Manchester, so much to answer forby Sean O'Toole / 15.01.2010
I’ve never been to Manchester. Here are five reasons I should get there, sooner than later. One: Autechre (Have you heard the story about them being kicked off the decks at 330 in Durban?). Two: New Order (if only to look for that “ship in the harbor”). Three: A Certain Ratio (FAC 22 – genius!). Four: Carlos Alberto Tévez (Gimme a break, did you really think I would say Wayne Rooney?) And five: Alan Fletcher.
Okay, I know, I’m on shaky ground with my fifth choice. But Fletcher, described as “one of the giants of twentieth century design”, is about to become the subject of a career retrospective at Manchester’s The CUBE Gallery next week. It’s a first for the man, described in his Times obituary as “intellectually open and insatiably curious… the antithesis of a grumpy old man”. It’s also a damn shame it came so late, the big man passing on in 2006.
Like more than a few locals, I was lucky enough to see him speak at Design Indaba, in 2003. Cool, confident and effortlessly collected. That was my impression of the pioneering British mid-century graphic designer. Funny too. Amongst the visual experiments he shared with the audience was a typeface he invented while walking backwards, another he developed while digging in the bins near his home, a mews in Notting Hill .
Fletcher’s connection to Africa predates his visit to Cape Town in 2003. In fact, it goes back even further than his signal move, in 1972, when he, together with South African designer Mervyn Kurlansky, founded the legendary agency Pentagram Design. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1931, to British parents, Fletcher only called London home from his fifth birthday onwards.
Listening to Fletcher speak, watching as he flipped through his notebooks (albeit using PowerPoint), it was obvious that the big guy – physically but also in stature – was first and foremost an artist. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he painted like Hockney and in his commercial work reconciled a slow-to-follow mainstream with the avant-garde’s apparently obscure ideas about “naivety, optimism and possibility” in design (or actually sci-fi, since it was JG Ballard who came up with the phrase).
Some of Fletcher’s wisdoms as a designer – the most articulate of which involved keeping a design conceptually simple – owed a debt to his early travels, particularly in post-war America. While at college in London Fletcher won a scholarship to study at Yale. His tutors there included artist Josef Albers (of the Bauhaus school, and famous for his geometric abstract paintings that prefigured minimalism) and the designer Paul Rand (of the IBM logo), an abiding influence.
After completing university Fletcher drifted to Los Angeles where he worked as a freelancer, notably for designer Saul Bass (famous for, amongst other things, the kinetic typography and title sequences in Hitchcock’s movies). A lot happened afterwards, most of it encapsulated in a single word: WORK. Fletcher eventually left Pentagram in 1992, and between 1994 and 2006 served as creative director of Phaidon, which published his bestseller, The Art of Looking Sideways.
So that’s him. If you’re still unconvinced, here’s my alternative fifth reason to visit Manchester: Peter Saville. He sleeps late. He designed some really cool record covers way back. He was part of Fletcher’s Pentagram for a while, briefly actually (“The problem at Pentagram was that they didn’t actually understand me,” Saville told me), and is currently creative director of the City of Manchester. Fittingly, he’s set to open Fletcher’s show next week.