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Kerry William Purcell, author of the Phaidon
books on Alexey Brodovitch, Josef Müller-Brockmann, as well as an
unpublished text on Herbert Matter, has been writing about designers and
photographers (Weegee) for many years. His thorough texts document the
lives of these storied practitioners, but do they go further than to
build a glorified resume? In this interview, Purcell examines and
critiques the art and craft of writing professional biographies, and the
problems that arise when the families of the subjects do not authorize
Steven Heller: How and why did you become a graphic design biographer?
Kerry William Purcell: Well, firstly, I wouldn't really define
myself exclusively as a "graphic design biographer." Although I have now
written three design biographies (one remains unpublished), my
background was originally one of sociology and cultural theory. However,
I have found that having a education that is not rooted solely in
graphic design has proved of immense help in writing about design,
especially in my book reviews and essays.
As to how I came to write these design books, it all started when I was
an archivist at The Photographers' Gallery, London. Many students and
researchers would come in to look at books and essays on such
photographers as Robert Frank, Richard Avedon and Ted Croner. When going
through this material, Alexey Brodovitch's name kept cropping up as an
important influence in these figures lives. A friend of mine at the
gallery, the photographer Ed Dimsdale, shared this curiosity about
Brodovitch, and we decided to make a documentary film of his life. So,
entirely self-financed, we contacted Brodovitch's remaining family,
colleagues and students, and traveled to New York and Paris to interview
them. Unfortunately, once we returned to London, we had no funds left
with which to continue the project. As the tapes gathered dust, I
decided to write an article for Baseline Magazine on Brodovitch. Karen Stein at Phaidon spotted my essay, and subsequently commissioned me to write a biography.
Heller: Photography has been your field, you even did a biography of
Weegee. Where is the nexus between photography and design, and are the
subjects you address always engaged in the two?
Purcell: Well, as I came to graphics via photography, it has
always been a particular interest of mine as to how designers use the
photograph as an object in design process (and frequently fail to credit
the photographer!). Yet, while there have been a few "how-to" books and
brief histories of the image in design, it always amazes me that there
has never been a comprehensive history of "Photo-Graphics." In fact,
such an absence becomes all the more remarkable when we see that the
development of graphic design as a profession intersects with the
growing use of photography in print. Admittedly, this has begun to
change with such works as Gerry Badger and Martin Parr's two-volume
study of the photobook. However, an analysis that explicitly examines
the relationship between graphic design and photography is still
My essays for Baseline on such publications as Photographie and Camera
have been my small attempt to address this. In addition, my biographies
on Brodovitch, Herbert Matter and, to a much lesser extent,
Müller-Brockmann, have touched on this broader history and attempted to
document the lives of its key pioneers.
Heller: So far, and this is not meant as an insult, I have yet to read a
real page-turner biography of a designer. At best, they are sprightly
and at worst, academic, but the stories are all professional. How are
design biographies different, say, from those on film stars, politicians
Purcell: No insult taken! In fact, I am now very
critical of my biography on Brodovitch. It was very much my
apprenticeship, and I now see its many deficiencies. Although I received
many wonderful reviews for the book, alongside a marvelous letter from
Richard Avedon, knowing what I know now, I wish I could rewrite it. In
principle, however, I would say that there should be no qualitative
difference between a biography on, for example, a filmmaker, and one on a
designer. Good writing is good writing, whatever the subject.
Still, there are some problems unique to graphic design biographies. One
is that they are often part critique, part showcase of the designers
work. In terms of the layout of the book, you are often required to talk
more directly about the work and less about the life. As such the
personal/professional analysis is often a difficult balancing act.
Maybe one of the reasons for the dearth of "real page-turner" design
biographies is that designers, rather than writers, have written many of
them. I'm not saying designers can't write! But the level of research
needed for a comprehensive biography is truly daunting, and the demands
of a busy design workload would be an obstacle to any real engagement
with the subject. Then again, I'm talking here as if we are inundated
with biographies on graphic designers, and we are not!
Heller: In researching and writing a biography like Brodovitch or
Müller-Brockmann, how much research do you do into the private lives of
these figures? And once examined, how much to you cull from your final
Purcell: Well, this relates to the question above. If anyone is
going to write a good biography, I feel nothing should be out of
bounds. If the subject is still alive, or the family/estate is
protective of the person's reputation, then, admittedly, you have to
take this into account; you are often forced to take this into account!
Yet, I believe if a biographer is going to write a comprehensive and
engaging work, they must fundamentally disrespect their subject. What I
mean by this is that to stop a work becoming a mere promotional puff
piece, a measure of critical distance is required that will preclude any
easy rapport with your subject. With all the biographies I have
written, people I interviewed told me stories about the designer that I
knew the families would not want to be made public. As long as the
interviewee was not harboring some personal resentment and the
information was relevant to my account, then I have always used it. In
my book on Müller-Brockmann, his widow did ask for a handful of her own
quotations to be edited out. On this occasion, I was more than happy to
do as this as their removal did not damage the book as a whole.
Heller: When writing the "authorized" biography, does an author have a
kind of contract with either his subject or his subject's family? When
you wrote your books, did you have to get approval from the wives,
children, and so on?
Purcell: With Brodovitch, there was no estate as such. His
collection was scattered across Europe and the United States. This was
partly as a result of Brodovitch giving his work away when old students
use to come to visit him towards the end of his life. The only family
member with any interest in his work was his nephew Michel Brodovitch
who lived in Paris. I remember visiting him in his apartment and doing a
double take, as he looked so much like his uncle! However, he really
never wanted any involvement in the book.
With Müller-Brockmann, it was exactly the opposite. I worked very
closely with his widow Shizuko Yoshikawa. She herself was once a
designer (she trained at Ulm with Otl Aicher) and from the early drafts
of the manuscript through to the layout she wanted to be involved. I was
very pleased for her to read through my work, her insights into Swiss
design and her late husbands life were extremely helpful.
Heller: I understand you finished an entire biography on Herbert Matter,
but were unable to get rights to publish his work? What happened? As a
biographer don't you, a priori, have the fair-use right to reproduce
material that supports your text?
Purcell: Increasingly the families and relations of graphic
designers are assuming the traditional role of estates in a manner
similar to those of artists or photographers. I feel there are certain
problems with this. Unlike a painting or photograph, a graphic design is
often an object as amalgam. In their work, a designer may use a
photograph taken by a contemporary photographer, then combine it with a
typeface that was released by a foundry in the early 19th century, which
is all then set by a printer. In addition to this, the completed design
is a "work for hire" that was bought and owned by the company who
originally commissioned the work. Yet, many families of designers are
looking to retrospectively obtain full copyright control of their
In my case, I was researching and writing a book on Herbert Matter, when
I heard from an archivist at the FotoStiftung Schweiz archive in
Switzerland (where they have an extensive Matter collection) that there
was another Matter project underway. Of course, I was alarmed to hear
this! So wanting to find out more, my editor at Phaidon tracked down
this other project and set up a meeting with its initiator Alex Matter,
Herbert Matter's son. All was looking positive until, allegedly, Alex
Matter requested a sum of money for the reproduction of his father's
work. As most design biography sales are, in the words of one editor, "a
bloodbath," the margins on these publications are so slight that the
possibility of paying reproduction rights was never an option. Although
the Fotostiftung Schweiz owns the copyright on the Matter work (and had
previously published a book on Matter with Lars Muller) they were
apparently unwilling to go ahead with any project without Alex Matter's
say so. This was equally so for Phaidon. That was all nearly three years
Heller: Without the Matter heirs' approval, how did you research his life?
Purcell: As noted, the Fotostiftung Schweiz have a very good
collection, including Matter's school books, diaries and early designs
up until he left for America in 1936. I also visited Yale and MoMA to
view small collections of his work held there.
Heller: How do you decide who to write about? What factors must be in
play for someone to rate a full-fledged biography? And at what point in a
designer's life or death is he or she ripe?
Purcell: Your own prodigious output aside, graphic design
history is still a fairly young and under-researched discipline. There
are numerous designers, art directors, and so on who would be worthy
candidates for a biography. Through my research, I have often come
across figures I would like to write about in the future. Other key
factors are whether there have been any previous books on the designer
and how widely known he is. However, the real problem is finding
publishers interested in pursuing such works. As already noted, in terms
of sales, it is widely known that design biographies don't sell in any
Heller: In recent years there seem to be more biographies, whereas 15
years ago there were none. What accounts for this surge? And do you
think it will continue?
Purcell: As a profession, I think we can trace an arc
throughout the 20th century, from the emergence of modernism until the
arrival of the computer, which serves as a very neat, self-contained
story of graphic design (probably too neat). Within this story are
numerous figures who played key roles in the development of the
discipline. I don't think it's any surprise that, as this story reached
its natural end, works began to appear, surmising the central players
and periods. It should also be remembered that what we consider to be
worthy of historical study today is very much determined by our own
contemporary socio-economic and political climate.
History is not some objective thing out there, but is relived and retold
with each new generation. Therefore, to know whether they will continue
to be published depends on many factors from how design is taught to
inclinations of the publishing industry.
Heller: Unlike with figures like Picasso or Warhol, about who numerous
biographies have been written, there really isn't room for more than one
on Brodovitch, Müller-Brockman, etc. In this sense do you feel the
responsibility to be as definitive as possible, or do you feel at some
point someone else will write another?
Purcell: As I already noted, to believe one is writing the
definitive biography is to suffer delusions of omnipotence! But you are
correct to note that there isn't really room for another biography on
Müller-Brockmann or Paul Rand. As to whether this makes me feel more
responsible? No it doesn't. Maybe as the desire for a different
interpretation of Müller-Brockmann's oeuvre arises in 10 years time,
someone may be inspired to offer a new take on his life and work. As
long as the present keeps changing, the need to reinterpret the past
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