This text marked the induction of Ken Cato into the AGDA Hall of Fame in 2012.
In 1946 Mr and Mrs Cato of Brisbane moved south, bringing their baby, not yet one year old, to the cold whistling winds of Melbourne. His parents were not particularly arty, but his father painted for relaxation, and the young Ken was fascinated to watch his paternal grandmother work skilfully with her hands on the many crafts beloved of grandmas. At the Technical School he attended he found he was good at woodwork and at a special class of fitting and turning he excelled. The principal suggested he go to Art school.
He was enrolled in Prahran. At that time a feeder school for Swinburne and RMIT, but money was tight, and his 1st year teacher, Max Ripper, still a friend to this day, gave him good advice on how to get help from the Government. Eventually he topped the course and went on to RMIT. With his “massive fear of failure”, he knew by then that success lay in the ability to work bloody hard rather than talent. Luckily he had both.
RMIT was a “growing experience”. The days were 9 to 4 and a couple of nights 6 to 9. He learned that design doesn’t stop at 4pm. He emerged four years later with a Diploma, a new set of friends, and the intention to conquer the world. Well at least the design world.
By then he had a pretty good folio, and landed a job with a direct mail house. A friend, John Womersley, put him in touch with Brian Sadgrove who hadn’t been out on his own for very long, and Sadgrove took him on. Just the two of them. They set about “discovering design together”. While with Brian he met luminaries like Arthur Leydin, Les Mason, Robert Rozetsky and others. He revelled in the craft with which Sadgrove put things together, but after 18 months he couldn’t manage on what Brian was able to pay. Regretfully he had to leave.
He took a job at a large Ad Agency and resigned after two weeks. “They just don’t care about design” he complained to his mates at a lunch group that met weekly at the Park Royal Hotel. One of the group was Terry Hibberd, then art director of Cheshire books. Next on to Singleton Palmer Strauss McAllan (SPASM) which was exactly the opposite. Singleton’s motto was “First right, wonderful second.” They cared.
Some months later, at lunch at the Park Royal, he and Hibberd were complaining about the lack of respect shown to design in Australia. One of the group said “You two are always on about this, Why don’t you do something about it?” Cato Hibberd was born.
Recklessly, client-less, but with a burning energy they set up shop, and looked for clients. Their first direct client was Patra Foods, then projects began to come from Clemenger and Masius. They developed exponentially. Ken was 23 and Terry 28. It was a brilliant partnership. Hibberd was a superb typographer who also took care of much of the business side. An invaluable ally. On the way through they took on various partners and at one stage the company was known as “Cato Hibberd Hornblow Hawksby Design Proprietory Limited (spelled out). Probably the longest name for a design company before or since.
Early in the piece Hibberd informed Cato that he intended to go farming when he was forty. That seemed light years away to Ken. Not to Terry. After 12 years of great success Terry said his fortieth was coming up and he intended to leave. He had bought a farm, and it was ready and waiting for him. “Mmm, what’ll I do now?” ran through Ken’s mind but the parting was amicable in the end.
The business was growing and he needed a manager badly. David Kirby, an ex-banker took the role. “He could add up,” Ken said. A trusted friend mentioned that he had met an extremely talented designer in Singapore, working as art director for the Batey Company. He was sure Ken would be impressed. Ken flew to Singapore to meet Englishman Graham Purnell and was very impressed. Graham joined him, and it was, and is, a perfect fit.
After a few years Graham became restless and made moving on noises. Ken asked him how he would feel about his name on the door. That set the seal. “Cato Purnell and Partners “ now sits in small letters on the window, with flower and bee symbol representing symbiosis, mutual dependence, in downtown Collingwood. Discrete but powerful.
What can you say about AGIdeas? You soon run out of superlatives. Starting small in 1991 when his fellow AGI members gave the nod to a design event down under. Initially the major art schools were lukewarm, so Ken selected two of the most motivated students from each one. With his twelve disciples he forged ahead and made it happen. 550 people turned up, exposed to masters of design like Massimo Vignelli from New York, Henry Steiner from Hong Kong and others.
At the end of it the highly excited students chorused “What are we going to do next year?” After a slow but steady beginning the AGIdeas caravan began to gain speed.
What can you say about the hundreds of the world’s most innovative thinkers in design Ken has brought to his hometown? (last count 540). What can you say about the hundreds of support staff from the “Design Foundation” and “Cato Purnell” who have brilliantly co-ordinated every minute of every event, every year, and have done it over twenty times. Or the 50 young designers AGIdeas has sent overseas?
What can you say about the man who guides this event, while running an international design practice that services clients in many countries across the globe? It has seen Melbourne Australia’s design credentials stamped firmly on the international stage.
This is what Tony Spaeth (USA) has to say about Ken in his forthcoming book Recognise Me showcasing the work of Cato Partners:
“If we were to list the world’s ten most important, highest-impact business designers – wellsprings of excellence, change agents, true industry leaders – Ken Cato must be on our list, and pretty high on it too.” (If that is a surprise to some of my American colleagues, our insularity is to blame; while we have been largely preoccupied with our domestic market, Ken and his partners have quietly salted Asia, the mid-east, Europe and Latin America with beautifully designed corporate and brand identity solutions).
There are other words you could use. Phenomenal. Unprecedented. Visionary. You could fill a page with them.
Max Robinson, 2012.