Around ten years ago, designer Dominic Hofstede witnessed the induction of veteran practitioners Alistair Morrison and Geoff Digby into the Australian Graphic Design Association’s Hall of Fame. He realized he knew next to nothing about the pair; then discovered there were very few resources around to change that.
That’s how Australian graphic design archive Re:collection was born. “I began a fruitless search for information on their careers. There was a dearth of research relating to not just them, but Australian graphic design history in general,” recalls Hofstede, now the design director of MAUD Melbourne, and who previously ran his own studio for almost two decades.
What started as a personal blog has since grown into a resource featuring more than 200 works including books, posters, album covers, stamps, and other miscellany painstakingly sourced from personal collections, secondhand shops, and eBay. These are displayed alongside biographies and articles focusing on Aus [pronounced “Oz”] graphic design from the years 1960-1990.
According to Hofstede, this “most significant period” in Australian graphic design saw the introduction of modernist ideals and the emergence of a profession led by émigrés such as Les Mason who is widely credited today as the “father of Australian graphic design.” The California-born designer moved to Melbourne in 1961 to work at the advertising agency USP Benson. A year later, he established one of Australia’s first independent graphic studios, Les Mason Graphic Design, where he created stunning covers for the country’s first food and wine magazine, The Epicurean, and nurtured many of its top designers including Brian Sadgrove, Garry Emery and Lyndon Whaite.
During the period Re:collection covers, Australian graphic design emerged as a style clearly influenced by European and U.S. Modernism, but with a distinct “impurity” and “naïveté,” according to Hofstede. “There is something genuinely original in the work which extends beyond mere surface quotation,” he says. For instance, works by Arthur Leydin, Alex Stitt, and Bruce Weatherhead may lack the rigor and refinement of the Swiss Style, but have a “relaxed irreverence which Australians are known for.” He adds that this design style lives on in the works of contemporary homegrown studios such as Tin & Ed, U-P, and Work Art Life Studios.
Andrew Ashton, the creative director of Work Art Life Studios, credits understanding Australian graphic design history as “fundamental” to his practice. “It is increasingly difficult for a creative to bring a unique point of view to the creative conversation,” he says, “and whether we like it not, the more social and connected you become, the more shackled you become to a consensus of output.”
“I like the work of the old local crew. Their world grates, it has bumps, it feels like it has an edge.”
This sentiment echoes British design critic Rick Poynor’s assessment of Australian graphic design 15 years ago. In a piece for Eye magazine, the British design critic noted that the country was facing a proliferation of an “increasingly purified, uniform, neo-modernist design aesthetic.” One way out, according to Australian practitioner Garry Emery, was to “look inward” for inspiration.
This is also the conclusion Hofstede arrived at from running Re:collection. “Creatively, the project has reinforced the need to look inwards for stimulus, not outwards,” he says. For a local wine maker’s identity he is currently working on, Hofstede has been looking at Australian design, film, and music from the 1960s and ’70s as key reference points. Earlier this year, he also teamed up with Australian type designer Vincent Chan to create the Recollection typeface, an interpretation of the spirit of designs featured in the archive.
From the initial brief to create “a Antipodean digested version of European modernist ideals”, Chan worked out five key features to create a slightly awkward and distinctly Australian typeface. For instance, the waists of capitals with horizontal cross strokes were lifted; and glyphs like arrows and oversized quote marks were appropriated from a 1968 poster that Weatherhead designed for fashion photographer Henry Talbot’s exhibition. While Recollection is not unique nor definitive of Australian letterforms or the archive, Chan says it reflects the tendencies they observed of the work then.
“In a similar way that the Australian designers of the period borrowed, assimilated, synthesized and, at times, bastardized work from Europe and the Americas, we have also tried to encapsulate their intentions hopefully in a way that brings the spirit of the times to a contemporary audience,” says Chan, who also goes by the moniker Matter of Sorts.
This typeface design is just one example of how Hofstede aims to make graphic design history relevant to the next generation. The Re:collection collective now comprises designers Hofstede, Chan, Warren Taylor, and Paul Mylecharane—all are involved with local universities, and use the archive in their teaching. As well as living online, Re:collection has also stepped outside the digital space on occasion. In 2010, it organised an exhibition featuring all 77 issues of Epicurean that were art directed by Mason. This year, it published Paperback Pioneers to showcase over 80 covers of Sun Books, an Australian paperback publisher who commissioned many of the country’s notable designers for over two decades between the 1960s and 1980s.
“It seems obvious perhaps, but for Australian visual culture to progress, and have some form of coherence, a good starting point is at home,” says Hofstede. “Much of our work as graphic designers is temporary and ephemeral; Re:collection will (hopefully) leave something more permanent and meaningful as a legacy.”