Turning the page
By Chris Rogers, Mar 26 2021 10:52AM
It started with our chance find together – at the bottom of a drawer in my mother’s house – of a slipcase of visitor information cards for the Museum of London dating from its opening in 1976. I had never seen it before, despite living in the same home for three decades; it was designed by David Stuart and illustrated by John Gorham. But as I delighted in its elegant and unusual layout and wondered how on earth it got there*, I realised that certain other items quietly present on my own bookshelves all had the same distinctive quality – the very specific design style of non-fiction publishers in the 1970s.
Several came to mind: a book on the history of weapons, another on historic European town houses, trade magazines issued by an oil company… all shared the same elegant and powerful visual language. Clean typefaces, often in large fonts. Bold illustrations, whether line, axonometric or pictorial, were always isolated against the white space of the page. Flat planes of colour were common, with contrasting hues often employed to highlight a mechanism, design or feature. Even the tactility of the paper played its part, with selected sections in a different weight or colour to carry a different style of image or type of content.
The military book is The Lore of Arms by William Reid, published in 1976 by AB Nordbok, Gothenburg and designed by Tommy Berglund. It is, frankly, gorgeous and contains not a single photograph. Instead drawings of armour, flintlocks, swords and pistols jump off the pages, in various scales, some cutaway, some in profile. Many are in monochrome but many are rendered as exquisite blocks of colour through what the jacket calls a process of hand lithography, the latter a printing method, now widespread, that uses a flat rather than an incised or raised plate with the image formed from a medium that repels water. A bit of Googling reveals that my book was part of a series; other entries covered trains and ships, images from the latter confirming the style.
The house book is (East) German – Town Houses of Europe by Horst Büttner and Günter Meissner – and is from 1983 but the approach is similar with its delightful, hand drawn plans and elevations. By this time there are colour photographs albeit corralled into separate bound sections.
The origins of the approach seen in these books appears to lie in the International Typographic Style, which began in the USSR, Holland and Germany between the wars and matured in Switzerland during the 1950s. Sans-serif types, an underlying mathematical grid and self-assured use of colour images were its attributes, and some of this is seen in those magazines I mentioned. They have no inscribed date of publication or copyright, oddly, but a little more online research confirms my issues of Air BP Magazine (‘The Journal of the International Aviation Service of BP’) are from the mid-to-late 1960s. Their headline text is sometimes vertical, sometimes diagonal and often pushed to the very edge of the page, and there is a delightful – often playful – mix of visual material within each edition, from striking photography to charming illustrations. Especially notable is the synthesis of the physical, such as short internal flyleaves in a different paper.
The same angles are also characteristic of architectural and other design-led periodicals of the era, including – I recalled – my May 1971 copy of The Architectural Review focusing on Venice. This features gloss paper for its photography sections but a quarter of a dozen different colours of a rougher, matte stock for its text and illustrations. A dramatic landscape-format cover sends its own message(s). The edition is almost identical in layout to The Lore of Arms from just five years later, contextualising the design of those weighty tomes and pushing the ideas contained forward to the 1980s.
Thinking back, my interest in graphic design must have started when my father used to bring books like these home for me from the library next to my mother’s workplace; books on space exploration, military fortifications, emergency vehicles. Highly illustrated with impressive cutaways, intricate line drawings and coloured diagrams, sometimes arranged as foldouts, and I pored over them endlessly.
Unfortunately if inevitably trends in this industry, as in so many others, changed, and books became almost entirely full of conventional photography, bled to the edges of the pages and with dull, unremarkable typography. Only Dorling Kindersley carried on the concepts from the 1960s and 70s with their splendid books from the 1990s and 2000s that pushed the punchy technique of knolling, whereby multiple related objects are arranged in a tight grid and photographed from above, like the parts from a model kit.
Decades on from the 1970s, though, it’s clear that my exposure to the style of that period embedded that has stayed with me to this day.
*I visited the newly-opened museum with my primary school; I do remember the impression Powell & Moyer’s mysterious, dark building had on me, with its Lord Mayor’s coach ‘floating’ just above the ground, so we assume the slipcase must have somehow come home with me from then.
Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.
"Throws light on significant achievements"
– Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall
Black Dog Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978 1 906155 73 5
Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.
"A little gem"
– Terry Philpot, Tablet
Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)
ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4
Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.
– Don Brown, The London Society
Ivy Press, 2017
ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1
Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.
Ivy Press, 2018
ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3
Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.
"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"
– Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her
Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service
Private press, 2006
The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.
Twentieth Century Society, 2020
ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0