Legacy of a Maverick Talent (2016)

Obituary by Martina Margetts

Crafts no. 79, March/April 1986. Photograph: Philip Sayer

The definition of maverick suited David King: “an unorthodox or independent-minded person”. When he died at home in May this year, his vast corpus of graphic design work, of publishing, writing, photography, collections and archive demonstrated above all his lifelong engagement with Russian 20th-century history and politics and an allegiance to the visual exponents of radical change, the Russian constructivists. 

There, in the pages of Crafts from 1984, are his trademark red and black grids and montage, his use of well-judged cropped and enlarged photographs or contact strips, the feature headings using type of all styles and techniques, including his beloved woodblock print, and exaggerated “signposting” of sections – for example, the full-page exclamation marks drawing attention to the lively Comment section and the classic square, triangle and circle of the modernist era for further sections such as reviews and commissions. 

For my part, as editor of Crafts at the time, it was necessity and courage which led to the coup of King’s appointment. The previous art director, Bruce Brown, produced a design of rational elegance from 1981 but eventually, being based in far-flung Norfolk in the analogue age, the work was no longer tenable. I was given free reign to choose the next art director myself, which in today’s era of politically correct human resources would be unthinkable. I appreciated King’s design work from first-hand experience of it, in particular the pioneering Sunday Times Magazine, the Russian art shows at MOMA in Oxford and City Limits, London’s politics and culture weekly. Like him, I had been to Russia (then the USSR) in the early 1970s, so could understand his interests. It took some persuading of the Crafts Council’s director and deputy director because King’s fee was high, but he did fulfil his promise to achieve a full-colour magazine. 

Crafts no. 78, January/February 1986. Image: A.I. Kalashnikov

From a distance of 30 years, the design still looks startling. At the time, letters flowed into my office registering dismay or delight. It was felt by many regular readers that the design swamped rather than supported the content, while others –not only the young – relished the radical presentation of craft, which in the 1980s was showing signs of an expanded field embracing de-aestheticisation, urbanisation, pop-cultural engagement and post-industrial collective production. I wanted Crafts visually to express the energy of craft practice and debate in the Thatcherite era, to draw attention to what still seemed an under-appreciated realm of visual culture. King wasn’t interested in the “crafts world”, its constituency issues and Crafts Council agendas that I monitored as part of the remit, but he was enthusiastic about material culture relating to 20th-century modernism or non-western peoples or rural environments – articles on the Wodaabe, on woodblock type and letterpress print in the first issue he designed spring to mind. He would lay out pages incisively in his Islington home as he always insisted on creating entirely finished artwork for the printers (in issues after I left in mid-1987, Judy Groves, King’s working partner, took over the designing). 

For a feature on sculpture commissions in Grizedale forest, King himself took the main photographs in black and white. His design characteristic was perceptual precision, giving all the pages rhythm; he imbibed the approach of John Heartfield’s montage and film-makers such as Eisenstein, constrasting long shot, mid-shot and close-up images and vivid graphics. Photographs were frequently angled at 45 degrees, often captions in yellow were reversed out of red blocks of colour and stripped vertically. An article on student work entitled “High Flyers” showed colour and typefaces used with typical brio; elsewhere, black-and-white photographs were overlaid with tints and sometimes a panoply of techniques were juxtaposed, as in the cover and feature on the artist Bruce McLean’s ceramics and the classic sequence of pages and cover featuring Floris van den Broecke, the then new professor of furniture at the Royal College of Art. 

Crafts no. 86, May/June 1987. Calendar of events

The latter included photography by Philip Sayer, a long-standing contributor to Crafts and part of a distinguished roster of photographers used by King, including David Cripps, Franklin Rodgers, Ben Rice, Patrick Shanahan, David Montgomery, David Gamble and Bruce Bernard. Sayer minded when King manipulated his photographs, but then King would confound him by, for example, giving a double-page, full-bleed spread to Sayer’s remarkable portrait of the Davies family, makers of coracles. 

King’s capacity for visualisation and composition was trenchant and full of humanity. He would fulminate against Stalinist injustices, nationalism, apartheid, capitalism, monarchy or religion, then be kind and reflective, then critical and humorous, dismissive of anything tame and decorous. He had an eye for statements – in Crafts that would range from the cover of a Russian constructivist plate design, exhibited in Art for Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics 1917–35 that toured to the Crafts Council, to the full-page portrait of Leigh Bowery’s head dripping with paint, which accompanied the article on alternative culture entitled “Builders of Dreams”.

King’s time at Crafts helped him to finance his books, collection and archive. These have formed a tremendous legacy, part of which can be viewed regularly at Tate Modern. To reverse a phrase from King Lear, David King’s designs for Crafts stimulated me, and I hope others, to “feelingly see”.

Originally published in Crafts no. 262, September/October 2016, pp. 40–41. The images above were among those shown. The article is republished here with the permission of Martina Margetts