Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Wally Olins CBE

I'm sad to hear of the passing of Wally Olins CBE, aged 83. Wally, along with creative hotshot Michael Wolff, were Wolff Olins, possibly the most exciting design group to be part of in the mid 70s. And although some of my contemporaries refuse to believe that it happened, I was part of it for a while. "You just happened to walk by one day and looked through the window" they say. But this isn't about me, but Wally, who taught me immeasurable truths about the business we were in. The stories are legion, but one I think typifies him for me. We had a client in the West Country, and reached the point where we needed to go and present a 'corporate identity' (as it then was) to a board of directors. Designer John Sorrell and I elected to go by an early train from Paddington, Wally said he'd drive and pick up Gerry Barney (incidentally designer of the British Rail arrows symbol) in Wimbledon. John and I arrived suitably refreshed at Newton Abbot station after a bumper breakfast (Gerry's arrows all over the restaurant car curtains) to find Wally outside casually leaning on the wing of his yellow Porsche, thumbing through an Egon Ronay guide. "I think I've found just the place for lunch chaps" he said, as we wondered how on earth he'd got there before us. Then we saw Gerry, still sitting in the passenger seat, white faced and staring ahead with a wild look in his eyes, muttering quietly to himself. Booted and suited after lunch I watched as Wally put up a 35mm slide on the projector in front of a line up of suspicious company directors. It was a silhouette of Mickey Mouse. "Who's that?" he asked. The correct answer was mumbled by most people in the room. "How do you know?" Wally barked, and what followed was one the best presentations I have ever witnessed.

I hadn't seen Wally for nearly twenty five years, but about three years ago or so I went to the David Hockney exhibition that opened Nottingham's Contemporary Art Gallery. Sitting on one of those Ottoman-style seats they put out so you can stare at pictures I was suddenly aware of a big coated big fedora'd man sitting with his back to me. It was Wally, and I quickly re-introduced myself to him. He stared at me like school teachers do who have seen countless numbers come and go under their auspices, but perked up no end when I introduced my girlfriend to him. Wherever you are Wally, thankyou.

I've probably misappropriated this image of him. It might belong to Creative Review, if it is, apologies and thanks.  


Sue said...

Good story - and interesting contrast to how design is done in the 21st century, with outfits like 99designs letting clients hold their own crowd-sourced creative beauty contest!

Peter Ashley said...

You're so right Sue. And sadly Wolff Olins appears to be nothing like as professional and creative as it was in Wally and Michael's time, which is why I didn't put a link to their current appalling website.

Ron Combo said...

Lovely piece matey. I really do believe those were the days. The client wasn't David & Charles was it? By the way, do not return to Newton Abbot railway station; an echoing shadow of its former self.

Peter Ashley said...

Ron: The client was a huge service company originally called Renwick Wilton & Dobson. Everyone in Devon called them Renwicks, so we made them Renwicks Garages, Renwicks Haulage, Renwicks Travel, blah blah. And Michael Wolff designed a green and yellow beaver (illustrated by Harry Hargreaves) to run about over everything. Even asleep on the back of their egg yellow lorries as if hitching a lift. What fun we had, how utterly mystified were they.

Jon Dudley said...

Up there with Raymond Loewy although not so corporate or half as clean cut, Wolff Olins was the one design group we all aspired to work for...but never did. Proper people really doing what was (usually) right for the client. No bloody focus groups, going for the 'safe alternative' or cow-towing to the board. Boozy lunches, late nights, endless cigarettes, the graphic high from Cow Gum and Magic Markers...it's a wonder any of us got this far. All led by WO - a true inspiration - salut!

Peter Ashley said...

Brilliant Jon, thankyou. And ahh! Cow Gum. I wonder if you can still get it. Wouldn't mind a tin to keep handy. It came in a tube too, but never liked that. And Magic Markers! What was your favourite colour? Mine was probably Deep Olive for some unexplained reason.

Peter Ashley said...

Should've looked it up before my last comment. You can still get Cow Gum except it's now called Studio Gum. Not the same really, is it? I'll have to start looking for an empty Cow Gum tin and then decant into it. Pardon?

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