Richard Hollis: A Concise History

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Gallery Libby Sellers, 41-42 Berners Street, London, presents the first retrospective of the British graphic designer Richard Hollis, curated by Emily King, drawn from Hollis’ own extensive archive. 23 March – 28 April 2012. Among other things, including his books on graphic design history, Hollis is known by his cover for Ways of Seeing by John Berger, now celebrating is 40th year in print. The Richard Hollis exhibition will consist of roughly 200 items that reflect Hollis’ entire professional life, including his travels in the 1950s and 60s to Cuba, Zurich and Paris, his part in founding a new art school in Bristol in 1964, his role in the design of radical politics in the 1960s and 70s and his career-long investigation of the graphic design of culture. Emerging architect Simon Jones was commissioned to design the exhibition and Sara de Bondt designed the accompanying exhibition guide. (The exhibit is generously supported by the Richard Hollis Circle of Friends.*) Being an admirer, who sadly will not get to the UK in time, I asked Hollis to talk about this show.

Would you call this exhibition a landmark? And in your terms what makes it so? Only a landmark in saying, “Now’s the time to retire.” There are so many good designers – not of instructions on how to assemble flat-pack furniture – but in general so many good designers, so the oldies should sit back, listen to music and read poetry or re-read Proust (or whatever).

After all these years, from your roots in the 60s as a political designer to the present, is there something in your collected works that stands the test of time, more than any other? I’d like to think it was the book Hazards of Work. It tried to help deal with a much-ignored problem – avoidable industrial accidents. And it tried to use a typographic vernacular – that of popular newspapers – which was familiar to the book’s users.

Tell me why? It stands the test of time in retrospect, because it hasn’t been replaced by a book from the government’s Health and Safety Executive. But graphic design is essentially ephemeral, so I don’t know about anything “standing the test of time.” Graphics are addressed to the now, so longevity may not be any kind of criterion.

The term icon is bandied about too often. But your cover for Ways of Seeing, which is required reading for all art and design students is such a book. It is not, however, a bells and whistles cover. It is very economical and simple. What makes it such an important artifact – and what keeps it in currency?The book itself is important for what it says. The cover was wrecked by Penguin. They first substituted Gill Bold Italic for the Helvetica Extra bold which related to the heavy text inside. Now they’ve put the book in a series of Modern Classics and changed it again, this time to upper- and lower-case. And they’ve shrunk the size, printed it on stiff paper with paper grain the wrong way so that it’s hard to open, and they’ve put the preliminary pages – with the title page and the note to the reader – at the back. Iconic?

Oooops. Well then, how has typography changed over your career. And how has your typography addressed those changes? My generation went from hot-metal to photosetting to digital. Computers have changed everything, bringing total control to the designer. But they haven’t changed the way I design. Perhaps they should have. But the way people read hasn’t changed, the sequence, letter –words–sentences–paragraphs– columns of text. Fifty years ago the printer made the corrections and changes were expensive. Now clients know that changes can be made, and designers pay with their time. The alphabet hasn’t changed, while the range of type designs available is astonishingly increased. Two or three are plenty for me.

You’ve made a significant mark as a design historian. BUT where would you place yourself in that continuum? I don’t really think about it. I just write about what interests me, or what editors or exhibition curators think might interest me.

*What is the Richard Hollis Circle of Friends? I’m completely mystified. I’ve got plenty of friends, but those with a capital ‘F’ – I can’t even guess their identity. But I’m very grateful.

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