This is one occasion when the introduction to my next hero can be remarkably short as there can be few designers, illustrators or photographers who haven’t worked with John McConnell over the past 40 years. I met him on a rainy windswept night, clutching my umbrella while trying to negotiate my way to his discreet house, tucked away in London’s Bayswater.
McConnell is a round-faced, compact man, with a tendency to talk in staccato bursts. He is standing in his kitchen swathed in a navy blue apron, brandishing a ladle, which he is using to add stock to the dish he is creating for our supper. This turns out to be a rather protracted affair, as I keep interrupting him with questions.
Three bottles of wine and a bowl of very good asparagus risotto later, McConnell produces a torpedo-sized cigar and proceeds to engulf himself in smoke. By this time we’ve journeyed through his early life, later professional career and had slipped into anecdotes about friends in the industry. Time to go home, I thought.
McConnell was born in 1939 in Balham, London, made famous by Peter Sellers who coined it Gateway to the South. He has little recollection of this period as the family moved to Ruislip when he was seven. His father was an accountant and his mother a history teacher. The family moved again when his father became ill, to a country village outside Maidstone in Kent, where they opened a small grocery shop.
His parents were hardworking with a Quakerish streak and he was brought up with the view that to be lazy was a sin. On a small hand-printing press in the back of the shop, the young McConnell was given the task of customising the shop’s brown paper bags.
School life for McConnell was a struggle, particularly in academic subjects, and he gravitated naturally to the crafts. Woodwork became a favourite, more of which later. As with many designers I have met, and I include myself in this, dyslexia seems to have been present. But few understood it back in the 1950s. McConnell’s failure to pass the 11-plus exam concerned his mother enough to have her son undergo an IQ test. Although he scored high, he still had to leave school aged 14 without any formal qualifications.
But, as with other designers I have profiled, there is often a sympathetic teacher, the unsung hero, who steps in to enlighten the child and nurture their hidden gifts. In McConnell’s case it was Mr Hindbest, his woodwork teacher, who encouraged his parents to send him to Maidstone College of Art to develop his craft skills.
He started at the Saturday morning classes, later securing a place on the full-time course. Over the next two years he tackled everything from lettering to silverwork, from stone-cutting to screen-printing. When the principal left, Bill Stobbs, who had been a tutor of graphics at the London College of Printing, replaced him.
Stobbs quickly shook up Maidstone’s quiet, craft-based complacency, and in the process ignited McConnell’s interest in a new world. He recalls coming in one day to see three dapper young men wearing the latest American Ivy League fashion: lightweight tweed jackets with patch pockets, blue Oxford cotton button-down shirts and penny loafers. He was transfixed.
Stobbs had brought in the fashionable trio as part-time lecturers. They were George Kayford, Desmond Jeffrey and Derek Birdsall. McConnell’s new world was about to begin.
We break off our conversation and wander into McConnell’s garage. He has converted it into an impressive workshop and sitting on one of the benches is a large wooden structure. He explains that it is an accurate scalee e model of Felipe Brunelleschi’s Ox lift, a device that was invented while Brunelleschi was working on the construction of his famous cathedral dome.
McConnell is clearly a gifted carpenter. The model is perfect with crisp joints, a series of dowelled cogs and a complex pulley system. And as McConnell enthusiastically points out, it has an ingenious reverse gear. I’d never seen him this animated before. It was very clear that Mr Hindbest did a very good job with his young charge all those years ago.
Back at Maidstone School of Art, life for McConnell changed dramatically. He immersed himself in a new-found world of graphic design, and absorbed as much as he could, especially from Kayford, Jeffrey and Birdsall. He befriended Jeffrey, who allowed him to help out on the printing press at his small studio in London’s Marylebone Lane.
McConnell enjoyed this greatly and a little later, when he had left college and was working at an advertising agency in Baker Street, he would often pop round the corner to see Jeffrey, to unload his frustration about the cynical bunch of people he found himself working with.
They were dismissive of McConnell’s love of Swiss-style graphics and unimpressed with his copies of Graphis magazine. While contemplating leaving, the hand of Government intervened and he was called for a medical for the statutory two years National Service.
He had been convinced he was going to miss out on this because it was being phased out. But now he had visions of being the last man in England to be called up. He hatched a fiendish plan to induce a heart condition, involving sleep deprivation and large quantities of alcohol. But it didn’t work. He was going to have to serve.
While waiting for the official call-up papers to arrive, he had a brainwave. Southern Ireland did not have an extradition agreement with the UK. So he packed his bags and without leaving a forwarding address, skipped the country.
Dublin in the late 1950s still resonated with the sound of Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett, and while there McConnell fell in with a bunch of literary students from Trinity College. Together they made an incomprehensible 16mm film, drank a lot and found time to do a little bit of advertising work. After six months he received the all clear to return to London. e e In 1960 he joined the design company Tandy, Halford and Mills. Most of his time there was spent designing packaging. He got himself a flat in Portman Square, formerly lived in by cult photographer Michael Cooper and artist Allen Jones. He met his wife Moira and decided to take the plunge into the freelance world.
To support this, his old tutor Jeffrey found him some teaching work at Colchester School of Art. McConnell was fired for failing to get any of the illustration students good marks. But he did get four graphics students into the Royal College of Art, which was some achievement.
By now he’d established a reasonable number of freelance clients and rented a studio in King Street, Covent Garden. This was a time when the ground underfoot would move due to the build up of discarded vegetables; the air was heady with a rich smell of fruit and flowers and the bustle of porters and the constant comings and goings of the lorries made it an amazingly colourful place, far removed from the sanitised tourist destination it is today.
Rents were cheap and it became an enclave for graphic designers. Close to McConnell’s office was that of Birdsall’s. Quickly McConnell graduated to a more spacious office in Neal Street, large enough to sub-let; John Gorham and Arthur Robbins were tenants for a while.
McConnell’s work was now being noticed and his biggest impact at this time came with his identity, print and packaging work for the fashion boutique Biba. Its simple Art Nouveau-inspired logo was perfectly in step with the psychedelic, crushed-velvet period and in 1969 McConnell picked up a D&AD Silver for this work.
Early on, McConnell mastered the art of collaborating with other creatives to strengthen an idea. His work for Face Photo Setting, a company he started, would often be shared with Gorham. Their endless reinterpretation of faces, both visual and typographical, created a friendly rivalry and some very memorable work. It was here that he exploited his love of engravings and the humble small ad illustrations which he used to great effect.
McConnell became consultant art director to the sheet music publisher Omnibus Press. And where others might have hogged the whole show, he commissioned a variety of designers and illustrators to produce covers. This reflected well on his abilities as an art director and his work came to the notice of Alan Fletcher.
The two met and Fletcher asked McConnell if he would like to work for him at Pentagram. McConnell took this to mean an assistant’s job. He politely told Fletcher he was happy running his own show and would be interested in becoming a partner. The suggestion turned into a reality and 28 years later McConnell is still there.
But McConnell remembers his first year at Pentagram as one of the most depressing periods of his life. Given the task of designing an exhibition for British Rail, McConnell could feel the critical eyes of his fellow partners boring into his back. When he had finished the project both Kenneth Grange and Alan Fletcher made it known they hated what he’d done and, they added, so did the client.
This was despite the fact that it had been a hit with the public. Demoralised and contemplating throwing in the towel, McConnell realised that in this partnership you had to be capable of fighting your own corner, no matter how big the prestige or egos of the other partners.
After this realisation he settled down to strengthen his already impressive entrepreneurial skills and in a short space of time was acting as design director for Clarks shoes, Polaroid, Boots and Faber & Faber. These were all seriously meaty jobs, needing an amazing amount of organisational skill. But for McConnell the more complex the task the happier he was.
At Faber, McConnell immediately reorganised the way it commissioned its creative work which, to him, was every bit as important as the design work itself. His success gave him a seat on the board and considerable power, but, after 15 years, he felt his presence and seniority was getting in the way and he stood down. The Faber account is still handled by Pentagram, but gone is the holistic approach that McConnell had spent so much time perfecting.
At 63, McConnell shows no sign of slowing down. The act of creating is his life, be it in the quiet of his garage or in the engine room of Pentagram. He still makes the regular fortnightly trip to Boots the Chemists in Nottingham, to preside over the design management meeting.
It would take up far too much room to list the many accolades he has received over the years. But take my word for it, he’s won, judged or been president of them all.
There is a rather charming link with those early years that McConnell spent helping out in the family’s grocery shop. Each morning he sets off for Pentagram, negotiating his way through the back streets of Bayswater. But not, as you would expect, in a company car or a taxi, but on an old, upright delivery bicycle, complete with basket. An amusing sight and one that must transport McConnell back to that small, leafy village in Kent, over 50 years ago.
Mike Dempsey is chairman and founding partner of CDT Design