The graphic design of Richard Hollis
In a time of revolution (1789), the ‘art and life’ question was resolved. A harmonious settlement was imagined: all the departments of life in mutual consort. The years started again from zero, the calendar was rewritten
by a poet. ‘Design’ came later, after another revolution (1917). Then again there was a dream of utopian fusion. It was to be art in life, life in art. But the mixture curdled, and ‘design’ separated out into a token of other values.
In a recent conversation, the graphic designer Richard Hollis touched on the origins of his trade:
‘I hadn’t realised that artists made graphic design. It was a profession constructed by the social and political aspirations of Dadaist artists.‘1 Maybe that fusion could only work for one generation: artists like Kurt Schwitters, Max Bill, Anton Stankowski or Herbert Matter, who in various ways were also learning-as-they-went graphic designers. But the emergence of design has been a slow and indistinct process, and for designers of Hollis’s generation - now in their 50s and 60s - there was still some fruitful ambiguity when they started out. His own beginnings were in art school, interrupted by National Service. Then he got into making silkscreen prints (for other artists), into posters, into graphics and typography. At that time it could still be assumed that a designer would do everything: for a play, he once did the stage set, the poster and the programme. Richard Hollis now sometimes calls himself just a typographer. He is that - one of the best - but a typographer whose work carries a full consciousness of form, colour and the things that painters know about.
As well as this now instinctive connection to free visual production, there is another level of richness in this work. Hollis has stayed aboard the troubled, bumpy ride of modernism. He recognised the rigidities and stupid formalism that set in during the 60s, when the grid became god, and when this ‘ism’ got its dirty name as a monolithic and authoritarian creed. From the late 60s, surprising things began to happen in his work. Forgetting the doctrine of asymmetry, elements sometimes found themselves centred; the ‘large indent’ of the first line of text became a persistently tested device; letterforms unsanctioned by modernist good taste began to appear. But all of these things were done for reasons, in ways that could be discussed and explained. I would see this change in his work as a pursuit of the best ideals of the modern movement: openness, accessibility, freedom, experiment. It is a dialogic approach. The client becomes a partner in the design process. The materials to be designed - texts and images - are respected and read, and allowed to find forms that are good for them, and good for private and public use. By contrast, the obscurities of much recent graphic design exhibit an arrogance towards the client and towards the users. Sometimes this feels like a public offence.
Unlike many other designers of his generation - now managers and consultants and heads of departments - Hollis has stayed freelance, and so is still in control of every detail of the work. This too is part of the connection to art, though for him it is no more than the only way to look after a job properly. It causes problems in England, where the lone practitioner has become an almost extinct species. Clients, especially those who may not quite know what they want from a designer, feel more comfortable with a ‘firm’. In the cultural sector in which Hollis has mainly worked, there is a familiar story of a client, after talking with individuals or tiny practices, settling in the end for a large design group. So they get safe, broad-brush design, whose details don’t do much to confirm divine presence.
When one considers the difficulties of living and working in England - this politically antiquated, visually indifferent, class-crippled, low-wage society - it may seem surprising that anything of quality gets done. On the Continent, it is commonly understood that design is of public importance and that one respects and rewards its makers. There, as is not the case in England, it is possible to live as an intelligent freelance graphic designer. Yet some cases have contradicted these circumstances. I would nominate Hollis’s work for the Whitechapel Art Gallery, first when Mark Glazebrook was director (the early 70s) and then with Nicholas Serota (from the late 70s), as two such instances. In fact, the later Whitechapel work seems, now more than ever, to be one of the remarkable cultural contributions of its time and place.
By the time of the second association with the Whitechapel, Hollis was fully into his stride. The bi-monthly information leaflets, especially, showed a beautifully judged control of the elements of graphic design: mostly two-colour printing, often with no black, modulated and expanded through screens or over-printing; words articulated through delicate control over size, style and weight; and what may have been dodgy or disparate images resolved into a larger configuration. The analogies might be with music. It is hard to describe all this without vagueness and pretension - and the work was precise and down-to-earth. But just sit with one of these pieces in your hands: turn the pages, unfold the folds, and you will get the sense of it. Flat reproduction tells a reduced story.
The difficult logic of design for meaning is that, when the meanings change, the design has to change too. Those years at the Whitechapel now look like a rather precarious flourish. The director knew where he wanted to go - and the gallery gained an energy that is more familiar on the Continent or in the USA. But the circumstances were still essentially those of the post-1945 pattern of Arts Council and local authority funding. In 1985, and fully into the period of New Conservatism, the gallery was put into its present sleek white guise and seemed to turn its gaze west to the private and corporate money up the road in the City of London. Hollis was replaced by a young design group who applied what we can now see as the graphics of Thatcherism. Centred, vaguely neo-classical typography, reliance on a prestigious and ill-conceived typeface (Perpetua): a dialectic of power and false gentility that well matched the spirit of its time.
Equally, some of the work that Richard Hollis has done since 1985 has seemed to fall below his own best standards. Fischer Fine Art, for example, could not offer the scope or volume that a major public gallery such as the Whitechapel had demanded. Trying to find a graphic language for this firm, he has seemed to practise - to have been forced into - a default mode of mere competence. His posters and catalogues for the Crafts Council and the Barbican Art Gallery have been variable - in response to variable content and to the shifting directions of those institutions. And there has certainly been something in the climate of the times that has made good work difficult. In the end, designers cannot be better than the body that commissions the work: one thinks of those elaborate, complex jobs for mundane requirements that are witnesses only of mismatch.
In the last few years, Hollis has been writing a short history of graphic design for Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series: repaying debts to his teachers, following a perhaps unconscious need ‘to go back and find out where we were’. He won’t, of course, mention his own work. So let me offer a few sentences for the consideration of future historians.
Some distinct phases emerge. First the heroic years - late 50s and early 60s - when Hollis was among those finding out what graphic design was, and whether Manhattan and Basel could come to London. Then around 1968 and afterwards, when his work gathered some political energy: Hollis was among a number (Robin Fior, Ken Campbell, David King were others here) who worked for the socialist publisher Pluto Press and other left or libertarian groups. This was also the period of the turn towards a richer, more various and subtle approach, as exemplified in his work of the early 1980s for the Whitechapel.
And now? In a previous brief article on this work, in 1988, I postulated that design direction for a book-publisher would provide fitting work for him. But added, ‘at present, it is unlikely to be an English-language firm.‘2 One of his current jobs, for a publisher in Berlin, suggests that this observation might have some truth in it. Certainly the recent moves towards political integration in Europe begin to make this idea more possible. And certainly now I think of Richard Hollis in the company of a little band of typographers in Europe: Karel Martens and Walter Nikkels in the Netherlands, Jost Hochuli in Switzerland, Bruno Monguzzi in Switzerland and Italy, Jean Widmer in France. They have travelled with modernism critically, stuck with it, rediscovered its life, enriched the vocabulary. One could go on with the list, but this may be enough to indicate that such work doesn’t bring celebrity: part of its attraction too.
1. ‘Conversation with Richard Hollis on graphic design history’, Journal of Design History, vol.5, no.1, 1992.
2. ‘The new tradition’, Blueprint, no.46, April 1988.
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