Twenty five years ago I started a brief correspondence with David King, the former U.K. art director of the London Sunday Times Magazine. The publication was one of the most exquisite Sunday supplements of the era and, for me, a delicacy. I was thrilled when he returned my letter agreeing to be interviewed for PRINT magazine. Regrettably, I dragged my feet for much too long, was then childishly too embarrassed to conduct the interview and he passed away in 2016. What an unforgivably missed opportunity. So, that's why I am grateful to critic and historian Rick Poynor for spending the past years working on his biographical monograph of King, David King: Designer, Activist, Visual Historian (Yale University Press). And, I'm doubly pleased that it is such an exceptional book in its informative text and well edited images (smartly designed by Simon Esterson), worthy of its protagonist and extra valuable to graphic design and political graphics history.
King was a uniquely intelligent graphic designer. Not only did he reintroduce the language of Russian Constructivism to design through the form and content of his own books, he further provided the necessary social, cultural and political context for the art and design of the Soviet period (and before). King was not a mere stylist but a practical historian. He did not just mine the past for usable conceits, he chronicled a tumultuous epoch of the 20th century from a socio-visual perspective that, in turn, opened our eyes to the ripple effect of politics on design and aesthetics (i.e. form and function).
Poynor has taken the opportunity to document King's life as a means to analyze how ideology impacts design and how design influences messaging in our increasingly branded world. I've long admired his work as founding editor of EYE magazine and author of critical essays and books that define Postmodern typographic history. This book takes the reader down another historical route and the David King website provides another dimension for deeper study and appreciation of King and his work as author, practitioner, curator and advocate. I asked Poynor to talk about why King's work and this book are so relevant for designers today.
(Note: David King's collection is featured at London's Tate Gallery. And his own posters are in the collection of LA's Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography.)
Why did you decide to do this monograph on David King?
I wanted to do a monograph on King for years. He was always one of the designers I admired most because of the breadth, complexity and impact of his work as graphic designer, visual journalist, photographer, collector and author of books. He was a fascinating and exciting person to be around. In 2016, I was about to ask him whether he’d agree to a book, when he died unexpectedly. Later in the year, as a result of the initiative of Simon Esterson, designer and co-owner of Eye magazine, I met Judy Groves and Valerie Wade of King’s estate to discuss the possibility of a book. Suddenly, with Judy and Valerie’s backing, the project was possible, and it developed from there, with Simon and I as a team from the start.
His work has made a major contribution to American design without most Americans knowing his name. Why did King not have the same kind of visibility as other U.K. designers?
King’s period of concentrating on being a graphic designer runs from 1963 to the end of the 1980s. In his day, he won a lot of design awards. He stepped back with the arrival of the computer. It just didn’t interest him. He started authoring books while he was still art editor of The Sunday Times Magazine in London: Trotsky: A Documentary (1972) was the first. He built up a vast, world-class collection of graphics, publications, photographs and artifacts from the Russian Revolution and Stalinist era. By the end of the 1980s, his photo library had become a business. So, in the computer era, he was off the radar for most designers, and he wasn’t part of the debates about graphic authorship, even though he is in many ways an ultimate example of the phenomenon. Meanwhile, through books such as The Commissar Vanishes (1997) and Red Star Over Russia (2009), his work achieved a public visibility that went way beyond the design scene. Life magazine featured him. His books received serious reviews in The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books, and that press attention happened across Europe, too. My hope with the book and website is to bring King’s achievement back into view. He is one of Britain’s finest designers.
He was among the first of the literal Postmodernists to inject Russian Constructivism into his work. Was he consciously trying to revive the Soviet aesthetic?
No, he wasn’t. He never called himself a Postmodernist, and I’m sure he would have rejected the concept and the term. He was no kind of historicist. In the early to mid-1980s, some of his magazine work, covers for City Limits and page designs for Crafts, have a slightly “new wave” look to them. This had nothing to do with music or fashion. He arrived at these historical sources from a
different direction, grounded in tenacious historical research for his collection. He was drawn to Constructivism because it was dynamic, direct and forceful, and Russian revolutionary graphics made maximum use of limited means—two colors and poor printing. King faced the same technical limitations when designing low-cost political posters for anti-racist and anti-apartheid causes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was never about style for its own sake, though he was clearly a highly expressive manipulator of graphic form. In fact, he admired the political photomontages of John Heartfield most of all.
I recall the first book I bought of King’s was the Ali book, and it blew me away. Rodchenko was the second (in fact, my wife “redesigned” the jacket for the U.S. audience). Then one by one I acquired his collection-based books. Where did this obsession with vintage graphics, manipulated photographs and all the other tools of propaganda that he collected and catalogued come from?
In 1970, working on The Sunday Times Magazine, King visited Moscow for the first time to undertake visual research for a story about Vladimir Lenin to mark the centenary of the revolutionary politician’s birth. He also inquired about pictures of Leon Trotsky, but Trotsky had been brushed out of history and officials declined to help him. King returned to London with the first pieces in his collection and an unquenchable desire to find more. He was already a collector of items relating to movies, crime, politics and space exploration for use in his visual journalism. His friend and collaborator Judy Groves suggested he concentrate on Russian history, which rapidly became his main concern. He was absolutely relentless in his searches, traveling widely and sending out want-lists to antiquarian bookshops and dealers across Europe and America. It took him years to put together a complete set of USSR in Construction in all five languages, but they could still be found back then, hidden in dusty corners, for relatively small sums. Try doing that now. It’s an extraordinary archive and it can be seen today at Tate in London, which acquired the entire collection shortly before he died.
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