Monday, November 24, 2008

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Robert Brownjohn

The blonde is Margaret Nolan, a forgotten 1960s starlet. The man in silhouette is Robert Brownjohn, one of the most innovative, expensive and downright difficult art directors of the 60s. Nolan is being filmed for the title sequence of Goldfinger (1964), the third James Bond film. She was painted gold from head to toe and images from the film were projected on to her body, creating a hallucinogenic effect that was ahead of its time. Brownjohn had succeeded in turning a title sequence - generally an afterthought - into high art. Had he not died in 1970 from a heart attack aged 44, he would have received greater credit for his innovation.
Robert "Bj" Brownjohn had already made a name for himself as a designer in 1950s New York when he arrived in London in 1960. He claimed that he came over for the city's creative energy. His girlfriend, the super-chic fashion designer Kiki Byrne, remembers it differently. "You could get heroin on the National Health back then," says Byrne. "And Bj did have a problem. But he was also terribly gifted, so he quickly established himself as one of the key figures during a very special period in history."

Brownjohn was at the heart of swinging London when he got the call from Albert "Cubby" Broccoli to design the title sequences for From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. Having been given £850 for the first film, he demanded £5,000 for the second, a huge amount at the time. "We quoted £5,000 and it cost £5,000," remembers his assistant Trevor Bond. "You never made a profit on Bj." Byrne designed the bikini for Nolan.

Goldfinger was to prove a high point in Brownjohn's career. In 1968 he designed the sleeve for the Rolling Stones' album Let It Bleed, an unhappy experience that he illustrated by featuring a smashed wedding cake on the back cover. By this time, heavy drinking and drug use had taken over at the expense of output. He broke up with Byrne the following year, and soon he was living alone in a basement bedsit. But once, as his friend and fellow designer Alan Fletcher remembers, "Bj was the right man, in the right job, in the right place."
Will Hodgkinson

‘for the average audience, the credits tell them there is only 3 minutes left to eat popcorn. I try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoes are interested in. it is just like a super book-jacket.’
- words by saul bass, who started the revolution and was at that time (before BJ’s sexy titles) considered the uncrowned king of the credit-title designers.

‘producers always leave the titles to the last minute, they see what cash, if any, they’ve got left and thendecide on the cheapest way to tackle the job’ - BJ.

ulike his mentor (saul bass), a man who mapped his sequences to the second, BJ had never worked with live action before he made the titles. he hated storyboards and scripts. ‘it is nice just to have an idea and play around with
the camera and the lights.’

credits on a belly dancing girl (007 - from russia with love, 1963)
BJ often told the tale of how he had sold this idea to the film producers. in a darkened room, he turned on a slide projector, lifted his shirt and danced in front of the beam of light, allowing projected text to glance off his already alcohol-extended belly.
‘it’ll be just like this’, he exclaimed, ‘except we’ll use a pretty girl!’ at first the letterforms sweep her body in a fashion that
it is decorative but unreadable, a problem created by the projector’s lack of focal depth. next up, the snake dancer managed to move within a fixed distance of the light source. type has never been teased so seductively and this were the first titles ever to be given an OK by the censor. it was a huge popular success and the production of the next movie followed swiftly.

credits and various film scenes on a female body (007 - goldfinger, 1964)
BJ decided to base the sequence on the effect in which the contours of a female model distort images projected upon her - he used the (more-contoured-than-most) girl as a three-dimensional film screen. the names are set flat and still, while love episodes flash around and over the starlet, which was covered in gold paint from top to toe and wearing only a gold leather bikini.
BJ took particular care with details such as a golf ball that disappears between her breasts and the scene in which a pocket-sized james bond crawls over her tighs. the sequence won various awards and BJ was widely celebrated as the designer who could turn celluloid into pure gold.

Graphic Material

Courtesy of the Design Museum, London
Robert Brownjohn's simply decadent design for "Goldfinger."

Published: September 18, 2005

Squeezed into a gold leather bikini, her skin painted the same shimmering hue, the statuesque starlet Margaret Nolan (41-23-37) stood still while scenes from the just-finished James Bond movie ''Goldfinger'' were projected onto her curves. The shoot was long and meticulous, the brainchild of the graphic designer Robert Brownjohn. A golf ball was made to disappear between her gilded breasts; the license plates from Bond's Aston Martin DB5 were another playful gag. And to think that the Bauhaus had come to this.

Unlikely as it may seem, using a live, three-dimensional screen recalled the projected-light experiments at the Bauhaus in the 1920's, something Brownjohn learned at the Institute of Design in Chicago (formerly the New Bauhaus). He first played with the idea in the credits for ''From Russia With Love'' (1963). But in 1964, in a three-minute title sequence accompanied by Shirley Bassey's theme, his solid-gold images became the most sensational of all Bond openers.

Although he died at 44 and left a relatively small portfolio, he has acquired cult status for his remarkable ideas. Some of his work -- a poster that uses a woman's nipples to help spell ''obsession''; the multilayered cover of the Rolling Stones album ''Let It Bleed''; and stationery that brazenly announces, ''Robert Brownjohn designed this letterhead for Michael Cooper'' -- is in a retrospective I have curated at the Design Museum in London (opening Oct. 15) and is also included in my monograph ''Sex and Typography.''

Brownjohn's preference for the unembellished word and image lends his work a timeless quality, a paradoxical attribute for someone who was such a man of his age. Born in Newark, the son of an English bus driver, he excelled academically at the Institute of Design in Chicago, while exploring the city's seamier side. After moving to New York in 1950, he spent several years financing his lifestyle of jazz clubs and heroin with freelance work, forming lifelong friendships with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. He was prompted to settle down only when he met his wife-to-be, Donna Walters, and teamed up with Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar to form the pioneering design team Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar.

A few years his junior, Chermayeff recalls Brownjohn as being ''really hip, although now it is old-fashioned to call someone hip -- you might say 'cool,' or 'fast,' or 'street smart.''' The B.C.G. studio was renowned for its industrious but informal atmosphere and for the expletives and brilliance that sprung forth in equal measure from Brownjohn's smoke-filled quarters. Things went swimmingly until Brownjohn's drug habit caught up with him. In 1960, the original partnership disbanded (Chermayeff & Geismar remains a successful design firm), and Brownjohn moved to London, where he worked in advertising while being treated for heroin addiction.

Brownjohn's move could not have been better timed. Not-yet-swinging London was waiting for someone just like him. His colleague and friend Alan Fletcher, who designed the fall London show, believes he transformed the profession by making it glamorous. ''None of us had any money, nor did he, but he behaved like he did,'' Fletcher recalls. ''He acted as if design were show business.'' In London, Brownjohn hooked up with two younger partners, the producer David Cammell and the director Hugh Hudson, to make films, but once again his team was wrenched apart by his drug-induced vicissitudes. Tales of his falling asleep at client meetings or flinging food across fashionable restaurants are legion.

Among his last designs was a poster for the 1969 New York Peace Campaign, consisting of the letters ''PE,'' an ace of spades (the death card) and a question mark. When his body succumbed to decades of abuse, on Aug. 1, 1970, the design world was deprived of one of its few significant personalities, a man whose superlative grasp of modern design was matched only by his raging appetite for modern life.

Sunday, July 27, 2008