Truly surprising graphic design books appear less frequently than one might expect. A large part of the reason is that mainstream design book publishers with big offices and teams end up publishing books they believe to have wide, obvious, commercial appeal (of course it doesn’t always work out like that). It’s odd because self-respecting designers will usually insist that they crave the unexpected. In recent years, small designer-led publishers such as Unit Editions and Occasional Papers have responded to this unserved demand by publishing graphic design books that steer clear of the beaten path. In Britain, the pioneer of this kind of committed design publishing is Hyphen Press, founded in 1980 by writer, editor and designer Robin Kinross.
Hyphen’s latest title extends the list of mainly typographic subjects the publisher has made its own by focusing on Anarchy, a 1960s journal that has never until now figured very large, if at all, in accounts of the era’s graphic design. Autonomy: The Cover Designs of Anarchy 1961-1970, edited by Daniel Poyner – different spelling; no relation – reproduces all 118 of the monthly journal’s covers, showing them at actual size across double-page spreads. Poyner contributes a short introduction and an interview with Rufus Segar, who was responsible for more than 100 of the covers. (The interview is an expanded version of a text first published in 2010 in issue 1 of Signal, a journal of political graphics, which is highly recommended.) A new illustrated essay by Richard Hollis focuses on design and production and the book also reprints an excellent overview of Anarchy’s political philosophy, stance and attitude by the social historian Raphael Samuel.
For Samuel, Anarchy “represented better than any other publication the cultural revolution of the 1960s; and it did so far earlier than anyone else and … more thoughtfully”. Since the 19th century, the word ‘anarchism’ has held deeply negative connotations, suggesting hollow-eyed bomb throwers pledged to violent disorder. But anarchism’s rejection of controlling authority, its commitment to self-determination and faith in people’s ability to help themselves and organise fair, open networks and structures, are peaceful and rational, if perhaps unrealistic to more cynical minds. Anarchy’s goal under its founding editor Colin Ward was “applied anarchism” – the phrase crops up on an early cover. Samuel notes that “philosophically minded, practical people” were at the heart of Anarchy’s group of writers and that appealing description also captures the spirit of Kinross’s press, as well as suggesting the kind of reader Hyphen’s books tend to attract.
As a magazine, Anarchy practised what it espoused. Ward published the submissions he received with little editorial intervention and he extended the same freedom to Segar – the two rarely met. The designer came up with the cover and the block-maker sent a proof to the editor, who always approved it. It sounds like Ward, who had a job and edited Anarchy on the side, was happy to have the task taken care of. Only once did the process go awry, in 1969, when Segar sent a proof to the author of a piece about the radical sexual ideas of the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. The writer objected to Segar’s humorously sexy image and threatened to withdraw his article. Issue 105 of the journal went out with a plain typographic cover, the most austere and unalluring in its nine-year history.
Seen from a design purist’s point of view, Anarchy’s covers were all over the place. (The pages inside were booklike with occasional illustrations.) Hollis observes with perhaps a smidgen of designerly unease that, “it is hard to discern any consistent patterns in the deployment of drawings or photographs”. That also applies to the cover typography and it’s exactly how Segar wanted it to be: “Each one different. I saw no reason why they should be the same.” The non-doctrinaire vitality of Segar’s designs, their avoidance of consistency or anything resembling a graphic system, is entirely in keeping with Anarchy’s philosophy and aims.
While most covers have charm as well as being vivid glimpses of their era, Segar is the first to admit that the quality of these rapidly produced designs is variable. Until issue 59 they were printed on yellow paper, usually in red and black – the green and black of issue 41, devoted to the land, is an exception and one of Segar’s best covers. The early covers inevitably look most dated now. In one of the strongest, Segar expresses the idea of disobedience by confronting ranks of black arrows with a single red contrarian pointing the other way. He trained as an illustrator and there are several wraparound drawings in a sketchy but densely hatched style, including a condensed electro-mechanical panorama of the contemporary workplace that throws in a couple of then new Daleks for good measure.
The standout covers achieve a satisfying relationship of front and back. The libertarian psychiatry issue in 1966 has two big blue heads like chess pawns reduced to baleful eyes and a wide-open (screaming?) mouth, a brilliantly unnerving image. I’m less taken by Segar’s simpler drawings, which can look a bit cheerfully cartoonish, but the jumble of hand-drawn rose-tinted spectacles for the ‘How realistic is anarchism?’ issue in 1967 is another perfectly executed illustrative idea. Segar was on great form during the momentous social changes of the ‘high 60s’ years. With the later black and white covers he seems to lose his enthusiasm and his touch. Anarchy 113 in 1970 has a collage of bare-breasted women trapped (but apparently loving it) behind prison bars. It might be an early feminist image – women locked into the sexual identity that society foists on them – but without a cover line who can tell?
Autonomy doesn’t try to present Segar as some great innovator of graphic design. He wasn’t one and makes no claim to be. What the book sets out to do, and it succeeds magnificently without visual or verbal hyperbole, is to enrich and add nuance to our understanding of a 1960s graphic landscape we might think we know inside out by acquainting us with unfamiliar work that provided an important forward-thinking publication with its public face. Segar believed in the journal’s cause and 40 years later, he reports, he and his wife Sheila are still anarchists.
Autonomy: The Cover Designs of Anarchy 1961-1970, edited by Daniel Poyner, is published by Hyphen Press; £25. For further details, see hyphenpress.co.uk