One afternoon some forty years ago I was politely requested to leave a Marks & Spencer store on Camden High Street because another customer objected to my SEX T-shirt (the one with the Jim French illustration of two half-naked cowboys chatting). At the time I recall perceiving what became Punk as a sort of art movement that incorporated rock ’n’ roll, fashion and graphics. Other students in college did not agree and found the provocation really upsetting – all those middle class girls in Central School of Art and Design were horrified when we gave the Sex Pistols their first gig at a college hop and seemed to think it was destroying the place – “It was anarchy mummy!”
Being the practical type, I soon found myself recruited as a roadie for The Clash and charged with creating their record sleeves, posters and t-shirts. I suppose that what I learned during my Punk sojourn was a ‘can-do-and-don’t-rely-on-other-peopleto-do-it-for-you’ attitude, a still-held desire to provoke and irritate the ‘establishment’ and maybe a precocious self-confidence.
This was later combined with a more disruptive approach to commercial design; one that is now often promoted in business schools, but then I was just perceived as being ‘difficult’. A desire not to create ‘middle of the road’ predictable tasteful fodder for the John Lewis yummy mummy, but stuff that is more edgy and viscerally ‘dangerous’. Confronting the things that no one really wants to talk about, having a sense of humour about life, and vitally, not taking one’s self or anything else but one’s work too seriously. Life is a canapé old chum…
This attitude is easy to have in one’s youth, but it is rather more difficult to sustain one’s seditious tendencies when you get older and get a ‘proper job’ and have a family to support. My first employers, branding studio Wolff Olins, were taken by my portfolio of Clash record sleeves and posters, and proved surprisingly tolerant of me and ‘the attitude’ that one was perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo. I felt a bit like a Socratic gadfly or court jester amongst all those straight, placid business types.
However, my next assignment as lead product designer at Mothercare proved rather more of a challenge (riding a motorbike was frowned upon and I had to wear a suit and tie). But I found that the refusive approach of Punk was still valid, if only in helping my career. Perhaps punk pays, after all?
Sebastian Conran is Creative Principal at Sebastian Conran. sebastianconran.com