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15.07.10

Top Graphic Design:
FHK Henrion

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Adrian Shaughnessy

With its ‘hi-there-pop-pickers’ title; its bible black cover; its ‘Swiss’ typography and its photograph of the author smoking a pipe and sporting a bow tie, you might be forgiven for thinking this was a book from the 1960s. Not so. It was published in 1983. But we shouldn’t hold that against it. It’s much better than that.

Top Graphic Design is a compendium of high-grade work by an elite group of 18 high-grade designers. There isn’t a piece of 80s tat to be seen. The book is by FHK Henrion – a giant of British graphic design. Born in 1914 in Germany, he emigrated to England in 1939, and adopted British nationality a few years later. His work for the Ministry of Information and the US Office of War Information in London established his reputation as a graphic designer and poster artist of verve and skill.

In 1951 Henrion established the design consultancy Henrion Design Associates. He is often cited as a pioneer of Corporate Identity in Britain. His many successful identity programmes include: KLM, Blue Circle Cement, British Leyland and Olivetti. He died in 1990.

What makes FHK Henrion such an important figure in design history is that despite his work with government departments and giant corporations, despite his OBE, and despite his eminence within post-war British design, he retained a radical sensibility. It can be seen in his choice of designers for Top Graphic Design. There are no lightweights: not one of the designers selected is bland, conformist or solely preoccupied with commercial demands. Each of the chosen group offers individuality and, in many cases, adopts an oppositional or contrarian position within commercial design.

As Henrion notes in his introduction: ‘Attempts to be provocative, experimental, sometimes going on purpose beyond the limits of good taste are to be welcomed because they help to create a new visual language which is invigorating and of today. Most of graphic design is ephemeral and it is therefore important that it represents the “Zeitgeist” and is valid and meaningful at the time it is created and shown.’

These are not the views of a grumpy old man, stuffed full of self-importance and industry accolades. His eye for radicalism and non-conformity is evidenced in his choice of the leftist French collective Grapus, the posters of Roman Cieslewicz, and in the genre bending graphics of Gert Dumbar, Shigeo Fukuda, Odermatt & Tissi, Rambow Lienemeyer van de Sand and Wolfgang Weingart.

There’s one more thing worth mentioning about Top Graphic Design: this is Henrion’s obvious high regard for illustration. Some of the artists included here – Henryk Tomaszewski, Morteza Momayez and Jacques Richez, for example – might be included in a book called Top Illustration. Yet Henrion knew that graphic design is at its most potent when it calls on the whole range of visual expression. I think more graphic designers should smoke pipes and wear bow ties.

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