Richard Hollis was the graphic designer for London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery in the years 1969–73 and 1978–85. In this second period, under the directorship of Nicholas Serota, the gallery came to the forefront of the London art scene, with pioneering exhibitions of work by Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Cornell, Philip Guston, Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti, among others. Hollis’s posters, catalogues, and leaflets, conveyed this sense of discovery, as well as being models of practical graphic design. The pressures of time and a small budget enhanced the urgency and richness of their effects. Christopher Wilson’s monograph is an exemplary examination of a body of graphic design. This book matches the spirit of the work it describes: active, passionate, aesthetically refined, and committed to getting things right. As in Hollis’s work, ‘design’ here is a verb as much as a noun.
The Whitechapel before Hollis
Hollis before the Whitechapel
Action this day, 1969–73
‘More professional, more ambitious’, 1978–85
Materials and processes
Richard Hollis designs for the Whitechapel has two main characters: the British graphic designer Richard Hollis and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in East London. The opening two chapters of the book introduce each of them. Then – in chapters that form its centre – the interaction of Hollis and the Whitechapel is presented. The book reproduces much of what was printed for the Whitechapel during the two periods in which Hollis worked for the gallery: 1969–73 and 1978–85. There are extended critical captions on the work reproduced. These two phases of the gallery’s life were in several respects formative, both for the institution itself and for the wider cultural and social life of Britain. Coverage is completed with considerations of the ‘interregnum’ period (1973–78) and the years after 1985, when Peter Saville became the gallery’s designer. Hollis’s Whitechapel years were a time of radical change in the methods of print production: the book documents and explains the technical shifts from specification for hot-metal composition and letterpress printing, through photocomposition, rub-down lettering, paste-up, and on to desktop publishing.
Wilson’s discussion is illuminated by his extended interviews with Hollis, with those who worked at the Whitechapel, and with others involved in these events. Quotations from these interviews enliven the narrative. And by looking closely at one period of the designer’s work, Wilson finds the model for Hollis’s whole production. So the book functions partly as a history of one of the essential components of the London art world in that time, and as a survey of the work of ‘one of the finest British graphic designers of the past 50 years’ (Rick Poynor).