2003 AIGA MEDAL
“I feel as if I'm shining shoes.” B. Martin Pedersen, owner, publisher and creative director of the design profession's most beloved publishing house, Graphis Inc., is sitting in his impeccably neat office above Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. The items on his expansive black desk are a testament to his preoccupation with the economics of his business: binder files containing reports from book distributors, a calculator and a laptop displaying an Excel accounting spreadsheet. “This business is very sensitive to the economy,” he says. “I have almost folded the operation on two occasions.” A glass cabinet that runs along one wall holds copies of the 150 books and annuals he has produced since he bought the company from its founder, Walter Herdeg, in 1986.
Shoe shining seems a strangely pedestrian choice of analogy for such a globally revered graphic design dignitary—Pedersen was elected into the Art Directors Hall of Fame in 1997, is a member of AGI and has a 4-decade-long career spangled with more than 300 industry awards. Yet shoe shining is just one of many services, crafts and trades that he evokes with the utmost sincerity when describing both his design and business philosophy—boat building, construction work and package tying are among the others. Pedersen does not subscribe to the secluded and tortured artist school of graphic design. Instead, his approach is rooted in relationships, high standards and long hours.
“My father taught me about hard work,” says Pedersen. “He and his partner could frame a house in two days,” he says, leaning over his desk. “You know how they did it? It was systems management. I learned how to lay out the two-by-fours here, the four-by-sixes there, in the shape of a frame, so. They taught me to care about the details. When the job was finished I had to clean up. The first time I swept up and I thought I'd finished, it was pointed out to me that the last stage of the process was with a brush and piece of cardboard to pick up the sawdust that was left in the corners. They did everything with purpose and quality.” Pedersen relates this episode with obvious relish. “I believe in the process of apprenticeship.”
Jack Summerford, of Summerford Design Inc., attests to his ethic: “The guy is not human. He can work all night and hop a plane to Europe the next morning. He has run marathons, sailed ships in rough seas and he returns his phone calls.” And designer and educator Lou Danziger portrays Pedersen the perfectionist: “I admire his consistent dedication to quality whether in his work as a designer or as a publisher. There never seems to be any evidence of compromise anywhere.”
Does this pursuit of precision cause him problems professionally? “Constantly,” he replies gravely, before his face crinkles into a warm, seductive smile. Far from being incidental to his work as a designer, Pedersen's Nordic good looks—he is a tall, slim 66-year-old with groomed white hair, a clean-shaven open-seeming face and pale blue eyes—and his earnest affability are, in fact, integral parts of his ethos and, by extension, his design. Massimo Vignelli says of Pedersen, “His elegance, his handsomeness, his manners, are so distinctive and so suave that one is always spellbound in front of him, taken by his voice and the way he tells stories. His work is like him: perfect, pleasant, incisive.”
Pedersen sends out congratulatory letters and thankyou notes the old-fashioned way, on paper, and signed with a blue ink Lamy pen. When people call him, he makes them feel as if theirs is the call he has been hoping for all day. He is a loyal friend and remembers favors bestowed upon him with unfading gratitude. He gives illustrators false deadlines so that, once he sees they've cracked the assignment, he can bestow the gift of extra time. All this warmth is infectious. When I remark that he's a man who truly understands human nature, he laughs. “Yes, but it didn't happen overnight.”
Bjarne Martin Pedersen grew up in rural southwest Norway. During the war, the Germans, who were occupying Norway, built an airfield a runway's length from the Pedersens' farm. He remembers seeing the British bomber planes as they attacked that airfield—the impact of each bomb “like a punch in the chest”—and then, after curfew, playing in the broken-down planes. The Pedersens moved to Brooklyn in 1948. Bjarne was 12 years old, “skinny as a rail” and couldn't speak a word of English. No one could pronounce his first name, so he edited it down to a more manageable “B,” and channeled his shyness and insecurity into his studies. He was especially good at mathematics and sciences, and won a place at the esteemed Brooklyn Tech, whose alumni of note include Harvey Lichtenstein, president of Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Leonard Riggio, founder and CEO of Barnes & Noble. He intended to be a civil engineer but after a short stint with American Bridge, the company responsible for the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, he became disillusioned by the lack of hands-on craft involved in the job.
One summer when Pedersen was working at a yacht club in Larchmont, New York, he met an executive from the Benton & Bowles advertising agency. Pleased with the meticulous work young Pedersen had done on his boat, the executive offered him a job in the mailroom at the renowned agency. Pedersen's beautifully constructed packages (he learned the art from watching the wrappers at Bloomingdale's during his lunch hours) attracted the attention of the art directors and soon he was promoted to doing paste-up presentations for the likes of Gene Federico. “You know the scene in Saturday Night Fever, when Travolta looks longingly across the river at Manhattan? Well I had felt the same way, but now I was here—at number 666 Fifth Avenue—and loving it,” says Pedersen. “I was absorbing the advertising annuals and going to the School of Visual Arts at night. Why at night? Because that's when the pros taught.”
By the time he set up his own design company, at the age of 30, Pedersen had served on a destroyer escort in the Cuban missile crisis and on a destroyer in the Berlin crisis, worked as a ski instructor in Vermont, attempted to be a painter with the requisite air mattress and garret apartment, taken positions at major design and advertising studios, worked in the famously Helvetica- and gridpurveying design department at Geigy Pharmaceuticals, and had been corporate design director of American Airlines. He insists that earning his Coast Guard license for 200-ton sail, steam or motor vessels, as well as his pilot's license with an instrument rating—aside from providing him with different perspectives of the world, quite literally—was actually part of his backup plan in case no one called the newly inaugurated Pedersen Design Inc.
The phone did ring of course, as the work printed on these pages attests. Pedersen's love of boats and his frustration with the poor visual quality of boating magazines led him in 1976 to initiate his own subscriber-supported image-rich publication called Nautical Quarterly. With only a shoestring budget to work with, Pedersen improvised using press type in 72-point Aachen Bold for the headlines that he would then photostat to whatever size was needed. He asked photographers to consider the boats as works of sculpture. He then exploited contrasts of scale, form and detail between the images on spreads and between the Quarterly's cover image and the image on its hard slipcase. The resulting publication delighted subscribers and astounded the design community.
In 1977, Pedersen entered a unique and decade-long partnership with Vance Jonson in Connecticut, and Kit and Linda Hinrichs, who worked in San Francisco. When, in 1978, Neil Shakery added an ampersand and his name to the masthead, Jonson, Pedersen, Hinrichs & Shakery, Inc., with its 33 characters, became, as their cheeky announcement put it, the “biggest name in design.” This bicoastal alliance—each of them running their own business independently but collaborating on certain projects—swept up every accolade in the industry in the late '70s and early '80s. Then one evening at an Art Directors Club award ceremony, they received fewer awards than usual, Pedersen remembers. “Graphic design is about style or fashion and there comes a point when you no longer have the contemporary look.”
Unlike many designers who regard the client as the enemy, intent only on quashing their vision, Pedersen relishes collaboration with people he respects. “I have problems with people who say, 'My client just doesn't understand what I've done,'” he says. “It's a fallacy to believe that just because we work in the arts, we're the only ones who are creative. There are clients who, in my opinion, are far more creative than many people in this community. For example, once a designer develops a look or a style and applies it to every job, that's no longer creative; it's just process.”
Having served on a number of “highly political” juries over the years, Pedersen is glad that he has continued in Herdeg's footsteps as the sole arbiter of quality at Graphis. With the design of the annuals, however, he takes a backseat. “The Graphis books present the work and my design has no place on those pages,” Pedersen affirms. “The quality of the annuals is the work presented; it has nothing to do with my formatting.”
Of the role of Graphis today, he says he is “continuously surprised at the extraordinary, creative achievements in graphic design, advertising, illustration and photography. Graphis is here to make sure that these individuals are published and that their work will become an inspiration to both the professional and business communities.”
Pedersen, who began his career inspired by an Art Directors Club annual that someone in the Benton & Bowles art department gave him, continues to believe in the importance of professional measuring sticks such as design competitions and annuals. “Awards provide a gauge,” he says. “They are also pats on the back. It is such a difficult industry to achieve good work in; anyone who has managed deserves to be lauded.” As a synopsis of the reasons for the design community's celebration of Marty Pedersen via the 2003 AIGA Medal, Jack Summerford's comment is apt in its plain-speak: “He is a great designer who now publishes other people's great design.”