In conversation with Steve Thomas, Artist & Designer

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We spoke to Steve Thomas, artist and designer about his career creating each floor of “Big Biba”, being a voice of reason to Paul McCartney and designing album artwork for The Rolling Stones. We could have written pages about Steve, but cut it down as much as we could bear. It’s still a bit of a longer read than usual, but trust us it’s worth it. Make yourself a drink and settle in to hear about one of Deal’s most interesting life stories. If your a young child or not a fan of swearing, this might be one to skip.


 

You studied under some of the great British artists of the era, how was that?

It was that glorious epoch when along came David Hockney, Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Allen Jones and John Hoyland, they all came out of art schools within the same year virtually. They weren't that much older than me I suppose, and I knew them all throughout my life. They were mates as well as great inspirations. David Hockney was a visiting lecturer, so we had some quite good people. I was asked by the principle at Chelsea if I would then take a post grad course in graphics at Chelsea, but I decided not to and I went into the music industry instead, rock n roll was much more exciting.

 

What did you do in the music industry?

When I left school I had a girlfriend who was a singer, her record producer asked me if I would go and work for him as his assistant, running around and doing the hyping of the records to get them into the charts, all that corrupt stuff. It was fantastic, it was a great era to work in the record business.

You were put in a rotten old van and put on what they called the Burtons route. Up the east coast of England there were all these Burtons the tailors, and above each Burtons there was a snooker hall. Blokes, off the fishing boats would come in with a big wedge of money because they’d been at sea for five weeks, order a suit and then play snooker upstairs. By the time they’d played a few games of snooker they could have their first fitting. That sort of thing fell apart in the early 60s, so each one of the Burtons got rid of the snooker tables and put live bands in. It was a bit like the pub circuit, but a bit bigger and more professional. So you’d come back and the roadie would have a suitcase full of cash. It was great fun but it was lairy times.

These post war things were tough, people were eager to make lots of money very quickly. There was this huge outpouring of talent and of industry activity and vibrancy amongst people of my age at the time. All eager to get on, so cutting corners was quite common. But the rock 'n' roll business was absolutely fantastic and we had a hit record, every fortnight. Usually guaranteed by me going up and down the country buying them in.

But because I’d been to art school as a painter, people would just say, 'can you do me an album cover?' 'Can you do me a logo for this?' 'Can you do me some stage clothes?' and of course you say yes, with the arrogance of youth. Of course you can do these things, just because you're a painter doesn't mean you haven't got thoughts about these things.

 

How did you get involved with Biba?

I met a girl called Eleanor who was the manageress of Biba. Through Eleanor I got to know Barbara who was Biba and her husband Fitz who was the finance guy, she asked me to make a children’s department. So I went in with this idea of having big dolls houses, but with a rail and the clothes inside, with roofs, chimneys, front doors and things the like. She loved it and said, can you build it for us because we don't have any builders at the moment. So I phone up Tim Whitmore, who I was at art school with. I said look we’ve got to build this thing in a couple of weeks, can you give us a hand. We’d worked together during holidays doing things like Kingsley Amis’s marble floors, we worked for all sorts of people doing fairly manual tasks but doing them well. We spent 2 weeks trying to get this thing built, it was getting later and later, we realised we were not going to get finished in time. With handfuls of amphetamines we started work on the Wednesday morning, and we worked right the way through to the next Monday morning. Getting more skinny and weird, we started painting trees pink but it got finished.

Because of that Barbara asked us to take over the interior bits of Biba. Tim and I were working together and it was lovely to work with Barbara and Fitz, and we were surrounded by lots of beautiful women, it couldn't be better really. Then we got the graphic account as well, so we got all of the design work to do which is a hell of a lot. It kept us permanently occupied. We were only working out of my flat in Prince’s Gate, I wouldn't have given two blokes working out of a bedroom quite so much responsibility as we had, but they did.

In 1971, Fitz phoned me up and asked me to come over because they had something to tell me. They’d just bought the Derry and Toms store. They’d bought the whole bloody building, 7 floors, what Barbara had always wanted. I phoned up Tim who was in Wales, I said come down now because Fitz wants to see us tomorrow for lunch.

It turned out they wanted to give us two floors of it. Either I was pissed, or feeling pissed off. I don't know which but I said, “No I don't want two floors, I want all of it or we don't do it”. And he looked at me like I was crazy, we were two guys working out of a bedroom and this was hundred of thousands of square foot of retail space. He said I’ll have to think about that. The next morning he said, “This is over my dead body but Barbara’s been nagging me all night. You’ve got the job. Now please get an office and employ people, I’ve got shareholders. Try and get yourselves organised as a business and you’ve got the lot.”

 

How did you even start something like that?

We started floor by floor. Barbara, Fitz, Tim and I brainstormed, did sketches ideas and went backwards and forwards. Having decided on the look and feel of the floor, we’d start designing the individual shopfitting units to give to our team of draughtsmen. It was hell, we’d get up at 5 in the morning and we wouldn't get home till about 1, every day for 24 months. But it was fantastic at the same time. We had 16 weeks on site and had spent huge amounts of money in that time.

According to the Sunday Times it was "The most beautiful store in the world", plus the fact that it had a million visitors a week. You just couldn't move in there, people couldn't buy anything because there was too many tourists wanting to buy a postcard, and you can’t get rich from postcards. So it was a bit counter productive in some ways. But fantastic job to have done, I still get jobs and people phoning up wanting to buy Biba prints, or the posters I designed. I still do lectures on it to fashion students.

 

Did you seek these dream projects out or did they come to you?

No they came to us, we were useless at getting new business. We were always regarded as the renegades that brand managers went to in exasperation, because they couldn't get what they wanted from the professionals. So they came to us for something “outside of the box” as they used to call it politely- "let's see what these drunken lunatics can come up with!"

We were successful because of the fact that we didnt think like designers. We certainly treated the studio in a different way, we didnt have receptionists and secretaries and clocking in and out. We treated it much more casually, whoever was around and wanted to work turned up and if you didnt turn up for 6 months, you didnt turn up for 6 months. We didn't have magnificent studios, it was all fairly grubby and basic. We were completely outside the norm, which was why a lot of clients loved us. We gave them things that other designers would never think of in a million years.

 

Was it 48 hours you had to get the The Rolling Stones album cover done?

Yeah, I knew their manager socially. He phoned me up and said I need an album cover by Monday. He said we’ll pay you whatever you want. I went in and picked up the photos, in those days you only had motorcycle messengers you didn't have computers or email. So I employed my own motorcycle messenger for the weekend.

On the Friday evening I did the layout and the tracings of all the photos, Saturday morning it went off to the photo printers. They came back 3-4 times to get the right photo exposure and size. We finished it on Monday morning and it had a cover photo by David Bailey of one of the Stones on a runway. The manager said, “Jesus thanks we’ve gotta get it out, it’s a live album and it has to fit in with the tour”. The artwork was sent in and Mick came out shook me by the hand and made a remark that made me seriously think about giving up, he said “I really dig your artwork man” I thought, I'm never going to get a better accolade than that. I considered becoming a bricklayer.

The trouble with rock 'n' roll people is if you work for one you won't get work from another, because they’re all terribly precious, they’re removed from reality. A boy from Liverpool can make so much money, he’s suddenly living in a baronial castle. McCartney used to get me to pick up fags on the flight from London to Glasgow and I used to say to him its not duty free you know, its an internal flight why are you asking me to buy your fags. He said I can't get Senior Service untipped here so I said ok I’ll stick it on the bill. He said "You know, I haven't got a clue how much a packet of fags cost." They had also got to the point where they haven't really got a clue if anythings any good or not as well. They’re surrounded by people who say "you're a fucking genius man", it’s very unhealthy.

Dealing with rock n roll stars, they get very precious, they regard you as their personal designer. We were working with McCartney and George Harrison turned up at one of our meetings. Paul begrudgingly introduced us and said these are the guys who do my place down in Sussex, they did Biba. George said fantastic I’ve been looking for you for ages and McCartney went, "George fuck off get your own designers". He turned to us and said "you aint working for him". That was it, I would loved to have worked with George and he had a fantastic house. Once they’ve found you it’s like having the little seamstress round the corner, they guard you jealously.

When McCartney found out I didn't like his music- I was a Stones fan, and if I had been a Beatles fan I liked John Lennon more anyway. He said “That’s great, because I’m surrounded by blokes who tell me I’m a fucking genius and I know I’m not. So you can come on tour with me, you're the only bastard who will tell me the truth”. I couldn't tell him his wife was lousy, other than that he relied on us to say what was actually true. We were smoking so much dope at the time I couldn't hold anything back.  He’s incredibly clever, a very smart guy, he went up in my estimation no end. McCartney was extremely approachable, he never got a bodyguard, even after Lennon was shot.

 

Why did you end up in Deal?

I spent a few years up in London wandering what I was going to do while I did my book on Biba. Then I decided to jack in London, sell up. I really wanted to live by the sea or on the river. I did it very logically, traveling down the country. I was having lunch with this mate of mine in the dining room, and the guy at the next table turned to us and said "Excuse me, have you heard of Deal. I think you’ll like it. If you get the train from Charing Cross tomorrow,  I’ll meet you and introduce you to Deal." So I came down here not knowing the guy at all, he introduced me to Joe of Bright and Bright the estate agent, and I said this isnt pre-arranged or anything is it. He said I might have mentioned to Joe you were looking to buy something. All I’d done is walk from the station to The King’s Head. Joe showed me these 3 wrecks near Middle Street. They had no roofs, the windows were out, rats and everything. I said I’d buy it before I’d even gone inside, I had a vision for what they could be.

This time it was just for me. No wives, no girlfriends, no pets, no children. I could just be indulgent with the house and studio. I’ve been down here since 2008 which is not that long, it now looks like the fucking Farrow and Ball colour chart its so posh. It used to be crumbling ruins. Lots of the houses nearby aren't lived in for most of the year. And the fishmonger how is he going to exist on a monday. I think it’s really wrong. It was never like that when I came down, it was bustling. Now there’s no one on the high street on a Monday.

 

What’s it been like working in Deal as an artist vs London?

You can’t beat being by the sea. I go out 3 am sometimes because I can hear that its rough, if you’ve got the right clothes on its fantastic. We have weather down here, if its hot its hot, if its windy, Jesus is it windy. Whatever day it is that sea looks beautiful. We’re so blessed to live down here. It took me ages to work out, when I used to walk down to the gym in the morning I used to get people say hello to me. I said to someone do I look like someone well known down here. They said no you idiot they’re being friendly, I wasn't used to that. People are genuinely nice. It is a bit villagey, you don't have to be a very big fish to be a fish in this very small pond. It’s a very friendly place, I love working here for that. Although I hate the fact that I cant buy any decent art materials so I have to get them online.

 

The V&A have a lot of your work in their archives, what was in the collection?

As creative director of Whitmore-Thomas, when we were designing for Biba, I got every single sample of every bit of print to check before it went out. Every diary, address book, pin-up book, badges, watches, pens etc and all of the Food Hall packaging, from caraway seeds through to coffee, marmalade and soap suds. To say nothing of three new cosmetics ranges. The food hall was all organic or as much as possible, it was all Biba labelled. It was very ahead of it's time. We designed fridges, ovens, a paint range, light bulbs, wallpaper. It was also the photos of the work in progress, sketches for the logos and typefaces we designed, letterheads, endless. It all had to be approved by me. If you’ve just got divorced and you’re on the move you think the first thing that can go is the Biba archive.

I got in touch with Bonhams, and asked them if they wanted it. They got so much interest in it from Japan and Germany, they said we can't do this we have to keep it all together. We can't break it all up into lots and flog it all off abroad, it will be a national scandal. The V&A wanted it and they look after it beautifully. Although they got pissed off when a baked bean tin exploded after 40 years.

I did the same thing with the Whitmore Thomas archives, the V&A were happy to have it. I was so pleased, to be in the V&A you’re with Christopher Wren, you’re there with the best. I’ve now got grandchildren and it means that their grandchildren can go in and see my work when I'm long dead. How cool is that!

 

What has been your favorite project to work on?

Things that stand out aren't necessarily the most well known. Biba was the most energetic and also the most fun. It really was fun working hard when you’re doing something you believe in.

There’s some bits and pieces I did for McCartney which I always loved, I loved doing his studios up in Scotland in Campbelltown. He had bought three farmsteads, with it he had lots of bothies and farm buildings, tractor sheds and stuff. He got a bloke in to be a farm manager, who wanted an up to date farm because it was all so run down. It was all early 19th century buildings with no water or anything. Paul loved the idea of it being used for another generation and not rotting.

He said now we’ve got the farm buildings going I want you to turn one into a recording studio, we went “you’re kidding!” It’s in the middle of fucking nowhere. He said “would it be inconvenient to say you’ve got a month?” He explained "I’ve got to do this record, and they need so many weeks to distribute and press the record before Christmas, it’s going to be the biggest hit ever."

I said there's no water gas electricity, he said oh come on just use my name. “Hello I’m speaking on behalf of Paul McCartney, what are your men doing this afternoon can we have build phone line”. They dug a trench for a mile and a half to put the phone line in. It was an eye opener for a city boy. Up there they have the remnants of the aurora borealis and it meant you could do work 18 hours a day. The local workforce all came together to work in shifts. He needed an editing suite and a recording booth and accomodation for ten people. We did it, how I dont know. Everyone in Campbelltown who could stand up had a job. We even had to build a road because there were trucks arriving with recording equipment and it wouldn't have worked out on the mud road.

About two weeks after I get a phone call from him saying do you want to come up and hear the results of the fruits of your labour. I go up there, he plays me Mull of Kintyre. He said, you hate it don't you. I said yeah, so he played it to me 14 fucking times. This is going to be the biggest selling record of all time he says. He pulled another tape out, he’d recorded a number for me called Girls School, it’s a rock n roll number. So that’s for me so I can flip it over. Of course it was the biggest hit of all time until Michael Jackson came along with Thriller.

He’s an incredibly clever man, his songwriting isn't for my tastes but I have enormous respect for the man, how he’s brought his kids up. He does make me laugh though. Multi-millionaire and you’re buying his fags.

 

What are you working on now?

When I went back to being a painter after 40 years, I thought what am I going to do? I could do something like Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Hockney or an old master. It’s quite a decision you have to work your way into it. Theres two things I’ve always been interested in, one is contemporary pop art, and I’ve always been a colourist. It’s quite ironic for a man who always wears black and lives in a white house, I just thought this dichotomy between the two, it would be a good idea if I could work out how to combine the two.

I’ve got a show at Linden Hall in November. I know it sounds a long way off but to an artist it’s not. I’m going to share the show with Jim Moir (Vic Reeves). We were introduced by a close friend of his down here and he was doing a Radio 4 thing called Only Artists. He  wanted to interview me which was very nice of him. Like me, he’s an emerging artist, he’s only just started painting again in the last five years. I think it’s going to be an interesting show of two emerging artists at the age of 92. That’ll be in November.

 

 
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Steve’s local picks

FOOD & DRINK

I’ve got to say Victuals, my work is there. But it’s shut for the next 3 months. I’d also say The Taphouse, another thing that’s come up from nowhere. What a fantastic place for young people, there's loads of pubs for old people. I think The Taphouse has clocked into everything gin, beers and fantastic pizzas. I think that’s admirable.

WHAT TO DO + SEE

Nothing. I think the best thing to do in Deal is just to follow your nose. Most of it is discovering it for yourself and wandering around the conservation area. I think it’s lovely that we have the Deal rock shop and the arcade that plays 'oh my darling clementine'.