Herbert Spencer Obituary

March 19, 2024

Penrose 1964-73

Influential typographer with an aesthete's eye for avant-garde design

For the emerging generation of designers attending art school in the 1950s, the path-finding design and visual arts magazine Typographica was an education in itself. Its boundary-blurring, sumptuously tactile pages, printed on contrasting papers, brought together printing history, avant-garde experiments with type and image, and documentary photo-essays about the city and street.

Its founder, Herbert Spencer, who has died aged 77, was one of the most influential British communication designers and typographers. Urbane, prolific and unfailingly modest, he was a reformer dedicated to improving standards of design in a field dominated, 50 years ago, by the printing industry's outdated conventions. But he was also an aesthete with a connoisseur's eye for the wild modernist innovations with letterforms and layout of the 1920s.

Spencer launched Typographica in 1949, when he was 25, and edited, designed and sometimes wrote for it for 18 years. Equally at home publishing one of the first articles in Britain about concrete poetry (then an international phenomenon), or an illustrated study of the design challenges presented by Braille, he was a new kind of designer-editor, able to think both visually and verbally, and to fuse images and words in meaningful new relationships.

The camera was central to this enterprise and, in the 1960s, Spencer found time in a packed schedule to take many superbly graphic black and white photographs on trips to Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Crete and Sicily, which he developed in the evenings in his darkroom.

He had a particular fascination with images of dilapidation and decay. Many of his photographs were used in Typographica; some of the best were published in his book Traces Of Man (1967) and later acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Spencer was born in London's East End. His father worked for the water board, but, in later years, living in gentlemanly style in Harley Street and by the Regent's canal in Maida Vale, Spencer was reluctant to discuss his childhood. He discovered printing at the age of 12, and bought a small hand press, on which he taught himself the basics of typography. During the second world war, he worked as an RAF cartographer, and began to absorb European influences.

In 1946, he joined the London Typographical Designers, and found design so absorbing that he abandoned his plan to become a painter. One of his earliest clients was the Institute of Contemporary Arts, one of whose founders, Eric C Gregory, chairman of the publisher and printers Lund Humphries, agreed to publish Typographica.

From the late 1940s, Spencer travelled widely in Europe, meeting leading designers, among them Max Bill, Imre Reiner, Piet Zwart and Willem Sandberg. In 1954, he married Marianne Mols, a Dutch national. Always preferring to work from a studio at home, he built up a thriving practice, consulting and designing for clients such as British Railways, the Post Office, the Tate Gallery, the University of Leeds, the University of East Anglia, Shell and WH Smith. In 1965, he was made a royal designer for industry.

He consolidated his considerable influence on the design profession by editing the pres tigious, long-running Penrose Annual for Lund Humphries (1964-73). Pioneers Of Modern Typography (1969), his loving study of the heroic years of typographic modernism, was avidly consumed by generations of young designers.

Spencer's first book, Design In Business Printing (1952), became a bible for design students and, in the 1950s, he taught typography at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. In 1966, he was appointed senior research fellow at the Royal College of Art, where, with The Visible Word (1968), he made an important contribution to legibility studies. He was prof-essor of graphic arts at the RCA from 1978 to 1985, a less happy period, as the administrative aspect did not suit him.

On retirement, Spencer continued to work as a consultant, assisted by his daughter Mafalda, also a designer. His aesthetic side could now be given free rein, and much of his time was devoted to painting abstracts in a top-floor studio at his Thames-side house at Putney. He lived there quietly until 2001, when his wife's declining health led to a move to Falmouth. She predeceased him by four months; he is survived by his daughter.

· Herbert Spencer, designer, editor, writer and photographer, born June 22 1924; died March 11 2002

Copyright, Rick Poyner published in The Guardian 03/15/2002

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Penrose 1964-73