History In The Making

Emily King looks back on 20 years of writing design history.


On the day I meet Emily King my usual pre-interview defence mechanisms have failed completely and I’ve managed to play out our meeting about ten times already that morning. Not because I’m anticipating it to be an unpleasant experience, but because she’s not like the other people I’ve interviewed before; she doesn’t make music or art. In fact Emily is a design writer with about twenty years’ more experience than me. She writes books, curates exhibitions and contributes articles to national newspapers, previously holding the role of design editor at friezemagazine. She has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (the one that all the politicians have), a Masters from the Royal College of Art and a PhD from Kingston. Not only that, she’s an experienced interviewer too, which means she never breaks eye contact while we’re talking, speaks softly but with authority on all subjects we discuss and has me answering some of my own questions without my realising — “I don’t know, what do YOU think about that?” — clearly a skill learned while studying for her politician’s degree.

For all her academic qualifications and career success, Emily sort of stumbled unwittingly into the art and design world. After the completion of her BA she found herself at the Victoria and Albert Museum working as the assistant director’s assistant, “a kind of glorified secretary,” and was so poor at it that they invented a scholarship for an MA in the history of design specifically for someone who was working at the museum, “which I think was really just to stop me being a secretary, to get me out of the office.” And that suited her just fine.

“Really the V&A was my favourite place to go when I was young and I’d always wanted to work there. I used to love going during the era of the Boiler House, the precursor to the Design Museum, which was a gallery in the old museum boiler house curated by Stephen Bayley — which seems strange now because he’s become such an arse (you can put that in)! They used to have such great shows there and the permanent collection is just wonderful. I love the kind of ramshackleness, the different artefacts from different ages and different countries put together in one place.”

When Emily started her Masters the RCA’s history of design course had only been on offer for about five years, which left most areas of design history open for exploration, unencumbered by the research of generations of predecessors.

“The V&A and RCA course kind of had a monopoly on what design history was.I mean you were practically inventing it, which is quite intimidating when you’re the first person researching and writing about a particular area.

“Conventional historians have a pre-existing model that they can destroy or build up, but as a design historian you’re often the only person ever to do research in that area. Some people will trace graphic design history back to cave men and others to mechanical reproduction, and you can choose how far you go and how you write the history. It’s really quite refreshing.”

Victoria and Albert Museum

Alongside the invention of new histories, the RCA students were also exploring fields beyond the confines of the design world. “We’d look at all sorts of social and cultural theory, so people like Stuart Hall [a post-Gramscian theorist], Raymond Williams [a prominent figure in the New Left] and Dick Hebdige [a subcultural theorist] would be really important to us. A lot of our ideas came from sociology, anthropology and cultural theory.” Presumably areas in which her studies in Politics, Philosophy and Economics had given her good grounding?

“There were only one or two really big ideas that I got from studying PPE that really helped me. For one I think it makes you understand the people in power better — you know how they’ve been taught and you know how they think so you feel that you know them. It’s not a mystery to me how those people work. Then there’s Marxist economic thought, the kind of analysis of how the economy works that’s really important… and then Wittgenstein, who’s a very useful philosopher to think about.

“I wasn’t particularly good at it though. I’m not a very good philosopher and I’m very bad at abstract thought. We’d spend a lot of time talking about whether a table would still be a table if it didn’t have four legs, you know, really, really hardcore empirical thought. Theseus’ Ship, [a thought experiment that questions whether an object that has all of its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object] actually I still think about that one a lot!”

Emily’s interests were much better served by the real-world processes of design. “There wasn’t a notion that we had to study only professional design, they were interested in amateur design too; gardens,food, you know, anything really, it was seen in the broadest possible sense. Some people on the course really talked about amateur design, about how people made their lives but I, probably by focussing on graphic design, talked more about professionalism than other people.

“But that’s why I like design, because it’s places and people. It’s the whole world, not just the art world and that’s what’s really more interesting for me.”

This holistic view of design is particularly evident in Emily’s book titles. She’s written on subjects as diverse as Robert Brownjohn and Peter Saville, explored systems in graphic design, branding for arts organisations as well as creating retrospective monographs for world-renowned studios like M/M Paris. She’s even branched out into the fashion world, though she says that only happened later on in her career because of the influence of Jop Van Bennekom — “He was very much a graphic designer’s graphic designer and then bit by bit he’s become a much more fashion-led person, and it’s really only through Jop and later Penny Martin that I’ve written about fashion.” But many of her most interesting collaborations have occurred as a result of one book in particular, Restart: New Systems In Graphic Design, a 2001 analysis of some of the world’s finest contemporary studios, a group deemed to be the design world’s avant-garde at the time.

M/M

Restart was quite a lucky project actually because it was initiated by Christian Küsters who I co-wrote it with, and he’d already put together a list of people that for him were new and exciting; his peers. I came on board when he already had that list and we refined it together and added people to it. Then I came up with this idea of restart, this idea of systems, because it struck me that when you looked at the way people were working they were all pushing these systems.

“What was particularly great about that book was that I got to meet most of the designers in it personally, and so I got to know that whole generation. It was the first time I’d met Graphic Thought Facility, the first time I’d met M/M Paris, Angus Hyland, Peter Saville and Mevis + Vandeursen, so it was a really great excuse to go and find all of those people and have conversations with them.”

Most of the people that Emily met while making Restart she’s worked with since, going on to become firm friends or professional collaborators: Angus Hyland on a book about arts identities, Peter Saville on the first ever book of his work and both GTF and M/M Paris on an enormous retrospective of the latter studio’s work, beautifully designed by the former. In fact M to M of M/M (Paris) stands out as one of the most exquisitely realised retrospective monographs of recent years, easily on a par with Unit Editions’ Lubalin. The book was initiated by M/M at a time they believed it was important to tell their story. Having met Emily during Restart they’d gotten on well, liked her writing and continued to correspond. Emily had also remained very close with GTF who were close friends of M/M’s Mathias Augustyniak from their days at the Royal College. Thames & Hudson had decided they’d like to produce a book with the Paris-based duo but under the express conditions that Emily should write it and GTF handle the design. But why GTF instead of M/M, a studio with incredible credentials?

“I suppose M/M design things for other clients, but to design something for themselves would be very torturous, so they wanted to be framed by someone else. I think it was the right decision and I think it was good to have a very simple frame for their work because you wouldn’t have been able to see the work clearly if they’d designed it themselves. Their own books — I’ll probably get killed for saying this — aren’t so successful as a record of their work because it’s too self-conscious a thing to present your own work as a graphic designer. I mean, I’m not a graphic designer but I can’t imagine writing a book about myself. That’d be crazy!”

Jop Van Bennekom

What’s curious about Emily’s books is how much they’re still entwined with that group of designers who were shaking things up in the early 2000’s. When I ask her if she thinks there’s room for a book documenting the current avant-garde she’s hesitant and turns the question back on me, but I don’t have a solid answer either. There are trends for sure, passing fads that appear on the design scene but don’t seem to stick. 2012’s Pretty Ugly seems to exemplify that notion well; a book dealing with aesthetically dissonant practices in the design world that seemed crucial and relevant at the time but which it’s hard to imagine achieving much longevity.

“It’s hard to know whether it’s just because you’re old that you’re not prepared to look at a younger generation anymore but I just don’t know if there’s the same culture of design out there.

I mean I suppose there are… I don’t know… there’s just so many very small studios and I just don’t know which ones that exist now are going to last.”

Perhaps it’s the homogenising effect of the internet speeding up the process of what formerly would have become schools of thought or artistic movements that makes them seem less culturally significant. Every designer worldwide has the ability to access every other designer’s work instantaneously, allowing an almost real-time understanding of the current state of the industry. To develop outside of this all-knowing sphere one would have to make a conscious decision to work offline and nurture a creative practice in isolation. This wasn’t the case 20 years ago, or indeed in the annals of design history, when creative subcultures were able to grow more organically around a central set of ideas and principles.

As well as changing the design landscape in general, the internet has changed the way Emily researches and develops projects. “When I did my MA at the Royal College I wrote about film title sequences for my thesis and then I was offered money to do a PhD at Kingston, specifically looking at Saul Bass. The idea for the thesis came from seeing an Almodovar film and thinking that the film wasn’t that great but the titles were fantastic. I realised there was a whole school of really graphically adventurous film titles, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, that were actually about setting up the film in a really interesting way. It also meant I could watch a lot of films.

Kiki Byrne

“It was very different back then because you couldn’t find things in the same way that you can now. Films weren’t on YouTube so you had to run to the National Film Theatre or the Everyman afternoon showings to be able to see these titles at all. There were some particularly avant-garde German titles that I just never got to see even though I went to the BFI and threaded up films on those Steenbeck machines. But now they’re all on YouTube, every single one of them. It’s kind of odd to think that quite a lot of my time was spent just tracking these things down. Now research is a different kind of thing.”

These days Emily is just as reliant on the net as the rest of us for her research, but she’s keen to stress that it’s not the be all and end all. Someone stillhas to go and do the leg-work for all that information to be available online. “There are still some huge Google blanks. It’s quite scary! When I did the Brownjohn book I was researching his mistress, Kiki Byrne. During their affair she was a fashion designer as famous as Mary Quant with her own shop on the King’s Road, but because she gave up her career entirely and there were no records kept she has, apart from one photograph of her at the National Portrait Gallery, disappeared entirely. There are no internet pages on her whatsoever although she was a huge star. I actually tracked her down in the end but she wanted none of it, so perhaps in the end she’s quite lucky. Now, if you wanted to disappear completely it would be incredibly difficult.”

In terms of future projects it seems to be these internet black spots that particularly excite Emily, finding another opportunity to engage in original, history-defining research. One project in particular that’s still in its genesis focusses on a German art school set up in the early 19th Century called the Reimann-Schule. The school predated and was arguably more significant than the Bauhaus but was closed in the 1930s by the Nazis because so many of the faculty were Jewish. “It was incredibly influential at the time in terms of fashion design, costume design, window dressing and graphics but is virtually forgotten now. I’m trying to think of a way to put together an exhibition about it, but because there’s virtually no information available online or in print it’s a question of going to the Bauhaus Archive, seeking people out and finding what they still have, what they remember — just doing some actual leg-work.”

It must be deeply satisfying to undertake these large-scale, groundbreaking projects alongside her regular commitments documenting the ebb and flow of trends within contemporary design. Surprisingly though, Emily doesn’t balk at the work at the word trend like the majority of the design community or place greater value on work that’s considered to be timeless. For her trend is not a critical term.

“I’m quite pro trend. I like trend. Trendiness is an interesting thing in its own right. I think it’s very interesting when a group of people are thinking the same thing at the same time, together. I don’t think necessarily that timelessness is the great test of worth that everyone believes it to be. It’s one test, but it’s not the be all and end all.

“I don’t write for eternity, I write for now and hopefully that will translate into timelessness. Maybe I’ll be completely wrong, but in the end that’s no great disaster.”


Originally published in Printed Pages Winter 2013.

Illustrations by Joe Cruz.