Friday, 12:01am
24 January 2014

Ken Briggs: 1931-2013

A great Modernist graphic designer. Fraser Muggeridge pays tribute

Ken Briggs has died at his home in Eltham, South London aged 82 after struggling for several years with Parkinson’s disease. He is best known for the hundreds of posters and programmes he designed for The National Theatre in London during the 1960s, writes Fraser Muggeridge.

Briggs was born in Duckmanton, Derbyshire, and in 1950 awarded a scholarship to the Central School of Arts & Crafts in London, where he studied Book Design and Production. With tutors Jesse Collins, Herbert Spencer and Edward Bawden, and fellow students Ken Garland, Derek Birdsall, Colin Forbes and Alan Fletcher, he was in good company. (Briggs was later a signatory to Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto of 1964.)

Booking leaflets, 1969-70.
Top: Ken Briggs and colleague in the late 1950s.

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It was during a stint working at Rathbone Books that Germano Facetti (see ‘The image as evidence’, Eye 29) introduced Briggs to Neue Grafik (New Graphic Design) brought from Switzerland, shouting ‘This is the future my friend!’.

Poster for Sadler’s Wells Opera, date unknown.

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For Sadler’s Wells and then the National Theatre he played out a scenario of Anglicised Swiss typography, structured and information-led, but with a certain sense of humour. Imagine the scene: Briggs in the handbag department of John Lewis, working out the ideal size of the programme so it would fit comfortably in a gentleman’s inside dinner jacket or a ladies handbag.

Booking leaflets for the National Theatre, 1966-67.

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This approach, entrusted by theatre director, Laurence Olivier, created a highly successful consistent visual identity, a series with a powerful brand. Briggs had the knowledge, skill, drive and enthusiasm to work through the night physically making the artwork for the printer. He had the ability to use or construct an image from scratch and the confidence to specify bold and daring colour combinations.

But sometimes he would get it wrong, for example the poster for The National Health was designed to look like a horror film, when actually the play was a black comedy. But this was all part of the fun.

Programme for The National Health, 1969. Printed letterpress in red and blue throughout.

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Bigger jobs would follow in the following decades, such as the corporate identity for the opened Barbican Centre in London, and Twickenham Stadium, before Briggs retired in 1999.

Ken seemed bemused to find me and fellow designer Sara De Bondt knocking on his door in Eltham, South London in 2009 to discuss his design work. Our visit was prompted by the exhibition ‘Designs for The National Theatre’, then on show at the Pump House Gallery in London’s Battersea Park.

He joked, ‘It’s taken 50 years for people to be interested in my work.’ Occasional Papers’ first publication, The Master Builder, Talking with Ken Briggs [see ‘Beyond our Ken’ on the Eye blog] featured our interview with him, and helped cement Briggs’s reputation as an important figure in British graphic design history. [See also Simon Esterson’s ‘Inspiration’, Eye 58, 2005, and Richard Hollis’s article ‘Play and playbill’, Eye 70, 2008.]

Installation image from the exhibition ‘Designs for The National Theatre’ at the Pump House Gallery in London’s Battersea Park, 2009.

Talking with Ken Briggs by Sara De Bondt and Fraser Muggeridge

The National Theatre now holds an archive of Brigg’s work, accessible for all theatre and graphic design lovers. Charlotte Wilkinson, the current theatre art director, said: ‘Much of how the National Theatre’s print and design looks today is due to Ken, so he was an incredibly influential character on the organisation. The whole of the graphics team, past and present, owes him a huge debt. His work is ever present in our minds.’

Poster for Home and Beauty, 1968.

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Ken Briggs, graphic designer, born 29 March 1931; died 27 December 2013.

Ken Briggs in his home studio, April 2009.

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Fraser Muggeridge, designer, London

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