The same is true of
appreciation. Among the most valuable attributes we’re fortunate to have as
designers, is a capacity of noticing – a kind of fearless openness to everything. Like a zoom lens, we can see from the
widest picture of a person’s anxiety in a scary hospital reception area to the
most detailed close-up of a person with arthritis struggling to open a piece of
We can use our zoom lens
actively and notice how people are reacting to everything around them. Any designer can use their noticing and appreciation
to open conversations with people about their experiences with things and
places. I’ve found most people enjoy these conversations and then find out that
they hadn’t noticed themselves, how well or badly the things they use in their
lives serve them. Many, like the
wheelchair users with the ATM’s I described, just put up with it, and so the
banks have no pressure to review and correct what they do.
The inspirations from
inside you that drive your imagination will come directly from the power and
intensity of your curiosity and appreciation of others. I’ve always called
these the muscles that enable me to progress the quality of what I expect from
myself. Muscles, because I
exercise them. The same is true for my imagination and performance as a designer.
It’s hard to give up the preconceptions of style that you choose to express
you, and the taste that you enjoy personally, nor should you. It’s a question
of when and how you give them the reins.
In my own experience, until
I feel complete with the work of my curiosity and the learning from my
appreciation, I don’t trust the interventions of my imagination. The many ideas
that lurk unused and unappreciated within us are no substitute to removing our
shoes and living in the shoes of those that our work is intended to serve.
Sometimes swapping shoes isn’t easy.
A year ago, during one of the
RCA (Royal College of Art) and DBA (Design Business Association) 24-hour design
challenges, in Dublin, I was supporting five groups of designers – each working with partners with
various impairments. Their challenge was to make Dublin easier to navigate. One
partner, with cerebral palsy, was in a wheelchair. He found it hard to control his movements, including the muscles in his face. He
communicated by moving his head so that a small unit at the back of his neck
transformed his movements into text on a screen. I felt awkward in his presence
and even found childlike fear inhibiting me in approaching him. I was ashamed
Later in the day, I walked behind him and the
designers he was working with, by the side of Dublin’s river Liffy. They were
walking beside a wall designed to protect children from falling in and to allow
adults to enjoy the river view – but not adults in wheelchairs. Suddenly the
words “I can’t see over this fucking wall” appeared on his screen. I cracked up, and
at that moment of humour, our relationship became possible for me. We started
our conversation. He’d inspired me to be able to be in his shoes. So for me,
embracing everybody, whatever individual problems they face, and especially the
things and qualities that make them different, is what inclusive design is all
It’s the quality of our inspirations that define
what we can achieve. Before imagination, innovation, design and technology can
come into play, inspiration, that moment, or even split second, has to have
happened. It’s like a thought appearing from nowhere or from a moment of
enlightenment – a thought that went from not being there to being there – a
sudden unpredictable moment or flash of inspiration. That’s what my friend in his wheelchair in Dublin, gave me.
When you have the insights
and the empathy you gain from taking your own shoes off and being in the shoes
of those you serve, you’re bound to get that inspiration, and only then you’ll
be in the position to put your own shoes back on and take the steps you choose
towards making the world a happier, healthier and better place for us all.