My life with Henrion

As a new book on the work of FHK Henrion is published by Unit Editions, we ask designer Ian Dennis what it was like to work the great man himself

Adrian Shaughnessy’s new book, FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer (Unit Editions), is the first comprehesive monograph on the German-born British designer who moved from civic-minded poster artist to pioneer of corporate identity in the course of his career. Henrion was highly skilled in a wide range of design disciplines, Shaughnessy reveals, from graphics and interiors, to product, exhibition, broadcast and identity design, while maintaining a keen interest in the visual theories of the day. Held at an internment camp when he arrived in Britain from France in 1939, Henrion soon put his poster design skills to good use before embarking on a career that would see his studio producing work for clients including The Festival of Britain, Olivetti, Tate+Lyle, C&A, KLM and Blue Circle Cement. But what was it like to work for him? In 1974, a 24-year old designer Ian Dennis (pictured on right) started work at Henrion’s studio, HDA International. Here, Dennis recalls his time at the company, talks about the work they produced, and offers an insight into Henrion’s unique character.

CR: Can you start by talking through how you came to work for Henrion at HDA International? Where had you worked before?

ID: I started work at HDA in January 1974, when I was just 24. I was married with a four-year old daughter and had just been made redundant from my previous job within days of moving into our new flat.

My first job was with Ken Briggs and Moura-George Briggs. Ken’s work for the National Theatre had made a big impression on me when I saw Volpone at the Old Vic as part of my A-level studies. I still have the programme, and it was one of the things that made me want to be a graphic designer. After graduating in Typography & Graphic Communication from Reading University my second interview was with Ken and he offered me a job. Apart from a dreamed-of job at my heroes, Pentagram – who weren’t hiring, as the economy was starting to go bad – I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

I was commuting to London and doing small freelance jobs in the evenings and weekends to get a mortgage, and all seemed good. Unfortunately a banking meltdown was looming and by December 1973 Ken’s financiers and main client (apart from the National Theatre) – Cedar Holdings – were being closed down by the Bank of England. It was last-in-first-out for me. We moved into our flat on my birthday, Thursday the 13th. On the TV in the corner Ted Heath came on to announce the three-day working week as a response to an oil and coal supply crisis and things were looking grim. Which is where Henrion came to our rescue.

With assistance from Professor Michael Twyman, ‘Henri’ had seen my dissertation on how graphic design emerged as a profession, and in late 1973 had asked me to come and see him in HDA’s Hampstead studio. I think he offered me a job, but I said I was enjoying working for Ken and it was left like that. There was some mention of the competition for the corporate identity for British Airways, which he was hoping (expecting) to win.

Anyway, when I lost my first job I got in touch with Henrion again, and he took me on. This was a kind act, as I think by then the British Airways account had been awarded to Negus & Negus and work was in short supply.

CR: What was your knowledge of Henrion and his work before you started at HDA? And what was it about the work the studio did that appealed to you?

ID: As well as the impact of HDA’s corporate identity work on everyday life, I knew of Henrion from my research for my dissertation. I’d read articles by and about him, and the book by him and Alan Parkin on Corporate Identity.

His reputation amongst designers at the time was deservedly great, but I think there was also a bit of scepticism about the HDA approach and also about the ‘look’ of some of the big identities. Unlike Alan Fletcher and Pentagram’s work, which always had a lightness of touch and an underlying wit, there were times when it seemed like HDA’s solutions were rational but not very ‘gemütlich’. Personally, I hated the BEA logo (but still like KLM, Giro, Colt, Sigma and LEB). The BEA ‘A’ with a vertical right hand stroke is a recurring Henrion theme and one that still grates!

I have to admit I really didn’t want to travel all the way from Reading to Hampstead every day, but that’s what happened for a year or so.

CR: When you arrived at the studio, what were your impressions of Henrion himself – what was he like? David Hyde, who also worked in the studio in the 1970s, has said that in Henrion’s eyes you were “something of a ‘golden boy’.” Is that true?

ID: I’m now older than Henrion was when I first met him. He was charismatic and had an ironic sense of humour – often aimed at himself – but he came from a very different world from me. He was rather like I imagine architects of the period were. He loved his suits, his pipe. He definitely wasn’t rock and roll (and I loved Bob Dylan). 2 3 But he maintained “routine is deadly”. He was kind and astute, but has been described as a bit of a shark. He bought a moped to help me and another Reading-based designer, Paul Kilvert-Jones, get from Paddington to Hampstead, and he was generous with his time to countless students. But he wanted to talk design way into the evenings and the combination of pipe-smoke, [his wife] Marion’s menthol cigarettes and exhaustion in the middle of another rail strike were what made me write a resignation note on the train home one day.

His accent was an amazing artefact, particularly when modulated through his pipe stem. Everyone in the studio would have their favourite strangled phrase and I’m sure they can hear his voice today.

As for the ‘golden boy’, I did get a good degree, and I was confident with words and in the idioms of the Swiss-based typographic design of the times, but I would never have made a living through mark-making in the way the young Henrion did. He did treat me as a bit more than a junior designer from the start and I think Henrion and Marion hoped I would one day take a senior role at HDA.

CR: Can you describe how Henrion would delegate work in the studio? Did you get a sense that the studio was under pressure at the time – i.e. having to scale down staff numbers, or cut production costs?

ID: I think this was changing when I got to HDA. In earlier years I am sure the concepts were passed down from above and the ‘assistants’ did the detailing. When I was there we were, it seemed to me, given more freedom.

I don’t think Henrion was particularly interested in typography, for example (he contrasted himself with Ken Briggs in this). One thing that I think is overplayed is the idea that his solutions were a result of research. I think they were largely from inspiration (“I have my best ideas on the toilet”), and that the research was used – and mis-used – to post-justify them. Henrion was a genius at this. An idea he failed to sell to VW to replace their logo (which I suspect he disliked for its Nazi overtones) was ‘••••’ – four blobs, which echoed the ‘di-di-di-dah’ of the letter ‘V’ in Morse code, to the sound of Beethoven’s 5th. This was repackaged for Beiersdorf to represent its four divisions.

By the time I worked at HDA the strain of running the business in difficult times was taking its toll. The British Airways loss was a big blow to his morale, I think, and mooted mergers with Negus & Negus and Pentagram came to nothing. Negus & Henrion stationery artwork had been prepared before the plug was pulled. I don’t know how many people were crammed into Pond Street at the peak, but there were only a handful of us during my year and a half, and morale seemed low. Spending on presentations was minimised and we certainly weren’t creating the massive design manuals of the previous era. He spoke of entropy and the need to introduce new energy if things weren’t to run down.

CR: We know of your work for the National Theatre, but what other clients did you work for? And who would have been the other main studio competitors for work at the time? Did you ever pitch?

ID: The main clients I worked for were Post Office Telecommunications (a signage system), British Leyland and Weddel. Other designers were working on Beiersdorf, Braun, Lancer Boss, completing the C&A manual and other smaller commissions.

Except in limited competitions, such as British Airways and the National Theatre, pitching was not normal (unlike in the advertising industry). Indeed the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers had rules against advertising, 2 3 speculative pitching and “supplanting other designers”. Henrion was a President of the SIAD. It was just one of the many letters he enjoyed as appendages. British competitors included Pentagram, Banks & Miles, Negus & Negus and Wolff Olins.

CR: The subtitle of Adrian Shaughnessy’s new book is ‘the complete designer’ – a reference to Henrion’s range of skills in various aspects of design (graphics, interiors, products and more), let alone his abilities as a thinker and teacher. Is that a description you would have thought as fitting at the time?

ID: Absolutely, though he was acting more as a businessman and a figurehead for the profession by the 1970s. At heart though he was a genius driven by creating – creating anything, anytime, anywhere. I do think of Picasso when looking for parallels.

CR: Can you sum up what you took from your experience at the studio? What did Henrion teach you – and how did having worked there affect your career?

ID: Difficult this. I was certainly put off the idea of creating a massive design studio, and I was determined to keep space for other interests (family, music, various sports) rather than be obsessed by design. I was made suspicious of creating design systems (and the manuals that went with them) which tried to anticipate, illustrate and constrain future requirements – at a very basic level, if you set up a space for an address do you wreck the balance of 99% of letterheads to allow for the 1% that don’t fit? I did make later use of Henrion’s trick of formulating a brief which fits your instinctive feeling for what the design should be, then ‘proving’ your proposals are the only possible solution by recapping the criteria and ticking off the points. Sometimes it even worked.

CR: Finally, what for you is Henrion’s legacy? What aspects of the way that he worked are still relevant to the way that designers work today? Are there any lessons that the industry could take from his approach?

ID: Henrion’s legacy, for good or ill, are all the major design companies which (knowingly or not) followed his lead, and the many students and assistants who are still earning a living in design. His quest to make design a profession has been undercut by modern technology, which I think has turned many of us back to ‘commercial artists’. Hopefully Adrian’s book will become required reading for design students and provide them with insights into how modern graphic design came about, and where pioneers like Henri played their part.

Another refugee from Nazi Germany, Ernest Hoch, used this quotation from George Bernard Shaw in one of his student briefs: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
I see Henri-one in the first part. Henri-two in the second part. I’m glad to have learned from both of them.


Ian Dennis is founder and director of Indent Design in Reading. See All spreads shown are taken from FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer by Adrian Shaughnessy, published by Unit Editions; £65. More details at Editors: Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy. Design director: Tony Brook. Senior designer: Claudia Klat. Designer: Sarah Schrauwen. Design assistants: Victor Balko, Roos Gortworst. Archive photography: Sarah Schrauwen

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