bj life



Robert Brownjohn – BJ

Designer Brian Tattersfield recalled his first encounter with Brownjohn at the Graphic Workshop in London. Bj held audiences enthralled for hours with his collection of ‘2000 slides of unused ideas’. ‘We were all absolutely staggered by it – so much so that one friend was moved to tears, knowing he would never be able to equal it.’

At a second lecture also at the Graphic Workshop a few years later Tattersfield wrote ‘I remember him arriving an hour late, looking ill and more or less asleep standing up … When he came round he talked as lucidly as ever about design, and had the audience completely entranced. Out of some kind of hysteria, a student (I believe he was an architect) stoop up and quite seriously asked Bj the question: “What is graphic design?” Brownjohn, just as seriously, but beginning to fall asleep (and still in his raincoat) replied: “I am”. And he was, God rest his soul.’

Throughout his career, Robert Brownjohn maintained a fast-paced lifestyle, which was integral to his art, his theory of graphic design, and his method of working. He ate, drank, and spoke extravagantly, demanded the highest wages, and socialized with rock stars and glamorous fashion designers, models, and actors.

All who knew Brownjohn speak of there having been an aura of brilliance around him. Architectural Forum noted that he “may have been the most talented student ever to have graduated from Chicago’s Institute of Design.” He personified the ideal his teacher Lazlo Moholy-Nagy expressed in Vision in Motion, that art and life can be integrated: “The true artist is the grindstone of the sense; he sharpens his eye, mind and feeling; he interprets ideas and concepts through his own media.”

In his short but intense working life, Brownjohn helped to redefine graphic design, to move it from a formal to a conceptual art. His projects exemplify every aspect of his relationship to design, including his emphasis on content over form and his preferences with ordinary and personal images. His spirit of invention and designs for living in the machine age were balanced with references to the aesthetic models that Moholy-Nagy admired.

BJ, as he signed his name and was familiarly called, arrived at the Institute of Design Chicago in 1944 at 18 years old. He worked with Moholy-Nagy on design, advertising and exhibitions, and was appointed as a student and faculty member in the Architecture department by Serge Chermayeff. After leaving the Institute in 1948, he remained in Chicago and free-lanced for several advertising and architectural offices until Chermayeff invited him to return to teach full time. A professor at the age of 22, Bj stayed for a year before leaving for New York.

To support himself in New York, Brownjohn freelanced in graphic design. He worked for brief periods with The Herman Miller Furniture Company, George Nelson, and Ed Bartolucci at Bob Cato Associates. His clients included Columbia Records, the American Crafts Museum, and Pepsi Cola. In 1956, BJ started his own company (R E Brownjohn) and by the end of a very successful year, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar joined the company which became Brownjohn Chermayeff & Geismar. As President/Founder and ringleader of Brownjohn Chermayeff & Geismar, BJ always insisted on new ideas, fresh imagery, and the best conceptual solution to the problem at hand. His goal was not to make things pretty but to arrive at a design that would solve a problem both conceptually and formally.

Bj looked to the physical world around him for inspiration and fresh ideas. Tony Palladino describes a trip he took to Coney Island with BJ, Tom, Ivan, Bob Gill, and George Tscherny: “We were looking for graphic turn-ons that later we could apply to jobs…the fresher the essence, the better the job was.” Brownjohn believed that if an idea couldn’t be described over the telephone then it wasn’t simple, clear, and direct enough to work.

BCG did well in their first year. The partners celebrated the anniversary with their families. Sara Chermayeff, Ivan’s wife at the time, recalls that Bj made the dessert, “which was a big bowl of Jell-O full of nickels and dimes. He was the original Pop artist for sure.”

Three years later, BJ was offered the job as Creative Director for J. Walter Thompson in London and, with his wife Donna and daughter Eliza, moved there in 1960. His style was a new experience for the J. Walter Thompson staff. He was interested in found objects and typographic “junk” collected in the street, kept odd hours, was often absent, and spoke his mind. The fact that he was paid so much more than everyone else earned him some whiff of resentment at first, but soon he was accepted, respected, loved and admired.

Wooed away by McCann-Erickson, also as Creative Director, BJ’s first important commission there was for Taylor-Woods’s Lifelon stockings. To convince exhausted women with tired legs to buy expensive hosiery, Bj used a series of black and white photographs of glamorous legs, cropped to a sensuous abstraction—a simple, sculptural form reminiscent of Brancusi’s sculptures. The advertisement read, “A girl who would spend 12/11 on a pair of stockings ought to have her legs examined,” and won every award possible in England and abroad. “The words and the design came together,” McCann-Erickson’s David Burnstein said, referring to the fact that Brownjohn often wrote his own copy. “He was a great synthesizer, that’s better than simplifier…he loved accidents, making accidents, he was a walking accident.”

At the same time Brownjohn was working at McCann-Erickson, he was commissioned on a freelance basis to design the titles for the James Bond film, From Russia with Love. Alan Fletcher describes Brownjohn’s original presentation of the concept to the film’s producers: “Bj set up the projector, everyone filed in and sat down. Bj turned off the lights, took off his jacket and shirt, and wiggled in front of the titles from the lit projector. ‘It’ll be just like this, only we’ll use a pretty girl.’”

In 1964 Brownjohn joined a film-production company, Cammell Hudson (which later became Cammell Hudson & Brownjohn). Carrying out, in his own style, the teachings and aspirations of Moholy-Nagy, he used architecture as comparison and model. “Architecture is the greatest catalyst in design,” he said. “It provides a structural sense and discipline to your composition. I like working with film because it is a very architectonic medium. Making a movie is building in space.” Brownjohn took the simplest technical capabilities of the camera and used them to enlarge the conceptual limits of film making.

Brownjohn continued to design for print as well as film. When Michael Cooper, the well-known photographer of the Rolling Stones, insisted that BJ design his business stationery, the result was both funny and indicative of BJ’s own reputation at the time, featuring Robert Brownjohn’s name in gigantic Futura type, above and as large as Cooper’s own name.

Brownjohn’s last completed project was for Dick Davidson, a long time friend from New York, who commissioned a series of peace posters from well-known designers in New York and London. Brownjohn’s peace poster design featured an Ace of Spades playing card (commonly known as the death card) wrapped on either side by a PE and ? At the bottom of the poster he signed it, as if to his friends, Love, Bj. The message he was conveying was clear – is death the ultimate peace?  A foreshadowing perhaps, as BJ died four weeks later.


bj at 5

BJ at 5 years old  New Jersey 1930

bj at five years old

BJ at 5 years old  New Jersey 1930


bj family

BJ and family New Jersey 1930


bj on horse

BJ on horse – Chicago 1945


bj tweed jacket 2

BJ  New York  1956


bj head in arm

BJ London 1962


bj drinking

BJ drinking beer London 1966


bj and sidney poiter london

BJ with Sidney Pointer at London club  London 1966


lifting bj__1459959150_73.1.198.219

BJ being lifted by Hugh Hudson, Robert Freeman  London 1965


bj otley group

BJ with Tom Courtenay, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement on Otley set London 1969


bj washington square park

BJ and Donna  Washington Square Park  New York 1956


donna young

Donna at 17  London 1940’s


donna i love you bj

Donna photo by BJ with love  New York 1957


donna and steve mcqueen

Donna with then boyfriend Steve McQueen  New York 1954


donna legs

Donna  New York 1958


donna and eliza

Donna and Eliza  London 1960


donna andy warhol

Donna, Eliza and Andy Warhol (close family friend)  New York 1971


bj and eliza 3

BJ  London 1969


bj and eliza 9

BJ with Eliza  London 1969


bj thumbs up

BJ thumbs up!


london group

Group of London production and design people (including BJ)  London 1966


Coney Island

Group of New York designers including BJ Coney Island New York 1957


london designers

Group of designers (including BJ with third eye!) – London 1960’s


sliced bj

BJ Sliced – photo London 1968


BJ, Donna, Eliza and family New York 1959

Donna, Eliza and both families
New York 1957


bj with film cannister

BJ with film can
New York 1958


BJ at desk with lamp New York 1958

BJ at desk with lamp
New York 1958


BJ looking very serious New York 1957

BJ looking very serious
New York 1957


BJ and his close friend Miles Davis New York 1958

BJ and his close friend Miles Davis
New York 1958


BJ and close friend Miles Davis New York 1958

BJ and his close friend Miles Davis
New York 1958


BJ and Donna wedding at the Russian Tearoom New York 1956

BJ and Donna wedding at the Russian Tearoom
New York 1956


BJ working and with Tony Palladino New York late 1950's

BJ working and with Tony Palladino
New York late 1950’s


BJ thumbs up! London 1967

BJ London 1969


BJ and Donna  London airport 1963


BJ at the Trattoria Terrazza restaurant London 1966


BJ with American flag London 1968


BJ magazine profile London 1964


BJ smoking London 1968

BJ smoking (as usual) London 1968


donna recent

Donna Brownjohn New York 1993


BJ personal letter 1


BJ letter London 1960’s


BJ letter London 1960’s


BJ letter London 1960’s


BJ letter London 1960’s


david eliza rachel family

Eliza, David and Rachel Brownjohn New York 1996


david and eliza

Eliza and David Paris 2006


Campden HIll Towers Brownjohn Living Room London 1961


Campden HIll Towers Brownjohn Living Room London 1961


Campden HIll Towers Brownjohn Living Room London 1961


Campden HIll Towers Brownjohn Living Room London 1961


living room

Campden HIll Towers Brownjohn Living Room London 1961


Andy Warhol Shoe Drawing for Donna and BJ New York 1956

Andy Warhol Shoe Drawing for Donna and BJ
New York 1956


Eliza and Alvaro at Mario and Franco Trattoria Terraza restaurant

Eliza and Alvaro at Trattoria Terrazza  London 1961


Alvaros article

Feature on Alvaro’s restaurant in Chelsea, London – the most famous celebrity restaurant of 60’s London


alvaro inside


alvaro list

Notice the list of famous people that were regulars at Alvaro’s and see BJ on the top

Alvaro’s restaurant had an unlisted phone number which meant you had to have an in with Alvaro to be able to get a table. Notice BJ’s name is at the top of the list of the famous people who would regularly go there. BJ ate there every day and was one of the reasons it became such a hit with the Chelsea crowd.


Michael Caine and Terence Stamp article London 1960's

Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, David Bailey and Chrissie Shrimpton article about Cammell Hudson & Brownjohn’s company party
London 1966


Stories about BJ by John Gorham London 1970

Some of the best BJ stories – gives you a glimpse of what a character he was.

BJ’s obituary August 1970


BJ’s book: Robert Brownjohn Sex and Typography UK and US covers

uk book coverus book cover