Not all university experiences are worthy of a major museum exhibition, but when they are, I get all misty-eyed over the formative college years I apparently missed out on. Call it a kind of retroactive FOMO, but when entire terms are edited down to a series of seminal events, they seem that much more momentous.
“Graphics RCA: Fifty Years” will make many share my wistfulness for someone else’s memories. The work on view is just so wildly colorful. Not in an Animal House-way (though it might seem so initially, what with John Pasche’s 1971 Rolling Stones “Lips” logo, commissioned by Mick Jagger while Pasche was still a student), but in a literal sense.
Watching graphic design mature from its origins in modernist illustration to the shrewd, complex, multidisciplinary metier it is today is like watching English civilization emerge from postwar drabness into the resourceful, imaginative, trendsetting society we rely on today for our visual cues.
It’s like Dorothy opening the farm door onto Munchkin Land in slow motion.
The drama begins in 1963, the year the Royal College of Art’s School of Graphic Design celebrated its 15th anniversary. The catalogue from that year, displayed under a vitrine beside a class photo is worth the visit alone (the hair!). The late Richard Guyatt, the head of the school from its foundation in 1948, was responsible for diversifying postwar RCA into specialized streams. He also gave the graphic design program its name (“graphic” was not nearly the buzzword it is today and “design” was still something marginal performed in back rooms by typesetters) and removed archaic specialties like bookbinding from the syllabus.
Reports from that time tend to pick out former students like Alan Fletcher, Len Deighton, and Ridley Scott to illustrate the creative heft they were contending with. That star power is unnecessary here, as this world has plenty of its own: Peter Hale of GBH, Margaret Calvert of the UK road signs, and Neville Brody of 1980 New Wave fonts. But you don’t need to be an insider to appreciate them. Flip through the yearbooks and year-end show guides and you’ll understand how graphic design—once but an afterthought—came to affect every program at RCA, from painting to fashion.
The graphics guys (and a steadily growing intake of girls) were in demand from RCA’s Film Society, which got as good as Saul Bass for screenings of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space. The student magazine Ark saw a succession of brilliant fonts. Museums across the city got exhibition posters they probably hadn’t realized would some day become museum-quality themselves.
I crossed the hall into a gallery wrapped with a 50-year timeline interspersed with testimonials from some of Europe’s design giants (a handwritten letter dated May 29, 1992 from an ailing Dieter Roth nearly broke my heart). They credit RCA with building them up from a bunch of geeks, naïfs, and rubes from Brighton. If the benefits of a formal design education were ever called into question, surely this exhibition is living proof of the impact a few good professors, some eager, hardworking students, and a spirited program can have—far beyond the classroom and the graphic design community.