If you are at all interested in magazines – or popular culture for that matter – you probably know something of the story of The Face already. But for the complete picture, here’s Paul Gorman with a definitive, 352-page, ‘finally someone’s done it’, blockbuster book charting the rise and fall of “the magazine that changed culture”. It’s all here – from its seat-of-the-pants beginnings as its inspirational founder Nick Logan (ex-NME and Smash Hits) invested his family’s life-savings in an idea Emap were too slow to back him up on, its 80s heyday as the Brody-designed arbiter of all that was cool, through the image-led 90s and its embrace of acid house, to its messy demise.
Gorman takes a chronological approach that is highly readable: imagine a print version of one of those BBC4 music documentaries. Most of the major players in the narrative are here, though in the case of Logan in particular, much of the direct quotation comes from earlier interviews by the author (not that it particularly matters). Designers may also be disappointed that there is no new interview with Neville Brody about his contribution, but that does not mean that he is overlooked.
As Gorman explains, the first issues of The Face were put together by Logan himself and Smash Hits art director Steve Bush. Logan knew Brody and began to bring him in to work on The Face but it was the March 1982 issue (number 23), and in particular his treatment of an interview with Kraftwerk, where his ideas began to crystallise (as Rick Poynor noted in his 2003 book, No More Rules).
Gorman’s commentary and the observations of those who were there as the early 80s issues went to press, highlight Brody’s virtuosity. Driven by a desire to protect The Face’s distinctive look and what comes across as a seething resentment at being “ripped off” by other designers, Brody soon reverted to creating his own typefaces using the manual tools of the time. “Neville could draw a typeface in a day, it was extraordinary,” remembers Robin Derrick, who worked with Brody as his designer before departing for the more glamorous surroundings of Italian Elle and then Vogue.
Brody himself is quoted from a contemporary interview with then-student Julian Morey (now a highly-respected designer in his own right). “The problem I have is that other people are ripping The Face off so much that, if I’m not aware of what is going on, it will look like all the other magazines,” Brody says “…the original reason for designing the type myself was that no one could get hold of it.”
Perhaps the best assessment of Brody’s contribution comes from fellow magazine designer Simon Esterson (then of Blueprint, now co-owner of Eye) who wrote an essay for the April 1988 issue of The Face, coinciding with Brody’s landmark solo show at the V&A, The Graphic Language of Neville Brody. “While many have imitated The Face, thinking its graphic style is somehow key to marketing ‘youth culture’, none succeeded because Brody’s design approach is fragile, held together only by the temperament of its originator,” he wrote. “It’s an individual vocabulary of typefaces, graphic symbols and even illustration, each projecting a combination of emotion, the brief and a bombardment of personal graphic obsessions.”
Gorman’s book, however, does a good job in explaining that excellence in art direction and design at The Face did not stop with Brody. As the magazine grew it relied more heavily on fashion advertising for revenue. Its concurrently growing interest in fashion (or more accurately ‘style’) led to photography taking on an increased importance beyond the moody band shots of the early issues. “The coming years of the magazine’s existence were to witness the primacy of design giving way to that of photography,” Gorman says as Derrick began to bring in the likes of Nick Knight and Mark Lebon to shoot for its pages.
That change only became more marked as Phil Bicker became art director in 1987. “If Brody’s reign at The Face instituted an upheaval of approaches to graphics and typography, Bicker gradually built over time on the associations Derrick had established to introduce an epoch of exposure of fresh styling talent and experimental photography,” Gorman notes.
This was helped by a group of highly influential stylists such as Ray Petri and the rest of the Buffalo collective. New editor Sheryl Garratt successfully transitioned a title that had epitomised the 80s into the new decade with her championing of Acid House and a street scene beyond the cliques of Soho, while Bicker gave a platform to a generation of photographers including Glen Luchford, David Sims and Craig McDean. Garratt and Bicker’s era resulted in one of the magazine’s most memorable covers when, for July 1990, they decided that a young model called Kate Moss should be the face of The Face and ran one of Corinne Day’s seaside portraits of her.
Many of the photographers introduced to The Face by Bicker were soon shooting for the magazine’s advertisers, emphasising its influence on the wider fashion industry. After him, The Face continued to provide a platform for exciting new imagemakers as Lee Swillingham and Stuart Spalding took over the reins and published early work from the likes of Inez and Vinoodh.
Gorman is good on the importance of The Face’s visual contributors, something that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves in books about magazines. In fact the book is visually very strong, mainly because its producers have taken the trouble to photograph spreads from the magazine properly, rather than just running scans or digital layout files. It makes a big difference.
He also doesn’t ignore contemporary criticism of the title, quoting sociologist Dick Hebdige’s essay The Bottom Line of Planet One: Squaring up to the Face in which he argues that, “The Face is hyper-conformist: more commercial than the commercial, more banal than the banal. [It has] flattened everything to the glossy world of the image, and presented its style as content.” Hebdige’s view that the magazine was not only empty of meaning but the product of a bourgeouis elite – “The Face reflects, defines and focuses the concerns of a significant minority of the style- and image-conscious people who are not, on the whole, much interested in party politics, authorised versions of the past and outmoded notions of community” – was one that had considerable currency at the time. Gorman also quotes Frith and Horne’s book Art into Pop, where they note that the Face’s “espousal of political causes [was] problematic for ‘the hip consumer guide of the 80s’, peddling pop Situationsim and pop structuralism as market styles like Levis 501s”.
Nevertheless, under Garratt in particular, the magazine gave a powerful voice to positive attitudes around Aids, race, sexuality and class. Though elitist in the broader sense, the magazine was never the preserve of the privileged or privately educated. And while the Face’s art directors, designers, stylists and photographers are certainly given their due in Gorman’s book, what really comes through is what a team effort producing a great magazine is. Not only do you need a brilliant editor, art director, writers and contributors, you also need understanding and effective ad sales people (which The Face had in Rod Sopp) and a committed, visionary leader which at the Face of course meant Nick Logan.
For creative people there is surely an irresistible romantic appeal in the story of The Face. That it was started by an individual with a passion and a faith in his audience’s appetite for the values we treasure: Good design, good photography, the trust that readers would notice and value better paper stock and perfect binding. That it nurtured the careers of talented creative people and allowed them their freedom. That it mirrored and made the culture of a decade. Even the way in which it finally met its end, when new corporate owners Emap shut it because they couldn’t make it fit their corporate strictures and structures, can be seen as a vindication of its essential independent spirit and of Logan’s unerring adherence to his principles.
The Face was produced from a succession of dingy basements and ex-rag trade workshops by a tiny team of passionate individuals paid very little but given the priceless opportunity to write about what they found interesting. “You could say to Sheryl and Nick, ‘I really want to write about this’ and they would let you go and do just that,” Gorman quotes writer Amy Raphael as saying. At a time when magazines are increasingly led by corporate content strategies and the brutal reality of page views, Gorman’s inspiring book provides an inspiring counter-argument for trusting talented people to do what they do best and believing that there will be an audience for it. Amen to that.
The Story of The Face by Paul Gorman, is published by Thames & Hudson, £34.95