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It would be difficult to imagine
contemporary American and European graphic design and illustration
without the presence of Seymour Chwast.
By the middle of the 1950s, as the Norman Rockwell epoch drew to
a close, Chwast was already known for his unique style of
illustration. His playful, expressive approach to type and layout
was the point of a new design wave based on revivalism—a radical
alternative to the Swiss formalism of the time. For over 30 years
he has continued to ride above the twists and turns of fashion;
today his art is even more energized and varied than when it
originally altered a generation's perceptions.
Chwast's work is widely recognized on posters, in books for
children and adults, magazines and advertisements. His strength is
not in rendering, like so many of the “sentimentalists” before him,
but in concept and design. A beguiling sense of humor underpins his
illustration, and a keen understanding of traditional design
governs his method. Chwast and his Push Pin colleagues helped
reintroduce the long divorced principles of illustration and
design. Moreover, he helped formulate a new graphic lexicon based
on knowledge, appreciation and reapplication of past styles and
forms—one that has had long term effects on graphic design.
Born in 1931 in The Bronx, New York, Chwast began drawing in
earnest at the age of seven, and soon attended WPA-sponsored art
classes. He became profoundly aware of the difference between
museum and street art and seemed to instinctively prefer the allure
of billboards and advertisements to Picassos and Mondrians.
Influenced by Walt Disney, the Sunday funnies and serial movies, he
gave life to his own cartoon heroes, including “Jim Lightning” and
“Lucky Day.” His family moved to Coney Island, where he was
enrolled in Abraham Lincoln High School. On the outside this was an
ordinary New York City public school, but inside it was a hotbed of
graphic design education.
Chwast was accepted as a member of the elite “Art Squad.” This
roving band of sign and poster artists was a spin-off of a graphic
design class taught by Leon Friend, teacher of such design notables
as Gene Federico and Alex Steinweiss. It was at Lincoln that Chwast
learned to appreciate type, graphic images and the possibilities of
commercial art. Friend believed that there was no greater glory for
an artist than to have his work printed, and demanded that his
students enter all competitions open to them. Chwast entered many.
At sixteen, his first illustration was published in a reader's
column in Seventeen magazine, art directed by Cipe
This early indoctrination in the applied arts was total and
unalterable. In 1948 Chwast entered New York's Cooper Union,
matriculating with Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser, with whom he
would found the Push Pin studio.
During the Cooper years Chwast was influenced by the graphic
work of Ben Shahn, Georg Grosz, Georges Rouault and Honoré Daumier.
The conceptual strength of these stylistically diverse but
like-spirited critical commentators was reflected in his own
penchant for expressive woodcuts. One of Chwast's earliest, and
still provocative, works in entitled The Book of Battle, a
handprinted, handbound and handcolored anti-war statement. The
social commitment shown in this book became a recurring theme. As
for his comic bent, Chwast's most direct antecedents were André
François and Saul Steinberg, masters of paradox and irony. A direct
link between their brand of cartoon/illustration and Chwast's
surreal comedy is still evident.
Because Cooper Union was tied to a fashionable abstract dogma at
that time, Chwast's education was as much one of rejection as of
acceptance. The realization that he couldn't paint—specifically in
the proscribed manner—and that he had no interest in creating
illusion for its own sake pushed him into more accessible artistic
realms. In their second school year, Chwast, Glaser and Reynold
Ruffins formed a studio called Design Plus. After completing two
jobs together (a flyer for a theatrical event and a children's
book) they went out of business.
If it would have been impossible to predict the eventual fruits
of the Design Plus collaboration, it would have been equally hard
to believe that Chwast would continue in graphic design after the
results of his first five jobs. Upon graduating from Cooper Union
he worked for a year in The New York Times promotion
department where, under the tutelage of art director George
Krikorian, Chwast learned the principles of typography and was
given design and illustration assignments. Subsequent jobs,
however, weren't as satisfactory. A string of failures began with a
bullpen post at Esquire magazine (fired because he
couldn't do comps). Finally, during a stint in Condé Nast's art
department Chwast began to solicit freelance work.
Together with Ruffins and Sorel, Chwast produced a promotional
piece designed to show prospective clients that ideas were as
central to design and illustration as was rendering. The result was
a semi-regular publication called the Push Pin Almanack.
Based on the Farmer's Almanac, each issue included
drawing, text and trivia with a specific theme. At the time there
were a few other “continuity” promotions, but none so ambitious or
inventive as the Almanack. It brought in enough freelance
work that Chwast and Sorel (who had recently returned from studies
in Italy) decided to form a studio which they christened Push Pin.
Chwast credits Glaser for realizing that a studio would offer
greater long range possibilities for the individuals involved.
In 1954 it was possible to start a business with very little
capital. Push Pin's rent was low, and a pay phone served their
business needs. Illustration assignments for educational slide
shows and rendering for package design proposals provided a
respectable cash flow. After salaries were paid to the assistant
and secretary, each studio member took home $25 a week.
The Push Pin approach took time to evolve. While studio members
would work together on design projects, editorial illustration was
individual. A collective impulse to broaden the boundaries of
accepted methods and to unify design and illustration was the
impetus to rename and expand the Almanack into the
Push Pin Graphic. From the outset this visually exuberant
periodical caused a stir in the design community. It was not only
an effective means of showing off the studio's talents, but proved
to be a major influence on the design and art direction of the late
Fifties and early Sixties, specifically in the convergence of
illustration and design. A minor, yet interesting, graphic
development which attests to the impact of the Graphic
occurred when Chwast and Glaser placed all the art in one issue in
boxes with rounded corners. Within weeks rounded corners were
adopted by others as a motif in magazines and ads.
Because of its eclecticism, which was influenced by venerable
design styles including Victoriana and Art Nouveau, some critics
accused Push Pin of contributing to the demise of modernism. Push
Pin was, in fact, creating contemporary contexts for once viable
forms, foreshadowing the Post-Modernism of the Eighties but not
purposefully reacting to current practices or theories. Chwast
recalls that he gave up woodcuts in the Sixties because the
expressionistic vocabulary had lost its vitality. Clients were
asking for certain looks and moods, and Chwast saw his role as
fulfilling this need. For example, Victoriana was associated with
the Push Pin look, but it was just one of those styles coming into
vogue. Chwast's “roxy” look (which was what he called Art Deco
before he knew that it had a real name) derived from Steinberg's
graphic musings. Rather than mimicking the past, Chwast was more
interested in adapting, integrating and making it contemporary.
What became known as the Push Pin Style—the distinctive, eclectic
union of illustration and design—derived, according to Chwast, not
from premeditation but from the requisites of the assignments
themselves. It was a desire to state the client's message in as
personal yet as accessible a vocabulary as possible. Although
Chwast says that both he and the studio were swept along with the
“pop thing” of the Sixties—bright colors and stylized outline
drawings—such a statement tends to diminish the significance of his
innovative instincts and savvy applications.
Push Pin was on the cutting edge of popular art. The studio's
approach was consistent with other changes in the culture, and
often served to visually represent them. This was manifest in the
highly visible, mass media jobs, including book jackets, record
covers, posters, advertisements and magazine covers. Despite this
intense visibility, Push Pin was more influential than it was
wealthy. Unlike large corporate design firms servicing ongoing and
lucrative identity programs, Push Pin was working on an
assignment-to-assignment basis. One reason was that the diverse
nature of their collective work was anathema to accepted rules of
corporate image. Push Pin brokered best in the realm of what might
be called editorial ideas.
During the mid- to late-Sixties Push Pin was a magnet for
designers and illustrators, including James McMullan, Paul Davis,
Barry Zaid, Sam Antupit, John Alcorn and George Stavrinos. While
decidedly influenced by Push Pin's strong graphic personality,
these members also contributed their own approaches to the studio.
This collaborative environment has been a significant model for
The historic exhibition at the Louvre's Musée des Arts
Decorativs in 1970 underscored the institutionalization of Push
Pin. It was the first time an American design studio was honored in
this way. Critics applauded Push Pin for its non-conformity, and
voiced surprise that “such work would be supported by a capitalist
system.” The show traveled throughout Europe and to Brazil and
codified the notion of a “Push Pin Style,” which was not a
definable style so much as a spirit based on humor, play
and surprise. In the light of this attention the studio was more
visible to the world than was Chwast as an individual. Though this
may have caused him some concern, the studio's accomplishments were
a greater source of pride. Push Pin offered, and continues to
offer, variety, challenge and growth. Despite his solitary nature,
Chwast thrived on collaboration. Yet it is very easy to pick out
his contributions to the studio work of the Sixties and early
Seventies, such as his outstanding series of Dostoyevsky paperback
covers. Chwast's approach—regardless of media—was always humorous
and aggressive without being crass. His virtuosity has always been
demonstrated in his ability to master both elegance and pop.
In 1975 Glaser left Push Pin, ending their 20-year
collaboration. Chwast, however, felt that he hadn't exhausted his
need for, or interest in, the studio. He continued as Push Pin's
director with Phyllis Flood in charge of managing and marketing the
studio. Together they formed a company to develop and market a line
of candies called “Pushpinoff.” Keeping with the Push Pin's
tradition, Chwast hired talented designers, many of whom regarded
Push Pin Graphic as a magazine, and published it on a
regular basis for five years. Thematic issues, including Mothers,
the Condensed History of the World, Crime and Food, New Jersey, and
Chicken, served as an outlet for Chwast's creative obsessions as
well as being a showcase for other members of the studio. Chwast
also began something of a poster renaissance through his
assignments from Forbes Magazine and Mobil. During this
time Push Pin Press was founded as a means to package books that
appealed to Chwast's playfulness. He designed The Illustrated
Cat (the first wave in the tide of feline publications),
The Illustrated Flower and Robot, among others. The press
was then replaced by Push Pin Editions, for which he was co-author
of The Art of New York, Art Against War and Happy
Birthday, Bach (which is so stylistically rich and varied with
his own illustrations that it will serve the design historian as a
complete record of Chwast's range). Chwast had always been enamored
with the conceptual children's book, exemplified by his Tall
City, Wide Country, one of over twenty children's books he has
either written or illustrated.
Despite a certain satisfaction with the status quo, Chwast was
convinced that Push Pin had to become more catholic in its practice
and expand into packaging, corporate and environmental design. In
1981 he joined with Alan Peckolick to found Pushpin Lubalin
Peckolick, subsequently renamed The Pushpin Group. He and Peckolick
collaborated on projects with a wide range of applications. With
Murry Gelberg as environmental designer, for instance, they
designed the log, signage, packaging and interiors for Quotes, a
new chain of shoe stores.
In 1984 Chwast was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of
Fame, and in 1985 a retrospective collection, Seymour Chwast:
The Left-Handed Designer, was published by Harry N.
A famous illustrator once said about changing his practice from
the applied to fine arts: “Illustration is a young man's game.” If
that is true then Chwast has discovered a fountain of youth. While
at times he relies on tried and true methods, he has more sparks of
inspiration and longer fires of brilliance than most younger
colleagues. No one can argue with his influence on illustration or
his breakthroughs in design. His palette and design forms were new
wave when most new wavers were still fingerpainting. But Seymour
Chwast is anything but fashionable. His commitment to social and
political issues has not swayed in the breeze of ideological
reaction. And more important, his art for commerce and his creative
art are as fresh and uncompromised as when he first put pen to
Copyright 1986 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.
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