The New Year has got off to a good start, as the first new show I've seen this year is excellent. As the title implies, CUBE's retrospective of the British graphic designer Alan Fletcher's work is far more than just a parade of formal design for corporate clients - though there are plenty of examples of his classic designs for brands like Cunard and PAN AM. Some of his work for high profile organisations is still in use today - the V&A logo, for example.
The exhibition is really interesting where it shows the blurring of the boundaries between art and design, and by extension life and design, and the ways in which art and design can be useful and incorporated into every day life. It also raises questions about how what we see is affected by what we're shown - how we react to brands, designs and logos, and the way in which they arouse in us connotations which have become instantly familiar.
This worked both ways; Fletcher also quoted from life and what was around him, from incorporating the distinctive patterning of punched type tape into the Reuters logo to obsessively collecting piles of letters as examples of different typefaces. Although minor experiments, his collages comprised of these fonts are interesting; the word 'anonymous' is drawn from letters leaping out from themselves anyonymous newspaper articles, characters from the Coca Cola logo still spell nothing but Coca Cola in the mind even when removed from their context and recycled into another word.
Sometimes, Fletcher's interventions of art into life are as small as letterheads. Few examples of design could be more appropriate for their purpose than the spidery, red, black and green handwriting that forms an apple logo for 'Parvits Products, purveyors of quality fresh fruits and vegetables', stamped onto an inventory of produce, or the words that taper into the shape of a wine glass for John Elliott Cellars, London.
Amongst Fletcher's larger, more striking, public designs are London Underground posters advertising the various attractions of London, including one entitled 'Shopping' in which a bar code is integrated into the design, repackaged into a colourful, more human shopping bag. It's a reminder of essential financial reality of shopping, the bottom line of profit underneath the glamour and escapism of consumerism.
Other highlights are his posters for public institutions such as museums and galleries, and a campaign from the early '70s against plans for the government to start charging for national galleries and museums. 'We the undersigned' is a simple but effective concept; a collection of the signatures of artists, from Bruegel to Van Gogh, their unique identifying marks easily recognisable.
Fletcher's work is a lot more personal than much graphic design. As someone who's spent a considerable amount of time in Barcelona, I enjoyed his early sketches of familiar places like La Bouqeria Market and Las Ramblas, detailed and completely different to the simplicity of the design for which he became famous.
Some pieces, like Fletcher's books The Art of Looking Sideways, or his imagined sketches of the new world as seen for the first time by the pioneers through a mass of ocean, and the sight of the Irish coast from Wales, viewed through a curtain of rain, almost make you laugh out loud, like not-so-distant distant relations of the cartoonish line drawings of David Shrigley. Others make reference to the tongue in cheek humour of the Victorian author Jerome K Jerome.
His Christmas cards for children are similarly entertaining yet thought provoking. In one set, entitled 'A Primer for Commercial Children', a child's alphabet is already equated with branding - P corresponds to the Penguin logo, Q to Quaker. In another collage, the letters of 'EVIAN' are playfully rearranged 'naive'.
A marker of good design is being able to imagine living with it, and my favourite pieces were Fletcher's calendars, ranging from a calendar celebrating key events of the year to a star sign calendar featuring inspired representations of each of the star signs in block shapes and colours reminiscent of children's paper cutouts. The most effective, though, is the weather calendar. With the barest components necessary - a few colours and basic shapes, Fletcher manages to sum up the whole of the British climate and its weather patterns - lived mostly in black and white, with a few months bursting into colour. Severe lines are scored across the page for a rainy March, May is a mere swathe of verdant green, July a flaming orange sphere with jagged edges. Autumn is summed up by a collection of wistful brown paper bag coloured shapes, December is a monochrome snowy sky. Best of all, November disintegrates into a scrawl of grey squiggles like the static on a TV screen.
Alan Fletcher: Fifty years of graphic work (and play), until April 3 2010.
113-115 Portland Street
Tickets £4/£3.50 concessions.