Friday 2 February 2024
Phil Baines (1958-2024)
It came as a shock to learn that Phil Baines had passed away on 19 January. Phil had been unwell for some time, having been diagnosed with Ataxia and Multiple System Atrophy (MSA) – two degenerative nervous conditions – in recent years. But just a couple of months ago, in November, I was with him at The Lethaby Gallery, Central St Martins to celebrate the opening of his survey exhibition Extol.
The exhibition showed the breadth of his work, mapping out his development as a typographic designer over the decades. A highlight was glimpsing pages from his student sketch books in the glass vitrines. They reminded me of Ian Breakwell’s diaries and seemed to foreshadow Same Old Story, a book we made with Willie Doherty in 1997.
I was touched and delighted to see a section dedicated to Phil’s work for Matt’s Gallery. The exhibition talked a lot about his different ‘clients’. I’m not sure I really know what the word ‘client’ means – Phil and I just got on.
I first met him in 1995 through the artist Ian McKeever. We wanted to make a book for his exhibition The Marianne North Paintings and Ian’s wife, Gerlinde Gabriel, suggested we talk to Phil, who had been doing some design work for her at The Goethe Institute, London. When I saw his business card I admit I was sceptical, I thought, ‘This guy couldn’t design his way out of a paper bag!’
He had a studio he had built for himself in his garden – it looked like a railway signalman’s hut. The garden was filled with signs – something of a passion of his I would learn later. He and his wife Jackie looked after the garden together, I suspect it was Jackie who had the green fingers. Phil’s hut was no bigger than a black taxicab, with bikes – another passion - hanging inside, alongside piles of paper, 35mm slides and paraphernalia, it was standing room only, with one seat. I could never find anything, but Phil seemed to know where everything was.
We got talking about Ian’s book - he’s an artist who does a lot of walking, drawing, painting, writing and takes photographs. Phil said to me, ‘I know nothing about photos. I’m good at typography, but I don’t know anything about photographs.’ We told him not to worry, and we got to work. Probably after he’d got himself a cup of tea and a bickie, as he usually did.
At the gallery, we put all these 10x8” black and white photographs, handprinted by the artist, on the floor. That’s how it started and it was a marriage made in heaven. He was unassuming, and open to anything.
From there we just collaborated, and it went on until he stopped working last year. The last book we did together was a small ‘whitebook’ for Carolyn Thompson’s Vague Poetics. The ‘whitebooks’ are a series of free publications accompanying our exhibitions, they were started in the ’80s, not always black & white. The first one Phil did was in 2001, with Juan Cruz. He went on to do 29, with Carolyn’s being the last. Vague Poetics was an archive of all 40 whitebooks that had preceded it and it felt like an appropriate work to act as a full stop for our almost 30-year-long collaboration.
Almost by default Phil ended ‘branding’ Matt’s Gallery. We used typefaces he had designed. He made our books, flyers, posters, signage, tote bags, business cards, and even designed our first website. It was very text orientated, with large type, almost like a children’s book. In many ways it was a great website, but having been designed like printed pages – with contents, indexes and columns of text - it was almost non-navigable. I loved it! I loved getting lost in it. I can almost use our new website – which was designed by Fraser Muggeridge Studio in 2022.
Each show at Matt’s Gallery is a collaboration with an artist, and it was exactly the same with Phil. He would come in himself – usually in his cyclist’s Lycra - to fit vinyl, hang signs and paint lettering; he was hands-on. At our space in a Victorian shopfront on Webster Road, Bermondsey, (2018-2022) he would cycle down with his stencils and paints in his bag, ready to add artists’ names in white to the burgundy façade. I would then strike them through when the show was over.
Phil worked closely with the artists too – we would often credit things as being designed by him and the artist. Some of the books he designed for us are just exceptional. He’s done such a lot. I think his favourite might have been Anne Bean’s Autobituary: Shadow Deeds (2006), a book within a book.
He wasn’t flashy in his designs, but he knew exactly what he was doing and he did it really, really well. He knew so much about typography, its history and its applications. He published four books: Type and typography (2002, with Andrew Haslam), Signs, lettering in the environment (2003, with Catherine Dixon), Penguin by design, a cover story 1935–2005 (2005), and Puffin by design, 70 years of imagination (2010).
On one occasion, when I was in his studio, I was querying some of the text about religion, and I said ‘Shouldn’t we look this up? How do we know it’s right?’ I was a bit surprised when he said, ‘I know all about religion’ and then, ‘I trained for the priesthood’. I was gobsmacked. One day though he woke up and he said: ‘I think I’ll go to Central St Martin’s.’ It was a whole different side to him that I didn’t know.
We would often work together in the evenings, after his day of teaching had finished. He would be in his signalman’s hut and I would be in my kitchen at home and we would discuss what needed to be done over Skype. At night in his hut, he would fit these wooden shutters he had made over the windows to shut out the dark. In the morning he would take them out again.
I didn’t realise for a while what a legend he was. He was a brilliant designer and spent a lot of his life teaching typography at Central Saint Martins. In some ways maybe his work with me was an outlet for him not to be a teacher. I still always felt I was a student, though. I often asked him if I could have an MA or MFA yet. Had I passed the course?
I only actually saw him lecture once, it may have been when his book Penguin by Design came out in 2005, or in 2006 when he became a Professor. He did it like a ‘Top of the Pops’ run down of his favourite Penguin Book covers. He was superb, eccentric, a bit naughty, and unassuming as ever. If my memory serves me right, his Number 1 was the first paperback edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1969), designed by Hans Schmoller. It’s a simple cover – purely typographical, with white text against a black background. It was very Phil Baines: clear, bold and practical with more than a touch of class and elegance.
Phil Baines knew the ins and outs and mechanisms of type, signs and typography. He was part of the gallery and will be sorely missed by me, the gallery staff, the artists and everyone else – what a star.
Phil Baines is survived by his wife Jackie Baines and their two children, Beth and Felicity.
In his later years Phil was passionate about raising awareness for Ataxia and MSA, two very rare and under-researched illnesses. If you would like to make a contribution to charities supporting individuals and families living with these conditions you can do so here: https://philbaines.muchloved.com/
Words and reflections by Director Robin Klassnik, put into order by Deputy Director Tim Dixon, Matt’s Gallery, London, 2024.