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“I remember you”

Mark Bonner pays tribute to Bob Gill, who passed away on 10 November, 2021

A portrait of Bob Gill in his studio, submitted for the Image of the Studio exhibition, 2013. Courtesy of Image of the Studio.

Bob Gill, the designer and co-founder of D&AD has died at the age of 90. Gill was one of the original founders of D&AD, and later went on to win the President’s Awards in 1999. “I had no plan B,” he told D&AD previously, on leaving art school after three years at the age of twenty. “I only wanted to be a designer/illustrator.”

Here, Mark Bonner shares his personal memories of meeting Gill for the first time in New York, and the subsequent effect this had on his life.

I first met Bob in 1991 at 7am at his apartment on 1 Fifth Avenue. I had gone to New York for a month on a scholarship from the RSA after convincing a panel of judges including Dennis Bailey that going to New York to see Bob was a great use of their prize. As soon as I arrived, I found a letterpress shop and had a box of letterheads printed with my new address at the Hotel Chelsea, all to impress Bob. I took one of the 500 sheets and wrote the only letter I really planned to write, mailed it and waited. 6:30am a few days into my trip and the phone rang. It was Bob, “Can you be here in 30 minutes?”

I could and I did. I gathered up my work including a bizarre RCA project set by Bob’s first wife Bobby and her partner, Phillip Thompson. I can’t remember the question, but my answer was a pair of screen-printed pillowcases. I stuffed my Chelsea Hotel pillows into them and put them under my arm and walked like a young man possessed down Fifth avenue – no time for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – with one of those giant A1 black portfolios that caught the wind like a sail in one hand and this pair of dopey pillows under the other arm. He must have thought I was planning to stay the night. 

I stayed an hour and a half in a morning I’ll never forget.

“He must have thought I was planning to stay the night”

Bob asked me about the College (The RCA), London, my Teachers, about Bobby… while he looked at my work. I remember he asked me if he could tear something in half, and he started to change things, putting this with that and showing me a better way. He was brutal, but that was Bob. Effortlessly consumed with the endless possibilities in solving visual problems. I watched – in some pain  – as he tore up my best work in front of my eyes, showing me how It could work harder, and be clearer. As I looked over his shoulder into his apartment, I could see he had a grand piano, and its lid was propped up at 35º like they do, ready for action. He’d bolted a vase of flowers to the centre of the lid, so they sat there happily at the same angle. That was Bob, playing with what you knew and re-inventing how you looked at it.

“He was brutal, but that was Bob”

The bell rang and a printer was delivering some proofs. I think there was a quick dust-up about them being better late than never, and Bob strode back in with this giant proof bag as big as my own portfolio. He slid it on to his desk and slipped a single sheet out. “Watch this… isn’t this magic?” He took a scalpel and a steel rule and cut along invisible lines until he could peel a letterhead out from the centre of the sheet. It was one piece, but cut as if it was two American Foolscaps offset a few degrees by a twist. One side was his, and the reverse was for his new wife, Sara Fishko. Simple typography made it clear, but this 2D come 3D duality made it special. I remember thinking what a lovely idea it was, how simply he’d executed it – but what left a lasting memory was none of that – it was the delight he had in reproducing that feeling I knew he must of had when he first put two sheets of Foolscap onto of one another, twisted them a few degrees and realised he had an original idea. As his scalpel zipped around its outline, he knew what would happen. He knew this island of paper would become two formal sheets as one. He was excited to see it again. To re-see his idea. He couldn’t wait to share it. That was Bob. He never tired of that. It was like a thirst for new things and I’ve no doubt he had it until the day he died.

“It was like a thirst for new things and I’ve no doubt he had it until the day he died

In 2012, D&AD, the Design and Advertising Association he helped found 50 years earlier was having a birthday party. I was now Deputy President and after interviewing Bob and the other 5 or 6 key figures for a piece on the creation of D&AD (read it here), I made it my mission to get Bob over to London, with Derek Birdsall, Malcolm Hart and as many surviving founders as I could gather for the 51st Awards In London. There was a standing ovation for Bob and the founders of D&AD that night, and this was the night that Jonny Ive and his entire Apple team flew over to pick up a Black Pencil. This was also the night when D&AD gave a special Yellow Pencil to co-founder, Derek Birdsall.

“It represented him to me – that endless quest for an original idea – the ends he would go to get one.”

I said hi to Bob on the phone interview and tried to jog his memory of our meeting in NYC 23 years earlier. He didn’t remember me. I said hi again that night at his table and again, he still didn’t remember me. But I started to get Christmas cards from Bob, beautifully hand drawn illustrations with wonderfully obtuse observations about the absurdity of it all. I loved them. 

A few years ago, I called him. It was 30 years since I first met him. I saw on his website that he had some prints for sale. One was of a wind-up pencil sharpener. It’s a famous illustration of his, in that curious childlike hand that he drew with. It's joyous. I wanted it so much. It represented him to me – that endless quest for an original idea – the ends he would go to get one. I asked him again if he remembered me? He didn’t. So I cut to the chase and asked him the price. It was a huge New York style figure. I was stunned and I didn’t buy one. It was the kind of money that could buy a small family a big car. So I bought a car, and I’ve bought a few more since then but I should have bought that drawing.

That was the Bob that I remembered. The Bob Gill I and countless young designers had the pleasure to meet at a formative time, to know a little and to learn from. He has inspired so, so many with his razor-sharp intellect, wit and originality. He taught by doing. His lectures were acerbic, like being bathed in acid, but his determination to make you do better work was never, ever in doubt.

Bob, I remember you.

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