Once a month or so Wolff Olins put on an inspiring talk, under the title ‘Because’, at their studios in King’s Cross. This month it was the graphic artist and print maker, Anthony Burrill.
For Wolff Olins’ regular talk series, Because, they invite someone to talk, for about an hour, about their work and inspiration. Judging by the crowd it seems to be aimed mostly at their (young) in-house team, with a few guests. I guess it’s a great perk of working there, a way of building a network of inspiring practitioners and thinkers, and good PR for the agency (as if they need any).
I can’t remember how I got onto their invite list but I’m really pleased I did, I’ve been to some great talks in the past couple of years (Harry Pearce was a real highlight).
Let’s get the important things out of the way first: they have their own chefs. I’m not sure why I’m quite so impressed by that, many large companies have catering, but it seems so decadent to have your canapés prepared onsite. There’s also free flowing beer, wine and Coca Cola (in glass bottles, of course).
Through the work he chose to show, it seems obvious that he is happiest when collaborating and making friends, across the globe.
Milling around the food is a great networking opportunity. Of course, I’m a terrible networker so, given the opportunity, I sat away from the hipster crowd and read emails until we were ushered into the presentation room.
I know much of Burrill’s work and I’ve recently bought one of his prints, to hang above the computer where I’m tapping out this type, but I knew absolutely nothing else about the man.
It turns out that Anthony Burrill is an affable, gently spoken, normal kind of guy who I’d guess is a year or two younger than me. His age is significant as he was (like me) lucky enough to straddle a time when going to art college required neither an exceptional ability to draw nor an interest in computers. He has deliberately eschewed both throughout his career.
In front of a large projected slide show he literally avoided the spotlight and chose to stand in the shadows, manually clicking from slide to slide on his laptop. A lapel mic drew us in with his almost whispered delivery.
He talked us through his career. At college he’d obsessively collected type, and ephemera, and had turned that material into photocopied booklets to swap with other obsessives, by post. He spoke of the way he stumbled into commercial commissions like his big break, working with Kessels Kramer on their infamous Worst Hotel in the World campaigns (misreading the brief, he delivered dozens of poster designs, by fax).
He described his work for London Underground (their safety campaigns) as being great exposure. He seemed to be genuinely interested in sharing his love of simple graphics rather than the commercial opportunities it afforded, although he wasn’t naïve about that angle.
The most remarkable part of his story was how he’d moved to the seaside town of Rye, a quiet place to raise his family. He discovered, in the back of a general store, a working press with woodblock type and men to operate it. From there he produced his famous Work Hard and Be Nice to People poster as a limited edition for friends.
That grew into a commercial operation with the poster becoming a ubiquitous studio adornment. Highlighting his obsessive qualities, Burrill has a collection of photos of that poster, in situ, trawled from websites and social media.
Through the work he chose to show, it seems obvious that he is happiest when collaborating and making friends, across the globe. He isn’t afraid to experiment with different media or to get his hands dirty making things. But, like he said himself, he hasn’t changed style much since he was at college.
There were the usual embarrassingly trite questions at the end, like a Smash Hits interview – what’s your favourite typeface? – which he answered with good grace. One slightly more probing question – how do you feel when people ask you to produce your style to help them sell their stuff? – met with a typically pragmatic answer: he used to do that more, now he’s a little pickier, but he has been working with Hermes recently; he sees parallels between his and their craft skills, although their bags do cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Anthony Burrill is a wonderful example of someone who has found their niche (literally as well a metaphorically). His work is inspirational and he is inspiring, as much for his lack of contrivance as for the work he produces. I’m grateful to Wolff Olins for inviting me to listen to him for an hour; I could have stayed for much longer (especially as they have their own catering).