Margaret Calvert in her north London studio with a wittily subverted road sign behind her. Photographed by Steve Speller in 2004.
I recently had the great pleasure of recording an interview for my RDInsights series with the ever-youthful graphic designer Margaret Calvert, who greeted me at her Islington home and studio dressed in a vibrant apple-green fisherman-style smock. At 79, she is still as passionate and excited about design as when she started back in the late 1950s.
Transport Minister Ernest Marples (centre) opening the first stretch of the M1 motorway in 1959.
Jock Kinneir overseeing the prototypes of the motorway signs.
She is most known for the now-iconic British motorway and national road signs, which celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, which she designed in collaboration with the late Jock Kinneir (1917–1994). And yes, you may have noticed that my Graphic Journey banner at the top of this blog pays tribute to Margaret’s work and uses her typeface Transport. This was created for our road network and has recently been digitised to grace the GOV.UK website to great effect.
Margaret's hand drawn version of Transport.
Margaret keeping James May in check on Top Gear
She is a designer with very strong views, as James May discovered to his cost when he took Margaret for a little spin on Top Gear.
A rare Illustration piece from Margaret produced in 1963 for the opera, The Golden Warrior, Shott music publishers.
Identity for fishmongers Burkett and Rudman. The people passing by show just how startlingly modern it must have looked back in 1963.
Baggage labels for the P&O-Orient Line, 1962.
In addition to her long career as a graphic designer, she taught graphics and typography at the Royal College of Art for 27 years, nurturing generations of young designers, many of whom are now internationally known and all of whom have great affection for her. She received the 2015 D&AD President’s Award. This adds to her position as a member of Alliance Graphic International and her honour as a Royal Designer for Industry.
The typeface Calvert used for the Tyne and Wear Metro
Signage system for Heathrow Terminal 4, British Airport Authority, 1967.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked her what was currently exciting her: it turned out to be a new typeface made out of spaghetti. But after I had packed up my recording equipment, she said: “Oh yes, I forgot – the most exciting project I am working on is acting as a type and pictogram consultant for the Moscow Department of Transport.” Along with Scott Williams and Henrik Kubel of A2-Type, she is involved with the signing for the Moscow Metro. This is the perfect project for Margaret, whose work must always have a useful purpose and function.
Moscow Metro pictograms
Above Margaret’s latest passion. Moscow sans being tested on prototype maps currently installed in Moscow Metro and soon to implemented along with the signage programme across all stations. See full design credit at the foot of page.
As you will hear in this interview, it was sometimes tricky to get a word in when Margaret was on a roll. And she told me that she hated being interviewed. Not a bit of it.
Moscow Sans. A custom font in four grades plus a set of 40+ unique pictograms created exclusively for Moscow Department of Transport.
Art directed and designed by A2–TYPE, Scott Williams & Henrik Kubel with Margaret Calvert as type and pictogram consultant. Cyrillic script designed in collaboration with Ilya Ruderman. Commissioned by City ID and Moscow Department of Transport, DOT. Product design by Billings Jackson Design.
Back in 1967, I was working for an American design consultancy that had set up shop in London.
This book was produced while I was there. Roger Harris, who had just joined us, designed it.
It was about the contemporary interior design of the period, and Roger produced the whole book on a classic Swiss grid system of verticals and horizontals, except, that is, for the cover, where he introduced a curve to reflect the very curvy furniture that populated the book and a more general change in the air for graphics.
A very curvaceousSophia Loren in The Millionairess 1960, directed by Anthony Asquith
In fact, the ’60s and early ’70s were all about the reintroduction of the curve in graphics, furniture, architecture, textiles, shop fronts, typography, wallpaper, restaurants, lighting, magazines and film stars (yes, even they were more curvy back then), and there was even a revolving restaurant at the very top of the Post Office Tower below (now called the BT Tower), at which I was taken to lunch.
Many of the concrete brutalist buildings constructed during the 1960s were often softened by the occasional curve. This one, a multi-storey car park in Gateshead, was made famous in the crime film Get Carter but, like so many of these inhuman structures, has now been demolished, along with the many hastily built high-rise flats that alienated so many of the people that had to live in them.
The car park in Gateshead made famous in the crime film Get Carter.
Below the Barbican Centre opened in 1982 designed by Chamberlin Powell and Bon.
Shopfront for the Chelsea Drug Store on Kings Road 1970.
The Kineta Holiday home designed by Alexandros Tombazis 1968
The Queen Elizabeth Hall's curved doors at the Southbank Centre arts complex opened in 1967
Oliver Mourgue's chairs used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey 1968
Joe Colombo's Universal chair 1965.
The TWA Terminal JFK designed by Eero Saarinen 1962
Arco lamp designed by Achilli and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni for Flos 1962.
Eero Saarinen seated in his Tulip arm chair 1956 and to the right his classic Womb chair 1947/8
The Dress Circle restaurant at Harrods 1968.
Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir’s now much-celebrated British road signs, conceived in the late ’50s and introduced nationwide in 1965, have lovely curved corners.
Biba packaging logo designed by Antony Little (1966)
Graphic for the Time & Place night club design by Bentley Farrell Burnett 1969
The influence of art deco and art nouveau filtering from the US was beginning to corrupt the hold that the hard-edged clinical modernist principles had on British graphics, perhaps with the added influence that the increasing use of LSD was having in changing visual perception at the time into a kaleidoscopic wonder world of possibilities. Whatever it was, the curve was finding its way into fabrics, wallpapers, shop fronts and restaurants. Let’s take a look.
Design magazine cover by Bentley Farrell Burnett 1970
Rubber Soul abum by The Beatles 1965 with hand lettering by Charles Front
Mary Quant in Honey magazine in 1965
Chaise Longue designed by Geoffrey Harcourt 1970.
Fabrics designed by Barbara Brown 1965 (top) and 1967.
The first Pirelli Calendar designed by Derek Birdsall 1968.
Massimo Vignelli’s perpetual calendar designed in 1980
Derek Birdsall designed this first Pirelli calendar in 1968, which seemed to sync with Massimo Vignelli’s later perpetual calendar designed in 1980 and still in use in many studios and homes today, including mine. But wind back to 1959 and Willy Fleckhaus, art director of the legendary magazine Twen,often used curved borders to contain photographs and illustrations. A little later, Harri Peccinotti echoed Twen’s look on the very first Nova cover.
Twen magazine art directed by Willy Fleckhaus 1965
Illustration by Heinz Edelmann for Twen 1965
The first edition on Nova magazine 1965 art directed by Harri Peccinotti
Kartell storage units 1965
In 1965, the Italian company Kartell introduced a myriad of plastic products in primary colours employing the curve.
The Olivetti Valentine portable typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass with Perry King in 1969
The Brionvega TS502 in 1962 and the radio designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper
Chromed Tubular Metal and leather Sling Chair for OMK designed by Rodney Kinsman 1967.
The 620 Chair Programme designed by Dieter Rams in 1962 and recently reintroduced by Vitsoe in the UK.
Moonstrips Empire News created by Eduardo Paolozzi 1967.
Table lighter designed by Dieter Rams in 1968 for Braun
Interior details at the Barbican Centre 1982
Joe Colombo Table Lamp 1964
And I’ve noticed in recent years the curve has returned to grace many furniture and product designs…
Flos table lamp Barber Osgerby 2011
Jasper Morrison Glo-Ball 1999
Portsmouth furniture range by Barber Osgerby 2000
Lunar range by Barber Osgerby
Loop table by Barber Osgerby
Parcs office range for Bene designed by Pearson Lloyd
I could have gone on and on but I won't, you get the idea.
While rummaging through my books, I came upon the above 1947 copy of Alphabet & Image. It was the magazine on typography and graphic arts of the post-war period.
Just a few months back, I wrote a piece for the Royal College of Art on graphics from 1948, and it was exactly this approach to design that was the norm at the RCA at that time. But as new postgraduate students arrived from various colleges, particularly those from the Central School of Art (which was leading the way in a modernist approach to graphic design teaching), things began to change. And it was this modernist practice that eventually broke through to become the staple in the world of graphics and still generally prevails today.
Of course, there have been other movements that have momentarily captured the limelight: punk, Dutch, post-modern and even classicism. But over the last decade, there has been an interesting re-assessment of those early graphic teachings at the RCA, which at the time rigidly embraced the handcrafted areas of book binding, lettering, engraving, print making and traditional Victorian-based typography, especially the more decorative kind.
Looking at the magazine featured above, there is an enormous charm and joyfulness in its presentation – two words that you couldn’t really use when describing the stark Swiss modernist approach, with its prefabricated system of grids and disciplines.
A 20th century example of a Swiss inspired prefabricated system design by the eminent Dutch graphic designer Wim Crowell
A 21st century example of pre modernist principles by the highly versatile British graphic designer David Pearson
For me, being limited to one stylistic approach is, well, pretty damn boring, while embracing a wider range of possibilities is far more enjoyable, stimulating and surprising.
To read the Royal College of Art post war piece click here