The lost paintings of graphic designer Keith Cunningham
Ahead of a new exhibition that opens at the Hoxton Gallery in London this month, Mike Dempsey tells us the story of graphic designer Keith Cunningham who created artwork that, until now, had remained unseen. Now, for the first time, It’s Nice That publishes some of the paintings alongside his graphic design work.
We all have memories of people, places or things that have inspired us. For me, it was a startlingly simple two-colour book jacket, spotted in my local library back in 1963. I was so taken by it that I stole it — keep that to yourself though. The book jacket was designed by Keith Cunningham, and it appeared in the very first D&AD annual in 1964. Cunningham supplemented his (then) very private painting activities by teaching and freelancing for publishers Peter Owen. Their meagre production budgets meant that most covers were produced in just two colours. Rather than hampering the design outcome, Cunningham used the restriction to create covers of great simplicity, often using found imagery and photograms juxtaposed with simple, clear typography.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he produced a stream of recognisable graphic covers. During this time, Keith worked for Design magazine, The Economist and The National Book League as well as creating a series of art and design books for Thomas Nelson Publishers. He also continued with his weekly two-day slot at the London College of Printing. During the 40-odd years Keith was there, students such as John Hegarty, Michael Peters, Fernando Gutiérrez passed through his hands.
Few students knew much about the modest, quietly spoken Australian who would crit their work, underline the importance of understanding the print process and enthuse about the creative coupling of design and photography, or perhaps simply give them a nudge in the right direction.
Keith retired in 1994 and disappeared from the scene until I tracked him down and wrote a feature for Design Week about his life and work. It triggered interest and he was included in the 2004 Barbican exhibition Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties.