1960s modernist British
Edited version of an interview with Professor Philip Steadman by Adrian Shaughnessy
In 2008, I was shown four copies of a magazine called Form, by the designer Mason Wells. I was intrigued, but I could find no mention of Form in any of the standard textbooks. I noted that the magazine had three editors and that one of the trio – Philip Steadman – was also the publisher. I also noticed that no designer was credited.
Today, Philip Steadman is Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at University College London. He trained as an architect, and has taught at Cambridge and the Open University.
I emailed him and received a warm reply thanking me for taking an interest in Form. He said that he had been the magazine’s co-editor, publisher and designer.
I told him that I wanted to write about Form and he kindly agreed to be interviewed. The conversation below was conducted in his office shortly before Christmas 2009.
Q: I’d like to start by asking you how you came to have an interest in graphic design?
A: I was a student in Cambridge. Well, perhaps I should go back even further because my interest in typography started at school. I was at Winchester and an old boy gave the school a printing press and some type and they didn’t know what to do with it. I decided, along with a good friend of mine called Alex Reid, to do something with this printing press. So we printed a book of prayers for the college.
What period are we talking about?
This was in the early 1960s. One of the magazines we were involved with [Cambridge Opinion] was about serious social issues. It was designed by Alex. I don’t know where we learnt about typography. Both of us worked for a time at a printers in Winchester when we were doing magazines, as well as our own press work. I suppose we learnt about graphic design informally, through the kind of architectural route, through architectural and design magazines. We never had any formal training.
Later I got involved in another magazine. It was called Image and it was originally a sort of photojournalism publication. It was our attempt to do a Picture Post, that sort of thing. The design was done by my friend Alex, and then I took over.
Would you say that Image was a precursor of Form?
Yes. I suppose the other side of my involvement in the magazine was that I was interested in contemporary art, and I was particularly interested in Kinetic Art and Concrete Poetry which were two big movements back then. I got to know Stephen Bann and Mike Weaver, who were the two other editors of Form, in connection with an arts society we had in the University.
In addition to being the joint editor and the publisher – you were also the designer.
Yes, by that point I was quite far into my architecture studies, so I’d absorbed a bit about Swiss design. But I don’t remember anything conscious about it.
I am intrigued to see that you never took a design credit in Form. Was that deliberate?
No. In fact I remember looking through some correspondence and I found a letter from someone rather distinguished, and he said, I wondered who you got to design this?
Were you aware of Neue Grafik?
Yes, and there was another magazine, the Ulm bulletin, and if you know Ulm you’ll see that Form is pretty closely modeled on it. It used Helvetica and white space. But I had my own ideas; I wanted the magazine to be square for example. Our plan was to keep publishing it until we made a perfect cube when all the issues were stacked one on top of another.
When I first came across the magazine, I was struck by the design – and in many ways the content, too – which seemed to be the mirror opposite of what was going on in 1960s Britain at the time. Back then there was an obsession with American pop culture and later with psychedelic art. How did Form’s Modernist design avoid being diluted by what was happening back then?
The design of the magazine reflects the fact that I was trained as a modern architect at Cambridge School of Architecture and it was pretty straight stuff. You have to remember that it was the early 1960s, and at that point the major reaction against modernism had not set in. That was to come later. There was also right wing criticism of the perceived leftish tendencies of modern architecture, but that too came a bit later.
At that point, for us, Modernism was just the received wisdom. To give you a bit of a flavour of the period, we copied out quotations from Le Corbusier as though they were sacred texts. We lettered them up. At that point the world of pop culture was emerging. A group of us – architects and architectural students – went down to the old ICA on Dover Street and we heard Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham and Eduardo Paolozzi, the beginnings of that American appreciation. We sort of liked it in a way, but we weren’t doing it.
What I do remember is that we were very interested in certain people involved in product design – Braun and Olivetti. We weren’t doing product design, but we followed it and when you set up your student room you’d have your Braun heater and that sort of thing.
The magazine lasted for 10 issues, ending in October 1969.
Yes. We never did manage to make our cube. What happened was that it was an enormous work for me. It was for all three of us, but I did the design, I organized the printing and I did the distribution more or less single-handedly. I trekked round the bookshops. We had quite a big mail order side, mainly to University libraries and so on. That became quite onerous and also became quite difficult… I ran out of money basically. We had some university grants, we had Arts Council money, and we had a little bit of advertising. So I think a) we ran out of steam, b) we ran out of money, and c) the three of us had dispersed. And in a way, its moment had passed and we all went our own ways.
This is an edited version of a much longer interview published in U:D/R 02 – Space and structure. Looking at Form, a quarterly magazine of the arts (1966—1969). It is available here and from a few selected bookshops.