“The Sociological Aspects of Current Living:” An Interview with Richard Hamilton
History of design criticism
The Independent Group
The British Pop artist Richard Hamilton (1922 – 2011) left a rich and well-discussed artistic legacy, but much less familiar is his work as a designer. In the post-war period he designed models of New Towns for the Festival of Britain, avant garde exhibitions for the Institute of Contemporary Art, logotypes for Granada Television, a heated breakfast tray with Misha Black, and the White Album for the Beatles, among others. His writing about design is even less known but, in 2008, I had the chance to talk to him about the articles he wrote on industrial design and its mediation in the early 1960s in publications such as Ulm, Upper Case, Architectural Design, and Design.
In “The Persuading Image,” published in the February 1960 issue of Design, the monthly journal of Britain’s Council of Industrial Design, for example, Hamilton wrote provocatively about how industrial manufacturers and designers should use sophisticated and witty imagery to seduce their consumers, to “design” them to products they had already created. His pragmatic stance and serious interest in such issues as surface-level styling, image re-touching, glamour, ephemerality, and planned obsolescence, disrupted Design’s narrow editorial perspective, visually, tonally and in terms of its content.
I conducted this interview with Hamilton on the phone and I remember how nervous I was to make the call. He was keen to talk about the past, however, and shared his thoughts with generosity and good humour.
Alice Twemlow: Do you remember how and why you came to write about design in the first place?
Richard Hamilton: I met and knew a number of architects from being involved in the Independent Group at the ICA—Peter Cook, The Smithsons, and Reyner Banham, for instance. Once, we asked Tomas Maldonado [painter, writer and thinker] to come and speak to the IG and I became quite friendly with him. He invited me to visit Ulm. I drove down, stayed for a week and had a quite interesting time. When Banham found out that I’d gone, he said I should write a piece on Ulm for Architectural Review, where he was working almost full time, so I did.
I became a kind of tea boy and a general help in the display department. There couldn’t have been a nicer job for me.
I suppose I was interested in industrial design and exhibition design anyway. When I was 14 I left school and started to work. About a year later, when I was 15, I had a wonderful opportunity because a new school was being built quite near my home in Victoria and I used to walk past this modern building and building site everyday. Finally, the doors opened and I went in and said do you have a job? [It was the Reimann School of Art and Design, a private art school which was founded in Berlin in 1902 by Albert Reimann, and re-established in Regency Street, Pimlico, London in January 1937 after persecution by the Nazis]. I became a kind of tea boy and a general help in the display department. There couldn’t have been a nicer job for me. There were lots of very good people there and a lot of them were teachers who’d emigrated from Germany. I stayed in contact with all the marvellous people that I met there. I learned a good deal about the practical aspects of design on the job, like cutting out letters with a jigsaw.
AT: Who were the people you met there?
RH: I enjoyed the support of a man who had been a very important stage designer in Berlin. He knew a lot about painting. He was a kind of mentor. I think he was quite lonely as he’d left his sons behind in Germany and they were obviously hardened fascists, so he kind of adopted me. He first took me to the Victoria and Albert Museum and showed me what a Coptic Tapestry was. He took me to the department where they had wonderful Gordon Craig stage design models. It was all very interesting and I was becoming quite knowledgeable, in a way.
AT: It sounds like it…
RH: During the war, when the schools closed, I was employed by a design office on Oxford Street doing tool draughtsmanship and engineering drawings. There, I acquired an experience of industrial manufacturing processes. The office was really a way of keeping certain people out of the army. The industrial designer Misha Black was associated with it, and the design department was run by a man called Jack, who ran a dance band at the Mayfair Hotel [Hamilton laughs]. Misha Black had all kinds of contracts coming to him which I was able to work on. We were asked to do things which involved a kind of industrial design and I was rather better than most. For example, I did a drawing of a heated tray, with depressions for one’s breakfast.
We were asked to do things which involved a kind of industrial design and I was rather better than most. For example, I did a drawing of a heated tray, with depressions for one’s breakfast.
AT: Fantastic! [laughs]
RH: I drew it as plan, in relief—if there was a concavity it was nicely shaded. So, I always had this contact with design, whether it was by my own efforts or by chance I don’t know.
AT: And then after the war ended? What did you do?
RH: After the war, I returned to painting at the Royal Academy. They threw me out because I wasn’t profiting from the instruction, or so they said. Although it’s hard to see how you could profit from the instruction at that time because, by then, Sir Walter Mannings had taken over from nice old Sir Walter Russell.
But then I went to the Slade and I was welcomed! I was there from 1948-51. By my last year there, I was working on the Growth & Form exhibition which was the ICA’s contribution to the Festival of Britain. It was menial work, anyone could have done it, but I made enough with it to put down a mortgage on a house.
The reason I worked on that exhibition was because I thought that what was happening in exhibition design was a work of art in itself, which was rather a novel idea.
At the same time, I was also working on an exhibition for the Festival of Britain which was opened by Le Corbusier. In his opening speech he said he liked its design. He said, “this is the work, not of a designer, but of a poet,” and asked “who did this?” At that point I was pushed through the crowd and I was introduced to him. I always had my eye on people I admired. The reason I worked on that exhibition was because I thought that what was happening in exhibition design was a work of art in itself, which was rather a novel idea. Looking at the work of Le Corbusier, Max Bill, and Italians like Ernesto Rogers, I began to realise exhibition design was an important activity that may have begun with the 1851 Great Exhibition and the early part of the 19th century which led up to the the FoB.
In 1950/51, I was also earning money by doing a lot of architectural model making as I had a certain skill in that. An advantage of that profession was that all you needed was a bit of balsa wood, some paint and a paintbrush and you could do it. I was using some of the skills I’d acquired at Riemanns. In 1950, I was working day and night, to produce 7 or 8 models of tiny towns, like Stevenage. They were displayed somewhere in the city of London. I just did anything I could for anyone who needed extra hands.
AT: Did model-making help prepare you for the exhibition designs you went on to do?
RH: Well, it gave me a lot of experience.
I did Man, Machine & Motion and several other exhibitions at the ICA. I thought of them as an aesthetic activity, because I wasn’t paid by anyone and, actually they cost me a bit of money.
By 1956, with the This is Tomorrow exhibition, the exhibition work started to feed into my paintings and it was the beginnings of a new kind of painting for me, as far as I was concerned.
AT: What was different about these new paintings?
RH: I had to think about what I should be doing. I asked myself why were my friends and I going to the cinema three times a week, and reading Esquire and Life magazines and then going home to the studio and painting monochrome squares or hard edged abstractions? It didn’t seem to fit. So I tried to incorporate the material I was interested in—the sociological aspects of current living—and create a kind of aesthetic which would enable me to produce paintings that I felt reflected the circumstances in which I found myself.
AT: You mentioned you were also doing some writing at this point. Did writing help you work through these ideas, perhaps?
RH: Yes. Writing helped me work through these ideas.
My work wasn’t liked very much by critics.
My work wasn’t liked very much by critics. It was shown, to some extent, but wasn’t taken very seriously because it was unlike anything else around. But, I had friends in high places—Lawrence Alloway [art critic and curator] and Gordon House [typographer, designer and artist]—who started a magazine for the ICA called Living Arts.
AT: That was where you wrote the “Urbane Living” piece, right?
RH: Yes. The magazine only ran for three issues but I was given the opportunity of doing anything I liked for it because Gordon House, who was designing it, liked what I did. He said “take as much space as you like.” So I put in lots of pictures and did the cover. After that was published there was a sudden interest in my work. A collector friend of mine who I’d known for years suddenly wanted to buy one of my pictures. And I said “why are you interested in buying something now? We’ve known each other for years.” He said “I read the piece in Living Arts and thought it was interesting. Before I read it, I didn’t know you were serious.” From that point on, my life changed as people began to take me seriously…
After that was published there was a sudden interest in my work.
AT: Why do you think that was?
RH: I think it’s easier to understand a painting that isn’t inherently charming or visually attractive or if it’s something a little bit odd if it is about ideas. I think there is the fact that I was writing intelligently and I was trying to make the reader understand what I was trying to do as a painter. It’s the only piece of writing I’ve ever done that I feel to be successful, successful in the sense of being really creative. I was using words in the way that I use paint, using the same techniques even: parody, changing styles, mixing literary styles in the way I mixed painting styles in one picture.
It’s the only piece of writing I’ve ever done that I feel to be successful, successful in the sense of being really creative. I was using words in the way that I use paint, using the same techniques even: parody, changing styles, mixing literary styles in the way I mixed painting styles in one picture.
AT: It’s very knowing
RH: Oh yes!
AT: …as a reader, you really need that glossary at the end…
RH: When I read it now, it’s interesting from a poetic point of view. As a string of words, they’re inconsequential in a way, but reading it as prose, it sounds as if they are lyrical. [laughs] I’m not trying to suggest it had great literary merit but it does have an ambition and a character. I found in a lot of the other things that I wrote, I was trying to get too much information in, rather than trying to understand the temperament of something.
AT: There is another piece I’d like to discuss—the one you wrote for Design magazine in 1960. It was actually a lecture first that you gave in Newcastle and then at the ICA.
RH: That was called, “Persuading Image”…
And it grew from my involvement with the IG. Most of the IG’s activities at the time were under the convenorship of Reyner Banham. He would give invitations to various people to come and speak: an atomic scientist, a helicopter designer and AJ Ayer on logical positivism.
Then, when Lawrence Alloway and John McHale took over from Banham, they thought it would be better if we talked to each other. Alloway would pick a subject like Information Theory, for example, and say “you’d better read this book by Claude Shannon,” which I’m sure he hadn’t read himself,. but he knew enough about what was going on to know what was important. So we’d do a reading study and then we’d talk about it. We went into all sorts of things. Sometimes the sessions took the form of a lecture by a member of the IG. Alloway talked about violence in the cinema, Banham talked American automobile design with lots of slides.
My contribution to that series of lectures was an evening devoted to an investigation into what we called at that time “white goods.” Appliances like washing machines, refrigerators, all that sort of stuff. I covered that territory as thoroughly as Banham covered his study of automobile design. I became interested in the relationship between the advertisers and the sociology and psychology rather than from a design point of view.
AT: I have a feeling that the members of IG knew that, but do you think that when it ended up in Design Magazine, their readership understood that distinction?
RH: Probably not…
AT: It was what you called “motivational research”…
RH: Yes, It was about advertising as much as the goods themselves.
AT: How did the lecture you gave end up being in Design Magazine? Did you approach them with it or did an editor see it?
In my modest little way I was trying to catch up with the avant-garde.
RH: I think they just invited me to do it. It may have been Michael Farr [editor of Design] who approached me. When I gave the lecture in London it was rather an exotic presentation. I had three projectors and three screens; one of the projectors was made using a hole in the back wall. This was influenced by the activities of Eames and his use of multiple projections. In my modest little way I was trying to catch up with the avant-garde.
AT: And, you were using images from magazines like Industrial Design?
RH: Yes, I bought magazines like Life and Look, which were the main illustrated magazines in the US and Picture Post here in the UK. One of the things I got told at Reimanns was to go to the library at the American Embassy because they had all the magazines and I developed this habit.
If there was something interesting in the magazines it tended to be known by everyone I knew. We all had pinboards. It was a habit we got from the Architectural Association where students all had pinboards. It was strange to walk into friends’ houses and find we all had exactly the same picture. There was one in particular image which I went on to make the painting “$he” from. It was a picture of an American model wearing a backless dress, showing her backside cleavage, which was very venturesome. That was on everyone’s pin boards.
AT: I remember you also loved that quote “hers is a lush situation,” and that came from Industrial Design…
RH: Yes, yes. Industrial Design magazine was certainly something I picked up from Reyner Banham. He showed me that quote and I thought it was prose poetry, and that was the inspiration for the second painting in a series. The first one was “Hommage á Chrysler Corp,” another quote but an invention of my own. Then I picked up another one: “Towards a Definitive Statement” which came from “A Definitive Statement in the Coming Season of Menswear.”
AT: Was there any point in your career where you saw yourself as a design critic?
…I always thought of myself as more of a design hobbyist.
RH: No, I always thought of myself as more of a design hobbyist. I loved Braun. Partly because of my experience of Ulm and my continued acquaintance with Maldonado. I think that the editor of Design Magazine was quite interested in my “Persuading Image” piece, and gave me the opportunity to discuss the Festival of Britain on its ten year anniversary. I was very critical and its use of typography with Egyptian characters that I deplored. I complained because there were always wire products that would have a ball or knob at the termination of the wire…knobs on everything! I found a photograph of an umbrella stand with knobs on and that became famous. After that, I fell out of favour with the editor of the Design Magazine who felt I had stabbed him in the back. Afterwards, I realised that he was one of the chief organisers of the FoB but I had just been honest in an assignment I’d been given.