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The legacy of Rodney Fitch by Martin Lambie-Nairn

Martin Lambie-Nairn was D&AD President in 1991. He served on the D&AD Executive with Rodney Fitch, who sadly passed away in October 2014. Here Martin remembers Rodney, and the legacy he left the design industry.

The Legacy of Rodney Fitch by Martin Lambie-Nairn
Rodney Fitch

The Two Rodneys

My first encounter with Rodney was at a client presentation. He was running the interiors and product design division of Conran and I was a very new graphic designer. He was big, confident and charmed the pants off the clients.

But what stuck in my memory on that occasion, and has remained with me ever since, is that beneath his dapper pin stripped suit, the cuffs in his shirt were frayed.

During the subsequent 40 years Rodney and I came across each other, rather than spent ages in each other’s company. I observed his progress from the outside looking in, and occasionally meeting to discuss the ups and downs of his journey.

To me, Rodney was two people. He was the smart suit and he was the frayed cuffs.

What the design world saw was the smart suit version, a rising star in the 70s and 80s, one of the few who took design from a cottage industry to mature business. For designers he was a hero, because he was firstly a designer and secondly a businessman. He could do both. And there were and are, very few of them.

He was big and he thought big, and as long as high streets around the world continued to benefit from well designed environments and sold more of their products, he was flying.

The Business

He decided to sell Fitch to WPP; he was going to expand. He bought a lovely building in Soho Square just before the financial crash of the late nineties, the effects of which had a catastrophic effect on his business as well as the design business in general.

There then followed a 15-year period of flux. He parted company with WPP and set up his own company again. He went back to WPP, left again and entered the world of academia. Throughout this period, for me, he was the two Rodneys. On the outside, the suit, confident and in charge, but on the inside, the frayed cuffs, vulnerable and somewhat disillusioned with these choices.

Rodney was a leader. His approach was to lead from the front and expect the rest of us to keep up. He was not a committee-man, nor a man used to dancing to other peoples’ tunes. He believed that creating good design was equally as important as creating wealth. But when the creation of wealth became the only objective, Rodney was not your man. I think the latter part of his business life did not measure up to his idea of creativity in business, or creativity in academia. 

But for Rodney, being successful in business was not the only game in town.

The Legacy

For a period every year, Rodney would invite all the people who had ever worked for him to a very indulgent dinner. I found myself invited, even though I never did work for him. These occasions amazed me. Well over a hundred people would gather, having paid for the privilege. Secretaries, designers, accountants, partners, suppliers, clients and runners were all there. They all had one thing in common: they loved Rodney. And I mean loved. Rodney had been their inspiration, which said a lot about his leadership. He was a leader that encouraged and affirmed his people, a leader that facilitated future successful design practices; and a leader they wanted to follow.

If I were to be asked ‘What is Rodney’s legacy?’, I would not say it was that he ran a famous design practice, or that he influenced how good design is good business, or that he made a lot of money for a lot of people, but I would say that he led his people and that they loved him and would go through fire for him. And you won’t find that on a balance sheet.

But in all this he remained both the suit and the frayed shirt, confident yet vulnerable.

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