Finding relationships, as Ivan Chermayeff has said, is what graphic design is all about. It is also what poetry is about—analogy, simile, metaphor, meaning beyond meanings, images beyond images. In the work of Chermayeff and Geismar, images are words, have meanings, communicate. They make visual images that are graphic poetry.
Chermayeff and Geismar combine their special kind of poetic communication with efficient practicality. Throughout their career they have shown two interests and directions: first, an emphasis on process or—to use the designers' by-now 20-year-old slogan—“problem solving”; and second, an exploration of a remarkable wide variety of aesthetic approaches to make their images. Their success at problem solving over the years has permitted them to plan, design and supervise an impressive number of corporate graphics programs across the broadest international framework. They are acclaimed for their methodology—for the clarity and organization of their graphics systems, for their pursuit of consistent details that work at every size and scale to solve the problems of multilingual programs. As a consequence they have collected commissions for corporate programs the way other designers collect book jacket commissions—Burlington Industries, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dictaphone, Mobil Corporation, Pan Am and Xerox, to name a few. Their work includes logos, symbols, letterheads, signs, annual reports, posters, bags and boxes and banners, trucks and airplanes, tank cars and tote bags, T-shirts and ties, television titles and credits.
Designer Rudolph de Harak recalled in his presentation of the AIGA Medal that as early as 1959, when Chermayeff and Geismar were having an exhibition of their work in New York City, a news release stated that their design office “operated on the principle that design is a solution to problems, incorporating ideas in relation to the given problem, rather than a stylistic or modish solution.” Twenty years later, de Harak observed, “Their philosophy is still the same.”
“Our work starts from the information to be conveyed,” Ivan Chermayeff explains, “and only then goes on to make the structure subservient to that information or make the structure a way to help express the idea.”
Chermayeff and Geismar met at Yale in the mid-1950s when so many ideas that are now a part of our lives were germinating. Chermayeff was born in London, the son of the distinguished architect-teacher Serge Chermayeff. He studied at Harvard, the Institute of Design in Chicago, and received a BFA at Yale. Geismar was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and studied concurrently at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, then received an MFA at Yale. There, both designers discovered a common interest in the design of alphabets or typefaces; they met doing research on papers about typeface design.
Their degrees completed, Geismar went into the Army where he worked as a designer of exhibitions and graphics. Chermayeff went to work in New York, first for Alvin Lustig, then for CBS designing record covers. In 1957, they opened their own practice in New York.
As designer Harak recalled: “Their work burst forth in the late 50s and early 60s smack in the middle of what is considered to be the time of the graphics revolution in this country. The mid-50s in New York was an exciting time, charged with creative electricity, the sparks flying from all the arts. In architecture, the United Nations building and Lever House had just gone up, and the way was paved for New York's first building by Mies van der Rohe in the late 50s. In the arts, Abstract Expressionism was being nudged aside by Pop painting and sculpture, to be followed by Op works. In the theater, Jerome Robbins had just done ”West Side Story.“ The jazz world was stunned by the passing of Charley Parker and razzle-dazzled by the cacophony of Ornette Coleman, Erick Dolphy and John Coltrane.
”In graphics, the establishment designers were Will Burtin, Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Lester Beall and Saul Bass, to name just a few. Art Kane was seriously contemplating leaving the drawing board for his cameras, and Jay Maisel had just started on his career as a photographer. Henry Wolf was turning the magazine industry on its ear with his fresh approach to design at Esquire, and Lou Dorfsman was already almost legendary at CBS. It was in this climate that Chermayeff and Geismar found themselves as partners, eager to incorporate their talents and skills.
“It is one thing to open a design shop today,” de Harak pointed out, “and to solicit work from an already generally alert design-oriented management. It was quite another issue in the late 1950s.”
Yet around 1960, Chermayeff and Geismar started the craze for abstract corporate symbols with the one they designed for the Chase Manhattan Bank. They have produced over 100 such corporate symbols in the years since, including those for Manufacturers Hanover Trust, Screen Gems and the Bicentennial celebration.
“We try to do something that is memorable for a symbol,” Tom Geismar notes, “something that has some barb to it that will make it stick in your mind, make it different from the others, perhaps unique. And we want to make it attractive, pleasant and appropriate. The challenge is to combine all those things into something simple.”
In meeting that challenge, Chermayeff and Geismar have explored as varied and different a collection of approaches and techniques as any designers now working.
“We do not have an office style,” Ivan Chermayeff has said, “like some designers who concentrate on graphics systems, such as grids. And we don't have a special style of illustration like those who are collectors of historical style motifs—Art Deco or 19th century typography. We are not involved in style and fashion in that way.”
Instead, Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar are anthologists, assemblers and compilers who reduplicate the things they put together, multiply them ten fold—or more. It is the technique of repetition—what they call “collection.” In the process, they transform whatever they collect, give it a new turn and imbue it with new meaning. This technique of repetition, reduplication or multiplication—starting with a single item and reiterating throughout a corporate program—is a unifying element in their work.
Chermayeff and Geismar collect samples of old typefaces and street signs because such things communicate directly. They are especially addicted to old art of anonymous printers and sign painters that show unconventional, nontraditional inventiveness of an improvisational nature—accidents, laissez faire, spontaneity and whimsy. It is the 1960s addiction for happenings. In fact, Chermayeff and Geismar's work often has the air of a graphics happening—casual, but hardly accidental.
Sometimes they make collections of different things of the same generic nature. In the logo for a shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, the name of the firm is formed by letters, each taken from a different typeface; in their logo for Brentano's bookstores, a collection of uppercase letters of several typefaces is interspersed in a randomlike quality. They scramble these found object—it is a Pop/Dada approach—into new visions of the old, the old becoming new and the new gaining distinction from the old. For them, it is “rediscovery as a form of discovery.”
For Yale's Garvan Collection of American Furniture, a group of Windsor chairs and benches is hung on a white wall, with Shaker-like simplicity one above the other as well as side by side, so that the display looks like an illustration of silhouetted chair styles as well as a collection of furniture. Again, the arrangement has a random quality like the old typefaces.
Their technique of repeating collections is also seen in clustered corporate logos and symbols that read like overall watermark patterns on stationery, bank checks and shopping bags. And they have repeated a single rubber stamp all over a poster in a scatter-fire, crazy-quilt kind of imagery. For a Pepsi-Cola annual report they collected used bottle caps and stacked them up like a bar chart of rising sales. For an Aspen Design Conference poster, they assembled luggage tags from airports all over the world and created an overall quilt pattern to show the international influence of the conference.
The technique permeates their work. Stars are repeated to form a crown on a poster for “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom.” Short rectangular brush strokes are reiterated in grids to form lighted windows on a poster for “New York Nights.” One on their posters has a cluster of souvenir models of the Statue of Liberty—a found object, Pop item—as an illustration for the National Park Service's Museum of Immigration. At Montreal's Expo '67, they clustered several hundred hats on hatmakers' forms to exhibit the great variety of occupations, professions and services—the police, firefighters, welders, nurses, motorcyclists—who make up this country. The message—variety—could not be embodied or demonstrated by a single object, but the repetition technique made it loud and clear.
In the U.S. pavilion at Osaka for Expo '70, Chermayeff and Geismar collected masses of weathervanes as one exhibit. In an exhibition on “Productivity” for the Department of Labor at the Smithsonian Institution, they assembled all the protective gloves and helmets that American workers wear; it was a means of calling attention to safety and to improved working conditions.
They call this technique “the supermarket principle.” As in the supermarkets, the display of relatively unrefined package designs in mass often produces a cumulative effect far beyond the quality of the individual package. It makes an overall pattern that becomes something more than the sum of the individual parts. Even with patently undesigned or ugly things—air-conditioning outlets, crumpled car parts, worn-out gloves—the massing of them can diffuse the ugliness of the single item and create a transcendingly effective overall pattern and rhythm.
As perhaps their ultimate gesture in this direction, Chermayeff and Geismar have collected multiples of the same shell from an American beach and have filled a transparent plastic box with them; then next to that box, they have filled another box with shells from an Italian beach, the a box of shells from an Australian beach, and so on. The boxes are then ganged like a display cabinet. In another cabinet, there are boxes of pasta from around the world; another has a collection of sands from around the world; another has ribbons. These modest items not only build up decorative textures, but also form an appropriate art-assemblage program for IBM's World Trade-Far East Headquarters: international stored information.
To most Americans, the idea that images can be words with meanings is new and unfamiliar. But in the Orient where words are pictures—pictograms and ideograms—it does not come as a surprise. There, scrolls of calligraphy have been hung on walls like pictures for centuries. Chermayeff and Geismar's pictures are similarly artful words in a Western language.
They deal with meanings of several kinds, such as the various meanings of colors. Culturally, we are taught that red means stop and green means go. Physically, according to nature's properties, we directly associate red with hot and blue with cold. Chermayeff and Geismar work with these accepted axioms, with the givens of common knowledge, with simple knowns—things from childhood, nature symbols, universal standards.
With these unmistakable givens, they often go on to make juxtapositions that express incongruities, that are often revealing combinations of reversal, surprise or discordant harmony. They create images that are two things at the same time, both good and bad, both what they say and not what they say: visual puns, visual sarcasm, visual comments on the statement. Visual poetry.
There is always an element of surprise in their work, which is the hallmark of art—to present us with something new that illuminates the subject, its emotional content or the process of communication. Their logo for Mobil, in a typeface they designed for the corporation, is based on the circle and cylinder motif of filling stations and other architectural elements of the corporate program that were established by the late architect Eliot Noyes. Chermayeff and Geismar have reinforced that motif by singling out the circle in the corporate name and coloring it red. It is a surprising element, but on fundamentally consistent with the overall design program of circles.
Among their techniques of surprise is a device they call “expressive typography” in which type is placed to show—literally—the message or the form of the subject. They have printed the word “dead” with the final “d” turned at a 90° angle, fallen down to reinforce the meaning of the word. This is repetition in two languages, both words and pictures.
On their posters for free Tuesday evenings at the Guggenheim Museum and at the Whitney Museum, the type is placed in the shape of those buildings. The Guggenheim poster had the words in the spiral form of the Frank Lloyd Wright building; the Whitney poster outlines the overhanging ziggurat form designed by Marcel Breuer. It is pictorial typography.
The designers like to say the same thing two ways at the same time. They have printed the word “no” with an X through it, for example. And when they designed the layouts for the magazine Innovation, they printed the page numbers in both numerals and letters—“2wo.”
They also make use of a primitive quality in calligraphy and illustrations. In their poster for a television production of War and Peace, a childlike painting of a bird with an olive branch sits on a pyramid of cannonballs. That says it not only in two ways, but with the simplest, almost naïve, pictorial technique. And it creates a very grown-up irony.
With all these approaches and techniques, Chermayeff and Geismar communicate in flashes of illuminating insight. The designers have become not only collectors of programs, but programmers of collections. It is for this graphic poetry that Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar were awarded the AIGA Medal for 1979.
Copyright 1980 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “Modernism Past and Present.” Heller, Steven, and Elinor Pettit. Design Dialogues. New York: Allworth Press, 1998. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “Punching and Dotting.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 7.2 (1989): 4. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “Some Thoughts on Modernism: Past, Present and Future.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 5.2 (1987): 6. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “The Critics’ Response to Graphic Design in America.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 8.1 (1990): 12. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “The Designer as Ventriloquist.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 12.2 (1994) 30. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. “What Makes a Good Poster?” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 4.4 (1986) 8. Print.
Duarte, Frederico. "Flight of the Imagination - Do Ivan Chermayeff's Pan Am Posters Signify the Last Days of Modernist Ambition?" Eye: the International Review of Graphic Design. 19.73 (2009): 30. Print.
“Ivan Chermayeff.” ADC Hall of Fame, Awards. ADC, 1981. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Glaser, Milton, Ivan Chermayeff, and Rudolf deHarak. “Some Thoughts on Modernism, Past, Present, and Future.” Looking Closer 3: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. Eds. Bierut, Michael, Jennifer Helfand, and Steven Heller. New York: Allworth Press, 1994. Print.
“Tom Geismar.” ADC Hall of Fame, Awards. ADC, 1998. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Wainwright, Oliver. “Ivan Chermayeff: The Logo Genius.” The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Jul. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Airey, David. Work for Money, Design for Love: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Starting and Running a Successful Design Business. Berkeley, Calif: New Riders, 2012. Print.
American Institute of Graphic Arts. AIGA Graphic Design USA: 1: The Annual of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1980. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan. The Design Necessity: A Casebook of Federally Initiated Projects in Visual Communication, Interior and Industrial Design, Architecture [and] Landscaped Environment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan, and Thomas H. Geismar. Watching Words Move. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan, Thomas H. Geismar, and Sagi Haviv. Identify: Basic Identity Design Solutions in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar. New York: Print Publishing, 2011. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan, Thomas H. Geismar, and Steff Geissbuhler. Designing. New York: Graphis, 2003. Print.
Chermayeff, Ivan, Thomas H. Geismar, and Steff Geissbuhler. TM: Trademarks Designed by Chermayeff & Geismar. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000. Print.
Clifford, John. Graphic Icons: Visionaries Who Shaped Modern Graphic Design. n.p., 2014. Print.
Friedman, Mildred S, Joseph Giovannini, and Steven Heller. Graphic Design in America: A Visual Language History. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1989. Print.
Friedman, Mildred S, Robert Jensen, and Russell Lynes. Ivan Chermayeff: A Design Anatomy. Minneapolis, Minn: Walker Art Center, 1979. Print.
Kurlansky, Mervyn. Masters of the 20th Century: Icograda Design Hall of Fame. New York: Graphis, 2001. Print.
Lupton, Ellen. Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011. Print.
Lupton, Ellen. A Pedagogical Scrapbook About the Work of Ivan Chermayeff. New York, NY: Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, 1989. Print.
McAlhone, Beryl, David Stuart, and Greg Quinton. A Smile in the Mind. Witty Thinking in Graphic Design. 8th, Rev. Ed. London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2015. Print.
Meggs, Philip B. 6 Chapters in Design: Saul Bass, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Paul Rand, Ikko Tanaka, Henryk Tomaszewski. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997. Print.
Exhibitions and events
Chermayeff, Ivan, and Henry Wolf. The Rest of Our Lives: International Design Conference in Aspen, June 15-20, 1969. Place of publication not identified: n.p., 1969. Print.
Ivan Chermayeff: Paintings, Drawings, Graphic Design (exhibition) May 3-June 1, 1975. Jacksonville, Florida: Jacksonville Art Museum, 1975. Print.
Websites and collections
AIGA Design Archives. AIGA, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Guide to the Ivan Chermayeff graphic designs, 1950–1987.” Kellen Design Archives. The New School, 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Ivan Chermayeff.” Designers & Books. Designers & Books, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Ivan Chermayeff.” Graphic Design Archive Online. RIT Libraries, Rochester Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Ivan Chermayeff. n.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Ivan Chermayeff.” The Collection | Artists, MoMA. The Museum of Modern Art, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Kleber, Beth. “Finding Aid: Chermayeff & Geismar Collection.” Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives. Milton Glaser Design Study Center and Archives, 2010. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Tom Geismar.” Designers & Books. Designers & Books, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Thomas Geismar.” Graphic Design Archive Online. RIT Libraries, Rochester Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Tom Geismar. n.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“Thomas Geismar.” The Collection | Artists, MoMA. The Museum of Modern Art, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
Audio and video
“100 Years of Design that Delights: Watching Words Move, 1962.” Celebrate Design. AIGA, 2014. Online sound recording. 17 Nov. 2015.
“100 Years of Design that Informs: Ivan Chermayeff.” Celebrate Design. AIGA, 2014. Online sound recording. 17 Nov. 2015.
cgstudionyc. “Logomotion.” YouTube. 13 Mar. 2008. Online video. 17 Nov. 2015.
DukeLibDigitalColl. “Inside New York’s Art World: Ivan Chermayeff.”  YouTube. 10 Dec. 2008. Online video. 17 Nov. 2015.
Johnson, J S, Ivan Chermayeff, George Lois, and Paul Rand. The Graphic Revolution. n.p., 1977. Sound recording.
Millman, Debbie. “Tom Geismar.” Design Matters. Design Matters, 2014. Online sound recording. 17 Nov. 2015.
School of Visual Arts. “The Masters Series: Tom Geismar.” YouTube. 15 Jan. 2015. Online video. 17 Nov. 2015.
Wright, Will, Dror Benshetrit, Thomas H. Geismar, Sagi Haviv, and Ivan Chermayeff. Design X Ray: Design Is Everywhere. Falls Church, VA: Landmark Media, 2014. Video recording.