"Punk was probably the most influential thing to happen to me"

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Neville Brody Dezeen Book of Interviews

Neville Brody: "Punk was probably the most influential thing to happen to me"

Dezeen Book of Interviews: in this interview from our latest book, influential graphic designer Neville Brody discusses the impact of London's punk movement on his work.

Brody spoke to Dezeen founder Marcus Fairs during the Super Contemporary exhibition at London's Design Museum in 2009, in a conversation that spanned his early studies, musical influences and his time as art director of The Face magazine.

While studying at London College of Printing (now part of London College of Communication), Brody got his first taste of a musical movement that was to have a heavy influence on his future work

Artwork by Neville Brody for 23 Skidoo's Seven songs LP
Artwork by Neville Brody for 23 Skidoo's Seven songs LP

"I was there for three years doing a graphic design course. I went there to learn the basics and to understand exactly how typography is supposed to work, in terms of the rules," he said.

"It happened at the same time as punk, which was probably the most influential thing to happen to me in London. The punk explosion pushed all of that out the window."

During his studies, Brody moved into a central London squat, and found himself living next to trendsetting nightclubs and gig venues, as well as the singer from experimental post-punk band 23 Skidoo, whom he'd later create artwork for.

"It was the most enthralling experience," he said. "You're right in the centre of this collapsing, decaying space, post what London used to be and just prior to its rebuild as this shopping-mall experience."

"London has a particular set of politics and cultural influences that has been absolutely instrumental in developing the work that I do," he added. "There are a number of sources and ingredients for that. One is: there is such a high level of conservatism in London."

Nevill Brody is one of 45 designers and architects featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews
Nevill Brody is one of 45 designers and architects featured in Dezeen Book of Interviews

After college, Brody took a job at London-based agency Rocking Russian where he worked under prominent art director Alex McDowell, who was responsible for creating some of the period's most iconic punk t-shirt graphics.

"It's important here to mention that the music scene in London was so vital. There were independent concerts, there was a thriving independent record label scene," he said.

"And if it wasn't for that, people like myself and other graphic designers such as Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville out of Manchester and Malcolm Garrett, we would not have survived. There would have been no support system whatsoever."



Marcus Fairs: You have a strong connection with London. What is your relationship with the city?

Neville Brody: London has always been the place that I've come back to. It's always been my base, even though in the past 20 years less than five percent of our clients have been London-based. But it's always attracted creative people. And everyone passes through even though they aren't actually based here.

I went to school in north London. Then I went to the Hornsey College of Art in Crouch End, which was the birthplace of the student uprising, in 1968, and it still had that political undercurrent when I studied there, back in 1975. I then went on to the London College of Printing, as it was called. That was located in Elephant & Castle, which was probably the worst place to study. The London College of Printing was, at that time, 80 per cent local printers' apprentices, with The Sun newspaper in their back pocket, practising that famous phrase, "You can't do that, mate."

I was there for three years doing a graphic design course. I went there to learn the basics and to understand exactly how typography is supposed to work, in terms of the rules. It happened at the same time as punk, which was probably the most influential thing to happen to me in London. The punk explosion pushed all of that out the window.

In my third year of college I moved into a squat in Covent Garden, on the corner of James Street and Long Acre. This was before the market was open. I remember there were just two or three interesting stores in Covent Garden. There was PS, Practical Styling. I think Paul Smith had just about started his first store in Floral Street. There was the Vortex club, which was on Neal Street, then the 100 Club, which was just up the road on Oxford Street.

It was a huge squat. There were maybe 150 people living there, and the whole of my first year of college was spent there. I had the whole floor across two houses, above what is now an Abbey National bank, I think. It was amazing. It was the most enthralling experience. You're right in the centre of this collapsing, decaying space, post what London used to be and just prior to its rebuild as this shopping-mall experience.

The 32nd issue of Arena Homme+, art directed by Neville Brody
The 32nd issue of Arena Homme+, art directed by Neville Brody

The next influential place for me was Rocking Russian, which was an agency started by Alex McDowell, who's since become the key art director in Hollywood – he did Minority Report, Watchmen and he built the terminal for the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal. He does all the art direction for Spielberg's movies and Tim Burton's movies. A great old friend. He set up a studio with money from [New Wave band] Rich Kids, started by Glen Matlock, who was ex-Sex Pistols. So people like Malcolm McLaren were around. Vivienne Westwood was at a certain connection distance. Alex made all the main T-shirts for the punk period, like Destroy and Fuck Art, Let's Dance, and this was all out of the same premises.

It's important here to mention that the music scene in London was so vital. There were independent concerts, there was a thriving independent record label scene. And if it wasn't for that, people like myself and other graphic designers such as Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville out of Manchester and Malcolm Garrett, we would not have survived. There would have been no support system whatsoever. This was allowing us to make a living – albeit a minimal living – but to be able to make a living pursuing ideas, explorations and having them published and put out into a public space. That was absolutely vital. London was this thriving, humming, inspiring, exciting place to be at that time, where anything was possible.

And then, out of that space, grew The Face magazine [a seminal monthly music, fashion and culture magazine, which Brody art directed from 1981 to 1986]. Nick Logan, who started it, had been doing Smash Hits [magazine] at Emap – Emap's offices were in central London, near Carnaby Street. Nick Logan had offered The Face magazine to them and they turned it down. Nick Logan's first office was in this damp basement on Broadwick Street and I visited him there. He'd come out of a different route in London. He'd come out of the Tottenham mods. He was very much a part of the mod scene, about flashy dress, the sharpest person on the block.

A typeface designed by Brody for England's World Cup 2014 football kit
A typeface designed by Brody for England's World Cup 2014 football kit

This mod scene and this punk scene clashed head on and formed The Face and eventually came out as this New Romantics thing, in which I was not interested. That was a completely separate thing. I was much more interested in the industrial music scene at the time: bands like Cabaret Voltaire, down from Sheffield, and Throbbing Gristle and 23 Skidoo. I started working with 23 Skidoo because the singer was living under me in the squat in Covent Garden. So that's how I got into all that work.

London has a particular set of politics and cultural influences that has been absolutely instrumental in developing the work that I do. There are a number of sources and ingredients for that. One is: there is such a high level of conservatism in London. When I was leaving college, Thatcher and the right wing government were pretty much running culture and trying to shift culture from a thinking space to a shopping space, and trying to suppress any kind of rebellious opposition. Punk came out of that oppressive, repressive space. It was an expression of independent individuality, it was a cry against this bland culture.

Twenty-five years later, I see we've returned to that same kind of space. And I think it's going to develop into an active, dangerous, cultural place again. So London's political and cultural space has been an absolutely vital source of thought and impetus for my work.