agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 4 minutes

The search for insight and inspiration can be overwhelming in the frenetic, digital world we inhabit. So it’s refreshing to turn back the page to a bygone era. Let’s step back to the heyday of Milton Glaser, Fellini and The Beatles, and delve deep into the work and life of a unique and powerful mind.

To refer to John Alcorn (1935-1992) as prolific is an understatement. Over three decades, he produced a huge variety of important work. A non-exhaustive list includes his renowned psychedelic posters, iconic advertisements, illustrated children’s books, packaging and editorial design. It’s hard to tell whether his life shaped his work or vice versa. The truth may lie somewhere in John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. It is a feast for the eyes that contains some 500 full-colour works, intimate accounts and enlightening essays on this fascinating graphic artist and illustrator.

Bucolic beginnings

Much of John Alcorn’s success can be traced back to his solid foundations. Growing up on Long Island in Great Neck, New York, he was surrounded by horse farms and pastures. His father encouraged him to draw from a young age, supplying him with a steady stream of paper, paints and pencils. In the book, there’s an old photograph of the little artist, aged 10. Propped up in bed, with a pencil in both hands and mind fixed on the page, his attraction to drawing was already evident.

He had a passion for nature and the outdoors. As a young boy, he spent his summers on Eastern Long Island, fishing and going out on a homemade dinghy he built with his father. Despite a huge love for wildlife, he was equally drawn to the hustle and bustle of nearby Manhattan, where the constant stimuli gave him energy and drive to create.

A crafty approach

Alcorn’s first big career break came at the age of 21, when he got a job at Push Pin Studios with fellow Cooper Union alumni, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel. His innate talent to seamlessly marry text and images with witty charm was immediately recognised. Glaser would refer to him as “the baby-faced design prodigy with the golden hands.” The abstract-expressionist, collage-like approach he cultivated during this period is elegantly described in the book as ‘drawing with scissors’.

Rich in symbolism and bold in its use of typography as a visual element, Alcorn’s work evolved, and a more illustrative, psychedelic style was allowed to bloom in the late sixties. With its punchy colour palette and organic forms, it lent itself perfectly to the advertising of the day. The intricate details and hand-drawn feel ensured attention was grabbed and retained. Nowhere more than here is his inspiration from the natural world more evident.

Flower power

From cigarette and cosmetics packaging to Campbell’s Soup advertisements and posters for Pepsi, a bouquet of daisies, chrysanthemums and anemones jump from the page; simple forms rendered in a burst of pinks, yellows, oranges and blues. But flowers were more than just his subject. They embodied his philosophy. Beyond representing the prevailing counter-culture movement of the era, with its anti-war sentiment and ‘Love is All You Need’ anthem, for Alcorn, tending to them was an essential part of his creative process. Drawing inspiration from their forms, their behaviour and their symbolism, they also allowed him to practice the patience, diligence and care that he would then apply to his art and life. So intrinsic were they to his practice that in his final home in Hamburg Cove, Connecticut, the garden had eclipsed his studio in size, reaching mere feet away from his drawing table.

Incremental improvements

Viewing his work chronologically, the incremental improvements he made over thirty years are evident. When new technology was made available to him, he embraced it, excitedly trying out the new techniques that had opened up to him. When full-colour process printing was introduced in the publishing industry, his children’s book illustrations took on a soft, painterly approach that reveals a deeper sensibility for turning the intimately personal into the universal.

Amidst an ever-shifting landscape, life’s challenges and changing trends, Alcorn’s work retained its artisanal heart, while refusing to be pigeonholed for one particular method, medium or mannerism. At the root of his practice lay a highly sensitive eye-mind-hand coordination. It is this capability, combined with his dogged determination, which reveals the secret to the timeless charm of his work.

A sense of purpose

John Alcorn embodies the true meaning of an artist. Whose life influenced his art and whose art influenced his life. Who lived and worked by the same set of principles throughout his entire career. Who never stopped refining his skills, learning new techniques, pushing himself to see the world from different perspectives. “I enjoy contributing to making an object which is useful and can be simply a pleasure to have in one’s home or to hold,” he said during an interview in 1981. It is this sense of purpose that continues to ensure his legacy and relevance to this day.

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