Champion of Irish design was a breath of fresh air

William Bolger: born September 13th, 1938;died April 18th, 2013


Bill Bolger, who died recently in his sleep, was a pioneering force in the birth of the Irish design industry. Design had largely been a cottage industry relying on gifted solo practitioners such as Louis le Brocquy. During education minister Patrick Hillery’s second term (1961-1965) the educational landscape began to change to reflect the needs of an industrialising nation, and Bolger took a lead in what followed.

Bolger’s ebullient high spirits also brought a breath of fresh air into a formal, buttoned-down business world. Getting a start as a tea boy in O’Keeffe’s advertising agency after attending Catholic University School in Dublin, he moved to O’Kennedy Brindley where he met his lifelong collaborator, writer Bernard Share.

Mickey Mouse ears
Together they joined Janus Advertising, where they were in the habit of wearing cut-out Mickey Mouse ears. In 1962 they set up their own creative consultancy, Verbiage Enterprises. This brought a wide range of verbal and visual projects, particularly for state companies such as Bord Fáilte, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Industrial Development Authority, Coras Tráchtála.

Together they produced a series of children’s books, The Bed That Went Whoosh! for publisher Alan Figgis, for whom Bolger also designed book covers, at which he was to excel. His many other graphic achievements at that time included cartoon illustrations for RTÉ’s television series Buntús Cainte, a long-running language teaching programme.

In 1974 when the troubled ghost of the College of Art was being transformed into the National College of Art and Design, Lucy Charles summoned him to help out, initially part-time. In all he spent 30 years teaching there, retiring in 2003 with the title of head of the department of visual communications.

That was his day job, but teaching was woven into all his work. “No matter what he did, teaching was part of it, and he loved an audience,” said his daughter Mary Ann.

Conor Clarke, later co-founder of the Design Factory, said when he was a student it was a great honour to be invited into Bolger’s office: “He believed in our potential and was always looking out for opportunities for us.” US-based artist Brian Cronin said: “Bill introduced me to the work of Milton Glaser. He encouraged me to design through drawing as did Glaser. This guidance ultimately led to my career as an illustrator. I later moved to New York and worked at Milton’s studio, which changed my life.”

Commissions included design for the Columba Press, Veritas Publications, Gael Linn and album covers for Clannad.

Typography was a passion, and Eric Gill an influence, but on his work, not his private life. Typographer Jarlath Hayes was also an influence and Bolger married his sister-in-law Eithne O’Donnell in 1965.

Musical influences
Other influences include Dutch artist and jazz musician Piet Sluis who moved to Ireland in the 1950s to work as a graphic artist for Aer Lingus. Absurdist artist and musician Gerard Hoffnung was another favourite.

Bolger believed passionately in the Irish indigenous design sector and was incandescent when Allied Irish Banks engaged international consultancy Wolff Olins for a rebranding. He made no bones about the tautology in renaming Allied Irish Banks as AIB bank – “Allied Irish Banks Bank” he snorted. He also took issue with the bird motif – it was too like a piece of his own work, which he called Bolger’s duck. He got over the duck, but his founder membership of the Institute of Designers in Ireland and participation of other professional bodies was about a core belief: fostering native talent.

Spiritual but not a churchy man, he was very proud of his ecumenical input into the 2004 Book of Common Prayer for the Church of Ireland, and the Catholic Roman Missal in 2011. Other interests included scripture, meditation and cycling. He never learned to drive, but had recently got an electric bike.

He enjoyed a pint in McCloskey’s pub near his Donnybrook home. He was working on a design for a book about Pope Francis when he died.

Bolger’s wife Eithne died in 2011. He is survived by his daughter Mary Ann Bolger, a design historian, his brother “Budgie” Bolger and his sister Mary Toland.