Derek Birdsall obituary

<span>Book designs created by Derek Birdsall for Penguin in the early 1970s</span><span>Photograph: none</span>
Book designs created by Derek Birdsall for Penguin in the early 1970sPhotograph: none

The graphic designer, typographer and art director Derek Birdsall, who has died aged 89, was one of the profession’s “old guard”, a survivor from the pre-digital age. His work, highly regarded by his peers, reached a varied public over more than five decades. The “new woman” of the 1960s was offered fashion with consciousness-raising articles in the monthly Nova, which Birdsall art-directed for a time; Macmillan-era never-had-it-so-good teachers bought the Penguin Education series, attracted by the wit of his ingenious covers.

In the half century that followed, gallery goers and art historians were grateful for the careful ordering, elegant layout and typographic detailing of almost 100 catalogues and art books that he designed, memorably for the exhibition of George Stubbs’s celebrated paintings of horses at the Tate Gallery in 1984, the blockbusting Treasure Houses of Britain for the National Gallery of Art in Washington the following year, and Rembrandt and His Workshop for the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum in 1991.

But his best known, most widely circulated design in Britain was Common Worship, the Church of England service book, published in 2000.

Born in Knottingley, West Yorkshire, Derek was the son of Hilda (nee Smith) and Frederick Birdsall, a labourer. After leaving King’s school, Wakefield, he went to Wakefield College of Art, where he already owned a small Adana press.

A scholarship took him to the Central School of Arts and Crafts, London. There modern principles of typography were disseminated, largely through the printer-designer Anthony Froshaug, whose disciplined aesthetic bewitched a generation, and Birdsall gained a National Diploma in Design (1955).

Two years of national service in the Ordnance Corps, drawing maps for its printing unit in Cyprus, provided a way of extending his professional education, and in 1959 he co-founded one of the first design groups, in Bloomsbury Place, a stone’s throw from the Central School.

BDMW was a partnership with George Daulby, George Mayhew and Peter Wildbur. All four supported their income by part-time teaching: for Birdsall this was in the design department of the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts in Clerkenwell, now the London College of Communication, where I first met him.

Committed to his work, Derek made it a habit in the 50s to place a more or less finished design at the end of the bed, so that it was the first thing he saw in the morning, to be judged with fresh eyes.

European modernism – he had a large collection of Swiss posters – and an interest in geometry and the history of type design gave Derek much of his typographic style and expertise; his inventiveness was fed by American examples of young New York designers, before those such as Bob Gill and Robert Brownjohn came to work in London. His greatest admiration was for his friend, the veteran American designer Paul Rand.

Playing chess and poker sharpened his reasoning and concentration. Long pub lunches – part of his daily routine – developed his skills in persuasion and anecdote. In 1964 he moved to offices in King Street, Covent Garden, where the full-size snooker table took more space than the work surfaces. The studio was the site of lively parties, bringing together designer colleagues, a few clients and his many friends.

He brought in Derek Forsyth, the advertising manager at Pirelli, and introduced editorial and production consultants. The decade gave Birdsall opportunities that suited his chief interest: finding a precise graphic or typographic form for the content. He was one of several art directors in the 10-year life of Nova, beginning in 1965, and gave his studio the name Omnific.

His commercial design included publicity for Lotus cars and point-of-sale displays and a logo for Dorothy Gray cosmetics. American clients sought him out. For several years Birdsall was a consultant to IBM Europe, art-directed Mobil oil company’s magazine Pegasus and designed catalogues for exhibitions sponsored by the international conglomerate United Technologies, whose interests ran from aircraft to industrial products. He designed a prospectus for the Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture summer school in Italy, and taught on a course there.

He was also co-author of two books on chess, Fischer v Spassky Reykjavik 1972, published that year, and A Book of Chess, from the following one, and designed and edited The Technology of Man: A Visual History (1979). As well as covers for Penguin’s Education series, he designed a large number on its fiction list. In the late 80s, he returned to art directing for the Independent magazine (1989-93), followed by designs for a new Sunday Telegraph magazine (1995).

A speciality of Derek’s was the design of catalogues raisonnés – comprehensive presentations of works by a particular artist. Mark Rothko: The Works on Canvas was a volume that weighed five kilos. This was followed by Georgia O’Keeffe (1,200 pages in two volumes, 1999); George Stubbs, building on the Tate catalogue, with text by Judy Egerton (2007); and Frank Auerbach, with text by William Feaver (2009). In these he took particular care to respect the relative size of original paintings and was fond of including judiciously selected full-size details.

Birdsall was generous in the encouragement he gave to students. When a former student came to repay a loan, Derek refused the money, suggesting that one day it might in turn be handed on to a similarly hardup student.

Always keen to share his experience, Derek would often gently pat your forearm with a conspiratorial intimacy, and begin, “You know, and I know, that ...”

But as well as seeking agreement on some piece of pre-digital typographer’s lore he was just as likely to confide the address of the only typewriter repair shop in reach of his Islington studio-home.

He enjoyed repeating clients’ comments, such as the Bishop of Salisbury’s description of the colour of the Prayer Book’s rubrics as Sarum Red, a specification Derek adopted. In describing one typeface’s “delicious ampersand”, he was being passionate rather than precious.

At a Buckingham Palace reception he rebuked a Design Council official who had informed Queen Elizabeth II of the fiscal value of the design industry. “Your Majesty, design is not an industry,” he said. Derek believed it to be a craft.

Serious and genial, he could be flamboyant. With a large black fedora, his look had something of the film director John Huston – but with a roll-up in place of a cigar.

His public lectures – down-to-earth revelations and stories of professional life – were welcomed by students. And although it ended in a conversational brawl with the belligerent rector, Jocelyn Stevens, he enjoyed his time as visiting professor at the Royal College of Art (1987-88).

Birdsall was made a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale, appointed a Royal Designer for Industry (1982), and won the gold medal of the New York Art Directors Club (1987) and the Prince Philip Designers prize (2005).

Notes on Book Design (2004), detailing his half century of experience, spells out almost everything he had to teach and illustrates his vast range as a book designer.

In 1954 he married Shirley Thompson. She and his daughter Elsa, both fellow workers in his studio, survive him, as do his sons, Christopher, Simon and Jesse, seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Derek Walter Birdsall, graphic designer, born 1 August 1934; died 4 May 2024