You would think that designing for The Beatles, collaborating with leading artists like Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, and having a client list that included almost all of the leading art galleries in London’s ‘Swinging ‘Sixties’ era would guarantee a position in the annals of British design history. Yet Gordon House, who was a successful abstract painter alongside his unique career as a graphic designer, is hardly a household name. Luckily, the Broadway Gallery in Letchworth, some thirty miles north of London, is working to change that with a wide-ranging exhibition titled Gordon House: Print to Paint.
Letchworth Garden City, to give it its full name, is the town where House spent his formative years, so the exhibition is something of a homecoming. Early signs of House’s creative ability awarded him spots at two nearby art schools: first Luton, then later, a scholarship to St. Albans. One of his fellow students at both was the painter Richard Smith, with whom House remained close friends for the rest of his life. A member of a ground-breaking cohort of London-based artists, including many Pop Art pioneers, Smith’s friends and contemporaries included Joe Tilson, Robyn Denny, Pauline Boty, and Peter Blake—the latter of whom befriended House as well. Blake would occasionally commission House’s typographic skills for his own projects, most notably, for the back cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sleeve as well as posters for Live Aid in 1985.
Had House followed Smith to the Royal College of Art in the 1950s, he may well have found success sooner. Instead, he stayed close to home, first working for a small advertising agency in Letchworth, where he realized his love of typography (although in his autobiography Tin-Pan Valley he reflects, somewhat dismissively, that they did “everything in Gill Sans”). Another job followed, as an evening helper at the Hitchin studio of Herbert Sharpe, a painter whose silk banners were then still used in political marches. Here he remembers trying to turn a conservative fellow painter onto Picasso, in an attempt “to wean him off the hollyhock scented thatched theme.” Over time, graphic design became not only a source of income to fund his artistic pursuits, but also a second passion for House.
The strict grids and geometry found in much of House’s art may have been inspired by the optimism and public spirit that guided the urban design of his hometown.
From 1952 to 1959, House worked his longest in-house position, as a designer for Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in Welwyn. Like Letchworth, Welwyn is also a ‘garden city,’ the result of a proto-modernist approach to town planning invented in 1898 by Ebenezer Howard. Howard declared that “town and country must be married”; he and his followers wanted order, sense, and nature in reaction to chaotic, polluted, and increasingly overcrowded urban centers. Laura Dennis, who curated Print to Paint, suggests that the strict grids and geometry found in much of House’s art may have been inspired by the optimism and public spirit that guided the urban design of his hometown. Letchworth famously has the UK’s first roundabout, and a not dissimilar circular motif, often split into quarters, makes regular appearances in both House’s art and his graphic design.
Although House spent a lot of time in the only two towns that the garden city movement ever managed to build, their nostalgic, folksy, anti-urbanism didn’t really interest him. The pull of the city was far too strong. Regular trips to London while a student lead to House’s discovery of the excitements of the day; Italian coffee machines, European cinema, and Jazz. For House, inspiration was usually either urban, European, or both. He moved to London while working as a designer for ICI, commuting daily to Welwyn, which ended up having an influence on his hard-edged abstract approach. In the exhibition text for House’s first solo show in 1959, Richard Smith describes House’s paintings as “like the momentarily in-focus forms of the daily recurring landmarks of the Kings Cross–Welwyn Garden City route… It is as if they had only a second to register, like signs on the new motorways.”
In the early ‘60s, British designers weren’t always interested in what was going on in Europe, but House became one of the first to put the lessons of Swiss design to use for British clients. House probably first became aware of this style of modernist graphic design through the design of European pharmaceutical packaging which he would have seen while working for ICI. Geigy, the Swiss chemical company, were at the time, working with important designers like Karl Gerstner, Fred Toller and Josef Müller-Brockmann, as well as students of Armin Hofmann at the Basel School of Design. In his memoir House writes of a 1961 trip to Zurich “visiting admired ‘grafikers’ and soaking up their real typography confined to that city.” After this he also became a dedicated collector of the legendary Neue Grafik magazine. House’s subsequent work for art-world clients like the ICA, Arts Council, Marlborough Gallery, and Royal Academy of Arts tended to make use of strict grids, bright flat colors and bold sans-serifs like Helvetica, Univers and Akzidenz Grotesk, in a way which was punchy, direct, and fresh to British eyes.
By using him for all their promotions, the London galleries that hired House got a coherent visual identity at a time when many arts institutions didn’t have any sense of ‘branding’
Many of London’s leading art galleries throughout the ‘60s, both commercial and public, hired House for their graphic design needs. For all of these clients, House utilized the same, somewhat mechanical, graphic approach. This occasionally lead to trouble, as recounted in his memoir, when the owner of a gallery he was designing for spotted House’s work at the ICA and Arts Council, and was annoyed not to have a monopoly on his style. By using him for all their promotions, the London galleries that hired House got a coherent visual identity at a time when many arts institutions didn’t have any sense of ‘branding’—most used posters that looked radically different for each new exhibition, often with no consistent logo. As his friend and fellow artist Bernard Cohen put it, “The art world was full of stylistic debris, just as London was still covered with the debris of the Second World War. Gordon’s graphics contributed to a spirit that in turn helped rebuild London. Galleries seemed to change and freshen up in response to his designs.”
Although Gordon House was at his best working in a rigid Modernist mode, he also had a few subtle tricks up his sleeve. As shown in the exhibition, the identity for Situation (a key exhibition of British abstract art held in 1960, curated by Lawrence Alloway) is printed with black ink on black paper. While for the follow-up exhibition—New London Situation—the House designed guidebook cover employs an emboss on white paper. He would later use this technique again for the catalog of a 1966 Marcel Duchamp exhibition, this time setting the artists’ surname vertically up the cover and debossing it into a paper stock whose color mirrored Duchamp’s famous Green Box. In 1968, House collaborated with the artist (and occasional graphic designer) Richard Hamilton on The Beatles’ famous White Album, employing a white on white emboss of the band’s name in small type across the record sleeve. This was against the wishes of Hamilton, who wanted to leave the sleeves totally blank, save for the stamp of a unique issue number.
“The words ‘The Beatles’ were not supposed to appear on the cover and I did not see what had been done until after the album was on the shelves,” Hamilton commented. Adding that “perhaps I just didn’t see the blind-embossed words at first, which were probably added under pressure by my friend Gordon House… I still believe that it is a regrettable touch of vandalism, like graffiti.”
House first came to work with The Beatles, and then their record company Apple, through the art dealer and gallery owner Robert Fraser, nicknamed ‘Groovy Bob’, one of the most influential figures in the Swinging Sixties’ London scene. House met Fraser, a friend of both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, through designing the graphics for his gallery. Part of the ease with which House moved in these circles, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, came down to his fashionable look; he favored the ‘Mad Men’ style, with a short Ivy League haircut and trendy tailored suits from Cecil Gee. When American graphic designers like Bob Gill, Lou Klein, and Robert Brownjohn (who later replaced House as designer for the Robert Fraser Gallery) arrived in ‘60s London to shake up the design industry, they would have found that Gordon House already had their look, if not their more conceptual approach to design.
“Perhaps I just didn’t see the blind-embossed words at first, which were probably added under pressure by Gordon House… I still believe that it is a regrettable touch of vandalism, like graffiti.”
Aside from The Beatles, House’s designs for music industry clients never quite hit the same heights as his work for the art world. At some point, he collaborated with Storm Thorgerson, of the influential album design agency Hipgnosis, forming a company called GSP Productions which made a promo video for Band on the Run, the third studio album by Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles group Wings. House continued painting and working as a designer well beyond the ‘60s, working from his Islington home studio, with weekends at his cottage on the border of his native Wales. House died from a brain tumor in 2004 aged 72, painting up until the very end and still designing catalogs for galleries as late as 2003.
That House was equally accomplished as both a designer and artist may explain why his design work isn’t more well known. A modest person and not much of a self-promoter, House reportedly charged less than most of his competitors. Unlike many of his contemporaries he never opened a studio with employees, preferring to work solo and get his work done so that he could get back to his painting. Most of his lifelong friends were artists rather than graphic designers, which perhaps explains why his work doesn’t often appear in design books.
Laura Dennis, the exhibition curator, points out that House isn’t the only figure of the era who is now somewhat neglected; she suggests that it’s the case with many interesting artists from this period, House’s oldest friend Richard Smith included. But there’s been a growing interest in the art of sixties London, with many artists getting posthumous gallery shows of late. Since House played a large part in the art scene of this important era, helping to define its visual essence, as both a painter and graphic designer, he undoubtedly deserves a place in this resurgence, and the history books too.