Over the rainbow
From advertising to illustration; posters to badges; fashion shows to pop videos, the design work of Anthony Burrill has become quietly ubiquitous.
[This is an edited extract from Eye no. 75 vol. 19 Spring 2010. To order the full, illustrated print version, click ‘buyEye75’ at the top of the Links column.]
Anthony Burrill is the multitasking man of the moment – designer, illustrator, artist, set decorator and video director, quietly ubiquitous without being annoying or repeating himself. Need a slogan that’s feelgood without being clichéd? Burrill’s the guy – you see his letterpress Work Hard & Be Nice To People poster on the walls of cosy living rooms and London’s smartest new-media agencies. Need images to warn travellers of the dangers of the London Underground? Burrill’s posters and animations are direct without being stentorian or needlessly scary.
Burrill’s work is so plain and simple it can seem as though everything is on the surface. The posters, postcards and placards, full of teeth and smiles (‘Eat It All’), telegraph his ‘A. B.’ initials. Posters such as Bring Back the Golden Sunshine seem deliberately facile, in tune with an increasingly popular area of graphic design that can appear to be about nothing but itself. Burrill is at the forefront of the new wave of designer-illustrators, and by the mid-noughties he had developed a substantial commercial career working with advertisers and brands in public, private and cultural sectors, building a confident and distinctive portfolio. The creator of a poster saying ‘It Is OK For Me To Have Everything I Want’ seemed to have it all.
Then, in the summer of 2008, just before the banking crisis that knocked the stuffing out of design and advertising’s biggest clients, came the ‘European Championship of Graphic Design’ show, which featured Burrill alongside ten graphic ‘team-mates’ including Happypets and Antoine+Manuel, at the Dutch Graphic Design Museum in Breda (see Eye 68). It is fascinating to see how much Burrill’s practice has branched and blossomed since then. He has moved smoothly into installation, exhibitions, music, video and fashion; advertising commissions figure hardly at all. Many of these projects are collaborations, and he cites the Breda ‘Championship’ as the crucial catalyst.
The first couple of years after graduating (in 1991) were spent assisting Emma Parker, his photographer wife, and working on the kitchen table at home. He bought type books from the Dover Bookshops and made little books by ‘fiddling around with bits of type and sticking them down with Pritt Stick’, and using the photocopier in a stationery shop. ‘In those days it was the geeky boffins who used computers,’ he says, ‘it wasn’t the cool kids. Macs were too expensive.’
Then, after noticing that the posters for local church and school events were much more attractive than the scrappy laser-printed jobs typical of provincial Britain, he tracked down their source – Adams of Rye, a family-owned printing business with a fully functioning letterpress printing works out the back. He started making posters at the press, the first of which was Work Hard & Be Nice To People (2005), and the collaboration continues to this day. The text, which he describes as being ‘like the things you see outside churches’, was, according to a woman he overheard in a check-out queue, the secret to a happy life.
Burrill’s work in the ‘European Championship of Graphic Design’ show had the same controlled stridency you saw in his self-published products and advertising work of that time, only writ large – another red, green and blue mix of bold caps, lightning-flash arrows, big dots and trademark ‘A. B.’ (‘It’s a bit of a gift,’ says Burrill, though he no longer uses it.)
The scale and conviviality of the week in the Dutch gallery inspired huge changes in his practice. To fit the high-ceilinged space, he had decided to build a tower out of four one-metre cubes. And when he got to Breda, there they were. ‘It’s not like doing an exhibition here [in the UK], where you have to pay for everything yourself. It was amazingly well funded, and they were perfectly made. I had all the vinyl surfaces made here and took them with me – it was pretty much as I’d planned it.’
It was the unplanned aspects of that week that opened his eyes to new possibilities, hanging out with Happypets, Scott King, Jonathan Ellery, Antoine + Manuel et al. ‘I thought, yeah, I want to do more of this,’ he says.
Burrill retains a sense of wonder alongside his Northern sense of humour. This is the person who made a poster saying ‘Life is Hard’, complete with interlocking rainbow and raincloud. ‘With my parents, everything was based on humour and not taking things too seriously,’ he says. ‘Because life is pretty grim for most people.’ Burrill grins: ‘I’m lucky – I’ve created my own little world.’
Burrill is an exhibitor at ‘Pick Me Up’, the graphic art fair at Somerset House in London, from 23 April to 3 May 2010.