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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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
Section: Inspiration -
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