Bradbury Thompson

Recognition

1975 AIGA Medal

Born

1911, Topeka, Kansas

Deceased

1995, Greenwich, Connecticut

Recognized for his contributions as a distinguished designer, dedicated teacher, and tireless perfectionist

When Bradbury Thompson was awarded the AIGA Medal, The New York Times praised him as a designer whose work “is consistently appropriate to the problem and always powers but never overpowers the content.” This innovative mindset permeated his full oeuvre—from his lifelong dedication to teaching, to his prolific career in book and magazine design, to even his postage stamp designs. In addition to receiving the AIGA Medal in 1975, he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1977 and awarded the Type Director’s Club Medal in 1986, the profession’s three highest honors at the time.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, in 1911, J. Bradbury Thompson showed an early affinity for the visual arts, which was encouraged by his family. By junior high school, he had developed a fascination with book design and typography, eventually taking art classes in high school and becoming art editor of the school paper and designer of the yearbook. At Topeka’s Washburn College, he served as editor and designer of the 1932 and 1934 undergraduate yearbooks—influenced by what he called “good magazines,” like Gebrauchsgraphik, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. Though he graduated Washburn with a degree in economics and a minor in art in 1934, he stayed in Kansas for the next five years, working at Capper Publications, a large local printing firm. He designed magazines and yearbooks, but also began exploring his love of teaching by traveling throughout the state advising high school and college editors on yearbook design and production.

Thompson came away from these experiences with a deeper understanding of the business of printing, from typesetting to binding. He learned discipline and a sense of structure while working as a draftsman at civil engineering company H.A. Marshall, a job he held from his last year in junior high school until he graduated from college. “Working with large sheets of tracing cloth, I learned to cope with space in an orderly way,” he said. This practical training served as a foundation for Thompson’s illustrious career, even as the so-called “layout man” was being replaced in the 1940s by “the modern graphic designer,” which Philip B. Meggs defined at the time as “a conceptual problem-solver who engaged in the total design of the space, orchestrating words, signs, symbols, and images into a communicative unity.” Thompson embraced this shift and his innovative work further expanded the capacity of a graphic designer and the prospects for the professional practice. He would design wartime magazines, Victory and USA, for the Office of War Information, serve as art director of Mademoiselle for 15 years, and as design director of Art News and Art News Annual for 27 years, in addition to assuming freelance commissions.

But the project that propelled Thompson into the sphere of pioneering modern designer was Westvaco Inspirations for Printers, a 16-page, 9-inch by 12-inch promotional booklet meant to showcase Westvaco Corporation’s printing papers, published between 1925 and 1962. Inspirations was Thompson’s initial assignment after he arrived in New York in late 1938 and joined Rogers-Kellogg-Stillson, the well-respected printing firm that produced the periodical. “My first day on the job, a man came in with a blank dummy and said, ‘Here, do this issue of Westvaco Inspirations,’” said Thompson. That was the first of 61 issues and with each issue, he “expanded the limits of typography and design.” Notably, he featured Alphabet 26, his experimental typeface that consolidated upper- and lowercase letters, in Westvaco Inspirations 180 (1950), Inspirations 213 (1960), and Inspirations 217 (1962).

In his 1988 monograph, The Art of Graphic Design, Thompson described the experience as a “rare opportunity for experimentation provided a receptive designer.” Inspirations offered him, as designer and art director, the freedom to experiment with type and printing, explore concepts, and determine “all graphic ingredients.” He had access to some of the best paper being manufactured at the time and a substantial printing budget, however, there were no funds to commission original artwork or photographs, a constraint that fueled Thompson’s creativity. “I became one of the best scroungers in my profession,” he told Communication Arts. He borrowed plates and separations from museums, magazines, and advertising agencies; he drew inspiration from the print shop, printing press, and elements in the type case, relying heavily on sources like Diderot’s Encyclopédie. He even turned to fine arts, folk arts, primitive works, and playing with his children to spark ideas.

“Delighting in complexity, Thompson was a tightrope walker pushing his page layouts to the edge of chaos, seeking a graphic complexity and order through his unerring sense of visual balance,” wrote Meggs. He magically and adeptly conjured concept and form, juggled type and image, and balanced the serious with the lighthearted while blending traditional and modern elements. Westvaco Inspirations “became one of the leading avant-garde publications in the field,” said graphic designer and 1990 AIGA Medalist Alvin Eisenman. Its influence (and Thompson’s exposure) were assured by the publication’s wide distribution to 35,000 printers, art directors, advertising agencies, art schools, universities, and museums.

Thompson also designed books for Westvaco, including the 1968 Homage to the Book that featured Thompson and 15 other international book designers. His skills in marrying traditional with experimental shone through his design of the Library of American Classics, a series of 26 limited-edition books presented at Christmastime to customers and corporate friends of Westvaco. Among the titles were Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Herman Melville’s Typee, Henry James’s Daisy Miller, and American Cookery by Amelia Simmons, one of Thompson’s favorites. Each book was 5¾ x 9½ inches and contained features of fine bookmaking, such as slipcases and headbands. Thompson carefully integrated typography, imagery, and paper to achieve harmony between the visual and verbal elements, with the goal of expressing the spirit of the time in which the book was first published. He was “unlike the archetypal modernists who considered the past absolutely taboo,” said Eisenman, noting how Thompson “was always at peace with the past.”

While Thompson redesigned existing magazines, notably Smithsonian and Progressive Architecture, perhaps the oldest and most storied redesign of Thompson’s career was the extraordinary 1800-page three-volume Washburn College Bible, a redesign of the King James Version. D. Dodge Thompson, then chief of exhibition programs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Thompson’s son, wrote how the work was “a summa of Bradbury Thompson’s typographic and graphic design explorations.” Published in 1979, the edition of 398 copies was 10 years in the making, in part because a new sponsor had to be found after the original publisher abandoned the project.

Thompson’s concept was to make the text more accessible to readers and reflect the poetic language of the translators through typography. The text was set in 14-point Sabon—a new typeface from Jan Tschichold—flush-left, ragged-right in two columns 47 to 52 lines in length. This allowed Thompson to break the text according to the cadence in which it was spoken, a dramatic departure from the consistent line lengths of justified text, which had been the standard since Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible was introduced in the 1450s. In a move to balance historical and modern conventions, reproductions of masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art by 55 artists spanning 17 centuries were selected by then director J. Carter Brown to introduce each of the 66 books, while Thompson collaborated with his friend and Yale colleague, 1964 AIGA Medalist Josef Albers, on the abstract frontispieces, which distinguish each of the three volumes. The original screen prints were signed, dated, titled, and numbered by Albers.

Thompson’s typographic skills were not limited to large magazines and books. He was also a prolific postage stamp designer with the production of over 90 stamps attributed to him. He received his first commission from the United States Postal Service in 1958 and was appointed to the Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee in 1969, a position that he held for 19 years, which afforded him the opportunity to guide stamp designs by other artists. Among his favorites were the 1979–1982 “American Architecture” issues and the 1982 “State Birds and Flowers,” for which his son, Alan, provided paintings of the flowers. Thompson was chief designer for the popular religious and secular Christmas stamps introduced in 1970 and was in charge of the “Love” series beginning in 1973. He designed the 1984 version in which the word “love” was repeated four times and different colored hearts replaced the “v.” Thompson was also the man behind the addition of “USA” on all stamp designs, to provide consistency across the system. An uppercase “O” replaced the zero in the stamp’s price followed by a lowercase “c” instead of the cent sign.

Running concurrently with many of his achievements as a professional design practitioner, Thompson was also deeply involved in teaching. He taught graphic design in the graduate program of Yale University’s School of Art from 1956 until he died in 1995. Eisenman, then head of the program, described Thompson as “a designer who has a strong intuitive sense of his art, but who also has a deep interest in design principles—precepts to guide his own work and also (because he is a born teacher) principles to guide the work of the next generation of designers.” Chris Pullman, former student and, subsequently, faculty colleague, remembered Thompson as “a gentleman, a gentle man, and a model of what a professional should look like.” At his memorial service on December 11, 1995, Pullman recalled an assignment that students referred to as “The Brad Book.” Students were expected to develop original and serious content by delving into the extensive resources available in the University’s libraries. Through this process, they came to understand “the continuity of design in cultural and intellectual history” well before design history was widely discussed or included in college curricula.

Thompson’s career was united by a love of typography. “Type is a thing of constant interest to me,” he said. “In short, type can be a tool, a toy, and a teacher. It can provide a means of livelihood, a hobby for relaxation, an intellectual stimulant—and a spiritual satisfaction. I believe an avid interest in type necessarily includes a zest for everyday life.”


Timeline:

1911 Born in Topeka Kansas, on March 25, 1911

1934 Graduated from Washburn College with a BA in Economics and a minor in Art

1935 Won American Photo-Engravers Association national competition for his cover design for the December 1935 issue of Photo-Engravers Bulletin

1939–1962 Designed 61 issues of Westvaco Inspirations, a promotional magazine published by the Westvaco Paper Corporation

1945 Began as art director of Mademoiselle magazine for fifteen years

1945 Designed the final issues of wartime magazines, Victory and USA, while serving a tour of duty with the Office of War Information (OWI) during World War II

1950 Received the National Society of Art Directors of the Year Award

1956–1995 Adjunct professor of graphic design, School of Art, Yale University

1958 Developed Alphabet 26, which recommended only one symbol per letter, either uppercase or lowercase with case expressed through letter size only

1958 Designed his first United States Postage Stamp

1959 Was one of three jurors for the first annual exhibition of the Society of Illustrators, which was followed by the first Illustrators Annual book

1975 Receives the AIGA Medal “for his contributions as a distinguished designer, dedicated teacher, and tireless perfectionist”

1977 Inducted into the Art Directors Club (ADC) Hall of Fame

1979 Designed the limited-edition Washburn College Bible, published by Oxford University Press

1980 A smaller, more affordable edition of the Washburn College Bible was produced by the Oxford University Press

1980 Designed “Learning Never Ends” United States postage stamp with artwork by Josef Albers

1983 Received the Frederic W. Goudy Award from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)

1984 Designed “Love” stamp

1986 Awarded the Type Director’s Club Medal

1988 Yale University Press published his career overview, The Art of Graphic Design

1992 Bradbury Thompson: Innovative Designer, an exhibition at Yale University’s Sterling Memorial Library sponsored by Westvaco Corporation (previously mounted at other venues including the Frick Gallery in Pittsburgh and the ITC Gallery in New York City)

1995 Died November 1, 1995, in Greenwich, Connecticut, although he lived in Riverside, Connecticut


Sources:

“Bradbury Thompson,” Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, 1977, accessed May, 15, 2017, http://adcglobal.org/hall-of-fame/bradbury-thompson/.

Eisenman, Alvin. Foreword in The Art of Graphic Design by Bradbury Thompson, ix. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Horton, Robert, “A New Bible’s 10-Year Birth; Tradition Broken by Washburn Bible,” The New York Times, December 2, 1979, accessed June 4, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1979/12/02/archives/connecticut-weekly-a-new-bibles-10year-birth-tradition-broken-by.html.

Hurlburt, Allen. “Bradbury Thompson,” Communication Arts, January/February 1980.

Meggs, Philip B. “The 1940s: Rise of the Modernists,” Print XLIII:VI. November/December, 1989.

Pullman, Chris. “Remarks by Chris Pullman on Bradbury Thompson as a Teacher,” presented at a memorial service for Bradbury Thompson, December 11, 1995.

Remington, R. Roger and Barbara J Hodik. Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, 152–163. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1989.

Thompson, Bradbury. The Art of Graphic Design. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Thompson, Bradbury. “Type Can Be a Toy,” Print XL:VI. November/December, 1986.

Thompson, Bradbury. “Typography,” introduction to The Art of Graphic Design by Bradbury Thompson, x. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Van Gelder, Lawrence. “J. Bradbury Thompson Dies; Designer and Art Director, 84,” The New York Times, November 4, 1995, accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/11/04/arts/j-bradbury-thompson-dies-designer-and-art-director-84.html.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.