Alex Brown on designing, editing, and funding his self-published publication Modernism in the UK
Initially started as a project during the first COVID-19 lockdown, Modernism in the UK by UK-based graphic designer Alex Brown, displays a collection of over 1,000 British trademarks and symbols – dating from the post-war, pre-internet era of 1945-1991. Rather than serving as a reference manual or nostalgia trip, the book aims to provide an astute reminder of capitalism’s effects on modernism – both highlighting the ephemeral nature of modern life in the UK and also providing a critique of corporate culture and the design industry’s complicity within it. We spoke to Alex about the development of the book and his key takeaways from the project.
PT Hi Alex! How are you doing?
AB I’m doing well! Thank you for featuring my project. It’s really exciting to be surrounded by so much great creative talent on your site.
PT How did ‘Modernism in the UK’ begin as a project?
AB The idea for the project originated from working on a brand identity job for a corporate client, that became a merger, which later led to the project being shelved. I became interested in other visual victims of capitalist culture – identities lost to mergers, bankruptcies and rebranding campaigns.
I spent many lunch breaks researching and scanning publications from a vast resource of out-of-print books.
PT With over 1,000 trademarks and symbols included, what was your approach to researching, writing and editing the book and how long did it take?
AB Inspiration came from my time at Pentagram who have one of the most amazing private design libraries in the world. I spent many lunch breaks researching and scanning publications from a vast resource of out-of-print books. Creating an archive of reference materials that only existed on a digital storage drive.
The project began at the beginning of the first UK lockdown in March 2020, I was freelancing when the pandemic hit and found myself with more free time on more hands than normal. Learning to bake sourdough bread or signing up to Apple Fitness+ didn’t really appeal, so I decided instead to attempt to redraw the trademarks and symbols that my hard drive had accumulated over the years, which sounds utterly crazy in hindsight.
PT How did you find the process?
AB Having worked on books and book covers in the past for large publishing companies where the design is heavily edited by the publisher, editor and author – it was important to have full creative control over the project. So perhaps rather naively I decided to self-publish the project, writing, designing, editing and funding it myself. The best thing about self-publishing is being able to produce whatever you want to without any restrictions.
PT Could you tell us about the thinking behind the cover?
AB Neither a reference book nor a nostalgia trip, the collated works featured throughout the book create new compositions on each spread. The cover design itself recontextualizes several of these forms into a contemporary layout, which is a nod to Yasaburo Kuwayama’s book ‘Trademarks & Symbols.’
It was important to have full creative control over the project.
PT What was your favourite insight from working on the book?
AB For me, the most interesting thing to consider is that all of the designs from this era were created three-dimensionally, without the aid of a computer or the internet – two tools that we all take for granted daily. This is also the reason why a physical object felt like the correct format for these logos to be re-examined as opposed to creating a website or a social media account.
PT Is there anything that we can learn from the pioneering era of British design on which the book is based?
AB The men and women whose designs feature in the book were the first to convince companies of the value in a corporate identity… however all of these designs have since been lost to globalisation. This was the future once.