If you’ve done more than pass through London in your lifetime, the chances are you will have shopped for, sat on, ridden in, or consumed something that Steve Thomas had a hand in designing. And if, early in that lifetime, you, like he, were a follower of the rhythm and blues scene that was to form the backbone of British rock, the two of you may have rubbed shoulders in front of the stage where the Stones were squeezed , because for his generation there was an unsnappable link between art and music.
Like many of those musicians, he attended art college: Chelsea School of Art, in his case, where he studied under Patrick Caulfield, John Hoyland and Allen Jones. And like them was drawn to the art-inspired pop that was being created in the mid-sixties, although his aim was for the role of Epstein-esque Svengali, anticipating the perks without the calluses from learning chords.
Despite discovering Peter Frampton, the prettiest Face of ’68, around whom he gathered the hit-making Herd, Steve’s attachment to art persisted, its symbiosis with music converging almost inevitably in the album sleeve, a 12″ square where image and text challenged a designer to provide the record’s listener with something to look at and read as they listened to the latest from the Amazing Blondel or Judas Jump.
But as the sixties reinvented themselves as the more indulgent seventies, half a decade after they had established themselves in the hearts of British youth, the prime choice was still either Beatles or Stones, and Sunday nights at Richmond’s Station Hotel had made Steve a Stones man. At Whitmore-Thomas Design Associates, where Steve by now has a partner, fellow Chelsea student Tim Whitmore, and the phone rings constantly, propelling the pair from one project to another, paying them more than enough to enjoy what Kensington and the King’s Road had to offer. But there are phone calls, and there are phone calls. Any call can bring unexpected work. They don’t all come from the Rolling Stones’ office. This one did.
‘Get Your Ya-Yas Out’ is due in the shops. The John Kosh/David Bailey front cover is ready, but the square foot behind is a blank. Cue one of the busiest 48-hours stints of Steve’s working life.
With the ensuing “cool artwork, man,” illuminated by the Jagger twinkle, Steve could’ve retired on the spot. Except he and Tim had hardly started.
There is a handful of names and images that conjure up a moment in modern style – of which John Kosh’s priapic tongue for the Rolling Stones is up there with Mary Quant’s mini-dress, Alex Issigonis’s Mini car, John Stephen’s eponymous swinging ‘60s menswear, Terence Conran’s Habitat furniture store and, a decade later, the McLaren/Westwood cabal which morphed teddy boy chic with sex to create punk. Yet one four-letter word leads them all: Biba.
Rarely, if ever, in design history can closer forensic attention have been paid to detail than when Barbara Hulaniki’s Kensington Church Street shop was resited in neighbouring High Street premises previously occupied by the seven-floor sprawl of department store Derry & Tom. The shape of this, the size of that, the surface, colour, tone, texture of everything from leopard-print lampshades to baked b*eans were all subject to Steve’s crystalline stare.
Big Biba, as the massively resized enterprise was known to all involved, was a gloriously unapologetic chapter in ‘fuck you’ design. Overwhelmed ultimately by ambition, as much as economics and scale, it was for Steve and Tim a unique calling card, as was the ensuing, though altogether more discreet undertaking to visually theme the entire McCartney empire.
Thanks to the serendipitous alignment of 1977 with the Queen’s twenty-five year reign, royal patronage pulled in to the kerb with the ring of a Routemaster’s bell, 25 vehicles from the No 77 fleet having been liveried in silver for their eye-catching trawl along the Embankment, Whitehall and the Strand. Ding, ding.
In fact, through successive decades of design practice, WTA (the abridged acronym following the recruitment of Chris Angell in 1993) maintained a client list which reads like a list of lecture topics in a media studies course on global brands with a commitment to style: Danone, Guinness, Harrods, Lucky Strike, Pepsi Cola, Virgin, Wrangler.
Counting on a kick-start from a new century brought inevitable disappointment as clients increasingly downgraded chutzpah and laissez-faire for intervention and risk avoidance, but maybe Steve was just, well, bored with it all.
So the partners went their separate ways, Steve to a neglected Notting Hill loft, where, absolved from clients’ daily demands, he was able to re-explore the artistic skills which had formed the foundation for his design work back in the ‘60s.
Closure came ultimately with a commission to produce a book on the creation of ‘Big Biba’ (ACC Editions, 2006), a career retrospective (‘Big Biba and Other Stories’ (Chelsea Space, 2008) and a one-man show of artwork (Chelsea Arts Club, 2010), each an emphatic punctuation point.
If ever such a restlessly innovative mind could approach a state of creative grace, this was Steve’s moment. He visited the Kent coastal town of Deal, fell in love with the architectural dolly mixture scattered through the tangle of streets behind the seafront, and in 2009 cashed in his W11 loft for a row of derelict fishermen’s cottages: a practical design project which, for a full year, put him in touch, literally, with the physical materials of art: stone, bricks, timber, slate, steel.
Once installed, he was no longer a designer in an office, but an artist at home in his studio.