In 1974, in what was formerly a disused taxi-meter factory, a group of artists and designers opened the Paddington Printshop. A print studio that became a model of community activism, it designed and printed posters for local, community needs, often focusing on housing rights, neighbourhood initiatives as well as gigs and festivals.
“We decided to create a space where we could make posters and propaganda for community campaigns and festivals – a space where we could work with people in a very collaborative way,” says John Phillips, artist, photographer, printmaker and co-founder of the Paddington Printshop. “It was also the beginning of what you would call community art – a movement in the 70s that tried to take art activities out of galleries and into everyday environments.”
A hub of creativity, anyone could come in to request a poster, although “nothing sexist, racist or commercial please!” according to a sign in the window. “We worked with everyone from the vicar to the local anarchists, everybody wanted to promote their cause or publicise their event,” says Phillips. For Phillips, printing was always about the people he got to work with. “I was very interested in being able to help people affect positive change in their communities,” he says. “Print was a means to do that.”
North Paddington, where the 17,000sq ft factory stood, lay on the fringes of Notting Hill, and the preceding decades had left a “unique combination of deracination, poverty, activism, enterprise, scandal and celebrity”. It meant the Printshop built up a diverse network of people, the majority being socially engaged and keen to impact the local environment in a positive way.
One of the most memorable posters for Phillips was We Are A Little Worried About Our Landlord, a poster that featured a figure in a suit and bowler hat with the claw of a mechanical digger for a head. The poster was part of a successful council tenants campaign, which began in 1986 when Westminster City Council were going to sell 1,000 social housing units to the private sector.
The punchy visuals, bold and varied typography, and thoughtful colour palettes seen in this particular campaign were typical of the posters created by the studio throughout its existence. As young creatives, the designers and artists working on the posters were inspired by design from all over the world. “The posters were definitely Pop inspired,” says Phillips. “As well as influenced by Cuban posters, and lots of Japanese designers such as Tadanori Yokoo.” This eclectic mix is shown in detail in the Posters From Paddington Printshop book that collates together 100 of the Printshop’s posters. Phillips worked with John Morgan Studio and London publisher Four Corners Books to put the book together.
“My role was to just photograph the posters and to write a little bit about it. What was really delightful was to work with John Morgan and Four Corners,” says Phillips. “In terms of poster books, they’ve done a fantastic job, because most books about posters reduce the poster to a kind of leaflet. Whereas what John’s done, by taking fragments and printing them more or less actual size, he gives you a real sense of the scale. It’s a really great achievement.” The book’s thick pages, close crops and the personal tidbits of information provided by Phillips means it’s full of texture and layers, and you can almost smell the inks and paper when flicking through.
Throughout the Printshop’s existence, Phillips was archiving the posters they created, and it’s thanks to him we’re able to pore over many of them in this new book. But did Phillips save everything they made? “The Sex Pistols’ first poster never got archived – it’s probably the most valuable poster that got thrown away!” Laughs Phillips.
Part of the magic of the Printshop is the analogue output of the studio during a time when information moved much slower. Everything was handmade or created with machines that are rarely used today. “I don’t think you could set it up in the same way today,” reflects Phillips. “The way in which we communicate is so radically different and I think you would be setting it all up through social media instead.”
While the internet and social media were just the twinklings of an idea when the Printshop closed in 1988, a major shift in poster culture partly contributed to the Printshop’s end. “There were technological changes, for instance photocopying came in which was much cheaper,” says Phillips. “A whole new generation of people got into photocopying despite it not offering much colour or scale. We carried on for as long as people were asking us to make posters.”
Existing purely for those who needed it epitomises the sentiment behind the Printshop perfectly and Phillips’ desire to inform, educate and inspire others is still present today. “What’s the relevance of these posters? Are they an archive? Or are they an inspiration? I’d like people who go on demonstrations to be inspired by the book, to be stronger in their graphics,” he says. “I think people often have quite witty statements, but it would be great if it influenced some people to make some stronger graphic statements.”
The power of a well-designed poster is dear to Phillips’ heart because of the impact he feels good design can have. “I’m not sure posters necessarily change the world in their own right, but they do contribute to an environment which allows people to raise questions and discuss issues,” he explains. “I think a poster puts you in a position where you have to decide whether you’re for or against it. It helps you clarify your position.”
For Phillips, the Printshop was “very much a product of its time”. Reflecting on these posters more than 30 years later, not only is it a comprehensive archive of some of London’s most vibrant activist posters of the time, it’s also a demonstration of how communities can work together and how design can be used in its purest form, to communicate issues that are important to people.
Posters of Paddington Printshop by John Phillips, published by Four Corners Books, is out now. An exhibition of the posters will be at London Print Studio, as part of London Design Festival; johnphillips.media