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Partner and principal at Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. for 30
years and designer of some of the most memorable posters and
definitive corporate-identity programs of the latter part of the
Steff Geissbuhler always knew he wanted to be a graphic designer
and says, “In Switzerland, you didn't have to explain to your
parents what that was.” Graphic design was, and is, integral to
Swiss culture. Geissbuhler and his school friends would peel
posters from the walls and columns of the town where they lived, by
designers such as Herbert Leupin, Celestino Piatti and Armin
Hofmann. They would steam apart the pasted clumps of posters in the
bathtub and then hang them to dry. Design also ran in Geissbuhler's
family: His godfather was a lithographer, his mother painted
porcelain and made her own tapestries and his maternal grandfather
was an architect. And, as if his chosen profession needed any
further blessing, his local school, with all tuition paid, happened
to be the Basel School of Design.
At Basel, under the tutelage of Emil Ruder, Donald Brun and Armin
Hofmann, Geissbuhler developed a predilection for illustration, as
well as typography. His first job was at J.R. Geigy, the
pharmaceutical company famous for its design department that, at
the time, was run by Max Schmid. The illustrative translations that
Geissbuhler had been schooled in at Basel perfectly suited the
representation of medical conditions and anatomy for use in Geigy
packaging, exhibitions and promotional literature. “I'm an
illustrator at heart,” says Geissbuhler. “If you look at any of my
logotypes, for Alvin Ailey or Crane or Time Warner, whether it's
people, birds, or eyes and ears, they are all illustrative.”
When Ken Hiebert, one of Geissbuhler's Basel classmates, was
appointed chair of graphic design at Philadelphia College of Art
(now The University of the Arts), he asked Geissbuhler for help in
developing the program. “We introduced a completely new thing
there,” recalls Geissbuhler, who served as chair of the department
from 1973 to 1975. Geissbuhler and Hiebert recruited colleagues
such as Inge Druckery, Keith Godard and Hans Alleman, and began to
move things away from a prevailing advertising bias. “We imported
the whole Swiss design philosophy, 'less is more,' and the
importance of typography, color and drawing.” During the seven and
one-half years he taught at the school, Geissbuhler also maintained
a freelance business working for Murphy, Levy, Wurman, Architects
and Urban Planners, in Philadelphia, and for George Nelson, whose
primary client at the time was Barneys in New York City.
Wanting to return to full-time practice, Geissbuhler moved to New
York City and spent a year designing corporate-identity systems at
Anspach Grossman Portugal (AGP). “I had a beautiful office with a
big tree in it,” Geissbuhler remembers. “And they offered me a
partnership.” But every night, as he left the AGP offices, he would
look across the street and into the window of another design firm,
Chermayeff & Geismar. The fact that the lights were on, and
that Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar were still working, was
intriguing to Geissbuhler. In 1975, he was invited to join the firm
as an associate, and two years later, he became a partner. “At
first, I was worried about how I would fit in with these two
designers who had been working together so long they were like a
married couple,” he says. It soon became clear, however, that he
worked well in their midst. “Like Ivan, I was doing illustrative
work with painting and drawing and ripped paper collages. And, like
Tom, I also had a refined sense of typography and a feeling for the
abstraction of symbols.” Just like the poster he designed for a
lecture, in which he used the “eff” of Chermayeff and the “Geis” of
Geismar from which to build his own name, Geissbuhler filled a gap
between the two partners.
During his 30 years as partner and principal of Chermayeff &
Geismar Inc., Geissbuhler designed a vast array of memorable and
imaginative posters, and some of the most defining
corporate-identity programs of the latter part of the 20th century.
Among the notable posters was the one in which a massive
silhouetted Godzilla and King Kong hold paws as they amble into the
sunset—a bittersweet signifier for peace between Japan and the
United States. His logotypes are familiar in households across the
United States and include the NBC peacock and the TimeWarner
conflation of an eye and ear, as well as enduring symbols for
National Public Radio, Telemundo, Union Pacific, Conrad Hotels,
CARE International, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Voice
of America, Radio Free Europe and MercyCorps.
Geissbuhler is a frequent lecturer at conferences and schools and
has served on the faculty at The Cooper Union in New York City. A
former president of AIGA's New York chapter and a national board
member, he is perceived as a leader within the international design
community for his tenure as U.S. president and director of
education for the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale.
In 2005, Chermayeff & Geismar's founding partners split off to
form a small creative studio, and Geissbuhler, with long-time
partners Keith Helmetag, Emanuela Frigerio and Jonathan Alger, will
continue to carry the legacy of the firm into the future as C&G
Geissbuhler is an unabashed modernist. “I totally embrace the good
old Bauhaus rules of reduction and clarification,” he says. At the
same time, he's still an illustrator and believes that “actual
symbols mean more today than abstractions. My NBC peacock still
works today because people relate to something they can understand
right away.” Driven by a need to make things that are meaningful
and appropriate, Geissbuhler always strives to answer the question,
to resolve the problem at hand, rather than to use a job as an
opportunity for personal expression.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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