Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Robert Brownjohn and The Big Idea

Left: Robert Brownjohn. Right: Liberace.

There's an essay on Liberace by art critic Dave Hickey that's so full of vivid insight that it persuaded me, on a recent trip to the US, to visit the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. Amongst other things, Hickey describes a visit to drab post-war Britain in 1956 where Liberace's arrival caused a furore. He was the Marilyn Manson of his more-benign era, and consequently, was subjected to indignant abuse by the reactionary popular press. The Daily Mirror wrote: "Without doubt he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy floss has an answer for every situation . . . [a] slag heap of lilac-coloured hokum." (Liberace sued.) (And won.)

The influence of American pop (and especially black) music on British pop music, and the way it was subsequently re-imported to the US, has been well documented. But the current exhibition at London's Design Museum devoted to Robert Brownjohn and the publication of Sex and Typography, Emily King's examination of Brownjohn's life and work, sheds new light upon British graphic design's epiphanic encounter with American graphic design in the early 1960s.

A student of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the prolific Brownjohn created many of the seminal graphic images with which we recall the sixties: the Rolling Stones' Let it Bleed album cover, titles for Goldfinger and From Russia With Love, for starters. And in describing this period in cultural history, Hickey uses Liberace's castigation by the British press for some typically sharp-brained conjecture. "What intrigues me about (the) invective is the possibility that it might just mark the official beginning of the 'Sixties', as we call them," he writes. "Because Liberace had this great idea. He had touched a jangling nerve, and I like to imagine young John and Paul up in Liverpool, young Mick and Keith down in London, little David Bowie, and the soon-to-be Elton John, in their cloth caps, all full of ambition and working class anger, looking up from their Daily Mirrors with blinking lightbulbs in talk balloons above their heads."

Liberace's taboo-busting outrageousness may well have marked the beginning of the 'Sixties' (the historian Arthur Marwick, in his book The Sixties, defines the era as running from 1958 to 1974). But for us Brits, Hickey is describing something else as well: the beginnings of a mass adoption of American popular culture by a British populace emerging from its feudal past into the electronic media age.

Brits who came of age in the second half of the twentieth century century grew up in thrall to American pop culture. It was unavoidable, and for most of us (there were some dissenters) it was a thrilling encounter, filled with utopian promise and offering a striking alternative to the staid life of the average Briton. And even if you despised the hegemony of American political culture (which many left-inclined people did) you could still embrace American music, movies and art without demur: Mick Jagger famously turned up at the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demonstration at the same time that he was making records sounding as if he'd been born in Memphis.

Brownjohn, who received the AIGA medal, posthumously, in 2002, wasn't the only American designer to arrive in Britain at this time. There were others — most notably Bob Gill and Lou Klein — who shook up the moribund British advertising and design scene with a splash of US graphic swagger. English designer Alan Fletcher was typical of a British sensibility that looked to America for inspiration. In Sex and Typography, Fletcher eulogises the American mini-invasion: "What impressed me was there was a group of them, about eight or ten of them, all the same age, trying to do the same thing. There were designers like that in London, but there were fewer of them and they were less — how can I put this? — well, I found them less interesting."

British graphic design, during the early and middle-part of the 20th century, was, in general, neither capable of matching the fizz of American design nor of mirroring the studied introspection of European design. Having famously resisted European Modernism between the wars, the Brits preferred instead to cling to their Victorian past — a past where Britannia had ruled a vast global empire and where it was imagined that — if you were British — you'd won first prize in the lottery of life. Why give all that up for rectilinear architecture and asymmetrical typography?

But many British graphic designers liked the refracted modernism of the American designers. They liked the mercantile strut of American graphics. They liked the fact that graphic design lay at the heart of mass advertising and at the core of big business. Most of all, they liked the fact that American graphic design was about 'ideas'.

British graphic design throughout the 60s and 70s was fixated with the notion that all graphic design statements had to be underpinned by an 'idea'. This normally meant puns and allusive jokes. Design annuals from that period are full of visual gags. Training in a studio in the mid-1970s, I was always asked to describe my 'idea' — but I didn't always have an 'idea'. Rather, I liked design that gave aesthetic pleasure and therefore chose colours and typefaces that I liked or that suited the task rather than underpinning everything with an idea. (This was usually met with scowls and disapproving chin-stroking.) Looking back, I cannot help but blame Robert Brownjohn for this. Like Liberace, he's got a lot to answer for.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, History, Media

Comments [8]

The cult of Liberace is a strange thing. Neighbors of mine, as a teen in suburban Chicago, invited Liberace to Thanksgiving dinner every year. He never came, but they always set a place for him.
In retrospect it was like some conceptual performance art on fanaticism.

In Bob Gill's book "Design as a Second Language" he describes studying at the New Bauhaus in Ulm briefly under Moldinado. He instructed Gill on the sort of design the author of this post seems to prefer. Gill was never able to get a handle on it, even though some of his favorite designers (according to the same book) are of the Swiss "aesthetic" school: Muller-Brockman, Grignani, Martens, Gerstner and Munguzzi.

Different strokes for different folks.

There are innovators and those who fossilize innovation into suffocating norms. Blame the later, not the former.

interested reader

"...a British populace emerging from its feudal past into the electronic media age."

*Double takes*

Feudalism had been usurped by bourgeois capitalism for what, 120 years by the time Liberace hit Britain.
Kenny D

You've got it the wrong way round.

The Big Idea ("Maximum meaning, minimum means") was invented by Brit Abram Games, and disseminated to the colonies at the International Design Conference, Aspen, 1959
nick shinn

Glossing over the sexual politics of Liberace's life and work is like glossing over the racial politics of the Rolling Stone's wholesale appropriation of the blues (which you manage to do as well). Putting Brownjohn in the company of Liberace and Howling Wolf could be interesting if you took the time to explore how their human complexity intersected with their work (as Emily King did in Sex and Typography). There are probably some fascinating connections to be made between Robert Brownjohn's drug addiction, Liberace's homosexuality, and Howling Wolf's blackness, but they aren't in evidence here. Instead you have chosen to make the rather pedestrian point that Brownjohn valued the big idea over aesthetic pleasure. Whether or not this conclusion is supported by Brownjohn's work is unclear but given the richness of the subjects you have brought up it's kind of a disappointing thesis either way.
dmitri siegel

Dimitri - you suggest an interesting alternative essay. But my aim was more modest. I wanted to show the recurring influence of American pop culture on British national life (a subject that has interested me since discovering The Beats as a schoolboy.)

The American pop culture invasion might have started with Liberace (although there were of course others before him) but it continues today with 50 Cent, a figure adored by huge numbers of contemporary British youth. In the 1960s Brownjohn and his compatriots had an effect on Brit graphic design that can still be seen today. To deal with every cultural ramification of this is beyond the scope of this post.
Adrian Shaughnessy

You are quite right. In grad school we would have called my comment an "air crit"--talking about something that isn't there. Making the connection between Liberace as a concept-driven performer and Brownjohn's version of "big idea" design is more than enough to cover in a thousand words or less.

I think part of what fascintates the British so much about these American performers is their transgressive personae. In Liberace's case, the camp glamour of the dandy flew in the face of post-war austerity in England. 50 Cent is a pumped-up, cartoon version of the gangster and the foundational myth of the blues (Robert Johnson's deal with the devil at the Crossroads) seduced Kieth Richards, Eric Clapton and others to put down their skiffle. Does this undercurrent of danger and recklessness in American pop culture inform the reception that Brownjohn got in the UK?
Dmitri Siegel

Read a story about the Liberace Museum in the most recent edition of Ninth Letter, a literary magazine designed by art+design students at the University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign.

Mark Hauge

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