Above a student sleep-in at Hornsey College of Art in 1968.
Buckminster Fuller gives a lecture during a sit-in at Hornsey College of Art in 1968.
Back in the 1960s, British student activism came to the fore. The Vietnam War, racism and more-local frustrations (like student fees and representation) rose above the parapet. There were sit-ins, sleep-ins, lock-ins and all manner of demonstrations throughout the ’60s. One far quieter protest came in 1964 from a group of graphic designers, photographers and students, headed by Ken Garland. They put their names to a manifesto entitled ‘First Things First’. It rallied against the consumerist culture. They were frankly appalled by many of their industry colleagues chasing and pandering to the commercial pound. This group of manifesto-waving comrades were more about using their creative skills to better society, rather than damage it. Here is that original manifesto:
In 2000, 36 years on from ‘First Things First’, the cause was taken up again by the Canadian magazine Adbusters; after spotting an article in Eye magazine, they decided to reprint the ‘First Things First’ manifesto. This culminated in the manifesto being updated for the 21st century and another group, once again wanting the creative community to adhere to similar principles, got out their pens and signed it.
They were Jonathan Barnbrook, Nick Bell, Andrew Blauvelt, Hans Bockting, Irma Boom, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Max Bruinsma, Siân Cook, Linda van Deursen, Chris Dixon, William Drenttel, Gert Dumbar, Simon Esterson, Vince Frost, Ken Garland, Milton Glaser, Jessica Helfand, Steven Heller, Andrew Howard, Tibor Kalman Jeffery Keedy, Zuzana Licko, Ellen Lupton, Katherine McCoy, Armand Mevis, J. Abbott Miller, Rick Poynor, Lucienne Roberts, Erik Spiekermann, Jan van Toorn, Teal Triggs, Rudy VanderLans and Bob Wilkinson. It was then co-published by Adbusters, Emigre and the AIGA Journal in North America and by Eye and Blueprint in Britain, with further connections in the Netherlands and Form in Germany.
Now we are 17 years into the 21st century and it is clear that many of the concerns of that little 1964 band of brothers (and sisters) have been proved right in their fears of the state of Britain. We are an obese, hyperactive, commercially obsessed society. The digital age has disrupted virtually every area of our daily lives. The design community has mushroomed out of all proportion to the extent that for every designer with a moral compass in harmony with ‘First Things First’ and with the desire to benefit society, there are far more who are happy and hungry enough to use their skills to help to peddle useless crap by designing packaging to encourage children to eat and drink products overfilled with sugar, salt and fat, helping to make Britain and increasingly obese and unhealthy society. Ironically, many of the design presentations of this never-ending parade of products are featured on the Design Week website, often as exemplars of creativity, without one word of criticism.
More sinisterly, every Internet search we make is being tracked and the information sold to advertisers, which in turn will relentlessly target us to buy, buy, buy. This was far from the imaginings of Ken Garland and Co. back in 1964. It would have seemed like an unbelievable world of horrific science fiction.
I’ve often wondered how many of those original (sadly, some no longer with us) 1964 signatories, and the later 2000 group, have adhered to the promise they all signed up to, steering well clear of promoting commercial ‘striped toothpaste’, cat food, stomach powders, etc., along with all those other areas the manifesto so bitterly despised. It would seem that of all of them, Ken Garland clearly has.
If you have any views on this do drop me a comment.
Very sad news to hear of the death of the wonderful American graphic designer Ivan Chemanyeff. I am reposting this from 2009, along with a recorded interview that I made with Ivan in 2007 and is at the foot of this post.
For most getting well bedded into their seventh decade usually means endless hours on the golf course or maybe embracing that elusive creative hobby. Perhaps cat-napping during the long winter’s afternoons or simply gazing out of the window, watching passers-by while a blanket of melancholic memories descends.
Unless that is, you happen to be a graphic designer. There’s no time for all that reflective stuff. You’re on the best playground there is and you’re not ready to leave it unless the hand of fate points it’s ugly little finger.
When I think of all the graphic designers that I have truly admired, all worked, or are still working, well into their seventies - David Gentleman, Michael Wolff, Derek Birdsall, Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, as did the late great Alan Fletcher, Paul Rand and Saul Bass.
Ivan Chermyeff is another seventysomething who shows no sign of slowing down, and in town next week to give a D&AD President’s Lecture.
As a young graphic designer in the 1960’s I had my little collection of flagged books, tearsheets and stolen book covers all featuring the designers I wanted to emulate. Chermayeff’s stunningly simple book covers, always invested with a solid idea, were a prime target on my scouting trips. I still love them.
The Churchill Years. Poster for PBS Television
Perhaps a surprise to many is that fact that this very New York based icon of the graphic world was in fact born here in London of an English mother and Russian father – the distinguished architect Serge Chermayeff who, together with the German architect Eric Mendelsohn, formed their own architectural practice which creating some key works in the British Modernist movement, most notably the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex.
De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex.
So with such an enriching creative backdrop, it was inevitable that the right hemisphere of young Chermyaff’s brain would be highly developed. With the aid of four Moholy-Nagy scholarships, he attended Harvard University in the US, the Institute of Design Yale, after which Chermayeff was ready to be unleashed on the creative world. He first worked as an assistant at to Alvin Lustig at Columbia Records, before setting up as a freelance designer and starting a spell of teaching.
3-dimensional signage for the New York subway
In 1957, along with Robert Brownjohn (who defied the rules of this article by departing prematurely), and Thomas Geismar, he founded one of the earliest multidisciplinary design groups in New York, and they have since worked under various versions of the Chermayeff and Geismar. They quickly rose to fame following the creation of their identities for Chase Manhattan Bank and NBC (below).
Over the years a constant diet of corporate, social, entertainment and three- dimensional projects have kept them to the fore.
But, the wonderful thing about signature designers is the need to express themselves beyond the confines of large corporate projects. Chermayeff has constantly managed to reveal his individuality through a body of clearly identifiable work, when others have sometimes disappeared within the structure of a large design group. His characteristic handwriting and brightly colour collages still convey a fantastic sense of freedom and joy – witness the tranche of illustration work he created for Mothercare last year.
Sculpture for Mobil
His giant free-standing number‘9’ (above) for the Solow Building on West 57th Street, created in 1980, is still one of New York's most recognized landmarks. In conjunction with long-standing and enlightened client Mobil, Chermayeff produced a stunning body of work for the company’s various sponsorships, most notably PBS Television, which spawned a treasure trove of beautiful posters. And his personal work can be found in the many illustrated children’s books he has given birth to.
The late graphic designer Henry Wolf, A contemporary of Chermayeff, said of him, in affectionate admiration, “If I didn’t like him so much, the temptation to burn his studio down might become irresistible”
Chermayeff has reached that point in his life where he has won everything and received every accolade, including being made an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts. He’s in all of the ‘halls of fame’ and his mantelpiece must groan under the strain of all the glittering hardware.
But I suspect that he likes nothing better than to roll up his sleeves, pick up a pencil, surround himself with colour, and enter into that magical world that is graphic design, ever faithful, absorbing and always rewarding. (below collage work)
Keep doing it Ivan, it gives us much pleasure. (Sadly no more).
Mike Dempsey Copyright 2007
To hear my interview with Ivan Chermayeff click here.