Reviewed by Richard Dragun
Robert Brownjohn's cult status amongst designers derived from his ability to capture the experimental spirit of the 1960s with brilliant graphic ideas, whilst ' living fast' and inevitably 'dying young'. His life really did lend credibility to the maxim ‘if you can remember the '60s, you weren't really there!’ For those of us who weren't really there, the first ever monograph on this iconic figure of graphic design provides a valuable reference for designers and film fans alike, whilst giving us a glimpse of the changing world of advertising and film in the liberated atmosphere of the 1960s.
The content is presented in two halves; his life and his work. The first half traces his life and career via a chronology of reminiscences, anecdotes and events. The format is simple and direct, a timeline reading like a series of diary entries highlighting what he did, where and with whom. The list of contributors reads like a roll-call of the great and the good from the world of advertising, design and entertainment, some of whom still seem not to have recovered from the experience of knowing him.
Robert Brownjohn (Bj to his friends) was born in New Jersey in 1925 and by the age of twelve had started to put all his efforts into the study of art, finally entering the Institute of Design in Chicago to study under the Bauhaus émigré Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Brownjohn was inspired by Moholy-Nagy's experimental approach to design and even taught at the Institute before moving to New York in 1950.
As co-founder of Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar he produced ground breaking work for Pepsi Cola, Pirelli, Columbia Records and the US Pavilion at the 1959 Brussels World's Fair. He was a devotee of the New York jazz scene and befriended the musicians Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. He was also a habitual drug-taker.
In 1960 he moved to London (having split with Chermayeff and Geismar) to start afresh and change his lifestyle. Indeed, he did start afresh, and together with other US émigrés, brought energy and vitality to London's fledgling graphic design scene. However, his drug habit soon took over once again and he died in 1970, just days before his 45th birthday.
The second half of the book is devoted to his work and is copiously illustrated with material from a relatively small archive but one that demonstrates the ingenious combinations of typography, illustration and found objects that became Brownjohn's hallmark and the inspiration to the generation of designers who followed.
Brownjohn's career was too short for there to have been unproductive years and this part of the book feels like a 'complete works'. These are not case studies; in fact, very little insight is given into what led up to the finished works. This in itself is appropriate because his genius lay in making a solution appear to have been totally spontaneous which actually disguised the fact that, although able to produce inspirational solutions, he often worked at being 'spontaneous' for hours or even days. His great friend Alan Fletcher writes in the foreword to the book “he liked his ideas to seem off-the cuff. He liked to seem lazy, but he could work hard at it”.
The title 'Sex and Typography' is taken from the article in 'Typographica' from December 1964 in which Brownjohn implied that the idea for his famous poster 'Obsession & Fantasy' sprang from his disordered mind. However, it seems more likely that this work, as well as the famous 'watching words move' advertisements for Midland Bank and film titles for 'From Russia with Love' and 'Goldfinger' owed much to MoholyNagy's teachings that “literature can be defined as the verbalised form of communication generated by psychological and biological forces”.
The belief that words carry emotional as well as intellectual connotations was central to Brownjohn's approach to advertising typography. The 'Obsession & Fantasy' poster is a perfect example of the experience Moholy-Nagy described as 'simultaneity'; in other words seeing and reading, both at once.
For Brownjohn life and work were inextricable, though the two-part format of the book attempts to separate design from biography. We will never fully know the extent to which his habits and lifestyle were related to his genius – but wherever it came from, his talent is beyond dispute, and as a homage to one of graphic design's greatest creative geniuses it is a must for every designer, whether they remember the '60s or not.