On Richard Hollis

Christopher Turner

In 1956 the Whitechapel Gallery hosted the influential exhibition This Is Tomorrow, in which teams of artists and architects were invited to create installations that presented their different visions of the future. Participants included leading figures from the Independent Group, such as Eduardo Paolozzi and the architects Peter and Alison Smithson, who displayed a series of found objects in a post-apocalyptic mirrored shed. Richard Hamilton’s group presented a funfair vision that launched the British Pop Art movement. Robby the Robot, star of the science-fiction movie Forbidden Planet, opened the show because, according to the critic Reyner Banham, he was much ‘easier to book than Marilyn Monroe’.

Banham wrote an essay, in the form of concrete poetry, for the accompanying catalogue, which was designed by IG member Edward Wright (who went on to create Scotland Yard’s revolving sign). It was this spiral bound scrapbook, with a cobalt blue cover and cheap offset lithography, that made Richard Hollis want to be a graphic designer. Wright’s cultural references, Hollis said, ‘were almost entirely to things outside this country and his work was unlike what others were doing. His “This is Tomorrow” had no precedent and no direct influence. But it is one of the most memorable pieces of design made here.’ In 1957, Hollis quit Wimbledon Art School to become, in his own description, a ‘freelance dropout’, in thrall to the new avant-garde.

A decade later, Mark Glazebrook, the disorganised but incisive new director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, was wandering around the Central School of Art when he came across Hollis, then a tutor in the graphic design department. Hollis, who had learned typography from a student of Wright’s, was living in Bloomsbury with his partner, the cartoonist Posy Simmonds, and had just resigned from his post as art editor of New Society. The school had broken up for the holidays and the studios were empty of all competition. When Glazebrook remarked that he was looking for someone to redesign the Whitechapel’s letterhead, Hollis offered to have a go.

The typeface Hollis chose was Block, a rugged, heavyset font with wobbly edges that was contemporary with and reflected the architecture of the building. The Whitechapel Gallery, built in 1901, was the brainchild of a local curate, Samuel Barnett, who wanted to bring culture, as well as religion, to the slums. The distinctive Art Nouveau structure was designed by Charles Harrison Townsend, and is dominated by a squat, Romanesque arch, placed, rather eccentrically, off-centre to make way for a modest door that used to lead to the upper galleries. It is clad in glazed terracotta bricks, and the roofline is capped by two book-ending towers so that it resembles a gatehouse of culture.

Perhaps to echo these turrets, Hollis split the design of his new letterhead to accommodate the anticipated fold in the page: THE WHITECHAPEL … ART GALLERY (a design mimicked by the Serpentine today). He was to design everything for the Whitechapel, as it came to be known, until Glazebrook’s departure in 1972. All his designs had a thrifty, cut and paste urgency, like political flyers, playing clever games with folds and found type and imagery. He combined a Swiss rigour with a willingness to transgress design rules, and set the standard for contemporary art publications. He created innovative posters and catalogues for exhibitions of the work of Donald Judd, Patrick Heron, Richard Long and David Hockney. When Hockney drew a portrait of Glazebrook, he chose to represent him with Hollis’s 1970 catalogue in his lap.

Christopher Wilson’s excellent Richard Hollis Designs for the Whitechapel, the final book from Hyphen Press, is not only a detailed analysis of the work of Hollis, with whom Wilson collaborated from 1999 to 2004, but a story of aesthetic and social change as told through the gallery, which had a reputation as the most exciting exhibition space in London.[*] Mixed with the archival graphic material is a rich history that traces the introduction of contemporary art in Britain. By 1972, the Whitechapel was facing stiff competition from the Hayward, the ICA and the Tate, and the Sunday Times asked: ‘Does the Whitechapel have any function to perform in the Seventies?’ The Docklands had closed, leading to mass unemployment in the area, and Tower Hamlets’ cash-strapped council withdrew its grant, on the grounds that the institution wasn’t any longer working for the benefit of the local community.

Glazebrook was forced to resign and went to work for Colnaghi’s, a commercial gallery in Mayfair. Hollis, also out of a job, created his best-known and most widely disseminated work: the cover for John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), the book that accompanied the documentary series. (Berger had taught Hollis drawing as a student, and Hollis also designed a striking jacket for his novel G.) The first episode opened with Berger wielding a Stanley knife in the National Gallery and cutting the head from Botticelli’s Mars and Venus. Hollis brought a similar iconoclasm to his design for the book, which he arranged like an illustrated lecture.

On the cover, Hollis centred the title and author credit but then launched straight into the first paragraphs of the book, whose text was ranged left (the book remained in print until 2008, but later editions would correct this heresy and align everything left). Wide paragraph indents allowed for the cover image – Magritte’s A Key of Dreams – also to be centred. Inside, the imagery was black and white, and the text was entirely set in bold, so as to have the same weight as the pictures. Hollis liked to share the credit for his irreverent design with the then art editor at BBC Books, Peter Campbell, who designed the LRB and many of its covers, and with whom Hollis would later collaborate on LRB books: ‘he just let us get on with it.’ His director at Penguin, Hans Schmoller, was so enraged by the heavy type and unsystematic alignments that he hurled his copy down the corridor in disgust.

Wilson’s book also charts the meteoric rise of Nicholas Serota, who had first worked at the Whitechapel in 1971 when, as an exhibitions officer at the Arts Council, he helped install a retrospective of Kenneth and Mary Martin. In 1976, after a stint as director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (where he worked on graphics with Hollis’s student Peter Miller), he took over the helm of the Whitechapel, and rehired Hollis two years later. Mark Francis, a curator at the gallery, described Serota as ‘a favoured son of the Arts Council, which was the only funding body. They knew he was the guy to lead the charge.’

Serota established relationships with contemporary art museums in Bern and Eindhoven, working collaboratively to share costs, which enabled him to bring expensive exhibitions of international art to London. The Whitechapel had what one curator described as an East/West problem. It was ‘a centre for high art surrounded by extreme poverty’. Serota invited the left-leaning Hollis back to create the 1978 poster and catalogue for Art for Society: Contemporary British Art with a Social or Political Purpose. He used rough textured paper and a deliberately cheap aesthetic that one critic compared to a trade-union bulletin. The only ‘imagery’ he used on the cover was a thick brushstroke of green paint to underline ‘society’ (a motif he had used in his earlier Hockney poster and had once suggested as the gallery’s logo). It was left to dribble down the page, like graffiti. Hollis’s thrifty, gritty aesthetic was, according to Serota, ‘appropriate to the location; it wasn’t extravagant; it wasn’t too colourful. It was modest and economical.’ For the next seven years, he was again responsible for all the gallery’s printed material.

At the end of 1983, the Whitechapel closed for a 12-month refurbishment, as the gallery expanded into an adjacent plot. It would reopen as a white cube hidden inside a 19th-century carapace. Serota wanted a new typeface to go with the uplift and invited Peter Saville, known for his record sleeve designs, to refresh the graphics. Saville was 29; Hollis was 50. Saville, the stealer of the flame, doesn’t come off well in Wilson’s account. Hollis thought graphic design should be a trade, ‘like plumbing’: Saville thought graphic designers should be more like the pop stars he usually worked with. Whereas Hollis preferred the scalpel and the spatula, Saville was drawn to the contemporary visual language of computers and coding systems, and prided himself on being attuned to the zeitgeist. Serota, who needed something more corporate-looking to attract sponsors, approved Saville’s new logo, which put WHITECHAPEL, transcribed in a spidery neoclassical font, against a background rectangle. ‘The design perhaps took us away from the community, slightly,’ he later admitted.

[*] Hyphen Press, 399 pp., £30, December 2017, 978 0 907259 49 7.