SBHD: Recently awarded a prestigious stamp of approval in the form of the Phillips Gold Medal, Howard Brown’s path to success is charted here by Jeremy Myerson
It has often been said that what Prince Charles knows about design could be written on the back of a postage stamp.
Howard Brown, the polite, precise and pleasingly intelligent graphic designer, would never suggest such a thing. Nevertheless, he might recognise the funny side since he was given the task of adapting watercolour scenes painted by the heir to the throne into a set of Royal Mail stamps to mark the 25th anniversary of the Investiture of the Prince of Wales.
Such typographic finesse illustrates his versatility. This, after all, is the designer who once produced a Time Out front cover on the theme of Elvis – Mugging of the Myth by blacking out one of The King’s front teeth, leading readers to accuse their paperboys of defacing their copies. It also reflects Brown’s growing involvement in stamps, which culminated just before Christmas in the prestigious award of the Phillips Gold Medal to mark his contribution to British stamp design over the past five years.
Previous winners include Adrian George, David Gentleman and Barry Robinson, reflecting the pedigree of the award. But Brown, whose witty and engaging work is most closely associated with the music and film industries, is by his own admission a relative newcomer to the world of philately design.
“The first set of stamps I did was in 1991,” he recalls. “The theme was maps, commemorating the bicentenary of Ordnance Survey. When Royal Mail design manager Barry Robinson called to tell me the topic, I nearly dropped the phone. I love maps.”
Brown vigorously researched the subject, learning that the Kent village of Ham Street was the first area ever surveyed by Ordnance Survey. The four stamps in the series show an Ordnance Survey map of this village at different stages of its development over 200 years. Such enthusiasm is typical of a designer who admits: “I need to have intrinsic sympathy with the subject, which is why I have gravitated so much to music, film, photography and art catalogues.”
Brown’s second sortie into stamp design was in 1993, when he was commissioned to design the Marine Timekeeper series marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Harrison – the first English clockmaker to make an accurate timekeeper for use at sea. Brown worked with technical illustrator David Penney at four times the scale to create images of Harrison’s H4 clock, first produced in 1759. All of his hallmarks were evident: a clever idea, close attention to detail and simple, direct execution.
The typography for the Investiture stamps based on paintings by Prince Charles merely set the seal on an unforeseen but successful diversification into stamp design. Brown, who collaborated with the prince via a go-between at St James’s Palace, was not overawed by the artists’ status: “The paintings were really too detailed for stamp designs, but the series was saved by a beautiful gravure print process.”
But then conventional rural watercolours are hardly Howard Brown’s thing. A designer schooled in the commercial art scene of the Sixties and the problem-solving ethos of early Pentagram, he has always been alert to the unconventional and offbeat visual solution. A Tynesider, aged 49, he enrolled on a foundation course at Sunderland Art College in 1965, as he enjoyed lettering and making posters. When he started a three-year graphic design course at Maidstone College of Art the following year, it was the first time he had ever been to the south.
John McConnell, a former Maidstone student and part-time tutor, took Brown under his wing and offered him a job as an assistant when he graduated in 1969. “McConnell had his own office in London’s Covent Garden when it was still a fruit and veg market. I didn’t realise how well I’d done to get this job,” recalls Brown. “I stayed three years, and it was a good grounding. It set my style in how to solve design problems. John designed nothing directly driven by fashion or style. He worked in the Bob Gill mould of each problem being unique to the job in hand and having the seeds of its own solution. People have come and gone, but McConnell is still around. That speaks for itself.”
The work at that time ranged from “a flashy catalogue” for Biba on Kensington High Street in London to magazines for a pharmaceutical firm and calendars for the Face typesetters. But Brown got itchy feet in the early Seventies and went freelance. First he shared a studio with Ken Carroll. Then he left London with his wife Pauline and young family to seek the good life as a graphic designer in the Gulbenkian audio-visual centre at the University of Hull.
It was John McConnell who lured Brown back to the Big Smoke in 1975 with the offer of a job at Pentagram, the newly formed design supergroup. Brown, bored with provincial life and tired of insular university infighting, needed little encouragement to return to the creative mainstream. But Pentagram partners at that time paid their assistants poorly, worked them hard, and offered no long-term prospects, so after two years Brown was off again.
His interest in music led him to become art director of Music Sales, a publisher of music books, between 1977 and 1979. After that, it was back to freelancing, an independent creative existence to which Brown’s temperament is well-suited. Brown shared a Hamilton Terrace studio with photographer Peter Wood, with whom he collaborated on a number of projects.
Cover designs for Tony Elliott’s Time Out on entertainment themes were followed by a growing involvement in the burgeoning British film industry of the early Eighties. Brown’s entry to this world was via designer John Gorham, who needed help on a couple of projects for director Alan Parker. Brown’s thoughtful style immediately found favour with filmmakers. For Goldcrest’s production of Red Monarch, a black comedy on the final years of Stalin’s life directed by Jack Gold, Brown and Gorham prefigured red nose day by shoving a squashed tomato in the old tyrant’s face.
They also created the visual identity for the film version of George Orwell’s 1984, starring John Hurt. When Virgin appropriated the logo for use on spin-off ads, videos and merchandising without agreement or payment, Brown sued. Virgin counter-sued and the litigation dragged on and on. “Eventually, after four years, we settled for peanuts,” recalls Brown. “The only winners were the lawyers.”
In the mid-Eighties, he left the studio with Peter Wood and decided to work from home in the London suburb of Chiswick – an arrangement which continues today. The film industry work continued to roll in, including pre-launch brochures for Sir Richard Attenborough’s Biko and David Putnam’s The Mission. Even though Brown was depressed about the bland, decorative, over-commercialised turn British design had taken in the Eighties, he had at least carved his own sustainable artistic niche. And as an early convert to the wonders of the Apple Mac, he had begun to ally new technology to lateral thinking.
Then McConnell called again. This time he was offering a Pentagram partnership was on the table as the founder-partners fretted over their succession. “All the partners had looked at my work and they wanted me,” says Brown. “I’d been on my own for several years and I wondered if I should do something different.”
So, in a high-profile move, Brown accepted a partnership. An ominous Design Week cover featured a moody Elvis Costello-style portrait of Brown by David Banks with the headline: The Making of a Pentagram Partner. The move was a mistake. Within three months, the partner was unmade and there was egg on the face of more than just the editor of Design Week – at that time, me.
Says Brown diplomatically: “When you join Pentagram, the creative pressures are immediate. You have to perform. But I found it impossible to design there – it was so distracting. I needed to set up a group within Pentagram, but the huge identity projects I was being given as the new boy was the type of work I liked least. I quickly realised that the way I had been working before was most true to my character. I wasn’t sleeping or eating well. It just wasn’t me. I thought I wouldn’t enjoy it, so I had to get out.”
To the credit of McConnell and Pentagram, Brown’s swift exit was sympathetically handled. “They were shocked but they understood my reasons. I resumed working from home with one assistant for smaller clients in the arts. Work was once again my hobby, my enjoyment. I never again want to lose my enthusiasm or the freedom to go off and play tennis when I want.”
Brown’s gamble has paid off. He may have turned his back on the glamorous lights of Pentagram, but his instinct to pursue smaller-scale projects of personal interest has been rewarded by the Phillips Gold Medal. After all, few projects have a smaller scale than stamps.