While not a household name like his similarly monikered musical contemporary, Clifford Richards did find a certain fame in the late 60s and 70s designing and producing hugely popular printed paper products adorned with brightly coloured graphic illustration. Now much of his output from that era can be found in the V&A’s permanent collection and, as he approaches his 78th birthday, Richards is still creating vibrant graphic illustrations to adorn a wide range of printed products, mostly of his own devising. Yet Richards has never considered himself an illustrator but rather sees himself as an ideas man, a designer with a penchant for applied graphics.
And boy has he had some ideas over the years. In the 60s he re-imagined the Bibendum Michelin Man as a trenchcoat-wearing comic book spy for an ad campaign, he collaborated with Jeff Banks on a Sandie Shaw album cover, designed office spaces for a UK theatre group, created props for Regent Street shop window displays, designed artwork to adorn pottery, and even created a flat-packed, build-it-yourself cardboard and polypropylene clock that was sold through the V&A Museum’s shop.
“I’ve always enjoyed doing the peripheral things in a way,” explains Richards of his continually varied output. “Back in the 60s everyone was really into design groups and ‘proper design’. But I really enjoyed the point-of-sale stuff, the gimmicky bits if you like. The bits with fun ideas.” Perhaps it’s not surprising to learn that Richards began his career in advertising. After studying book illustration at the South East Essex College of Art in Dagenham, Richards landed his first job working on brochures for the Ford Motor Company where no illustration whatsoever was required. “We were dying to use photography in those days because all images of cars used to be painted in advertising and brochures up until that point,” recalls Richards. “So I was doing the layouts and directing the photography,” he continues. “It was all very hands-on, you did the whole thing really, apart from the words, we had a copywriter for that and that’s how it worked.”
As well as dealing with imagery and layouts, Richards soon found he had a knack for coming up with ideas that resonated with his peers. “I did a James Bond-themed catalogue [for Ford] before anyone else had done James Bond stuff – I put a new angle on things,” says Richards. It was this creative flair and originality of approach that led to him being headhunted twice by ad agencies in almost as many years – first by London ad agency SH Benson (where he worked on Guinness) and then by Connell May & Steavenson (CMS).
It was as an art director at CMS that Richards started conjuring up his own ideas for products, the first of which was a series of flat-packed self-assembly gift boxes adorned with bright and colourful graphics. In the run up to Christmas in 1966, The Sunday Times ran a piece on Richards’ gift boxes and the likes of Heals and the then achingly hip Carnaby Street store, Gear, were queuing up to stock them. Richards left his job in advertising to set up his own design studio and a company (All Things Bright & Beautiful) with a London screenprinter to manufacture the boxes. They were a hit in London and beyond, proving to be the kind of disposable ephemera that people found themselves wanting to keep rather than discard.
But rather than become ‘the gift box guy’, Richards had other ideas. Just before Christmas 1967 he launched Slotties, a series of slot-together cardboard animal and character sets that were popular for several years. Not only had Richards created a viable commercial product, he soon found Slotties had potential for wider success. A commission to create large scale Slotties but of political figures of the day for the windows of Austin Reed on London’s Regent Street was forthcoming but that was just the tip of the iceberg. “I then started doing character merchandising for various people,” Richards recalls. “I had a studio then and I oversaw doing slot-together versions for various BBC franchise things such as Magic Roundabout characters. I covered a lot of these things during that particular period.”
Following the success of Slotties, Richards was commissioned to design and brand a range of Polypops products for Paperchase which opened in the late 60s. He even created the original branding for the store. Animal gift boxes for Bloomingdale’s in New York were next on Richards’ to do list.
Almost all of these products were flat-packed card products that people could transform into three-dimensional objects at home. “I’ve always enjoyed making things stand up or applying graphics to objects,” says Richards, “which is what I’m still doing really.”
Of his working process, Richards says that his products are conceived by first “fiddling around” with sheets of paper or card. Once a form is created, then the necessary graphics can be designed. When asked about his illustrative approach, Richards is surprisingly modest. “I’m not really an illustrator at all,” he says, “I kind of cobble things together. I’ve got enough ability to render what I need to get away with it.”
Modesty aside, Richards’ imagery is proving to have an enduring appeal. His Noah’s Ark print, created originally as wrapping paper for Paperchase in the early 70s, is selling well as a print on tin. The artwork was also appropriated a few years ago for an ad campaign in New Zealand. A set of screenprints featuring birds which Richards created in 1972 are also now available to buy through Elphick’s London shop, and the V&A is still encouraging and commissioning Richards to create new art and products for its shop. Meanwhile Richards, now based in Cirencester in Gloucestershire, is the sole designer for The Original Metal Box company (theoriginalmetalbox.com) which produces a range of fun metal cabinets and other products that all exhibit Richards’ bold graphic approach to illustration.
“Ideas are the things I’ve always prided myself on having,” says Richards in summary of his career to date. “A friend of mine says ideas are two-a-penny, and of course they are, but if you can make them work, it’s hugely rewarding and always very interesting.”