Adrian Shaughnessy’s new book on the designer FHK Henrion offers a detailed look at the work of a seminal figure who shifted from civic-minded poster artist to pioneer of corporate identity during his long career. We talk to Shaughnessy about Henrion’s reputation and why his name perhaps isn’t as widely known as it should be…
“He had everything; he was the complete designer,” Shaughnessy says of Henrion as soon as we start our conversation. Aside from being the subtitle of his monograph on the late German-born British designer, it’s clear that the sheer range of Henrion’s interests – “from exhibition and interior design, products, through to semiotics in the 1980s” – is what continued to beguile Shaughnessy as he compiled FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer for Unit Editions.
“When you study him, nobody came close,” he says. “He could have been an architect, an interior designer – and he knew about things such as perception theory long before it was fashionable, he’d studied all that. He was trained in a poster studio, he was well read and then became a part of the intellectual set”.
In 1939, Henrion left France, where for one year he had studied at one of the best art schools in Paris, the Ecole Paul Colin, and came to Britain. He was held in internment camps on the Isle of Man and in Shropshire and released in 1940 in order to work for the Ministry of Information on war posters (he was 22). His first job was a poster for the Post Office Savings Bank.
In London, Henrion also worked for the United States Office of War Information (OWI), and by 1944 headed a team of 15 designers working on US war propaganda. In addition to his poster work, he also began to work on commercial projects during this time: he designed covers for Harper’s Bazaar, for example, and also acted as a consultant art director to Crawford Advertising agency. He then moved into exhibition design, most notably creating two large-scale exhibitions for the Festival of Britain in 1951.
“But he’s different from Abram Games or Edward McKnight-Kauffer in that, in the 1960s, he went modern,” says Shaughnessy. “He realised that one could make a living from corporate identity. He rationalised the system of design, threw out the ‘house style’ and invented corporate identity in Europe. Total Design [in Amsterdam] thought ‘Hang on, how come KLM is going to this British guy?'”
Shaughnessy believes that at his core, however, Henrion possessed a radical spirit – and so, in time, the very systemisation that he had helped to pioneer began to have limited appeal.
“A strange thing happened,” says Shaughessy. “Because everyone else had learned this systematic, rationalised approach to design – a Henrion discipline – he rejected it. At heart he was a radical, he was opposed to the ‘over-professionalisation’ of design. With some design groups, he wondered why their motive was profit, not design.”
Shaughnessy’s book contains an impressive selection of Henrion’s work, much of which is held at the University of Brighton’s Design Archives. From Henrion’s early poster commissions, it moves through his work in exhibitions and products, into corporate identity design, and also examines his interests in visual theory.
“He was also one of the very first graphic designers to think about design for broadcast [and] TV design,” Shaughnessy adds. “There’s a brilliant paper given to the Royal Society, when he was invited by Lord Clark of [the programme] Civilisation. In the 1950s, [Henrion’s] theory was that if you were a ‘visual person’ this was a medium that you had to be part of. There were theories about how to present information and he was complaining that TV work was already being carried out and that designers would have to get in there fast, or it would go to other disciplines.”
As well as a detailed life of Henrion as he gradually moves between these disciplines (and into education), there are some lovely personal details in the book, such as the airbrush gun ‘rivalry’ that Henrion had with Abram Games, who highly skilled at using the tool.
Meeting for lunch one day, Henrion apparently complained that his gun wasn’t working properly, so Games offered to look at it for him next time they met. Having done so, the gun was returned to Henrion with a note from Games – “There is nothing wrong with this air gun” – written in pencil-thin, airbrushed lettering. Henrion, still unable to work sufficiently with it, confessed airbrushing just wasn’t something he was ever going to master.
But it is Henrion’s work on big corporate projects that is documented most extensively in the central section of the book. Studies of identities for Tate+Lyle, C&A, Courage, KLM, LEB (London Electricity Board) and Blue Circle Cement all benefit from the range of archive material that is reproduced.
There are 544 pages here, yet the question remains: Why has it taken so long to finally bring Henrion’s work together in this way?
“Why is he under-represented?” says Shaughnessy. “Well, he’s known for the wartime posters, and there’s a cult around that, but you can’t quite believe it’s the same person who designed the LEB work, for example; it’s fantastic. Yet he was also really interested in Gestalt theory, in additional meanings – and few people have done it as well as him. Look at the old-fashioned posters and then at the work for Blue Cement: he’s liked by two camps who don’t really get on.”
So in having a hand in these distinctive fields, Henrion’s support has perhaps suffered over the years by being divided as well. “He’s almost two people. He did exhibition design, he did jewellery. He died in 1990 and a lot has happened since then, so I think he just got sidelined,” Shaughnessy says.
“But when you look at his work and you see multiple faces – really, it’s only two. That’s why he’s a genius. And I became enchanted with him.”
FHK Henrion: The Complete Designer is published as a hardback book with foiled slipcase by Unit Editions; £65. 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. See uniteditions.com