Why Not Associates, thirty years on

The design studio celebrates its 30th birthday with the most comprehensive exhibition of its work to date, opening at Sheffield Institute of Arts

Andy Altmann, David Ellis and Howard Greenhalgh met at the Royal College of Art. Upon graduation in 1987, they formed Why Not Associates.

Why Not Associates
David Ellis’s Vote Labour poster, produced using tiled, photocopied images while still at the RCA in 1987

This was a time of great change in graphic design as the Apple Mac first began to make its presence felt. But the trio had cut their teeth in an earlier time of acetate and fax machines. Their priority when setting up their first studio in London’s Archer Street? A darkroom. Their biggest investment? The best black and white photocopier money could buy. This was a practice built on experimentation and collaboration – with light and shadow, with technology, with materials, and often with photographer Rocco Redondo. A place where there was still room for the ‘happy accident’.

Experimental photography for Branson Coates Architecture identity, 1989. Photography: Rocco Redondo

This attitude is suggested by the studio name itself. The story goes that a fellow RCA student, in his thesis on Bob Gill, compared the rigour of the great ‘ideas-based’ designers of the 60s with the approach of Altmann, Ellis and Greenhalgh. When he asked why they were pursuing a particular method of working, they once replied ‘why not?’ The name, and the open, ‘let’s make it and see what happens’ approach, stuck.

Cover for Typography Now, Rick Poynor’s highly influential survey of a new wave of typographic expression, Booth-Clibborn, 1989
Cover for the Next Directory mail order catalogue, 1990
Poster for the Royal Academy’s landmark YBA show Sensation, 1997

Thirty years later, the studio (now run by Altmann and Ellis after Greenhalgh left in 1993 to pursue a directing career) remains as committed as ever to this love of making and doing.

From a series of Typographic Trees located within Crawley Library, Sussex, one of a number of WNA
collaborations with artist Gordon Young

Perhaps its most high-profile project to date, the Comedy Carpet collaboration with artist Gordon Young, required 160,000 letters to be made out of 30mm solid granite and cast into hundreds of concrete panels. A former fish processing factory in Hull was converted by Young into a bespoke factory in order to handle the volume of work required. There was cutting and fettling, curing, grinding and polishing. It was public art as heavy industry – or heavy industry as public art.

Members of the public walk across the Comedy Carpet, a work of art by Gordon Young designed in collaboration with Why Not Associates, at the foot of Blackpool Tower
Working on the Comedy Carpet

For Why Not, such a process is often as interesting as its result. Their work will now get its biggest ever UK show – a retrospective at Sheffield Institute of Arts’ Post Hall Gallery opening on November 25.

The show runs until December 22. Details here

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