The joy of the archive

If you are ever fortunate enough to visit the archive of the late, great Abram Games at his family home, his daughter Naomi will talk you through his work, show you sketches and roughs. She might even, if you are lucky, make you a cup of coffee from Games’ own Cona coffee maker.

As Naomi says, “It is a pleasure to show students and interested designers the physical work which they mull over and touch and ask questions and get immediate answers. A book or website does not converse or smile!”

Abram Games: Progressive sketches for zoo poster for London Transport 1975 © Estate of Abram Games

Creative archives are a wonderful thing. There’s something magical about sifting through original artwork, sketches and mock-ups. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit quite a few. For the January issue of CR, I had the great good fortune to be invited to rummage through the archive of the late, great photographer Trevor Key. Because of Key’s involvement with so many significant moments in music, it was a thrilling experience. Each envelope and box contained cultural treasures and that excitement you get from discovering unused ideas or different versions of classic works that were discarded along the way.

From Trevor Key’s archive: Props for the Some Product: Carri on Sex Pistols sleeve, 1979

So, here was a box containing props from the shoot for the Sex Pistols’ Some Product album sleeve – the Vicious Burger wrapper, the can of Anarkee-ora. And in an envelope, test Polaroids for the New Order sleeves Key created with Peter Saville. In this CR video (below) Key’s ex-assistant Toby McFarlan Pond and designer Scott King discuss Key’s legacy and the archive.

Saville himself has been meticulous in maintaining his archive. Ahead of his Design Museum show, we explored it with Daniel Mason, his collaborator on the show in a feature in our January 2003 issue. There was the True Faith leaf, the marked-up artwork for Power, Corruption and Lies – which made a great CR cover.

CR January 2003 cover featuring the original marked-up artwork by Peter Saville for New Order’s 1983 album Power, Corruption and Lies
The original leaf used by Peter Saville and Trevor Key on New Order’s True Faith sleeve. From a 2003 CR piece on Saville’s archive

Better yet, especially for those spine-tingling “look what I have in my hands” moments is the Stanley Kubrick Archive at LCC. Owing to the restrictions placed on its use by the late director’s estate, the only way to see its treasures is in person – definitely worth a visit.

For students in particular, archives are incredibly valuable. If all you know of a great work is a perfect reproduction of a finished piece in a book it can seem so remote, so unattainable. But archives often draw the curtain back on the illusion of creativity, demystifying, showing that there is a path to be followed in the making of a piece of work. That it’s not some great leap but often a process of hard work, elimination, trial and error. To a young designer, suddenly canonical work seems more attainable.

Archives also provide context – other work in the same vein, references, development, scale, the way things were actually put together. That poster that looks flawless when printed in a book? Maybe the printing wasn’t great, the paper not what you expected, the repro a bit shonky. How many iconic magazines were in reality undermined by terrible ads, wonky typesetting and cheap paper? They can also reveal a great deal about the practice of working as a designer or photographer. All those letters, invoices, angry or frustrated notes. The blood, sweat and tears behind making great work.

Abram Games: Progressive sketches for 1951 Festival of Britain symbol 1948 © Estate of Abram Games

We often hear discussions about the problems of archiving digital media for future study. As formats and technologies become obsolete, how will we ensure future access to the work being created today? Life was so much easier when we were dealing with physical objects like posters and prints, surely?

Well no, actually. Archives can be wonderful resources but, for those charged with their care, they can also be something of a burden. I have spoken to quite a few family members of very well-known designers, photographers and illustrators who are facing this problem. Once their renowned loved-one has passed away, it’s often left to the family to decide what to do with the contents of the studio – a life’s work in paper, film and transparency.

Naturally, most family members in this situation feel a great responsibility to keep the work together and have it cared for properly. But where? There are very few institutions with the budget and space to take on many personal archives.

Abram Games: Submission sketch for horse-guard poster for London Transport 1963 © Estate of Abram Games

Thankfully, Abram Games put a lot of work into making sure his archive was in order before he died. “AG knew his children would probably take on the archive and left it all dated with lists of who owned the copyrights. He worked on collating it for the two years before he died in preparation,” Naomi says. Few creative people are so organized: as a result, the Estate was able to to get a Games monograph published as well as an exhibition at the Design Museum.

Naomi says that her ideal for the archive would be eventually to have it housed in a dedicated poster museum, alongside that of other great artists and designers where the work could be available to all. One of the better examples of how this has been achieved for a designer is the Herb Lubalin Study Center at The Cooper Union in New York (read our post on it here). It’s free and open to the public every weekday bar Fridays. As well as Lubalin’s work, visitors can also enjoy that of some of the great names of the New York design scene including Tibor Kalman, Massimo Vignelli and Push Pin Studios.

From the Herb Lubalin Study Center at The Cooper Union in New York

The Lubalin Center feels like a good compromise between the benefits of having an institution take on an archive and the access advantages of keeping it in the family. Naomi says that despite the work involved, there are great benefits to looking after her father’s work herself. “When AG died we, the Estate of AG, were approached by many museums and art colleges who wanted the archive. We realised that once it was ‘buried’ in an institution it would not be readily accessible to students – which had been AG’s wish,” she says. “He had always been a great educator and supportive to students. We visited the institutions and listened to them, but in some cases their funding would eventually run out and the colleges wanted the work so that lecturers could apply for their research grants. We decided to try to look after it ourselves, especially as AG worked from our family home and we grew up with the work and knew him best. AG wanted a living archive and that is what we hope we have achieved.”

Abram Games: Sketch for cover design ‘The Affairs of Flavie’ Penguin Books 1956/7 © Estate of Abram Games

If you can’t make it to the archive in person, the Abram Games estate now has a brand new website, showcasing a selection of his finest work.

“It is a privilege to have such an archive,” Naomi says. “ I hope I have done the old man proud!”

Visit the new Abram Games website here

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