Kemistry Gallery helped turn graphic design from disposable craft to respected art. After succumbing to rising rents, it's fighting back. We reflect on a decade of design
After 10 years of championing graphic design in the heart of Shoreditch, Kemistry Gallery has had to temporarily shut its doors. Despite discovering new talents, celebrating past masters and standing at the forefront of design for a decade, the rising cost of rent has forced the space to say goodbye to the area it called home, following in the footsteps of neighbours Plastic People and The Joiners Arms. A successful kickstarter campaign launched by the gallery towards the end of last year helped secure Kemistry’s future, and to celebrate, they’re putting on a pop-up show, opening 7 March, documenting 100 years of graphic design. Dazed spoke to Kemistry’s co-owner Graham McCallum ahead of the show about the gallery’s first 10 years, the changing face of London’s art scene and what the future has in store.
How did Kemistry Gallery come about?
Graham McCallum: It was essentially because of a conversation in the Bricklayers Arms. Richard and I run the branding agency Kemistry, and we were just moving into this building on Charlotte Road. When I was a young designer my very first job was at the BBC. There were three designers that I thought were fantastic. One of them was Bernard Lodge, and he did the very first Doctor Who titles. I thought “It’s ridiculous that his work has been seen by literally millions of people, and yet he is completely anonymous.” If that was an artist, the names are always front and centre. Another designer, Alan Jeapes, did the original titles for Eastenders, which still run to this day. The idea of the first exhibition was to take the work of those two and another designer called Charles McGee and say, “Look at all this great work that you’ve seen before, but these are the actual people that did it.” That was the start of it – to bring design before a bigger public and say “This is culturally significant and yet it’s discarded in a way.”
We had an exhibition with Saul Bass and if you want to buy a Saul Bass poster now you’ll have to pay £1500-£3000. And to think, there are hundreds of thousands of these posters produced and just ripped up and thrown away once the film was publicised. I think there’s a growing awareness that these things are valuable, they’re cultural markers of an age. I think graphic design has always been seen as something disposable and slightly commercial, and something that doesn’t really rate as an art form. Kemistry Gallery was set up to try and change that perception and show things have a value.
“I think graphic design has always been seen as something disposable and slightly commercial, and something that doesn’t really rate as an art form. Kemistry Gallery was set up to try and change that perception and show things have a value” – Graham McCallum
Was the decision to start in Shoreditch because of where your branding agency was?
Graham McCallum: Yes. We had a ground floor which was essentially a retail space and the building was a wreck. It was a rat-infested warren when we moved in – quite literally. There had been squatters living here and the area was very run down. So we refurbished our building top-to-bottom, and as part of it put a gallery in. That was 10 years ago, when the area was still just beginning to come up really and a creative vibe had started. Since then we’ve been joined by lots of galleries.
Has the gentrification of the area forced you out?
Graham McCallum: We were faced with the rent tripling. It’s what happens in an area like this. This is where Brit Art started. In the next building to us is where Joshua Compston started. It was the area where the Tracey Emins and those sort of people used to hang out. It was cheap really, and it kind of went from there. Once it becomes a fashionable place, the big brands start eyeing it up like mad, so you get Pret A Manger moving in, and you get Eat. They kill the area stone dead of the very reason why they came in the first place. So Hackney Council are very aware of that and they don’t want the place to become whole Foxtons and Costa Coffee. They’re trying to preserve the spirit of the place. But inevitably a lot of creatives have been forced out.
Looking back over Kemistry’s 10 year history, what have been your favourite shows?
Graham McCallum: One which I really loved was by a designer called Ken Garland – he’s going to come and talk at our pop-up exhibition. Ken’s now 85, still practicing, and he designed the original CND posters. We’re going to display one of his original 1960 CND posters [at their pop-up exhibition]. There are so many other great shows we’ve had really. One of our early big successes was Parra. We gave him his first exhibition, and at the time he was doing club flyers in Amsterdam. We loved his work and asked him if he’d like a show. That was one of the very early shows, and of course he’s become enormous now. It’s always nice when that happens, when you actually spot somebody and give them a platform.
We’ve also had Lou Dorfsman, who was the designer for CBS in the States. He was the art director at the Black Rock building in New York which was designed by Eero Saarinen and he had ruled it like a rod of iron. Dorsman was asked to design something for the wall of the canteen in this building, which he called the “Gastrotypographicalassemblage” – it was based on typecases, and he filled it all with 3D type, which had things like “eat, drink and be merry” and “pizza”, and it was all this great wall of fantastic type all painted white. It was beautiful. About five years back, somebody noticed that this thing was being thrown into a skip and they actually managed to salvage it, and it’s currently being restored. So we had an exhibition of his work and made a half-scale reproduction of the original negative. But then again it shows this fantastic thing which was just considered to be no value, slung into a skip. We found that with a lot of designers, just tracking down the work is actually quite difficult sometimes. You can maybe get in touch with family members and ask if they have any sort of archives. So it’s nice discovering things, tracking them down, and trying to create some sort of record.
You recently reached out to Kickstarter to help secure the gallery’s future. What are your plans moving forward?
Graham McCallum: We’ve been looking at buildings and Hackney Council have been very helpful to us actually. They’ve made lots of suggestions. We spent the end of last year looking for a building, but we have to start looking seriously this year. We want to find the right place really, and the ultimate aim is to create a national resource for graphic design and graphic art which is just a little more permanent and properly funded. We have some Arts Council funding, but ideally we’d get some sort of matched funding from somewhere else so that we don’t have to sweat every time there’s a deadline. That’s the aim – to have a national centre for graphic art.
In addition to securing the right building, it would be nice to put on properly researched exhibitions. I think one of the things with the internet is that it has done a little bit of damage, because there’s a lot of stuff that’s modern but sort of samey. People sort of Google around. For me, it’s always about trying to find people who have got something new and different to say – people like Anthony Burrill. It’s not just simply about being commissioned to do something. We’ve shown from people from all over the world. We had a wonderful South Korean studio called Zero Per Zero who just make their versions of tube maps from around the world and they’ve kind of got a South Korean slant on them. There’s so much to do really – we’ve only just scratched the surface.
100 Years of Graphic Design is on show from 7 March – 15 March, 2015. For more, click here