As a child, DEREK BIRDSALL (1934-) loved stationery shops: infinite stacks and reams of paper, pads, notebooks and ledgers; instruments for writing, duplicating and erasing; virgin ink and paper in endless configurations of possibility. He speculates that this feeling was inherited from his grandfather, a clerk in a chemical works, and by Birdsall’s admission, a fountain-pen fetishist.
Birdsall’s first commercial work was hand-drawn and lettered posters for the local cricket club, for which he earned sixpence a week for six posters, including installation and drawing pins. Fifty years later, and still an obsessive pad collector, he has developed a grid-system of revelatory simplicity for book design based on the standard graph paper measured in millimetres that is available from just about any stationer in Europe.
Derek Birdsall hated school but his beautiful handwriting was noticed by his grammar school art teacher who recommended art school. He joined Wakefield College of Art at the age of 15 to study for the Intermediate Examination, which is the equivalent of today’s Foundation qualification for an undergraduate degree in art. Faced with a choice between Lithography and Lettering, Birdsall chose the latter. Upon discovering his young age, the Wakefield authorities insisted he stay for three years, during which he dabbled in letterpress, bought a printing press of his own and began to manufacture cards for local businesses with type “borrowed” from the college’s composing room. In 1952 he won a scholarship to the Central School of Art and Design in London.
At Central, Birdsall came under the influence of Anthony Froshaug, who – alongside Herbert Spencer and Edward Wright – taught his students the difference between beautiful lettering and typography proper, with its pre-eminent concerns of clarity, directness and, above all, textual legibility. Birdsall recalls how the 1951 Festival of Britain had been “typographically Victorian”, but also how through Froshaug and his teaching colleagues, and through magazines like the Swiss printing trade journal SGM, the legacy of Jan Tshichold was beginning to take hold in Britain in asymmetric print designs of modernist simplicity and decorative restraint.
When Birdsall left Central, printers were still the principal source of freelance work, but a few publishers and advertising agencies were beginning to acquire typographic designers “of modernist approach”. After two years of National Service in the Royal Army Ordinance Corps Printing Unit in Cyprus, Birdsall’s first design job was for the printer Balding & Mansell in 1957: a series of leaflets to go with opera LP records with the text set in standard Garamond and “indulgent” titling for Salome in Legend and Aida in Gothic Shaded. The style owed much to Froshaug’s own typographic sensibility which Birdsall describes as “a sense of poetry; modernism with a delicate touch”. While Froshaug loved Gill Sans, for example, he was aware of and deployed the contrapuntal merits of other typefaces. By contrast, some other hardline modernist typography departments supplied only Helvetica to their students.
In 1957 Birdsall was offered a job at the very forward-looking advertising agency Crawfords under the direction of Tom Wolsely, designing the typographic lines on print advertisements. He declined, preferring to remain freelance. This was the beginning of an era of British design that Birdsall describes now as “great and classic”, the 1960s and 70s. He began to be aware of American art directors like George Lois and Henry Wolf and to observe vividly how the worlds of advertising and editorial design were constantly outshining each other and upping the ante set by the other.
In 1959 Birdsall formed BDMW with George Daulby, James Mortimer and George Mayhew, simultaneously with the other epoch-defining design agency Fletcher, Forbes & Gill. During the next eight years at BDMW Birdsall acquired a reputation as the “emergency art director”, multifariously commissioning and art-directing photography and illustration as well as designing typography and layouts for various magazines. In 1967 he started his own studio, Omnific! He continued to design jackets for Penguin books, including a complete re-style of the Education series in 1970; art-directed Town and Nova magazines for short periods as well as Willy Fleckhaus’s now legendary Twen; designed advertisements and literature for Lotus cars and Mobil Oil in New York; and produced the series of Pirelli calendars – for the first time not featuring tyres – which are still the work by which he is best known to many. During the same period he was appointed to a lectureship at the London College of Printing and taught at Maidstone College of Art, always playing modern jazz during class as long as it was allowed.
Birdsall began to get fascinated by meeting writers and still admits no greater thrill than getting a telephone call from an author who wants him to design his book or its jacket. Gradually, from the early 1970s, he became known above all as a book designer. The Penguin covers of the 1960s and 70s close to art-direction – just the type on the Penguin covers of the 1960s and 70s, for example, is brilliantly graphic in itself, with or without illustration. During this period he also became a temporary member of Monty Python as remuneration for designing a landmark book for them. It was followed by two decades of grand and beautiful illustrated books for great world institutions including Yale Center for British Art, Tate, the V&A and the British Council – catalogues of art and architecture and artefacts – with elegant type and illustrative material exquisitely placed and calibrated in scale. He returned briefly to editorial design and art direction in the late 1980s with dramatic and elegant redesigns for the Independent and Sunday Telegraph magazines.
Birdsall’s evolution as a virtuoso book designer is the clearest indication of the principle of transparency that he attaches to design. He is troubled by what he calls the notion of “the designer as It” – as an egocentric expressionist (or Author as current discourse has it) – which is unsatisfying in practice, ephemeral in effect and ultimately even “tragic”. The preface to his 2004 book notes on book design – part reflective treatise, part technical manual – introduces “simply the decent setting of type and the intelligent layout of pictures based on a rigorous study of content”. This is the organising sensibility of all great graphic designers, who manage to contrive tension and sublimity within the exercise of reason. His innocuous recommendation is also, curiously enough, shared by avant-garde mentors of today including Rem Koolhaas and John Thackara: the sense that design needs to be re-conceived as the organisation of what already exists, rather than as the deliberate creation of novelty. Birdsall’s designs are not born of mysterious inspiration but “based on simple, discoverable facts about the books themselves”.
In 2000 Birdsall’s redesign of the Book of Common Worship was published by the Church of England. It is an awesomely demanding feat of typographic organisation befitting a character who – notwithstanding our popular image of the fiery, irrational creative type – has recently filed all his thoughts and notes since the 1950s on A6 index cards. He has prevailed in a studio at the bottom of his garden, with few assistants and minimal technology, through an era of graphically reductive power-branding and baroque adventures in screen-based design, as a typographer with – above all else – respect for the image that words alone can create.
Design Museum + British Council
1934 Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire
1947 First freelance commission at the age of 13: hand-painted posters for Knottingley Cricket Club
1949 Enters Wakefield College of Art
1952 Wins scholarship to Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. Fails diploma on account of external assessor’s appraisal: “not enough work and type too small”
1955 Enlists for National Service on ROAC printing unit in Cyprus; demobbed in 1957 while in same week receiving first commercial commission from Balding & Mansell printers in London. Balding & Mansell continue to print his work as a supplier
1960 Birdsall designs his first Penguin covers
1961 Designs literature for Lotus Cars and for Pirelli, including three of the now famous Calendars; also designs packaging for Morphy Richards (domestic appliances) and Dorothy Gray (cosmetics)
1960-70 Art-directs magazines including Town, Nova and Twen
1963 Elected to the Alliance Graphique Internationale
1970 Re-styles Penguin Education series; also commissioned by Mobil Oil to design Pegasus, their magazine for world-wide distribution which eventually ran for 20 years in six languages. The commission was followed by several print advertising briefs and books for Mobil companies all over the world
1977 Designs Monty Python book for a fee comprising temporary membership of the comedy group and 1/7 of the royalties
1980-91 Designs several major art catalogues for Yale University Press, including Treasure Houses of Britain at the National Gallery in Washington, DC in 1985 and Rembrandt and His Workshop at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1991. Also designs catalogues for George Stubbs at the Tate Gallery (1984), Margaret Bourke-White at the RCA (1990), Henry Moore for the British Council in New Delhi (1987) and the Duff Cooper Library for the British Embassy in Paris in 1997.
1983 Made Royal Designer for Industry (RDI)
1988-92 Returns temporarily to magazine design and art-direction, designing The Independent Magazine and the first issue of the Sunday Telegraph Magazine; both are very successful in terms of circulation increase. Also devises an in-flight magazine for IBM Europe, 1992 Now
2000 Designs The Albert Memorial, a book on the restoration of the eponymous monument, published the Paul Mellon Centre in London. Against stiff competition wins the commission for a new edition of Common Worship, the book of liturgical forms and services belonging to the Church of England.
2004 Designs a set of commemorative stamps for the Royal Society of Arts 250th anniversary and Yale publishes his own Notes on Book Design
2005 Awarded Prince Philip Designers Prize
Design Museum + British Council