In Profile: Tom Eckersley, Master of the Poster

As a new exhibition celebrates his legacy, we look at the life and work of Britain’s most influential graphic designer…

We take it for granted now that any art school worth its mettle would offer a BA in graphic design. But this wasn’t always the case; without the vision of one man, it’s fair to say that UK design would look very different.

It was celebrated poster artist Tom Eckersley who set up the UK’s first undergraduate graphic design course in 1954, at the then London College of Printing, now the London College of Communication (LCC). And it is here that a new exhibition marks the centenary of the influential graphic designer’s birth; drawing from the Eckersley archive, 40 iconic posters are on display from the 1940s through to the 1980s.

Working at the LCC for over 20 years, and as Head of Graphic Design until 1977, Eckersley was known as a kind and sincere tutor by his students — Ralph Steadman, Charles Saatchi and John Hegarty among them. He is widely recognised as developing modern graphic design as a professional practice of communication, different from and offering more than commercial art.

“Eckersley went on to become one of the foremost poster artists of the 1930s, producing much work for the United Nations, the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, the BBC and, perhaps most famously, London Transport”

Born in Lancashire in 1914, Eckersley himself studied commercial art at Salford School of Art, going on to become one of the foremost poster artists of the 1930s, producing much work for Shell-Mex, the United Nations, the Worldwide Wildlife Fund, the BBC, the Imperial War Museum and, perhaps most famously, London Transport. His relationship with the latter lasted over 50 years, his colourful and minimal design style becoming synonymous with the London Underground.

During WW2 he became a Royal Air Force cartographer, later producing striking factory safety posters for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. Eckersley’s eye-catching designs saved lives, and it earned him an OBE in 1948 for his service to poster design. As the war ended, Eckersley started working for Gillette, the Post Office and as a book illustrator, eventually becoming one of the first British members of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and elected Royal Designer to Industry in 1961.

Eckersley’s pattern of combining sharp aesthetic with function, to communicate complex messages in a simple, direct manner, was an ad man’s dream. He was also popular with the general public who saw his designs every day on the journey to work.

Colleague and friend Alan Fletcher remembers: “When I was a student in the very early 50s, 
I used to travel back and forth from Shepherd’s Bush to Holborn by underground. My knowledge of design was triangular: bounded by what I was taught and learnt at college, looking in the school library at Gebrauchsgrafik, and the posters I saw on the tube — mainly those of Tom Eckersley.
 I immediately fell under the influence of this maestro who would take two disparate images and turn them into a third. Magic!” (Tom Eckersley: His Graphic Work).

What’s astonishing is how fresh Eckersley’s Modernist style remains; developed from flat geometrical shapes, strong use of contrast, shadowing with gradients and precise outlines, his work wouldn’t look out of place in a contemporary design campaign. Testament indeed to his immense talent and reach. He was, and remains, a groundbreaking and deeply influential designer.

Laura Robertson

Tom Eckersley: Master of the Poster continues at the London College of Communication until 29 January 2014

Gallery open 10am-5pm (closed on Sundays), free entry

More of Eckersley’s work is available to view online in the Visual Arts Data Service

Posted on 13/01/2014 by thedoublenegative