[1936 - 2010]
Barrie Briscoe was born in Gloucester, England, and moved to Canada aged 13. After an unusual and extensive education at a variety of North American universities, including Yale, he emerged onto the 1960s architectural scene with degrees in art, architectural engineering and architecture.
Briscoe worked on numerous Supergraphics projects for Canadian and US architects before setting up Super Graffiti Ltd (‘in 1967 or 68’) to undertake commercial projects. In an article on his work in the British magazine, Design Journal (1970), the writer noted that ‘Briscoe allows his bold patterns to curve, spread and wind over walls, ceilings and floors, up chimneys and down staircases, admitting some interruptions and ignoring others.’
Briscoe returned to England in 1972 to teach at Sheffield University in the Department of Architecture. The following year he moved to Cornwall.
Barrie Briscoe died shortly after this interview was conducted.
You studied fine art, engineering and architecture. Can you talk about your early education?
I went to university in Canada. It must have been 1957 or ‘58. I was going to be a Petroleum Engineer and I went to Mt. Royal College in Calgary, Alberta. It was a religious university and I fell out with the religious section of the college. So I looked around, and because I was a good scholar, they said they’d recommend me to another university, whichever one I wanted. So I found Washington State University and they gave me a scholarship. I went there, and afterwards I was going to go to the University of Oklahoma to finish my degree in Petroleum Engineering. When I got to Washington State, I found that I was in the Civil Engineering department. But I was fascinated by the Architecture department, so I switched into architecture because they were making models and doing all kinds of interesting things. And that’s how I got into architecture. Then I took up art courses and I switched to the Art school and back again. In the end I spent an extra two years at Washington State, so that I graduated from both departments – the Fine Art department in painting and the Architecture department in architectural engineering.
You spent some time at Yale, too, didn't you?
Yes, I applied to Yale, and they said, ‘you don’t have an architecture degree, you’ve got to get an architecture degree before you can come here.’ So I applied to the University of Pennsylvania. I spent one year there and I got my degree in architecture. Then I went to Yale. I was there just a year after [Sir Norman] Foster was, I think, I don’t know when he went there?
You are extremely well qualified, and with an unusual combination of subjects too; architecture, architectural engineering and fine art.
I’m probably the most highly qualified person in England. Anyway, after I graduated from Yale, there was a Canadian architect in my class and he asked me to go to Toronto. So I went to Toronto to work for an architect and that’s when I started doing Supergraphics on the side. I did a couple of murals for friends mostly. And then I went off and did it on my own as a business.
When did you first hear the term Supergraphics?
When I was at Yale, Charles Moore was the head of the architecture school. He’d built his own house in New Haven, he took a little wooden Connecticut house and completely changed it inside by adding a giant Supergraphic. All the students went to look at it.
C Ray Smith said that Supergraphics wasn’t merely decoration. In its purest sense it was a way of transforming space, and his definition was that the graphics could never be contained by the surfaces they were applied to.
That’s right. I mean decoration is a no-no word in architecture anyway, or it was. It’s just starting to come back now. But I think Supergraphics can still be decoration; it’s still expanding the space. Because I studied art as well as architecture, Supergraphics was a way of putting art and architecture together. The main influence in those days was Louis Khan. He was the head of the Masters programme at the University of Pennsylvania and he was everybody’s guru, even Charles Moore’s.
What about conventional graphic design, were you looking at what people were doing in magazines and record covers and stuff like that?
I started doing some of that. I did the paper graphics for a restaurant, and also for the Vidal Sassoon hair salon, and some other things like menu covers, as well. But the thing with graphics in those days was it was so time consuming, I just couldn’t be bothered.
C Ray Smith devotes a lot of space to the Supergraphics work you did for the Hillcrest Church in Toronto. That struck me as being slightly different from your other work because you’d used religious motifs – it looks as if you approached it like a graphic designer.
Well, the thing is, I didn’t work for the church, I worked for the architects Dunlop, Wardell, Natsui & Aitken, and then they sold my services to the church. I worked with an architect called Jim Bear. It was three different congregations that got together to build this church – and it was just concrete block and open steel web trusses. And the architect said look, what can we do with this – this is a prime example of trying to fix up crummy architecture. The spaces were nice and the light was coming in with the skylights and everything, and it was all quite nicely done but the whole idea was to decorate it with paint. So I researched these Christian symbols – I’m not religious myself. There were threes in everything – because there were three congregations I used three symbols and in the big one with the Chi Ro symbol, three circles superimposed on top of one another. It was really striking and got published everywhere – although it didn’t get into architecture magazines.
At what point did you sense that Supergraphics was a thing of the past?
The last job that I worked on in Canada was a project for the National Library. I didn’t get any pictures of its completion because I just did the drawings for it, and it was done commercially by the builders and the architects. It took it all into a different kind of a league and I thought, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Anyway I wanted to go back to doing figurative art – that’s when I came back to England in 1973, I think, and I trained myself to do portraits and paintings.
This is an edited version of a longer interview that can be found in the book Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces [Unit 02]
217 x 280mm, 320 pages, paperback
Editors Tony Brook & Adrian Shaughnessy
Only available here and in restricted bookshops.