ARK magazine from cover to cover

This text appears in ARK: Words and Images from the Royal College of Art Magazine published by the Critical Writing in Art & Design programme at the RCA. The essay draws attention to the important role of the cover in the history of the Royal College of Art’s ARK magazine, while simultaneously offering a cultural context for the shifting approaches adopted by designers and illustrators in ARK between 1950 and 1972 during the years that it existed as a regularly published journal. (Images – apart from the cover image – have been omitted for copyright reasons)

ARK: Words and images from the RCA magazine

The covers of ARK are an invaluable historical document: A treasure trove of graphic and illustrative gems, that map and often anticipate aesthetic shifts over the three decades of the magazine’s existence. They point both toward institutional changes within the Royal College of Art and shifts in the wider culture outside it. At the same time they capture changing ideas about the nature of communication design at the college: From a crafts based specialism of drawing and printing, to a modern graphic discipline, and subsequently to the subdivision of the area into illustration, photography and design. Conscious of its significance as an international cultural artefact ARK strove to project a confident image through its covers; its student contributors keen to use the journal to innovate and effect changes in the languages and techniques of graphic design.

‘Graphic designer’ was not a widely used term in the 1950s; ‘commercial artist’ being the more usual designation for those employed in producing advertising imagery, illustration, typography and layout. Richard Guyatt, appointed Professor of Publicity Design in 1948 – in the same year that Robin Darwin was appointed as Rector of the College – settled upon the title ‘Graphic Design’ to describe what was to become the college’s largest school.[1] Darwin’s founding of a School of Graphic Design, and at the same time courses in fashion, engineering and furniture design was central to an attempt to render the RCA better suited to the needs of industry. ARK gradually gained the support of the college and became part of Darwin’s broader project to focus attention on the RCA. The magazine was to remain closely associated with the School of Graphic Design throughout its existence. While Darwin’s programme was undoubtedly one of modernisation, it was of a somewhat conservative kind in which the hierarchy between traditional fine art practice and the other disciplines was maintained with the hope that by mixing with artists and studying art history, designers would become more creative, more cultivated, and as a result, could be dissuaded from some of the ‘vulgar excesses’ associated with commercial design.[2]

It would be easy to caricature Guyatt, with his love of Victorian illustration and typography, as representing a retrograde tendency in the design of the late 1940s and 1950s at the RCA. While his ethos – unlike his counterparts at the Central School of Arts and Crafts[3] – was clearly not one of uninhibited enthusiasm for contemporary European modernism, nor was his work – and by extension the work he championed within the college – a straightforward reproduction of nineteenth century aesthetics. Like other figures associated with Graphic Design at the RCA, including Eric Ravilious and John Nash, Guyatt’s visual language is one that employs a clarity of line, a sense of lightness communicated through a colour-palette favouring tints and tertiaries (rarely bold primaries and secondaries) and strongly delineated ‘graphic’ image-making that emphasises the flatness of the picture plane. These are tendencies that, along with Eric Ravilious’ mark-making (drawing attention to print and drawing processes), are clearly present in the student work of many early ARK covers. This somewhat romantic approach speaks of a relationship to continental modernism, which processed through the British art school, has gained a textured, chromatically muted quality.

David Gentleman’s cover for ARK 4 of winter 1952 demonstrates these romantic and playful tendencies at work, depicting a fantastical barge bearing the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion from the recent Festival of Britain. More than Guyatt, it is lecturer Edward Bawden whose influence is most strongly felt in Gentleman’s references to traditional printmaking, though his expressive and autographic line – hand drawn and then transferred to letterpress plates – distinguishes the image from Bawden’s more geometric linocuts. It is intriguing to see Gentleman, a hugely prolific and successful illustrator, producing accomplished work so early in his career, and the cover certainly has a relationship with his later work for Penguin and London Transport (though perhaps not so obviously with his celebrated ‘No’ poster for the Stop the War Coalition of 2003).

Less than a year later, ARK 6 of November 1952 – with Carol Jeffries as art editor – features a cover of white, intersecting linear elements forming a scaffolding-like lattice on a red-orange background: a reference, it seems, to an article on the design of a new hospital by architect Basil Ward featured inside. The cover strongly recalls the bright optimism of the Festival of Britain of only a year before, the linear elements suggesting space by evoking a diminishing perspective while simultaneously reading as flat abstract pattern, the grainy, irregular, hand-drawn quality of the line pointing towards a tension between ‘organic’ and geometric which often characterises design of this period. Though the cover of ARK 6, distinguished by its more modernist, abstract approach, differs markedly from Gentleman’s treatment of issue 4, a closer inspection also reveals continuities with, for example, the energetic scratchy mark-making of Ravilious. In this sense, this ‘Festival of Britain aesthetic’ is the result of a coalescence of more explicitly modernist elements (particularly those associated with industry) and an earlier practice of image-making which itself reveals links between an internationalist style and a more traditional (British) approach. Even the title ‘ARK’,rendered in a squashed serif that superficially resembles nineteen century advertising typography, communicates these genealogies: like the white scaffolding girders of the cover, like the atomic motifs of print designer Lucienne Day, like the wiry frames of Ernest Race’s furniture design it has become spikey, angular and modern.

As a student edited magazine, ARK was subject to the shifting tastes and desires of the student body, and as the 1950s progressed, the bright optimism of American popular culture, and the modernist aesthetics of Britain’s European neighbours exercised an appeal increasingly apparent in the design of its covers. In this sense, discourses surrounding graphic design, the visual arts, and contemporary culture occurred as much upon as in-between the covers of ARK, especially during the first two decades of the magazine’s existence. The shifting nature of these discourses is signalled, for example, in the harmonious geometry of ARK 22’s neo-Bauhaus composition by David Varley (1958) and much earlier in 1955, Alan Fletcher’s floating coloured squares for ARK 13 (the first ARK cover to feature sans-serif type) speaking of a shift toward modernist, abstract, geometric image-making in the mid-1950s and into the early 1960s. The level of abstraction, and the uncluttered minimal type of these covers – while of course influenced by earlier modernisms – was highly unusual for magazines of the period, the nearest comparator in terms of design might be the Italian domus (arte e stile nella casa arte e stile nell’industria) which, despite it somewhat divergent content – focusing on architecture, interior and industrial design – like ARK became known for its bold abstract covers, and innovative use of colour and photography.Fletcher’s vivid design for ARK 13 foretold his bright, energetic and contemporary approach pioneered as a founder of the Fletcher/Forbes/Gillpractice in the 1960s and Pentagram in the 1970s (proving highly influential to the tenor of graphic design of both decades).

By the late 1950s, with a shift to new larger magazine format, ARK had moved radically in its appearance: In ARK 20 of Autumn 1957 the price, issue number, and title have been displaced to the very topmost edge so that the whole page is occupied by A. J. Bisley’s dramatic photograph depicting neon light, movement, and the city at night. While the covers of the early 1950s fluctuated between tradition and modernity, ARK 20’s cover is pure dynamism, energy, and bombast. The photograph’s partially obscured Coca-Cola sign, gestures to the excitement of American consumer culture, demonstrating the currency of the ideas and aesthetics informing the emergent pop art of the period, and anticipating to the look and feel of the 1960s.

In 1956 Richard Guyatt, realising the need for a more contemporary approach in the School of Graphic Design, had recruited Independent Group member Edward Wright, formerly part of the Central School’s experimental typography workshop in the early 1950s. Wright’s Dadaist inspired techniques freely combining type, image and mark, strongly influenced students including Denis Postle and Terry Green whose covers for ARKwere to prove amongst the most daring in its history.[4] For ARK 24 of 1959, which reproduced a number of works by Italian artist Lucio Fontana inside, Postle designed a vivid orange cover, artfully punctured and slashed to echo the qualities of Fontana’s canvases and incorporating, rather impressively, a signed work by the artist himself. It would be unusual today to find a magazine that would adopt such an audacious approach to design, and in 1959 a deliberately punctured ‘Dadaist’ (or indeed Arte Povera) cover was unheard of.

ARK 25 of 1960 designed by Terry Green and Mike Kidd was to prove if anything even more controversial, combining a close-up of Brigitte Bardot’s face captured in three-quarters and bare shoulder in a high-contrast black and white reproduction:[5] the title, price and issue number are written in a continuous line in a random – but in fact obviously highly designed – ‘jumble’ of capitalised and lowercase lettering. Senior staff were worried not only at Bardot’s ‘provocative’ presence but also by the potential that readers might mistake Green and Kidd’s typographic innovations as mistakes.[6]

 In a not unrelated vein, ARK 33 in Autumn 1962 gestures towards the increasing significance of youth culture. The cover photograph, in black and white by Keith Branscombe, captures a young woman at three-quarters to the camera, her head and torso framed diagonally across the page. As she glances downward strong directional lighting casts her face into shadow while her loose shoulder-length hair and fringe – connoting youth and freedom – radiate brightness. The low angle and dramatic light emphasise the figure’s breasts beneath the fabric of a sporty drop-sleeved jersey, an eroticising image but in a 1960s mode: dynamic and apparently un-posed: The photo-essay inside from which the cover image is taken, describes an eighteen hour ‘Non-Stop Twist’ from Gravesend to Calais – a new rite of passage for an emerging youth culture.

ARK 36 of 1964 is so startlingly contemporary in appearance that it would look perfectly comfortable on a news rack today; indeed, only its elegant uncluttered composition, a gesture of trust in the communicative power of type and image, would prove anomalous against current magazine design (whose covers tend to feature rather more text to hint at content inside). The title, Gill Sans capital letters in a magenta tint, sit above an image of Converse-clad feet whose crossed ankles peak from the machine-stitched hems of blue jeans. These trainers rest nonchalantly on the tread of an open-plan staircase, an indistinct background blurring out of focus. American basketball shoes (difficult to source in England in the 1960s) serve as a dual emblem, both of an appropriated American youth-culture, casual, cool and unaffected, and simultaneously of a British cosmopolitanism in which such items as Levi 501s and Converse ‘sneakers’ were sought after, and exotic items. The lens-flare in the centre of the image aids the composition by breaking up the diagonal of the crossed legs, while also adding a gauzy filmic quality. The reflected sunlight fading from white, to faded-yellow, to pink picks up on the bright typography above. The cover of ARK 36 points to a variety of British cultural concerns of the time. Most notably, the increasing centrality of youth culture in which anglicised borrowings from US and Continental Europe influenced areas as diverse as visual art, rock and roll, and fashion.

Nevertheless by the mid 1960s, ARK had to do more to be noticed. Influenced both by ARK’s own graphic approach and by the influential German magazine Twen, titles such as Man About TownQueen and the Sunday Times’ Colour Section (enlisting former ARK designer Brian Haynes) were now producing lively dynamic compositions with liberal use of photography that made ARK look suddenly much less original and exciting.

In the context of nuclear proliferation, the Vietnam War, South African Apartheid and enduring class divisions, student political consciousness increased, finally climaxing with the student protests of the late 1960s. The figurative illustration increasingly seen on the covers of A R K during this period, harnessed the power of the pictorial image as a mechanism for communicating political and social preoccupations. Thus ARK 43, Spring 1969, with a cover designed by John Henderson, uses innovative illustration techniques to draw attention to failures in urban design and the problems of contemporary architecture. A montaged colour photograph of a (somewhat twee) domestic interior features a window revealing a hand-drawn ‘view’. The drawn view depicts a bright and verdant vista, extensive lawns with strolling figures and in the background gleaming modernist façades. This has been printed onto thick card, in turn cut and scored, so that the two ‘panes’ of the window open to reveal the more humdrum reality, a black-and-white photograph depicting railings, vehicles and a motorway in front of featureless, modern, rectangular buildings. Although there are connections between these and earlier Pop Art inflected issues of the magazine (for example in the use of montage and elements of kitsch), by the end of the 1960s the shine seems to have come off modernity for RCA students, as images on and in ARK embrace a more ambivalent, pessimistic tone.

The rise of second-wave feminism both as manifested in figurative painting and drawing and in performance brought a more corporeal quality to the visual arts in the 1970s: the body as locus of identity, control, liberation and desire coming to the fore. Ark 47 with a cover illustration by John Holmes, originally produced for feminist lifestyle magazine Nova, reflects this more embodied sensibility. A squatting naked woman turns her face as a baby’s head emerges between her legs from a length of fabric that she knits with two wooden needles. The mournful impassive face of the child, gazing directly ahead in contrast to its ‘mother’ emphasises the weirdness of the image. Issue 47 takes pollution as its major theme with a poem by Ted Hughes entitled A Disaster[7] and articles focusing both on environmental and various forms of spiritual pollution[8] and genetic engineering.[9]A reflection at once of increasing concern for the environment, a continuing fear of nuclear proliferation and perhaps also, within the college, a growing air of unease that accompanied Robin Darwin’s final year at the RCA.

The college’s production of a magazine that transcended its status as a college journal to become a significant cultural artefact owed much not only to Darwin’s benevolence, savoire-faire, and connections, but also to his remarkable tolerance – not least in permitting slashed and scrawled, provocative, deliberately low-culture editions to be produced with the college’s blessing and resources. In this sense, ARK acted as a vehicle for talented young designers and illustrators to test their ideas in a context that guaranteed exposure, but which simultaneously insulated them from some of the commercial and editorial pressures that often prohibit innovation. The changing rostra of designers and editors who produced the magazine saw significant figures in British graphic design, including David Gentleman and Allen Fletcher, make their first forays into the public eye. Unmoored by a restrictive ‘corporate identity’ ARK was a publication in constant flux, a fact that enabled its designers to produce truly inventive covers which not only mapped the shifting concerns of the college (between 1950 and 1972) but also to effected real change on the landscape of design during this period. In the hands of ARK’s designers and illustrators the magazine’s cover became a statement of intent, which, while rarely alluding to the written content of the magazine through titles or text, nevertheless, eloquently articulated the mood and concerns of the college at the time. Like banners or standards, the covers of ARK acted to impress the power and influence of the RCA beyond the confines of the college. And even for those who only vaguely perused the contents of the magazine, the cover – whether featuring bold geometry, pitted and wounded paper, or surreal imagery – acted as a visual representation, a symbol and a statement, a series of icons of the Royal College of Art which continue to resonate to this day.

[1] Richard Guyatt later wrote of this choice of name: “It was only after an article appeared in The Times rapping the College over the knuckles for the vulgarity of such a concept as ‘Publicity Design’, that a serious quest for a name was made. With a sense of relief, but not much conviction, the name ‘Graphic design’ was chosen. No one was quite sure what it meant but it had a purposeful ring to it” (Guyatt qtd. in Frayling) Christopher, Frayling. Art and Design: 100 years at the Royal College of Art. London: Richard Denis Publications, 1999: pp. 253-254.

[2] Alex, Seago. Burning the box of beautiful thingsThe development of a postmodern sensibility. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press, 1995. pp. 49-67

[3] Jesse Collins’ department at the Central School of Arts and Crafts was the fulcrum of progressive, modernist graphic design teaching in the UK during the 1940s and 1950s with notable designer/teachers including Herbert Spencer, Anthony Froshaug and Edward Wright. Seago, Alex. “Seize the sans serif.” Eye Magazine, 16 (1995): Web.

[4] Alex Seago, Art and Design: 100 years at the Royal College of Art. Ed. Frayling, Christopher. London: Richard Denis Publications, 1999: p. 65.

[5] The image, a still from Et Dieu créa la femme of 1956 by Roger Vadim, a film which pushed the boundaries of acceptable representations of sexuality on screen and which (perhaps as a result) was a favourite at the college (Seago, Burning the Book of Beautiful Things: p. 40): The film represents a somewhat less liberated and modern image of desirable femininity than Keith Branscombe’s photo-essay of 1962 discussed in the next paragraph.

[6] Alex Seago, Burning the Box of Beautiful Things: p.40.

[7] Ted, Hughes. “A Disaster.” ARK, 47 (1970): p. 16.

[8] Christopher, Cornford. “baby, please rock my boat.” ARK, 47 (1970): pp. 16-17.

[9] David J., Cove. “Genetic Engineering – The Ultimate Pollution?.” ARK, 47 (1970): p. 18.


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