Robert Brownjohn In The Cloud and On The Screen

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If AIGA Medalist and ADC Hall of Fame member Robert Brownjohn (1925–1970) is remembered by the younger generation today, it may be for the film title sequence in the 1964 James Bond thriller, Goldfinger. Or maybe it is for designing the 1969 Rolling Stones’ “Let It Bleed” album cover.

In 1957 Brownjohn opened Brownjohn Chermayeff Geismar (with his friends Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar) in New York City.

The following year he designed the “Streetscape” display for the American pavilion at the World Exhibition in Brussels. In 1960 Brownjohn left Chermayeff + Geismar to become the Creative Director for McCann-Erikson and later Creative Director for J.Walter Thompson in London. While there, he designed the title sequences for numerous films but later returned to New York to teach at the Pratt Institute and the Cooper Union.

Robert Brownjohn

Brownjohn was part of the mid-century modern vortex but is best known for his conceptual accomplishments, moving it “from a formal to a conceptual art,” noted his AIGA citation. “His projects exemplify every aspect of his relationship to design, including his emphasis on content over form and his preferences with ordinary and personal images. His spirit of invention and designs for living in the machine age were balanced with references to the aesthetic models that Moholy-Nagy admired.” In 2005 Emily King published Robert Brownjohn: Sex and Typography, a biographical portrait, but his entire oeuvre has been hard to access.

Brownjohn died when his daughter Eliza Brownjohn was just 14 years old. Over four decades later, she’s created a living, if virtual, monument/archive for her father’s iconic and less known work that launches today. I asked her to talk about the import of this long-overdue resource (which can now be accessed here).

Robert Brownjohn
Robert Brownjohn

How long have you been working on this project? ​I’ve been working on this for three months (eight hours a day)—it took that long because I was dealing with about 1000 images! But I have wanted to do this for a long time and now finally it is here.

How involved were you in BJ’s career?Well I was always a sounding board for him. He would take me to lunch and draw his ideas for a project on the tablecloth and then ask me for my feedback (I wish I kept those tabelcloths!). I also spent a lot of time with him in his production studio when he was doing his titles, cinema commercials and other things. My one claim to fame was that he used my wood alphabet building blocks to design his wonderful collage for ‘The Philadelphia Orchestra’ poster and album cover.

What did you learn from putting this extensive site together?Probably the fact that I didn’t know just how much work he really produced in his short life. That was the big surprise. And also that he was way ahead of his time in many ways. The story of his life and work seems to coincide beautifully.

What was, if any, the biggest surprise in what you’ve found?​How this young boy from Newark, NJ, with no family background in the arts, ended up going to the Bauhaus Institute of Design in Chicago where he was a protege of Moholy-Nagy. He was only 18.

What percentage of his archive does this represent?I have tried to include almost everything I could find in my vast archives—so probably about 90%.​

This is a great boon for design scholars and students. What do you hope will be the take-away?My intention is to introduce the whole of BJ​—his work and his life—in the most thorough way possible. You get the entirety of it on this website. I hope it will be an inspiration to many young designers and provide precious information for those who want it.

How do you see the site growing?​I will be adding more written works on BJ and some additional images and other things as time goes on. I will also be introducing the site to all the colleges of art and design around the world, and there are many, so that their students can study him and be inspired and ambitious. He would have loved that!

I notice there is a shop on site . . .There are 4 Limited Edition prints of BJ’s work that are available on the site in Shop:BJ Peace poster, Obsession and Fantasy poster and Let it Bleed Rolling Stones back and front cover. These have never been reproduced since the 60’s and they are made from BJ’s original artwork.

PRINT magazine Spring 2016 issue

The Spring 2016 issue takes a dive into the largest design capital of the world: New York City. Get an exclusive look into the lives of design celebrities–from James Victore to Timothy Goodman, Jessica Walsh to Stefan Sagmeister. And then ask yourself: what makes a designer a celebrity? And is there a difference between “celebrity” and “fame?”

All of this PLUS the winners of the Typography & Lettering Awards, the history of Helvetica and a sneak peek at Seymour Chwast’s next exhibit.