Nicholas Thirkell obituary | Design


Since joining Macmillan Publishers as Art Director in 1966, Nicholas Thirkell, who died at the age of 79, did much to recast the conventions of book design. He did this by using hardcovers to raise “questions that can only be answered by reading the books”, as the Guardian put it in 1970. The observation was prompted by a Design Council exhibition of book covers by Thirkell and his competitor at Heinemann, and future business partner, Mike Dempsey, displaying “a wealth and variety of hardcovers that put posters to shame, for example.”

Cover by Nicholas Thirkell for John Wain’s book The Smaller Sky, 1967.

Thirkell’s jacket for The Smaller Sky (1967) was a double-sided facsimile of a train ticket that propelled readers into the brain of John Wain’s protagonist, a suburban clerk who moves to the Paddington station. For a 1969 biography of World War I naval commander Lord Jellicoe, Thirkell blocked out five strips of gold foil on dark blue. A loop in the top band was instantly reminiscent of the Admiral’s signature coat sleeve.

Although he was more of a thinker than a draftsman, Thirkell had an uncanny eye for illustration. Over the course of overseeing the production of hundreds of covers, he spotted illustrators familiar with the possibilities of color offset printing and keen to break away from traditional photographic and letterpress covers.

This prompted him, in 1970, to bring together for his own firm, Nicholas Thirkell Associates, a quartet of young illustrators, all but one fresh out of university, who would dominate British graphic design for the next decade. It was George Hardie, machine-accurate; Malcolm Harrison, a typographer who excelled in caricature; a surrealist, Bush Hollyhead, working in graphic puzzles and word games; and Bob Lawrie, an Australian expat who married comics to the visual world of Wassily Kandinsky.

Combining a combination of pop art, abstraction and formal design elements, they brought gallery-level rigor to a commercial industry. And they were versatile — equally suited to Penguin paperbacks and glossy monthlies, to counterculture rags and LP covers from Hipgnosis Studio, the photography firm that challenged listeners to interpret music visually. rock.

Throughout the 1970s, memorable graphics for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Kevin Ayers were produced by the four illustrators whom Thirkell had left in an open studio in Victoria, central London.

Nicholas Thirkell Associates cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album, 1973.
Nicholas Thirkell Associates cover for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, 1973.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Macmillan continued to rely on his band for jackets. “We were blessed with this assured income, and it gave us the freedom to be adventurous,” Thirkell wrote in a special issue of Illustrators magazine marking the 10th anniversary of the group, which renamed itself NTA Studios. after Thirkell’s departure. “We could afford to turn down boring work and take creative risks.”

These ventures included memorable partnerships with Radio Times, Tommy Roberts’ pop art emporium, Mr Freedom, and men’s magazines such as Club International, where – in illustration’s heyday – art directors had the necessary budgets. to distinguish editorial content from state-of-the-art graphics.

Thirkell’s departure came in 1973, after he became restless in what had become a managerial role. For 15 months, he traveled India with Priya Kuriako, a colleague of Macmillan. When they returned to Britain in 1975, they married and he worked as art director at WH Allen. In 1979, he became independent again, this time creating Nicholas Thirkell & Partners. There he employed a wide range of artists from the nascent illustration scene he had helped set in motion. One of the projects was Penguin’s Lives & Letters, a series of paperbacks with evocative vintage covers.

Throughout the 1980s, Thirkell’s thought-driven book design, in which content and packaging worked mutually, earned him awards and juries at industry competitions such as Design & Art Direction and European Illustration.

Design by Nicholas Thirkell & Partners for a deluxe edition of Flora Thompson's Illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford, 1983
Design by Nicholas Thirkell & Partners for a deluxe edition of Flora Thompson’s Illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford, 1983

For the best-selling Illustrated Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson’s trilogy about Victorian Oxfordshire published in a deluxe edition in 1983 by Century, four decades after its original publication, Thirkell was asked to file for bankruptcy. He made the boards in English polka dot scarf, with no text on the back. A researcher has found period photographs, ephemera and flowers to be pressed like a herbarium and photographed in line with the text. All of this gave Thompson’s pages the feel of an anonymous country scrapbook rather than a carefully crafted hybrid of memoir and fiction.

In 1986, with Dempsey and fellow designer Ken Carroll, he formed Carroll Dempsey & Thirkell (CDT). Specializing in corporate identity, they have designed for Royal Mail, Our Price, the Barbican and WH Smith.

Thirkell’s first job at CDT was to review the layout for the launch of the Independent newspaper. The editors wanted both the feel of longevity and novelty, what they called “classic with a twist” – clear, authoritative and conservative.

Crushed between a deadline and a team of rushed editors including Andreas Whittam Smith and Stephen Glover (whose book Paper Dreams documented the frenetic launch and Thirkell’s role in it), he ditched the header en bloc. of the model that had been given to him. Instead, he chose a neoclassical flag based on Bodoni, with chiseled lines giving it both elegance and weight – a feel echoed by his introduction of Oxford rules (thick and thin) to the framing of the column. Far from the purists, he mixed different typefaces for the layout: Century for its novelty and warmth in the titles, and Times for its clarity in the columns.

The cover of the first issue of the Independent newspaper in 1986, designed by Nicholas Thirkell at CDT.
The cover of the first issue of the Independent newspaper in 1986, designed by Nicholas Thirkell at CDT. Photography: Ed Buziak/Alamy

After being refined by the newspaper’s design editors and image editor Michael Crozier, Thirkell’s basic design formed the newspaper’s first graphic identity and became a case study in successful news layout . Its eagle logo, once in-house designers had brought its wings from a perched position in flight, remained with the paper throughout major redesigns and the discontinuation of its print edition in 2016. In 1990, he returned to design the Independent on Sunday.

“One of the greatest attributes of a good designer,” Thirkell wrote after the Independent’s success, “is understanding how people think and how they react to images portrayed by type.”

This sensitivity to viewer response was a signature of his career. His talent lies in arranging existing visual realities – and the artists around him – without appearing to impose himself.

Nicholas Thirkell when he joined Carroll & Dempsey in 1986, which then became Carroll Dempsey & Thirkell.
Nicholas Thirkell when he joined Carroll & Dempsey in 1986, making it Carroll Dempsey & Thirkell. Photography: Rick Cordell/Studio Dempsey Archives

“Nick would sit at his desk, creating tiny sketches with equally tiny written instructions,” Dempsey recalled. “He would walk around the studio in his favorite Savile Row suit, which belonged to his father, lean over one of his assistants and chat quietly; he would then return to his office, roll a cigarette and go out to smoke a cigarette.

Born in Epping, Essex, Nicholas was the son of Barbara (née Baker), who before her marriage was a dancer in theater productions, and John Thirkell, an advertising copywriter. Nicholas left Forest School, Walthamstow, in 1960 after his A-levels. Rather than receive formal training in design, he took a traineeship at the Advertising Service, London, and an advertising course at the College for the Distributive Trades (1961-62).

During an initial three-year stint at Macmillan, he worked as an editor and sub-designer. Before returning to the company as art director, he worked at the Planning Unit design studio (1965-66). From then until his retirement in the late 1990s, he remained a leader in the field.

Priya survives him and their daughters, Nisha and Maya.

Nicholas John Vyse Thirkell, graphic designer and art director, born June 7, 1942; passed away on November 9, 2021


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