I recently visited the Alan Fletcher retrospective exhibition at the Design Museum, along with seemingly every other person of a ‘visual persuasion’ in the South East. I won’t write too much here, as others already have. Save to say that Alan Fletcher is a heroic figure for designers of a certain ilk. Standing for witty, meaningful, playful, multidisciplinary work; essentially British, though internationally focused in terms of sensibility and inspiration; working across the full spectrum of creative work, from corporate to personal, and over whatever technology fits the solution; apparently navigating his way through ‘the model design career‘ over fifty years. The very essence of an interested person.
As a British designer, he represents for me a certain type of character. One of my favourites, in fact. Alongside him, you’d file other key art directors and designers (Helmut Krone, perhaps), some of the 60s architects and engineers (Cedric Price, Archigram et al), some related musicians, artists, photographers, writers, comedians and business people, as well the hugely important influence of the American designers drawn to the London scene of the time (Bob Gill, Robert Brownjohn.) The ‘designer as hero’ ethic is there to some extent in those Pentagram group shots, for sure, but Fletcher’s humane, playful, highly-skilled versatility surpasses that effortlessly, making him a worthy role model for all of us, whatever the trade. They set the bar high, that lot.
The exhibition itself is fabulous. Sometimes, graphic design exhibitions can leave me feeling short-changed, and no real advance on reading a good monograph on the subject. (Indeed, with Fletcher, I generally foist ‘The Art of Looking Sideways’ on designers I manage.) Here though, the presence of the actual output – in posters, models, iconography, letterheads, and about every possible format of printed work – alongside the sketchbooks and highly-organised ephemera he collected, lift the show way beyond a good book. Design Museum shows always feel a little small – because they are – but this one has the detail crammed in, and is already making me consider a second visit.
One thought: I love seeing sketchbooks in shows like these. The design process exposed is one of my favourite things, and then seeing Fletcher’s everyday doodles – which are hardly part of a focused problem-solving solution but part of some wider, life-long creative process – is both insightful and enjoyable. (I loved how his early sketches of street scenes in Barcelona always detailed the graphic design elements in the scene – posters, signs etc. – as much as the people and buildings.) However, the frustrating aspect of sketchbooks in exhibitions is that each hefty book is opened at one particular page and behind glass, which hints at the fuller delights within but inhibits further exploration. I’ve always felt that the British Library-style page-turning CD-ROM in kiosk mode is a fairly unsatisfying, bloodless fascimile, so I’m wondering if this is a possible use for the new screen technologies such as the Sony Reader? It would have the advantage of high-resolution, paper-like finish – which is apparently very impressive in the ‘flesh’; working in a variety of lighting conditions, and providing a form of physicality which, although tethered presumably, would approximate that of a sketchbook. Still a bit bloodless, but at least beginning to be tactile, embodied. Below, a quick sub-Fletcher doodle:
Creative Review’s blog produced a good short summary; Domus magazine, for whom Fletcher contributed some fantastic covers, have a fuller article with images (subscription reqd. – free.) Noisy Decent Graphics has a couple of good related posts. It’s clearly making an impression on generations of designers, exactly as Fletcher’s work, and such an exhibition, should. (See also Michael Bierut’s piece at Designer Observer, after Fletcher died, September of this year.)
Below, a quick series of photos. Credit to the Design Museum for allowing photos, unlike other museums and galleries. Although digital cameras struggle in a busy, dimly-lit gallery space, I hope they give a sense of the content and format of the show.
Design Museum: Alan Fletcher exhibition [until 19 February 2007]
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