The morning I rang Brian to see if he would accept nomination for the Hall of Fame, he was in the process of clearing out his Prahran studio to work from home.
Conveniently fulfilling one of AGDA/Spicers/Paperpoint’s criteria for membership, that of retirement from a lifetime of outstanding contribution to graphic design, he once again demonstrated the sense of timing that has characterised his long and brilliant career.
No stranger to moving premises, between 1965 and this latest one, he has bestowed his presence on 16 different addresses. A sign of a restless spirit perhaps, or he just likes carrying boxes, his work has always displayed that mental agility and embrace of change.
His early education was through the state school system, and on to Melbourne High, where only the bright kids went.
After four years it was obvious that there was no money for a University education, so it was decided his dad would get him a job at Paton Advertising through Vacuum Oil company connections, and he would study Accountancy at night. Up to then he had absolutely no Art aspirations, nor was any member of his family involved in Art in any way.
The night classes continued but Patons petered out, and he found himself working for Vacuum Oil as a trainee accountant, and shortly thereafter an enforced stint with National Service Signals at Puckapunyal.
Suddenly at forty nine years old, his father died. Brian was just eighteen. It totally shattered his belief in the permanence of things. Nothing, not even his own eventual career, could be trusted to endure. Sadgrove, who has been at the very forefront of Australian graphic design consistently for over forty years, unlike many of his peers, has never been a collector.
Although he continued on at Mobil, which Vacuum Oil had become, he abandoned Accountancy and discovered Art. He had needed an extra subject for Matric and the consensus was that Art was dead easy. He not only found it easy, he loved it. He says that what attracted him was the colouring-in and measuring...‘and it still does’.
He had seen an advertisement for a job at BHP and applied for it. Lo and behold—he got it! It was to design ‘BHP Review’, previously handled by David Leonard who had done brilliant work for the World Record Club—a powerhouse of innovation in record cover design, under the leadership of Geoff Digby.
These works had strongly influenced Sadgrove, and with his ‘prestige’ job at BHP and his part time study at Melbourne Tech, under the powerful influence of Lenton Parr, and along with his immersion in the work of Americans John Massey and Paul Rand, as well as his absorption in the Bauhaus and Ulm school principles, he found he had stumbled into the business at the top end.
Naturally, he bought an MG.
A succession of jobs followed his two years at BHP. The Trade Department for 18 months, the dynamic USP Needham (while Eidlitz was away with his Churchill Fellowship), JWT, and a stint at Meteor Press.
He had met Brian Stonier, then at Penguin, who with Max Harris and Geoffrey Dutton was about to start Sun Books. He produced superb covers for them. By now he was mixing with the elite. His friends included designers, Les Mason and Garry Emery, photographers, Dieter Muller and Kurt Veld, the great illustrator, later Archibald prize winning painter Wes Walters, and Bernie Joyce, the outstanding architect of the time. He found his interest in advertising diminishing, while architecture was involving him more and more, and with a new baby in the nest, and a riveting portfolio, he figured he needed to do something drastic.
So he did. He went Freelance!
It was 1968 when he opened the doors of Brian Sadgrove Pty Ltd, in Landsdowne Street, East Melbourne. Sun Books had gotten up and provided regular work, as did other publishers Cheshires and Nelson, both high-end clients. Geoff Digby of World Record Club fame was then working with APPM, commissioning selected designers to produce a series of paper related brochures called ‘Impressions’. Sadgroves’ was a stunner. An attention getter.
The National Gallery of Victoria opened in August 1968 and Brian was one of the first designers to work for them. By now he had acquired staff and one Ken Cato, just out of college, was a prescient choice. Along came the first of many postage stamps, and after yet another change of address, to St Kilda Road, the opportunity to travel abroad for an old boss, the Trade Department.
Brian designed the Australian Tourist Exhibition in Osaka, and went to Japan to install it, after which he was off to the USA.
Brian was now well established. His erstwhile employee Ken Cato, was soon to command attention. Weatherhead & Stitt, although the noble experiment, Jigsaw, was looking shaky, were powering on, as were Whaite & Emery, and over them all, like a great avuncular rainbow, hovered the benign influence of Les Mason. The young designers in Melbourne responded to his powerful presence and his surrealist themes, and Brian’s work slowly shrugged aside the ever useful Swiss grid, in favour of playful, pictogrammic images and eloquent typography.
Jerome Gould was a peripatetic design predator from Los Angeles. He would swoop into an Australia still in the grip of the cultural cringe, and carry off important commissions businessmen didn’t think local designers could handle.
He invited Sadgrove to come and work for him. Brian didn’t find his time there very inspiring. He says he didn’t like living in a city where nobody spoke to each other. He had a wife and two young kids at home. He was homesick.
On returning from America after about eight months he became part of a group of friends to do battle for the Post Office account. Garry, Andrew, Brian and Lyndon formed the Emery, Fowler-Brown, Sadgrove and Whaite Group, possibly the longest monicker in Australian graphic design history. The quartet stayed together for a while, about eight months in all, but what could have become a Melbourne Pentagram had drifted amicably apart by 1972, (‘We were all too similar’), and Brian took new offices in Cardigan Place as a sole practitioner,
sharing space with old mates, architects Robin Cocks and Peter Carmichael.
His client list read like ‘Who’s Who’. GMH, Comalco, Brymay, (the famous Redheads box) Australia Post, (the superb 1972 Olympics series) Fauldings Pharmaceuticals (cathartic for the vestiges of Swiss School left in him) not to mention the 1970 Telephone Book, (great cast— not much plot) as well as Elders, Wynvale, Channel Nine (the sadly missed icon), Landmark Builders (my favourite Sadgrove mark) and the State Bank of Victoria (the enigmatic ‘V’).
Since first dipping his toe into the pages of the revered ‘Graphis’ in 1965 with the beautiful Quists pack, Brian’s work had appeared consistently in the international design media, and in ‘75 he hit pay dirt with a bunch of stuff in the One Show, New York Art Directors Show. ‘I had more in than Milt’, said
Brian, referring to the great Milton Glaser, founder of Pushpin. The work included packaging for Faulding and editorial for Comalco.
In 1982, a new address, Little Page Street in Albert Park, not far from the beach, was a quiet haven. The studio was light, airy, and could be converted into a dwelling at the drop of a hat, such was the subtlety of the architecture, and the owner.
The first meeting to be held there was of the designers of a new banknote range being developed by the Reserve Bank. Chosen by the Bank’s advisors, principally Gordon Andrews and Philip Cox, the group comprised Sadgrove, Emery, Robinson and Weatherhead, and the Bank’s own Bruce Stewart. The designers met regularly and worked with each other to achieve a family resemblance across the series. It was to be 13 years before Brian’s handsome
$50 note was launched.
Not quite so slow was a relatively new field for him that blossomed in the Albert Park environment.
Although he had done some outstanding work for the wine trade—casks for Wynns and Yalumba among them—wine labels themselves had not featured strongly until now. The industry discovered Sadgrove’s empathy for the small sticky picture with a speed that made Adelaide tremble. His style was perfectly attuned to the genre, and his philosophy of equilibrium, (‘If you can’t add or take away anything to improve it, it’s ready’), in the scale and ambience of the liquor store created little miracles of spare, crackling design. Sadgrove’s wine labels are in an acknowledged class of their own.
In contrast to pieces of paper on bottles, the skin of a giant airliner may have presented a challenge, but the work done on the sadly deceased Compass and Ansett projects prove this not to be the case. The Compass jets were a departure in style to most commercial carriers, and the seemingly delicate, letterspaced typography was remarkably strong in the context of plane, sky and cloud.
His mature work has ranged across the design field remorselessly. Nothing is safe from his paring knife. From the obvious areas for the fine designer, the exhibitions (Columbian Gold) and the catalogues of the art institutions, the collar-and-tie images for the banks and briefs (Allens Arthur Robinson), the dour authority of the Police, the utilities (Yarra Water), to the entertainment industry (Kino, Nova) and the rambunctious images he has bestowed on the garment trade (No Knickers, Rio, Pro Socks), all were done with the same sense of seriousness and fun. All were totally appropriate.
He has trodden lightly among the great design movements of the modern era, never labeling himself but taking from each one that which enabled him to be himself in the simplest, freshest most direct way.
Any designer who can number among their achievements two Airlines, a Bank and a Banknote has done well. It’s been forty years well spent.
Brian says two major influences in his professional life were the Age Small Homes Service, as presented by Robin Boyd and Neil Clerehan. in the sixties. ‘A miracle of academic rigor, not only illuminating built design, but all design’.
The other was his friendship with fellow designer, Les Mason. ‘Les made me feel less private’. He has always made it look so easy. ‘A celebration of ordinariness.’ It’s a surprise to learn that for much of his professional life he suffered from constant, debilitating cluster headaches. They have recently cleared up.