A few weeks ago Kathy McCoy sent me this link to a website created by Paul
Vjecsner (pronounced vee-yetsh-ner), age 81, a Holocaust
survivor who arrived in the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in 1948 as an
aspiring commercial artist. McCoy stumbled upon Vjecsner's site by
chance while researching Herbert Bayer's life and times in Denver
during the 1950s—where Vjecsner also worked for several years—and
became fascinated by what she found: the life of a designer that
would have fallen through the cracks if not for the web. Indeed the
internet has made chance encounters a fairly regular occurrence. In
this case, while the site is devoted to Mr. Vjecsner's interest in
spiritual and philosophical pursuits, it also digs deeply into his
art and commercial art legacies—from his early work in Prague to
his illustrations for the U.S. Army and private American
companies—and features a generous supply of photographs, from
before the Nazi occupation and after fleeing for Hungary to his
later arrival in New York. Vjecsner even shares his “intellectual
discovery” and inventions.
Cover and interior designs of personnel records for the 2nd U.S.
Army headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Autobiographical websites are not necessarily newsworthy, as
artists and designers are constantly filling the ether with their
ephemeral output, but Vjecsner's thoughtfully preserved work, so
articulately explained, could have easily been lost or gone
unappreciated. After spending time on the site, I had to know more
about Vjecsner, hear more about his life (and struggles) in New
York's commercial art world and how he came to embrace the web.
Kindly, he obliged my curiosity.
Heller: What inspired you to create such an in-depth
website devoted to your career?
Vjecsner: It isn't really devoted to my career,
since I included different sorts of things. I felt, before planning
a website, that I had matters to contribute which were left
unnoticed. As you can see, the title is “Exploring possible human
knowledge”; i.e., I felt I had knowledge to contribute [to the
world]. I included various things I had done, like much of
commercial art, in order to draw attention to my capabilities and
what I have to offer.
Heller: How old were you when you arrived in New
Recruiting Publicity Bureau poster.
Heller: When you came to this country, did you begin to
practice commercial art right away?
Vjecsner: I came to the U.S. in 1948. I tried
practicing commercial art right away, since that was what I started
with in Europe and was since childhood my intention. But I couldn't
get anywhere—hardly spoke English, no connections, etc. I joined
the Army, where unexpectedly I succeeded doing artwork for the
Recruiting Publicity Bureau.
Heller: What were some of your other early assignments,
and how did you receive those commissions?
Vjecsner: I assume you mean in the U.S. I
should make something clear from the start: I did not succeed in
making a name for myself in the U.S., as you may know. I was
extremely successful in the preceding two years in Prague, having
grown up in that culture and being quite skilled at drawing. But I
had no formal education, not only in art, but in general, due to
the war years. So I was unprepared to assimilate to the U.S.
conditions, the native commercial art in particular.
Heller: Some of your countrymen—Ladislav Sutnar, who
emigrated to New York in 1939, and Karel Teige, who remained in
Prague—practiced a “modernist” method of design. Did you know any
of those designers in Prague?
Czech movie poster for Appointment for Love (1941).
Vjecsner: Frankly, I had never heard of them
before I immigrated, and afterwards I only learned of Sutnar. They
were not well known in Czechoslovakia, unlike Josef Lada,
illustrator of The Good Soldier Schweik, or Jirí
Trnka, who made animated films.
Heller: The Bauhaus played a role in shaping some of the
New York based designers—both immigrant and native born—did these
teachings have any bearing on your practice?
Vjecsner: I always liked modernism and the
Bauhaus influence, but having no schooling and corresponding
connections, I had to rely on my drawing ability for whatever job I
Heller: What about American design—and commercial art,
in general—at that time appealed to you, and what did not appeal to
Vjecsner: What appealed to me then in American
work was creative illustration like that of David Stone Martin. I also liked abstract design, but
at that time I couldn't get anyone to trust me with it. What I
didn't much like was corny magazine or advertising illustration,
although I had to of necessity participate in some of it.
Heller: What is “corny” in your estimation?
Vjecsner: By “corny” I may more accurately mean
falsely sentimental. I have no problem with folksiness, as long as
it is genuine. I am not one for “sugar-free”; it would be sad if
young children and animals lost their sweetness.
Heller: What was it like back then in terms of getting
work? Did you do only freelance or were you hired on
Vjecsner: For me it was difficult, as I
somewhat explained. Since I had nothing to fall back on, I was
eager to get a steady job, which may have been a mistake. I didn't
know I could get something like unemployment benefits, which may
have enabled me to embark on a freelancing career. That way I may
have been able to concentrate on work I was interested in, with
possibly better success.
Heller: Who were some of the art directors you worked
Vjecsner: I didn't really work with any
particular art director, but was a member—in the bullpen—of certain
Heller: Did you belong to any of the clubs or societies
devoted to illustration and design?
Art Directors Club of Denver promotional mailing.
Vjecsner: When I worked in Denver, I was active
in the Denver Art Directors Club.
Heller: How much of your own method was allowed to come
through aside from the “corny”magazine and advertising illustration?
Vjecsner: It's hard to speak of my own method
since I had been involved in so many endeavors. As a result I am
actually glad that I became more versatile than most anyone, able
to do serious illustration, stylized work, design and so on. As a
rule, I tried to do things the way I thought I should, although
bosses sometimes wanted an imitation of someone else's style.
Heller: You're very eloquent. How long did it take you
to master English? And how long was your language a hindrance to
getting the kind of work you wanted?
Vjecsner: It was only a hindrance when I dealt
with people of prejudice. Otherwise, I studied English diligently
from the start, getting gradually better. I also tried from the
beginning to think in English, which makes a great difference, and
I improved a lot when turning to pursuits that require writing,
like philosophy or mathematics.
Heller: You say you didn't have any formal education,
but how did you learn to do what you did?
Vjecsner: I began to draw portraits when a
child, acquiring a habit of observation of light and shade,
proportion, etc. Also, I tried to get art books, making my mother
worried about spending money on them, since we had hardly anything
to spend during that wartime, before yet greater calamities.
Portraits of Vjecsner's second cousin and fellow Holocaust
survivor, Eva, in 1938 (when he was 12), 1942 and 1945.
Heller: You worked in Denver for a while. Did you work
with Herbert Bayer?
Vjecsner: No, I just met him once.
Heller: I have a friend who survived the camps as a
“designer.” He worked making signs and painting pictures for
guards. When he came to the United States after the war he got a
job with Paul Rand doing advertising illustration. Did you have a
mentor or close associate here who helped you along?
Vjecsner: Interestingly, I also survived thanks
probably partly to drawing portraits of guards, or of their
families from photographs. I can't say I had a mentor here; I did
meet with the known illustrator Albert Dorne, who liked my work in the Army, but
although he made some recommendations, nothing came of it.
“ReMeMbeR” Holocaust poster by his cousin Eva Kemeny and Laszlo
Sos, her husband.
Heller: You also say you did not succeed here, at least
at first. What was your measure of success? Was it simply getting
work and making a living, or was it being an artist of some
Vjecsner: I definitely wanted to make a living
in commercial art, not wanting any other work then.
Heller: Did you take your portfolio around to magazines
Vjecsner: Magazines and agencies mainly worked
with freelancers—although illustrators often belonged to studios,
which did the business transactions—and, as mentioned, I was
anxious to have a steady job. I did, however, take a portfolio to
wherever I went looking.
Heller: At what point did you stop pursuing that career,
Vjecsner: That desire ended in my 30s, partly
because I didn't like the kind of work I had to do, and also
because I became interested in other fields, which somehow always
simmered in the back of my mind, alongside the interest in art.
Patented envelope lock.
Heller: What did you do after your commercial art
Vjecsner: For a while I explored “fine art”
possibilities, which became a disappointment. It appeared to me
that the artists were far less than in the commercial field picked
on the basis of talent. It depended in my view more on who was
declared great by a looked-to authority than on the commercial
necessity of doing a good job. Afterward my interests turned more
to mental activities, having found I was able to gain insights in
them. I came up with some inventions based on geometry,
had a couple of papers published in regional mathematics journals,
and then turned to exploring a wider range of philosophical
Heller: At the time you were practicing, commercial art
did not have a scholarly interest at all. Now design history is
taught in most design schools. Books have been written about the
likes of Rand, Sutnar, Saul Bass and many others. Do you have a
sense of this history now? Or is it simply arcane?
Vjecsner: There were actually books published
on Norman Rockwell and maybe others, but perhaps they don't belong
in the design category. It's difficult for me to say whether I have
a sense of that history, since I've been away from the area awhile.
But I do feel that commercial art deserves more credit as a
valuable occupation than it used to.
Heller: In producing your website, were you aiming to
establish a legacy? Or where you trying to connect with others who
either knew your work or went through similar
Vjecsner: One idea I had was to unabashedly
refer on the website to my commercial art, whereas in the past the
field, or the likes of illustration, were somehow held in
disrepute. Regarding a legacy, the problem is that the web is such
an ephemeral thing. Here today, gone tomorrow. As indicated in my
first answer, the website belongs to one of my efforts to impart
what I think I can contribute to knowledge. I try other ways as
well, to make me feel I live a useful life.
Vjecsner self-portrait, taken in his 20s in Denver.
Heller: How do you feel about being “stumbled upon” and
now work from your commercial art days is of interest to design
scholars? Does this validate your impulse to do the website or is
it just one of those serendipitous things that occur when you put
yourself on the internet?
Vjecsner: It feels good. I may not have had an
impulse that the site would succeed in any way, but I did of course
intend to call attention to it. There have been a number of
positive reactions—most often praising the “pictures” and sometimes
being affected by my autobiography, a couple of times by history
Heller: If you had your commercial art career to do
over, what would you change?
Vjecsner: I may have stayed in Prague longer,
where my career already had a successful start, and once
establishing a firmer reputation, I may have emigrated. But then
again, the communists took over just before I left, and there was
no telling what dangers I would have faced.
Dire times in post-WWI Germany spurred the creation of
notgeld, emergency money. Blechman looks back at the
inventive graphics of this illegal tender.
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