The name Lionni conjures many mental references: “The Family of Man,” Swimmy the fish, Century Schoolbook Expanded, exotic flora, Olivetti and more, because the man behind the name has affected our visual “landscape” for almost three generations. He has been a committed teacher, author, critic, editor, painter, sculptor, printmaker, designer, cartoonist and illustrator.
Leo Lionni was born in Holland in 1910, into a world on the cusp of radical change—with cultural and political revolutions in the air and on the streets. His father was an artisan, a diamond cutter from a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family, and his mother was a singer. Her brother, Piet, an architect, allowed his adoring, five-year-old nephew to play with his drafting supplies. And two other uncles, both collectors of modern art (whose extensive collections are now held by major museums), fed his artistic inclinations by osmosis. One uncle refused to pay taxes in Holland, and hence was only able to live in the country six months minus one day. Part of his collection was stored a Lionni's house, including Marc Chagall's “Fiddler” which hung outside his bedroom.
At that time, Amsterdam's government was influenced by a Socialist party whose ideas underpinned a progressive educational system. “There was great emphasis on nature, art and crafts,” recalls Lionni. “In an early grade I was taught to draw from a big plaster cast of an ivy leaf; I remember rendering all of the shading with cross-hatched lines. There was something magical about it. I can still draw that leaf today, and probably not better than I did then.
He was given a permit to draw at the Rijksmuseum where he drew from casts. ”Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondrian, design, architecture, even music,“ explains Lionni, ”were one big mood to me. Except for brief periods of artisan enthusiasm, I have denied cultural hierarchies. Ancient art is as important to me as contemporary art. Art is as important as design.“
Lionni moved to Philadelphia at 14, and in 1925 was transplanted again to Genoa, Italy. Unable to get in to a ”classical“ high school, he was enrolled in a ”commercial“ one (no Greek was taught in the latter). He learned Italian and became conversant in its art, literature and poetry. But most significantly, at the age of 16, Lionni discovered Italian politics through his friendship with Nora Maffi, who later became his wife and lifelong companion. Nora's father was one of the founders of the Italian Communist party, and was imprisoned in 1925 by the Fascists. Later he was placed under house arrest with six live-in Fascist policemen. ”This was quite a shock, having come from a happy Philadelphia school, where I played basketball and went to proms. It fell on my head like a bomb, and conditioned my life enormously.“
Lionni was conscious of wanting to become a graphic designer. He created signs for ships and produced his own comp advertisements for Campari, which were presented to Mr. Campari himself. But, most important, he came under the influence of Futurism, which as a movement of painting and graphic design was at its height.
By 1921, at the age of 21, Lionni was on the crest of the second Futurist wave. ”I was living the life of the avant-garde: We had blue plastic furniture and Breuer chairs.“ He was painting turbulent abstract pictures typical of the era, but his work had a flair of its own—so much so that it caught the eye of F.T. Marinetti, codifier of the Movement, who pronounced the young Lionni to be 'A great Futurist.'
Thanks to Marinetti's support, Lionni's paintings were exhibited in shows throughout Italy. On the eve of one such exhibition, Marinetti received a portentous telegram announcing that the Bauhaus had been closed by the Nazis. ”We sat up the entire night,“ recalls Lionni, ”and decided to send a telegram back inviting all the Bauhaus artists to Italy, and offered our homes for them to stay in indefinitely.“ Not only was Lionni indignant and fearful about Nazi repression, but the Bauhaus teachings were deeply seeded—its rational philosophy his true underpinning. ”I never really felt comfortable as a Futurist, even though Marinetti proclaimed me to be 'the heir of aero-dynamic painting.' I actually resented it; I had never even been in an airplane before. I am really Dutch. I felt closer to DeStijl, and I responded to the patterns and symmetry of the tulip fields. In fact, I rarely ever put type or image on angles unless there was a good reason to do it. My ultimate design influence is the Bauhaus, although I've never been directly connected with them.“
With the birth of the first of two sons, Lionni decided to move the family to Milan, the hotbed of the Italian avant-garde. ”We were the first tenants to live in the first rationally designed apartment building in Milan. There I made a living doing graphic design, architectural photography and some advertising with a friend who was a German refugee.“
Later in Milan, the earliest marriage of easel and applied art can be traced to ads Lionni did for a wool company, and ad pages done for Domus magazine. He also began writing architectural criticism for the renowned magazine, Casabella. He worked closely with Eduardo Persico, a hero in anti-Fascist circles, who had a marked influence on Lionni's writing and design. ”Persico not only edited the magazine, he 'designed' it as well. It never looked more beautiful,“ remembers Lionni. ”I watched him do layouts that, I would say, reflected rationalism—and rationalism has been the greatest influence on my life.“
Lionni soon devoted himself to advertising design, ”simply for the joy of putting good imagery onto pages,“ he says. He also attended the University of Genoa, from which he received a Doctorate degree in Economics in 1935. ”I wrote my dissertation on the diamond industry, of course,“ he says. ”I finished something for which I had no real use, but my obsessive necessity to finish what I begin caused me to do it.“
When a darker specter of Fascism began to shroud Italy, Lionni, ordered by official decree to declare whether or not he was Aryan, opted instead to emigrate to the United States. He went to Philadelphia to N.W. Ayer, the advertising agency which handled the account for Atlantic Refining Company (the company for whom his father was working). A fortuitous meeting with Charles Coiner, vice president and art director, was the beginning of a career and a friendship. Coiner arranged for Leo to do some ads for Ladies Home Journal. Later he had Lionni teaching a layout course at the Charles Morris Prince School. ”At the time I knew nothing about typography,“ he admits, ”because in Italy all we had to do was indicate a block of text and the printer would fit in whatever was on hand.“
The classic break came in the early Forties when N.W. Ayer was in the throes of crisis with its multimillion dollar Ford Motors account. Ford was not happy with the new ad proposals. All members in the creative pool were asked to offer solutions, so Lionni created a series of ads which were to be scrutinized by Edsel Ford. Word later came back that Lionni had the job. In one week, he went from a $50 a week assistant to a $500 a week art director on one of the largest accounts in the United States. Offers from prestigious New York agencies followed, but he stayed in Philadelphia until 1947. ”It was the ideal place to be. Where we lived, I could go out at five o'clock in the morning to fish for trout before going to work.“ Challenging accounts came his way. Comptometer was one, for which he commissioned drawings by Saul Steinberg. He hired a neophyte Andy Warhol to do sketches for Regal Shoes. And for Chrysler Plymouth, he developed a unique, teaser billboard presentation, which is still a model of creative marketing.
Among Lionni's most exciting endeavors was being the art director for the Container Corporation's ”International Series.“ He returned to his Modernist roots, commissioning Morre, Calder, DeKooning and others to do posters and ads. For one such project, Léger, who was then living in New York, was asked to do a painting, which he did in color. When Lionni showed it to Walter Paepcke, he was asked if Léger would also do it in black and white as a newspaper ad. Lionni drew up a copy in line which he showed to Léger. Seeing the ”rough,“ the painter said 'That's as good as I would do it,' and signed the Lionni sketch, which was later printed.
Lionni continued painting, and he took a year off to study and work on mosaics. But ”in 1948 I started to get restless,“ he remembers. There was a subtle difference between being an advertising designer and a graphic designer, and Lionni wanted to become ”a general practitioner of the arts.“ He left the agency, moved to New York, and opened a small office. ”I called the promotion art director at Fortune, whom I had dealt with in the past, to ask for work. Instead, he told me that Fortune was looking for an art director and asked if I was interested.“ While it was an alluring offer, Lionni wasn't looking for a job. ”I told them I would do it on a freelance basis, three days a week, and that I wanted an assistant who would go to all the meetings.“ Fortune readily agreed, and after a brief trout fishing vacation, Lionni began his 14-year relationship with Time/Life.
Lionni's feelings for magazine design are profound. Though he had never designed a magazine before, ”it fit me like an old shoe, because it brought everything that I had learned with passion to some kind of concrete manifestation. I employed my rationality in designing its architecture. As with all the arts I'd been involved with, I defined exactly what Fortune's limitations were—what it was and wasn't. That to me is a real Bauhaus approach.“ Lionni redesigned Fortune two times. In each case, he eschewed cold functionality for a more human approach. He introduced Century Schoolbook, his favorite type. ”I don't know much about type but Century Schoolbook is a human face.“
From its inception, Fortune was known for its intelligent use of art, both fine and applied. During Lionni's tenure, painters were encouraged to do illustrations and picture essays, and illustrators were commissioned as graphic journalists—not as renderers of proscribed imagery, but free to draw upon and interpret firsthand experiences. Lionni urged artists ”to do things which they were not accustomed to doing.“ Hence, many young talented practitioners, and quite a few masters of the pen and brush received globe-trotting assignments. Today many artists credit the nurturing Lionni as a seminal influence.
Lionni consulted with Henry Luce on many Time/Life projects, including a prototype design for Sports Illustrated. He also maintained outside clients, including The Museum of Modern Art, for whom he did The Family of Man catalogue design, and as design director for Olivetti, he did ads, brochures and environmental (showroom) design. Also in the realm of the third dimension, Lionni deigned the American Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. Sponsored by Fortune and titled ”Unfinished Business,“ it was a long tunnel in which were shown images representing the unresolved problems of American society. Ironically, it was abruptly closed after a visiting Congressman objected to its controversial negative focus.
Perhaps the most satisfying accomplishment of Lionni's career was his short tenure as co-editor and art director of Print. During the mid-Fifties, he elevated graphic design commentary and criticism, offering a platform for varying disciplines and points-of-view. He opened up the design community—then as now polarized between the classicists and the modernists—to possibility and invention, through in-depth coverage of international trends and national currents. Print was an example of Lionni's rationalism in the service of his colleagues and his art. ”I've looked back on those issues,“ he says proudly, ”and they are very civilized.“
The notion of creating ”civilized and human“ art became Lionni's obsession. After all his tangible accomplishments, ”I felt the only way I could really reach my goal was by doing painting, sculpture, writing and graphics the way I wanted to do it.“ His professional career, except for the few found moments to study mosaics, had been in the service of others. ”Everything I had done was a happy compromise that I've never felt ashamed of in the least.“
But the time had come for movement. At 50 years old, at the peak of his endeavors, Lionni left Time/Life. He moved to Italy where he owned a house and life was less expensive. ”Everyone thought I was crazy because I had very little money, but it was what I needed to do.“
Lionni's fate, however, was not sealed by a seemingly irrational act, for just before he was ready to leave on his new adventure, a remarkable accident took place while he was riding on a commuter train with his grandchildren. To entertain them, he tore little bits of colored papers from Life magazine and made a magical story. Lionni returned home, he placed what he'd done into a book dummy. Fabio Coen, who had just become children's book editor of Obolensky Inc., published it as ”Little Blue and Little Yellow,“ and Lionni became a picture book author. Now with 30 books to his credit, and a 75th birthday anthology that will be published this year, he is a household name among parents and children. For Lionni, the children's book is an organic synthesis of all his talents, beliefs and obsessions, wedding as it does his artistic sense of humor, color and abstraction with the desire to teach. Bruno Bettelheim states in an introduction to the recent anthology that Lionni ”is an artist who has retained his ability to think primarily in images, and who can create true picture books.“ And he continues: ”It is the true genius of the artist which permits him to create picture images that convey much deeper meaning than what is overtly depicted.“
Despite his resolution to devote himself to painting and sculpture, Lionni agreed when Time/Life contacted him in Italy to become editor/art director of Panorama, a monthly general interest magazine, a collaboration between Time/Life in New York and Mondadori in Milan. He enjoyed being in charge, and hence published some extraordinary work. Yet the position was fraught with ”political“ problems from the outset. ”Mondadori couldn't understand why Time/Life installed a impaginatore (layout man) as the editor of an important magazine,“ Lionni ruefully recalls, ”and after a year and a half I was replaced, the American collaboration ceased, and the magazine was turned into a weekly, now one of the highest circulation journals in Italy.“
From that time on, Lionni has taken advantage of his freedom. Living in Italy six months of the year, he continues to expand the boundaries of the children's book, while exploring the natural world through his drawings and sculpture. In recent years, he has cast in bronze a garden of strange flora, which was derived from his imagination. In 1977, he published ”parallel Botany,“ a satiric documentary account of his bizarre botanical discoveries.
Lionni has left an impressive mark. As an art director at N.W. Ayer, he wedded fine art to applied art. As co-editor of Print, he elevated the level of graphic design criticism. As art director of Fortune, he launched the careers of many formidable practitioners. As a children's book author and artist, he has engaged the minds and hearts of several generations. His own graphic endeavors are enlivened by youthful innocence, sage-like logic and humor. His astute essays on the teaching and practice of graphic design are invaluable additions to the lexicon of the field. Moreover, in word and deed, he has been an unfaltering rationalist, a devout humanist and a passionate artist.
Copyright 1984 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.