Alan Fletcher as pictured in his final book, Picturing and Poeting, £24.95 / € 39.95, Phaidon 2006
The Design Museum was packed out with the great and good (plus CR) last night for the official opening of Alan Fletcher: Fifty years of graphic work (and play). Given the tragic circumstances, Fletcher having died little more than a month before, the evening was as much celebratory tribute as private view: a chance for the industry to show how much they loved and admired the man. Among those paying homage were Wim Crouwel, Bob Gill and, bizarrely, former quiz show host Bamber Gascoigne (anyone who knows his connection with Fletcher, please enlighten us).
Derek Birdsall gave a touching, if meandering speech and we all left clutching Quentin Newark’s beautiful show guide (the latter features biographical text from the exhibition alongside Peter Wood’s photographs of Fletcher’s gorgeous studio and is almost worth the admission money alone).
Of course the show is great – GTF’s design is respectful and understated while still providing some delightful touches (including a giant 3D Reuters logo) and Emily King cleverly paces the journey through Fletcher’s remarkable career. It’s all there: from the iconoclastic early years, through major corporate work at Pentagram to the exuberance of an independence secured late in life. But as with all great shows, Fletcher’s should be as much about influencing the future as documenting the past. It is the effect that the show will have on those who come to see it that will be as important as the joy of reviewing his triumphs. So here are some thoughts prompted by last night…
That Alan Fletcher had the model design career
Anybody struggling with a career plan couldn’t wish for a better template. In his early years, Fletcher determinedly escaped the parochialism of the times, exposing himself to as many influences as possible. He spent a year teaching English in Barcelona before fixing up his own scholarship at Yale. After working in both LA and New York he did eventually return to London – but only after stop-offs in Venezuela and Milan. When he did get back, he joined with like-minded friends Colin Forbes and Bob Gill to challenge conventions and shape an industry. As Fletcher/Forbes/Gill grew, so did the scale of the work, allowing Fletcher to step away from the margins and influence mainstream cultural life. That tricky middle-age period was tackled by the formation of Pentagram, whose ingenious structure supplied the bang-for-buck of a larger company structure while maintaining the independence so crucial to great work. And when he tired of corporate service, Fletcher was able to retreat to his own studio, working only on those projects that interested him. Perfect.
That we may never see the like again
If, in another fifty years, the Design Museum decides to stage an exhibition of the great graphic designer of the age, what will there be to look at? Perhaps it’s a generational thing but the joy of the Fletcher show for me was in examining physical objects – of being able to see the real thing and not just a facsimile. But with media and, therefore, design becoming increasingly screen-bound, what will the Alan Fletcher of 2056 have to display? Just a whacking great screen? And will there be any point in going to a museum to see it?
That it’s OK to be funny – no, make that witty
Fletcher could be humorous, but, more importantly, he was superbly witty. Wit is to humour what literature is to journalism. Wit endures. Wit can serve any purpose no matter how high or low. There’s been a significant lack of wit in British graphics recently. Mention the book A Smile in the Mind to some designers and they break out in a cold sweat. The book split graphic design down the middle. On the one hand, problem-solvers beloved of cheesy visual puns and tropes. On the other, serious-minded stylists who would sooner use Comic Sans in their work than crack a gag. Fletcher’s work has style but it also has a warm humanity that can speak to anyone and everyone. Hopefully, the show will tempt a new generation of designers to give wit a try.
That being tidy helps
Fletcher’s studio was spotless. More importantly, he was meticulous in storing all the bits of ephemera that featured so prominently in later works. Everything had its place, ready to be brought out when inspiration struck. So being tidy helps do great work. Either that or having one hell of a cleaning lady.
That he was bloody good
See for yourself; it’s a great show.
Alan Fletcher: Fifty years of graphic work (and play) is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 2YD until 18 February 2007