People on the crest of a wave
Quentin Newark, the designer of the new and much-derided RIBA logo, shrugs off the criticism. He believes that it will be short-lived and that, for the first time, the institute has a consistent identity across all its activities Quentin Newark is a large and very patient man who appears to be not the least put out by the mauling he has received from some quarters over his new crest for the RIBA. For a start, he says, the crest is only one component of an extensive overall corporate identity for the institution.And second, there has always been a vociferous minority of the membership which has taken exception, whenever anything to do with the institute's visual image has changed. 'There were complaints when Eric Gill changed the crest in 1931. People said that his version was ridiculous - like two monkeys smoking cigars, ' he remarks. 'Then there were more complaints when the Gill crest was replaced in 1961 by Herbert Spencer and Joan Hassall.'
Today, that 1961 crest, with its chunky, shaggy lions, is regarded by some as untouchable. Some people even mistakenly believe it must be by Gill. But the history of the RIBA has been that its image is controversially changed every 20 to 40 years, with protests every time.
Newark, who heads up the graphic design consultancy Atelier Works, is noted for his painstaking research. In his busy studio, a former piano showroom in Camden - handy for the nearby office of David Chipperfield, a long-term client - he lays out all the RIBA crests there have ever been, from the first one in 1836, which lasted less than a year.
'It's fascinating how the crest reflects the architectural preoccupations of the time, ' he says. 'The central column was taken from a Romanesque one at Durham Cathedral.
Early crests then fetishise the Gothic, while in the 1860s it gets more classical, and in 1891 it switches to something very imperial.
In the 1930s, Gill's central column is rather Jazz-Age.'
There is then a learned digression into the late-19th-century archaeological discovery of the treasury at Mycenae - its emblem a column supported by two headless lions, which got the members very excited at the time, and introduced a shortlived fad for headless-lion crests.
This is the kind of detail Newark loves.His career began in the design department of publisher Faber and Faber, before moving on to Pentagram - where he learned at the knee of the characterful Alan Fletcher, one of the great graphic designers of modern times. He set up Atelier Works with like-minded colleagues, mostly drawn from Pentagram or Faber, in the early 1990s. The firm covers the full range of work - from art books through to websites and annual reports. Indeed, the first official outing of the RIBA's new identity was in the unconventional, large-format monochrome annual report produced for the institute back in July. It was a 'soft launch' and it worked well.
You get the impression that, having coped with the extreme pressure and insane deadlines of designing the manifesto material for the Labour Party's stop-go general election campaign, there is nothing much that can faze Newark. He has only praise for his chief point of contact at the RIBA, chief executive Richard Hastilow: 'Richard's style is to be totally involved. He's a good and clear leader, ready to take the decisions and responsibility, but he knows he has to seek approval, and he's extremely happy to let everyone have full voice.'
Having worked for the Design Council, Royal Society of Arts and University of Lincoln, as well as the Labour Party, such an institutional client as the RIBA, with its vociferous members, was a familiar beast to Newark. 'We understand the difference between that sort of democratic body and a straight commercial business, where decisions are often taken solo, ' he says. Nor is architecture unfamiliar territory to him. As well as Chipperfield, Atelier Works has been commissioned by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, Allies and Morrison, Terry Farrell, Michael Hopkins, and Jestico + Whiles.
The crest is now only part of an overall identity that makes the separate 'RIBA' logotype much more prominent. 'Too many organisations have crests, ' says Newark, 'and many of those that do, such as the Salvation Army or the RAC, have woken up to the fact that they can't use only their crests to identify them. They need a logo as well.'
Moreover, the previous crest had been designed as a woodcut, which did not work when reduced small.
So Newark found himself drawn to a crest found in the interior bronze balustrading of the RIBA's 1932-34 Portland Place building - as specified by the building's architect, Grey Wornum, and sculpted by Seaton White. This had a strong and readily reproducible geometry. Hence the lean, pharaonic-maned lions on Newark's 'new' crest. Like Gill's, these are proportioned more like real lions. Unlike Gill's or Spencer's, they also work small.
Newark knows that this little controversy will soon fade, just as previous ones always have. More important than the matter of whether or not you like the 'new' crest is the fact that the RIBA now has a clear, consistent and flexible graphic identity across all its activities for the first time since the early 1960s, from stationery to site signboards.
After all, architecture, technology and the role of architects have changed rather a lot in the intervening years, and the RIBA has become a far more complex organisation.
Newark's contribution to the process is intelligent, affectionate and even conservative. And besides, as he reminds you, if 20 or 30 members complain out of a membership of about 23,000, that is not so bad.