Winter 2010

The pop artist as graphic designer

Design: Peter Blake

By Brian Webb and Peyton Skipwith, Antique Collectors’ Club, £12.50

Stars and stripes, hearts and targets – if Peter Blake’s name is not the first thing you spot on the cover of the latest addition to the Antique Collectors’ Club’s highly regarded ‘Design’ series, the Pop motifs in the background pattern positively shout it. As well they might, for he adapted that pattern from a set of colourful enamelled badges made in 2006.

This slim volume by Brian Webb and Peyton Skipwith can give only a small taste of the prolific graphic work of an individual whose visual language of found images, typography and bright colours is clearly built on the craft skills in which he was schooled at Gravesend Tech in the 1940s. But although they are neither listed nor indexed, and on the small side, the 150+ images presented in roughly chronological order in Blake provide an impressive sequence that focuses on client work rather than fine art.

Here you will see a delightful framed letter, book jackets, magazine illustrations, a poster for Madame Tussaud’s, the Royal Academy and London Underground, a jockey’s jacket in paper for the ICA, alphabets, album covers, beer bottle labels, calendars, advertising for cars and Korean clothing, a carpet for the UK’s Supreme Court, a mosaic heart made from chocolate wrappers. There are even costume designs for a Royal Opera House Nutcracker, rejected, the caption notes sniffily, ‘on the pretext that he didn’t understand design for the stage’.

Then there are the usual subjects – Babe Rainbow and her tin-plate wrestler relatives, movie stars and large groups, including the Sgt Pepper’s cover he made with Jann Haworth and photographer Michael Cooper, reworked years later in ‘Class of 2000’ for the Foreign Office.

The collage technique that has become one of Blake’s trademarks has clearly been a boon in his commercial work – he turned around the cover for Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ in a week. But if, as he admits, he can be ‘a hare’ when it comes to deadlines, he can be the slowest of tortoises when it comes to his personal work. He has been working on the 160 illustrations for Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood for more than fifteen years – the tantalising examples here show finely detailed pencil portraits of the characters, collaged background scenes and watercolours of the dream sequences. ‘Every single one of the illustrations is started. […] It is the elaboration of detail required that takes the time,’ says the biographical essay at the start of the book. Someone give that man a deadline, please.

First published in Eye no. 78 vol. 20 2010

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.