If you’re not driving a BMW by the time you’re 24…
My university tutor, colleague and leader of the degree course that set me on my path, Bal Nandra, died on Monday morning. That’s him leaning on the railings, big watch, big glasses.
I write this with still-surprised eyebrows, because it doesn’t seem like enough time has passed for this to be a reality. I graduated from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 1993, with a first in Visual Communication, a special award for typographic innovation and a strange and ambitious portfolio that no-one really knew what to do with, filled with lettering, 3D sculptures, ink stuff and theatrical vigour.
Bal told me and my mate Mel, also on the course, that ‘illustrators don’t get firsts’. Naturally that triggered our silent ‘Watch This’ response [read that in the Brummie accent we would both have had at the time; hers authentic, mine unconsciously adopted over the terms]. Actually, neither of us were that fussed about a grade, wanting to just do our best and find our direction, until at some point we were threatened (again by Bal) with the dangling carrot of ‘if you keep this up ladies, you’re on track for a first’.
No pressure then.
As well as the cold dread of being summoned to his office at the end of the studio for unknown misdemeanours or feedback was the gameshow-feel thrill of being late to a briefing (think Squid Game rather than Countdown) which Mel and I were, often. Sometimes because we had done the obligatory all-nighter to meet a deadline, sometimes because we were skip-diving for that precious mineral ‘foamboard’, chunks of which would be thrown with wanton disregard for its cost into the college bins, or scrap metals we could fashion our mad built things from.
Sometimes we were late because we were getting a toffee flapjack and more tea from the canteen.
And sometimes, we just hid because, being diligent students, it would be in our direction that any extra-curricular or industry briefs would come hurling, Exocet-style, into an already gruelling 26-briefs-in-one-term* schedule.
Bal was also the deliverer of sobering career advice. When he told us that we could consider ourselves failures if we weren’t driving a BMW by the time we were 24, we simultaneously laughed in his face and trembled with horror; we knew that was a gargantuanly unlikely scenario for either of us. At 24, I had a yellow 2CV that my boyfriend had cheerfully passed onto me in lieu of a weed debt someone couldn’t pay him, and Mel had a Micra. Both were sound motors, but not German, and not fast. When I picked Bal up in my BMW to go for cake and coffee with our other tutor Mike Simkin, a great many years later, the joke was not lost on him.
He was funny and strict and stern, extremely ambitious for every one of us and, though we didn’t really appreciate it at the time, highly successful in his field and incredibly well-respected as a designer in his own right. He kept up this work till the very end, continuing his relationship with his alma mater Ravensbourne College, and I know I channeled a little of his knowing-wink seriousness in my own teaching, as I went on to degree and higher ed teaching sessions over the years that followed.
~ Balvir Singh Nandra / 25th August 1951–28th February 2022 ~