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Graphic Design: A Dual Retrospective of Seymour Chwast and Paula Scher

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has given graphic designers Seymour Chwast and Paula Scher a dual retrospective — and let them create the installation themselves.

201302_chwast_04Featured Images: (Click to Enlarge)

Bold orange, gray, black and white arrows and a shiny text bubble—the type that might appear over a cartoon character’s head—reading “Double Portrait” are arranged at the end of a hallway in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s steely Perelman Building. They are calling out to the museumgoers who have just turned from the Deco entryway—clicking their heels on the gravel-colored marble floor—and have entered the somewhat overcast, narrow exhibition-space-cum-corridor that leads to a few moderately-sized additional galleries. Not unlike the mysterious and alluring signs painted on the walls at Coney Island, promising wonder and delight down a dark alleyway, the arrows arouse too much curiosity to be ignored. The attraction behind the curtain, as it were, is the first dual exhibition of designer Paula Scher and illustrator Seymour Chwast, two modern masters of mind control.

Even if you don’t know their names, you’ve seen their work. Chwast co-founded Push Pin Studios in 1954 with his former Cooper Union classmates Milton Glaser, Reynold Ruffins and Edward Sorel. He has created over 100 posters, illustrated over 40 children’s books, animated films, developed and published the magazine Push Pin Graphic with his partners, published his own satirical magazines, The Nose, exhibited his work all over the world and been the subject of multiple books including The Left-Handed Designer (Abrams, 1985) and Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast (Chronicle, 2009). His illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The New Yorker and Time, among others. Scher became the art director for CBS Records and Atlantic Records while still in her 20s—an honor she didn’t fully appreciate because at the time, she says, she just “assumed everyone had cool jobs.” In 1991, she became a partner at the prominent design firm Pentagram. She has designed entire identities—down to the envelopes—and environmental graphics for such major corporations and institutions as Citibank, The High Line, Tiffany & Co., MoMA, The Public Theater, Bloomberg L.P., Microsoft and what seems like countless others. Both Scher and Chwast have received the Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and both have been inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. They are married to each other.

What “Double Portrait: Paula Scher and Seymour Chwast, Graphic Designers” (through April 14), does so well as an exhibition is to simply, but methodically, inundate the viewer with the work and philosophies of the artists. Though this might sound like the basic goal of any exhibition, this one, with its salon-style gridding of hundreds of posters (one wall for each artist), glass cases filled with books and ephemera, projections of yet more works set to repeat into infinity and iPads streaming interviews and documentaries, could easily make the viewer feel surrounded but lost, swaddled but not comforted. In the Hillman Curtis Artist Series video that streams on one of the show’s iPads, Scher says that when working with clients, as a designer she “wants to give someone’s values back to them.” In “Double Portrait” the artists get the opportunity to showcase their own values and present them to the viewer.

Not surprisingly, the installation was plotted out by the designers themselves, following their guidelines as to what would create a bold and effective layout. “It was a very designed installation,” says Scher. “The decision to do it the way we did came from the architecture.” Chwast says, “Packing the posters wall to wall suggests that we could go on forever—if the walls were bigger, we could have provided more posters.”

But even considering how much material both artists have in their archives, they didn’t select works for inclusion based on sentimental value. “It was designed—it wasn’t selected like, ‘Oh these are my favorite posters,’” says Scher. “I deliberately picked things that didn’t have many images, because his wall was going to be illustrations. I figured the way to really show the contrast was to try to make my wall as typographic as possible.” Chwast’s wall is heavy on pastel colors, so Scher designed hers to emphasize reds, whites and blacks. “It was what worked as a wall, as well as with the other wall,” she explains. Chwast’s approach was a bit simpler: “For my posters, I just picked the good ones and left out the bad ones.”

Chwast’s work, which has taken on various forms in both advertising and publishing, established a distinctive style that incorporates historic design elements and typesets, wit, perspicacity, the occasional touch of the absurd, and an innate humanity that more often than not will elicit a smile from a viewer even if the subject matter is severe. His most published piece, End Bad Breath, a 1968 anti-war poster—which will now be a part of the Philadelphia Museum’s permanent collection—renders a beady-eyed Uncle Sam type (think Signac’s Portrait of Félix Fénéon minus the acid trip), with a pretty serious case of halitosis—warplanes dropping bombs on defenseless houses that line the bottom of Sam’s mouth like teeth. The poster, a woodcut, and one of many Chwast designs that promote pacifism, borrows stylistically from American folk art—which is apt, considering that it was intended to address the folks of America. The message is resoundingly clear, but not so obvious that it isn’t clever. It has the elements that Malcolm Forbes referred to, back when Chwast was frequently contributing illustrations to his magazine, as “good nature, pith, and point.” Indeed it’s conceptual acuity—not humor alone—that makes Chwast a master of the visual pun.

Chwast is also incredibly adept at playing illustration and typographical design off one another. Though his illustrative style—with its rounded edges, pastel-driven palette, and obsessively repeated imagery (think heads, shoes, cars, warplanes)—is very much its own visual language, his use of words and typesets is equally expressive. The fact that many of his fonts are culled from Victorian lettering, Art Nouveau, Art Deco or German Expressionism adds layers of meaning to his poster designs by allowing the viewer’s eye to pick out imagery that it has seen and contextualized before. Chwast discussed this impulse in Michael Soluri’s 1986 documentary about him, saying, “Old stuff seems to have a vitality that things today don’t.” Chwast still has old linotype books and “tin cans and things,” as Scher puts it, that he has collected and used for inspiration. In an interview Chwast conducted with himself and printed in his 2009 book Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast, he says that during his tenure at Cooper Union, “Old Fashioned Phillip’s Type Book, with decorative and vigorous examples of Victorian styles, inspired me while I admired the latest modernist designs.”

His poster for Doug Henning’s “The Magic Show” and “Sensational Houdini Water Torture Escape”—one of many examples of Chwast’s work that is referential but not sentimental—arranges various sizes of 19th-century type styles in pink and green boxes, bringing to mind traveling-circus tickets and signage. However, the tank the illustrated Henning is submerged in has a pressed-metal, submarine-esque style that is defiantly 20th century, and Chwast’s rendering of the magician’s mustache screams 1975, the year it was made. Art historians now place this sort of interpretation of older or alternative styles to form a new visual dialect—as if refracting the rainbow back through the crystal—under the shakily held umbrella of postmodernism, but before the term was ubiquitous, Chwast was utilizing its principles. In his essay in Seymour, New York Times art director and design scholar Steven Heller writes, “Seymour’s art was postmodern long before the term was coined. Yet it was resolutely modern in its rejection of the nostalgic and romantic representation, as in the acolytes of Norman Rockwell, that had been popular in mainstream advertising and magazines at the time. Instead of prosaic or melodramatic tableau, Seymour emphasizes clever concept.”

Scher’s concepts are almost dangerously clever. She illustrates with words—using different typefaces in different arrangements—to form a message that often seems so clear, it’s easy to forget a person had to design it. Specializing in giving corporations and institutions a graphic identity, Scher’s work is sometimes extremely stripped down, as with the “H” symbol she designed for the High Line, the horizontal of which crosses the verticals in such a way that it looks like a train track, or it can be high-intensity, as with her complete identity overhaul of the Public Theater in 1994. “

The Public Theater posters will grab your attention no matter what,” says the exhibition’s curator, Kathryn Bloom Hiesinger, “especially her famous poster for Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk (1995), with its arrangement of the type in different directions and different sizes and different strengths. It looks like the way the performance will look and sound; it really grabs you, it’s loud.” The poster, which pictures typography dancing all around an image of the show’s star Savion Glover, who is also in motion, is loud to the point of cacophony, yet still somehow Scher, as if leading the viewer through her own dance steps, directs the eye exactly where it should go. No information is lost, and none is unnecessary. Though the Public Theater approached Scher wanting an image that was young and urban, the designer instead looked backward for inspiration. She says, “So, when I when I went back to what theater advertising used to be, back in the day in London, when there was the Old Drury Lane group of theaters—and if you go to London you can still see it painted on the side of the buildings—it would say the name of the play, what time it was, who was in it, and that was it. There was no cute line, no image, just this listing of typography, with lots of different fonts and sizes and scales, and that’s exactly what I did.”

The “Public Theater style” became so popular that it wasn’t long before it got blatantly copied, a downside of the job both artists have had to deal with. “When Chicago came out, they totally ripped it off,” Scher recounts. “It was horrible, they ate the identity of the Public Theater, and it became an identity for Broadway as a whole. But you can’t own it. You can’t argue that using all types of typography in different sizes is ownable.” But for Scher, who when walking around New York City, where she lives, encounters her own work or work in her style constantly, it has become par for the course. “You lose connection to it in a funny kind of way,” she says. “You accept it as this thing that lives out in the environment and not as something that comes from you. Repetition is what changes your perception of it. That’s what’s weird about identity. It seems separate from you.”

Scher is now working more and more in environmental graphics—site-specific installations, again predominantly text-driven, that act as decorative and practical branding devices for buildings and the institutions or companies that own them. One of her projects, a facelift to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Lucent Technologies Center for Arts Education in 2001, involved painting the entire school a creamy off-white, with words explaining the school’s departments—think “dance,” “theater,” “poetry”—painted all over its surface, even on the pipes. For Bloomberg, a company that revolves around numbers, Scher installed enormous numbers that extend from the building’s walls onto the floors in the stairwells and near the elevators. These graphics give visitors a “you are here” feeling, as if they were thumbtacks on a life-size map. The effect is bold, even invasive at first, but still simple.

“It’s about the minimal amount of information for maximal effect,” says Scher. “That’s graphic identity—figuring out what is the minimal thing that will be recognized, usually in combination with other things, because it can’t just be an icon any more. You’re figuring out how people will recognize something. What will they understand? How much do I have to do?”

Scher has an innate rebellious streak. In many interviews, including her interview with Art & Antiques, she has discussed the personal war she waged against the typeface Helvetica, which seemed to be, when she was starting out in the field, a dark specter shrouding modern design. Her distaste for the font, she acknowledges, “gave me a career.” In truth, Scher’s early work in record design shows her, not unlike Chwast, using various vintage-inspired fonts and often referencing visual elements that correspond with the sonic elements of the music. “When I was in the music industry,” she says, “I was doing record covers that were typographic and period-oriented and repurposing those fonts. But I wasn’t analyzing; I was just doing it because I thought it was cool.”

Her rebellion carries over to her personal work—the monumental, highly typographically-driven maps that she paints on the weekends. Scher takes liberties in putting labels and road markers wherever she pleases, not necessarily where they would seem to belong. “I grew up with maps in the basement because my dad was creating a measuring device that corrected distortions,” she recalls, “and I was raised with the idea that maps are always imperfect and not literal truth. So later—particularly after becoming a designer and dealing with copy and information and knowing how it’s edited, cut, changed, and distorted—the idea that I could make paintings and control the distortions was appealing to me.”

Viewers of the exhibition, upon learning that the two artists being shown are in fact married, might make the mistake of searching too intently for visual and conceptual consistencies between the two bodies of work or philosophical similarities between the two minds. Though these similarities are undoubtedly present, all one has to do is to look at the two giant “A’s” that have been taken from fonts by both designers and blown up to cover facing gallery walls. Scher’s is angular to the point of near-razor-sharpness, with alternating red and black lines that seem to ring like sound waves. It could be cut out of the wall, hung above a mid-century modern living room set and repurposed as wall art.

Chwast’s “A,” which he designed for the Indian Ink Company (an ink bottle with the “A” printed on its label, is among the objects in Chwast’s case), is bulbous and almost humanoid. It has the comic quality of a belly sticking out of a too-small T-shirt, or the chunky heel of a platform shoe (shoes are, after all, one of Chwast’s favorite things to draw). It seems to want affection. Where Scher’s work is more bullying toward the viewer—directing him where to look and when—Chwast’s is cajoling. His work often personifies inanimate objects, playing on the impulse to see human faces in things in order to induce sympathy or fondness. His commissioned illustrations, like those for Mobil’s Masterpiece Theater, helped pioneer a style that made the corporate seem cuddly.

But speaking of cuddly, how do the two artists interact with each other’s work? When asked the question, Scher quips, “I get a lot of indifference,” while Chwast says, “I get a lot of criticism.” But jokes aside, Scher has noted that when she met Chwast in 1970, she was in art school and he was her hero, and in the acknowledgments section of Seymour, Chwast writes with a stroke of affectionate due deference, “To my wife, Paula Scher, full of tough love for my work, who I learned to listen to because she is right.”

What becomes immediately clear, from the breadth and quality of the work on view, is that both Scher and Chwast are divisive problem solvers. This talent explains their immense success as designers—a field that rewards those who are powerful decision-makers—but also their shared pursuit, as creators, of refreshing work that challenges them. Chwast says, “I come up with bad ideas all the time, things that have been done, clichés. I’ll say, ‘They’ll buy this, it’s O.K,’ but I have to resist that and work a little harder to find the idea that’s original as well as accessible.” In a talk Scher gave at the 2008 TED conference (available via iPad at the exhibition), she discussed getting locked into a certain style and trying to break out of it, and the virtues of doing what one hasn’t done before. “Be totally unqualified for the job!” she urged. “That’s the best way to be serious.”

“Illustration and design are both problem-solving to certain degrees,” she told Art & Antiques. “There’s a moment—and you can’t always do this, which is what’s so depressing about it—where the confines of the project, the nature of the area and the personalities of the client line up, where you really have an opportunity to create something and change the dynamic. the most exciting thing about working, and the least exciting is fulfilling someone’s expectation of what you’re going to do. ”

This shared attitude about evolving as artists and designers is what makes viewing an exhibition about their lives’ work so interesting—though personal style is consistent, format and concept vary extravagantly. In the aforementioned documentary on Chwast, there’s a scene in which he shows off one of his children’s books, The Pancake King. As he flips through the pages he says, “This is a book about a kid who becomes the king of pancake makers—he’s better than anyone at doing it. He makes pancakes for the president. Then he decides to go home and see what he can do with waffles.” Enjoy the waffles.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “Intelligent Design”

Author: Sarah E. Fensom | Publish Date: February 2013

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