WHEN Willy de Majo first arrived in England just before the Second World War, graphic design as a profession was in its infancy. By the time he died it had grown into a major business and a remarkable international family. De Majo was a designer, lecturer, speaker and author, and will be best remembered for founding and fathering Icograda, the International Council of Graphic Design Associations.
Today Icograda has grown to represent the interests of 40,000 graphic designers in over 60 countries and has an important international voice in the design world, recognised by Unido, Unesco and the Council of Europe. De Majo was founder President and continued to play a leading part in the affairs of the council. His most recent initiative was a graphic design archive.
His place in design history is assured on several fronts. As a speaker on design he was in great demand. He contributed to most international conferences and chaired or participated in a number of special design committees.
He was an exceptionally competent designer whose understanding of business and production methods was unusual in those early days. From the cover of a book of matches to the range of Letts diaries he brought to bear the same demanding attention to detail and above all a clarity of vision, which was all the more extraordinary when one considers the wide range of his activities. Enterprising and alert, he could master the most complex problems with ease and arrive at solutions that appeared deceptively simple.
Born in Vienna in 1917, de Majo studied at the Vienna Commercial Academy, intending to go into his father's textile business. However he found the work dull and started freelancing as a graphic designer in the evenings. With a combination of cheek and courage, as well as his evident flair, he attracted a number of important commissions particularly in the poster field.
Early in 1939 he emigrated to England and joined the BBC as a broadcaster. During the war he served with distinction as an officer and pilot with the Royal Yugoslav Air Force, later transferring to the RAF at SHAEF in Africa, the Middle East and Europe, for which he was appointed MBE.
He had always been a great traveller and as early as 1948, after a study tour of Canada and the United States, he established a New York office. By the 1950s his clients ranged from the Festival of Britain, where he was designer-in-chief of the 'Farm and Factory' exhibition in Northern Ireland, to ABC Television for which he designed one of the first animated symbols.
In 1953 de Majo was a guest speaker at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, the first of many appearances on international platforms. He was in constant demand as a speaker and with his rapidly growing design practice it is surprising that there was room in his life for another venture. Yet at the busiest point in his graphic career he founded Icograda with Peter Kneebone in 1963.
De Majo's contribution to design was recognised by the award of the Chartered Society of Designers' design medal in 1969, the commemorative medal of ZPAP, the Association of Polish Designers, honorary membership of GVN Graphic Designers Association and later of associations in Belgium and Austria. He was recently made an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Typographic Designers.
It has often been said of Willy de Majo that his bark was worse than his bite. He certainly had a bark but it was the bark of a guard-dog protecting the profession he loved and I find it hard to believe that this immensely kind and generous man knew how to bite.
Along with the many others who had the privilege of working with Willy, I quickly developed a deep affection for him and respect for his opinions which were made available even when, as a student, I interrupted his busy day.
Of all his qualities his abundant energy stands out most memorably. The ill-health that he quietly suffered in his later years did not deter him from pursuing his rich and varied career right up to the end. The international family of graphic designers that he created will remember him with love.
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