Professor Richard Guyatt

RCA Professor of Graphic Arts whose radical innovations achieved a new status for designers
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The Independent Online

Richard Gerald Talbot Guyatt, designer: born La Coruña, Spain 8 May 1914; Professor of Graphic Arts, Royal College of Art 1948-78, Pro-Rector 1974-78, Rector 1978-81; consultant designer, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons 1952-55; consultant designer, Central Electricity Generating Board 1964-68; consultant designer, British Sugar Bureau 1965-68; CBE 1969; consultant designer, W.H. Smith 1970-87; married 1941 Elizabeth Corsellis (died 2005; one stepdaughter); died Ham, Wiltshire 17 October 2007.

Richard Guyatt was one of the 20th century's most seminal figures in the world of graphic design. Even the phrase "graphic design" was his own invention. His career spanned 75 years and his greatest influence was exercised as one of the inner circle of artists, architects and designers who came together after the Second World War to reform the Royal College of Art.

In 1939, the Ministry of Home Security had recruited a team to design camouflage for important installations. In this unit, Dick Guyatt worked with fellow professionals including Hugh Casson, Robert Goodden, David Pye and Robin Darwin. Whilst serious endeavour directed their efforts to develop the patterns of deception, later events suggest that the formidable friendships made here brought a coherent element to the new design establishment that was to emerge after the war.

In 1948 Guyatt was approached by Darwin, then working for the Council of Industrial Design, to help prepare a report proposing curriculum changes at the Royal College of Art, which they considered to have declined to little more than a moribund hatchery for the teaching profession. The report got Darwin the job of Principal at the RCA and he enlisted Guyatt as the college's youngest Professor, to create a new school of "Graphic Design". The aim was to bring the teaching of design up to date and make it an effective force to help propel British industry and commerce into the modern post-war world.

Guyatt himself coined the phrase "graphic design" – "No one was quite sure what it meant," he said, "but it had a purposeful ring" – and at one stroke it freed commercial art from its pejorative associations and allowed it to rejoin and in many ways rejuvenate fine art in the mainstream of British culture. He opened new departments for the study of film and television, photography, illustration, typography, printmaking and graphic information, and insisted that all areas of the college should communicate and inform each other.

This new approach met considerable resistance from a fine art establishment that was already struggling with its own inner conflicts. As graphic design became part of the language and to be regarded as art itself, many "fine" artists found themselves in an uncomfortable position – and Guyatt's disregard of artists who "could not draw" did not endear him to the airier echelons of the profession.

He encouraged specialisation, sought out industrial partnerships and engaged teachers who were practising professionals. These radical innovations eventually achieved a new status for designers and a lasting reform of British art education.

At the 1951 Festival of Britain, the first great national event after the war, Guyatt was co-designer (with his RCA colleagues Goodden and Dick Russell) of the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion, the star exhibit, dedicated to an exploration of the national character. In this celebration of "Englishness" the gravitas of the Lion and the whimsy of the Unicorn were combined with a flair and a beguiling wit that entirely charmed even the British public queuing in the rain.

By 1963 the energy and creativity of Guyatt's design school had become a focus for the whole college. Graphics RCA, the catalogue of an exhibition of 15 years of his students' work was an impressive array of the best in British graphic design: Ridley Scott, David Gentleman, Michael Foreman, Norman Ackroyd, Len Deighton, Alan Fletcher and Brian Tattersfield were among those who made up the long list of his students.

Guyatt's adherence to the original vision of what the RCA should be and achieve was unswerving. He nurtured his staff and his students with real affection and insight, with a velvet hand—albeit in an iron glove. One (then) young teacher says she can never forget how Guyatt looked after her when she joined the college: "Properly and beautifully, a real gentleman." As Sir Hugh Casson wrote on Guyatt's retirement from the RCA in 1981, ". . . all his life Dick Guyatt has readily accepted and punctiliously dealt with teaching, designing, consulting, illustrating, lecturing, administrating; bringing to each problem, however small, that same quality of the true professional, the ruthless determination to achieve by rational methods aims that have been conceived in passion."

Dick Guyatt spent his childhood in Spain – his father was British Consul in Vigo – and although a Charterhouse education placed him firmly in the ranks of the British establishment, it did nothing to eradicate a strain of stubborn, quixotic and stylish brilliance inherited from his Spanish grandmother. His only ambition was to be a "real" artist, and even at school he was fascinated by the contrasts and conflicts that existed between fine and applied art.

At 19 he apprenticed himself to Oliver Messel's theatre design studio, attended Bernard Meninsky's life drawing classes and started to pick up a living with advertising commissions. Two of his Shell posters – "Sham Castle in Bath" for the Visit Britain's Landmarks series, and "Racing Motorists" for These Men Use Shell – are classics.

But it was more than drive and vision that sustained his career. In 1933 Dick Guyatt had been introduced to the work of the Russian philosopher P.D. Ouspensky. Ouspensky loved the truth, and truthfulness, above all else, and his philosophy was not merely ideas – it had to be a practical proposition. Both Dick and his wife Elizabeth attended Ouspensky's meetings until 1947 and the intensive practice of Ouspensky's system of self-knowledge produced a core of belief that would shape and direct their lives.

Ouspensky's "practical proposition" meant that all thought, feeling and action had to be attentively observed to discover one's own unique form of creativity. In Guyatt's life and work, this produced an economy of style and expression that was always in step with his perfectionism. His unvarying practice of what he preached, leavened by a wickedly deadpan sense of humour, was a deeply positive and lasting influence on his students and his friends.

Guyatt was variously consultant designer to Wedgwood, the Electricity Generating Board, the British Sugar Bureau and W.H. Smith. He realised ceramic designs for British embassies, King's College, Cambridge, for the Coronation and the Royal Silver Wedding, and for Eton College. For nine years, he was a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee and designed for the Royal Mint. From 1968 he was chairman of the Guyatt/Jenkins Design Group and for many years exhibited his own paintings with the London Group. He was twice Visiting Professor at Yale University.

He worked for 34 years at the Royal College of Art, becoming Pro-Rector in 1974 and Rector from 1978 until 1981. He continued to work almost to his death; aged 91 he produced, to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar, the last of a long series of now highly collectable commemorative mugs for Wedgwood.

He was one of our last remaining examples of a genuine Edwardian gentleman, to whom the qualities of duty, fidelity, truthfulness and manners were paramount. To the end he practised all these with a lightness and impeccability of style entirely his own.

Gerald Beckwith