Over the past two years there has sprung up a series of lectures by leading creative practitioners, sponsored by Howard Smith Paper. Paul Davis, Alexander Gelman, Paul Graham, Laurence Wiener and Storm Thorgerson have all delivered talks to enthusiastic audiences in the theatre at Bafta. To commemorate each lecture, a book is produced featuring the work of the speaker. The books are designed by Browns, and the series is masterminded by Jonathan Ellery, who also selects the speakers.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that Ellery invites me to write an introduction to each book, so I’m open to accusations of bias when I say that this book and lecture package is one of the best things on the design scene. But don’t take my word for it, ask the audiences that fill Bafta.
The most recent lecture was a revelation. In Thorgerson the design world might have its only genuine superstar. There are many inspirational and vivid speakers in design (check out Erik Spiekermann in the Helvetica film), but Thorgerson is, as the football pundits say, in a ‘different class’.
Thorgerson is one of the founders of Hipgnosis, the 1960s/1970s group responsible for many of the most enduring album covers of all time. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is probably the most famous, but there are dozens more. Since the 1980s, Thorgerson has worked on his own, mainly for his longstanding patrons Pink Floyd, but also for a host of newer bands attracted by the kudos of a Thorgerson cover.
But the design world has never accepted Thorgerson as one of their own. Thorgerson has always surrounded himself with the best practitioners – photographers, designers, illustrators, retouchers, prop makers and model makers – but he doesn’t quite fit the profile of a professional designer. He doesn’t make any pretence that he is interested in the problem-solving, client-serving side of design, and you only have to look at his work to realise that it’s about his vision – if a client doesn’t like it, they can stuff it.
He calls himself a performance artist, and certainly his lecture was a piece of rock and roll theatre. The stage was filled with scurrying figures, more reminiscent of a rock gig than a sober design lecture. A body artist painted eyes on to the back of a topless model; 300 cabbages appeared (don’t ask, you had to be there); design assistants rushed about like roadies. Eventually, the great man appeared. He recently suffered a stroke and walks with the aid of a stick, but there’s nothing wrong with his brain. He talked lucidly and quirkily and it was easy to understand why rock bands adore him: he’s like a human whirlwind sucking everything into its vortex.
There’s no question that Thorgerson has a vast ego, and there’s no question that some of his more recent work is perilously close to kitsch. It’s also true that he is locked in a pre-PC world of rock and roll chauvinism. But there isn’t any doubt that he is a bona fide genius. His body of work – most especially as a member of Hipgnosis – is unrivalled in modern visual communication. His ethos of always doing it for real (it doesn’t get much more real than 700 hospital beds on a beach in Dorset) has made him into mythic pop culture figure. TV commercials featuring bouncing balls owe him a huge debt of gratitude.