As a graphic artist lucky enough to work for his cultural heroes, Nick Robertson has been able to explore his desire to experiment in both digital and physical media. Fiona Sibley enjoys a tour of his studio
When Brian Eno is looking for a design collaborator, there’s one man he turns regularly to. The same is true of author Peter Ackroyd, London’s biographer.
The person linking these two cultural giants is graphic designer Nick Robertson, who runs a small one-man practice, Wordsalad. Through his determination – or stubbornness – to work with his heroes, he has pulled off that rare feat, which has led to commissions from those artists’ publishers, as well as the BBC.
‘They have both directed my ideas and sensibilities [in the past], so it makes sense that there’s common ground between us,’ says Robertson, who set up Wordsalad in 1997, two years after graduating in graphics from Central St Martins College of Art and Design.
At heart, Robertson is a hands-on experimenter in image- making. Most of his graphic output appears to have emerged from unknown origins, as each work is the product of several processes, including printmaking, handmade lettering and darkroom experimentation.
In a fairly eccentric fashion, Robertson creates original visuals by burning light trails across photographs and developing photograms of physical objects, all later composited together digitally. His signature aesthetic is rich, textural, densely layered imagery. ‘Computers are incredible tools, but this kind of stuff helps to contextualise them,’ he says, preferring to keep the physical aspects of his craft intact.
A speculative presentation by Robertson of his portfolio to All Saints Records has led to almost a decade’s worth of jobs designing record sleeves for the label. It also gave him the opportunity to work in close collaboration with both Eno and All Saints’ boss Dominic Norman-Taylor on a major visual arts project, one of Robertson’s biggest achievements to date. ‘Everyone knows Brian as a musician, but he’s also been a visual artist all that time. We thought, “How do we explain that?”,’ says Robertson. The trio set about creating a DVD that would showcase Eno’s digital, generative art, and decided that something bespoke was needed. ‘The answer was software that made a large number of Brian’s images float on screens for different times,’ says Robertson, producing a kaleidoscopic display of ambient, changing visuals.
Robertson worked on the software with an engineer for more than a year, and helped to shape the whole project. Releasing the DVD, titled 77 Million Paintings – ‘a botchy bit of maths’, he grins – for Eno fans to watch at home, was considered a novel way to distribute art, so it was an about-turn when invitations to create live installations came flooding in from across the world. Since the first such event in Tokyo in 2006, there have been 16 exhibitions, including at the Venice Biennale and Newcastle’s Baltic gallery. A remastered second edition of the DVD is released this month.
Robertson’s work with Ackroyd has also combined book illustrations and motion graphics with more unusual projects. Since Robertson approached the writer at an event and they began progressing a proposal for a new London monument, Ackroyd introduced Robertson to BBC Arts, so that he could design the title sequences and animated maps for London, the author’s acclaimed 2004 TV series.
More commissions have followed from the broadcaster. ‘TV work appealed, because I am interested in the process of bringing my organic mode of working into a digital arena,’ he says. Take, for example, his titles for The Romantics series, in which Ackroyd explores this historic period’s influence on English poetry. Robertson hired an old printer in Lambeth, and filmed the process of the programme’s logo being built, using the oldest, most damaged wood blocks he could find.
Typography is always laboured over. ‘I love the idea of making type an object, so in the past I’ve experimented with firing whole alphabets in my father’s kiln,’ he says. Ceramic type has appeared on his book covers for the Gormenghast trilogy, published by Random House, and on the sleeve for Roedelius’ album Aquarello, released on the All Saints label. For all this, Robertson runs a surprisingly immaculate studio – only odd relics from his darkroom experiments, neatly gracing shelves above a giant dashboard of two Mac screens, betray evidence of his unconventional approach.
Robertson’s practice has taken on such a personal role that in 2006 he accompanied Ackroyd in walking the whole length of the Thames – a generous act of research for any jobbing designer, perhaps, but proof that Robertson and Ackroyd have become artistic collaborators. The pair are currently working on a multimedia exhibition to fill all the piers on the Thames, for the London Festival of Architecture this summer. ‘My work so far has increased my feeling that designers are authors as well – they can instigate ideas and not just respond,’ he says.