He was born to British parents on August 8, 1925 in Newark, New Jersey where his father was a bus driver. In 1937, at age 12, his father died. Brownjohn showed early artistic promise and in 1944 earned a place at the Institute of Design in Chicago, formerly known as the New Bauhaus by founder László Moholy-Nagy. Brownjohn became a protégé of Moholy-Nagy and much of the structural quality in Brownjohn's graphic design can be traced to his important influence. Upon graduation, Brownjohn initially worked as an architectural planner in Chicago before returning to the Institute of Design to teach.
New York career
In 1950, Brownjohn moved to New York in order to pursue his graphic design career. Working freelance, he completed projects for a wide variety of clients including Columbia Records. Brownjohn's effusive personality and fondness for jazz music allowed friendships with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, among others, to blossom as he became a part of the social scene in the city. Brownjohn also became addicted to heroin during this period. He was never to conquer this affliction and it contributed to his untimely death at the age of 44.
In 1956 Brownjohn married Donna Walters who later gave birth to their daughter, Eliza. The following year, Brownjohn formed Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar (BCG) with fellow designers Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar. BCG designed for print initially, producing experiments in typographical design as well as taking on commercial projects. Amongst the experimental work was the booklet, Watching Words Move, in which words were redesigned to suggest their meaning in graphical as well as literal terms, e.g. "+dd", "-tract" and "sexxx". In 1958 BCG won the commission to design the United States' stand at the Brussels World's Fair. BCG also counted the Pepsi-Cola Company amongst its largest clients at this time. In addition to designing the company magazine, it also created the widely hailed Christmas decorations for Pepsi's New York headquarters.
The end of 1959 also saw the end of BCG. Brownjohn's drug use had escalated and he moved to London with his family in order, he hoped, to take advantage of the UK's more liberal attitude to drug use. The company is called Chermayeff & Geismar today.
As one of the most fêted and socially connected designers from New York, Brownjohn fitted into the Swinging London scene effortlessly. He worked at advertising agency J. Walter Thompson initially and in 1962 left to join McCann Erickson. It was in this year that Donna left Brownjohn, taking daughter Eliza, and moved to Ibiza.
Brownjohn's career began to shift to working primarily with moving images. In 1963, the producers of the James Bond films approached Brownjohn after disagreements with film title designer Maurice Binder. Harry Saltzman asked Brownjohn to design the title sequence for the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love.
Movie title sequences
Robert Brownjohn's work on two James Bond title sequences, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, is probably his most widely known achievement. In these he used the technique of projecting moving footage onto the bodies of models and filming the results. The idea of filming projections is one gleaned from the Bauhaus and was used by László Maholy-Nagy in his early constructivist films of the 1920s. The combination of this artistic technique with the style and glamour of the 1960s typify Brownjohn's work. The use of wit and risqué humour, for example the deliberate lining up of a projected shot of a golf putt so that the ball appears to roll down gold painted model Margaret Nolan's cleavage, are also classic Brownjohn devices.
Goldfinger's title design, photographed by David Watkin cost £5000. Brownjohn also designed the British posters for the film featuring Sean Connery and Honor Blackman over a gold painted Margaret Nolan. A second poster, featuring the characters in a golden hand, was designed for Ireland. Eventually Saltzman and Brownjohn fell out, and Brownjohn worked on no other Bond films.
In all, Robert Brownjohn designed four title sequences:
From Russia with Love (1963)
Where the Spies Are (1965)
The Night of the Generals (1967)
Later career and death
The most notable work from Brownjohn's post-Bond career is probably the cover for the 1969 Rolling Stones album Let It Bleed. He also created moving graphics for Midland Bank and Pirelli between 1966 and 1970. His final piece of graphic design was a poster for the New York Peace Campaign in 1969: an ace of spades playing card is laid on a plain white background with the letters "PE" hastily scribbled to the left of it and a question mark to the right. Brownjohn also had a small role as a fur coat clad heavy in Dick Clements' film Otley.
Robert Brownjohn died from a heart attack in London on August 1, 1970.