Before graphic designer Robert Brownjohn met Ivan, the son of his architecture professor Serge Chermayeff, as well as a young Tom Geismar (both about a half dozen years younger than him), and founded Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar in 1957, he made a name for himself working freelance with George Nelson at Herman Miller, Ed Bartolucci at Bob Cato Associates, and for clients like Pepsi and Columbia Records.
Known for his conceptual approach to graphic design, his personal behavior was often as unexpected as his work (and also due, perhaps, to a lifelong addiction to heroin). Once when he, Chermayeff, and Geismar were unable to cross a Manhattan street due to bumper-to-bumper traffic, Browhnjohn opened the rear passenger door to a taxi in front of him, crawled over the laps of the passengers in the back of the cab, and in the next car after that until he made it across the street.
Brownjohn brought this same sense of play to the 1958 business holiday card pictured above. By deconstructing the word “noel” over and over, the use of distressed letterpress type was not only groundbreaking, but prescient.
Two years later, Brownjohn left the firm to move his family back to London—a decision motivated in part by England’s free treatment for heroin addicts—and took on the role of creative director for J. Walter Thompson (now JWT). There he created what is perhaps his best known work. One colleague noted that Brownjohn “got paid vast sums of money compared with the rest of us because he was so smart and entertaining. Agencies were just happy to have him around, wheeling him out for clients once in a while.”
In 1963 he designed the titles for the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love, followed by the opening titles for Goldfinger the next year (above). Who can forget those credits, projected on a model painted gold from head to toe? Even 24 years later, the same projection technique was used by Tibor Kalman for The Talking Heads’ “Nothing but Flowers” music video.
In 1967 Brownjohn was asked by Michael Cooper, the photographer of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover, to design his business card. The card featured sans serif type on a white background that read:
designed this letterheading
for Michael Cooper of
4 Chelsea Manor Studios
Flood Street London SW3
In 1969 he created the album cover for the Rolling Stones LP “Let It Bleed,” a parody of the Beatles “Let It Be;” Brownjohn’s whimsical concept captured the renegade spirit of the band perfectly. On the front cover a phonograph spindle is stacked with a cake, a pizza, a tire, a clock face, the reel-to-reel tape canister for the album, and candy versions of the band members perched on top. On the back cover a slice of cake has crashed down, smashing the vinyl record below.
Browhnjohn accomplished all this before the age of 44, after which he was posthumously inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame (in 1995) and awarded the AIGA Medal in 2002. At one point in his career he was asked, “What is graphic design,” to which he replied, “I am.”