Rudolph de Harak

1992 AIGA Medal
1924, Culver City, California

If Modernism imposes coldness and sterility, as some critics have argued, then Rudolph de Harak must be doing something wrong. A devout Modernist, his work for public and private institutions is uncompromisingly human. For proof, take 127 John Street, a typically Modern skyscraper in New York City's financial district. Before de Harak designed its entrance-level façade it exuded all the warmth of glass and steel on a winter's day. But with the installation of his three-storey-high digital clock (comprised of 72 square modules with numerals that light according to date, hour, minute and second); the mysterious neon-illuminated tunnel leading to the building's entrance; and the bright, canvas-covered, permanent scaffolds that serve as both protection and sundecks, 127 John Street was transformed form a Modern edifice into a veritable playground.

De Harak's innovative addition to the John Street building enlivened a faceless street, and likewise his inspired exhibition designs for museums and expositions have transformed didactic displays into engaging environments. Dedicated to the efficient communication of information, de Harak uses detail the way a composer scores musical notes, creating melodies of sensation to underscore meaning. His exhibits are indeed symphonies that both enlighten and entertain. His exploded diesel engine, the centerpiece of the Cummins Engine Museum in Columbus, Indiana, in which almost every nut and bolt is deconstructed in midair, is evidence of the designer's keen ability for extracting accessible information from even the most minute detail. And yet while his exhibition design explores the rational world, his graphic design uncovers the subconscious.

Although de Harak deliberately uses neutral typography to anchor his design, the hundreds of book jackets, record covers, and posters he has created since opening a design office in 1952, is evidence that he also expresses emotion through type and image. While not the raw expressionism of today's most fashionable designers, de Harak employs abstract form ever so subtly to unlock alternative levels of perception. He relates this practice to Abstract Expressionism, which in the early Fifties he wholeheartedly embraced; and while this may be difficult to see amid his orthodox, systematic design, the nearly 350 covers he designed for McGraw-Hill Paperbacks in the early Sixties brings this relationship into sharp focus. De Harak's rigid grid is, in fact, a tabula rasa on which rational and eccentric imagery together evoke inner feelings. The conceptual themes of these books—philosophy, anthropology, psychology and sociology, among them—offered de Harak a proving ground to test the limits of conceptual art and photography. At the same time, he experimented with a variety of approaches inspired by Dada, Abstract Expressionism, and ultimately Op-Art movements.

His on-the-job research helped push the design practice towards an art-based theory. First as a teacher and later as the Frank Stanton Professor of Design, for a quarter century at the Cooper Union, and visiting professor at Yale, Alfred University, Parsons, Pratt Institute and other schools, de Harak influenced scores of young designers to build upon the Modernist canon. But attaining his own eminence did not come easily. Waving the Modernist banner, even in the early Fifties when the International Style was embraced by key corporations, did not insure that he would receive lucrative commissions. Consumed by Modern principles that were devised in pre- and post-war Europe, de Harak became an iconoclast with an uncompromising belief in both the rightness of form and his own methodology, which did not earn him many clients in those early days. In fact, the paucity of steady work during the formative years caused him to switch from design to photography to earn a living. The illustrious multi-disciplinary career that is celebrated with this year's AIGA Medal developed painstakingly over time.

Born in Culver City, California of April 10, 1924, Rudolph de Harak had a peripatetic early childhood and adolescence. During his pre-teens, his family moved to New York City where he later attended the New York City School of Industrial Arts and learned some basic commercial art practices. He attended this trade school because he was interested in drawing and was less at ease with academic studies. Graduation coincided with World War II, and he was drafted into the infantry. But upon being discharged he returned to Los Angeles, where, out of work and uncertain about his future, he was encouraged by an employment counselor to take advantage of his artistic leanings and accept an apprenticeship at a small art service/advertising agency. There he began honing his craft first as a mechanical artist, and then making layouts and illustrations. One of his ads was entered into the Los Angeles Art Directors Club competition and won an award. This was a defining moment: De Harak was so amazed that he could get acclaim for something that also earned him a living that he decided to seriously pursue graphic design in a manner that would ultimately consume his life.

De Harak's future course was also profoundly influenced by two lectures at the Art Center School given in the late Forties by Will Burtin, the German master of information and exhibition design, and Gyorgy Kepes, the Hungarian designer and author of Language of Vision. “These experiences had a profound effect on my life. The first was a lecture by Will Burtin—”Integration: The New Discipline in Design.“ Burtin not only spoke about design and communications, but he presented an exhibition of his work, which moved the viewer through a series of experiences which were described as the four principal realities of visual communication: The reality of man, as measure and measurer; the reality of light, color, texture; the reality of space, motion, time; the reality of science. He was the first person I had heard use the term 'visual communications.' A short time later, I also had the opportunity of hearing Gyorgy Kepes. At the time I didn't fully understand everything he had to say; yet, I knew that his words were very important to me, and I recall my excitement, as I was able to draw parallels between what he was saying about the plastic arts and what Will Burtin had said concerning the realities of visual communications.

Shortly after Kepe's lecture, de Harak and six other designers, including Saul Bass, Alvin Lusting and Lou Danziger, founded the Los Angeles Society for Contemporary Designers. De Harak explained that the reasons for forming it was a matter of survival: “We were a young, very enthusiastic group trying to function in a desert, which is what Los Angeles was at that times.” In fact, with the notable exceptions of charter members Bass, who was making inroads in motion picture advertising and Lustig, who was doing innovative book and book jacket designs, Los Angeles was not known for its progressivism. Since de Harak did not believe that the future would be any brighter he moved back East in 1950.

His first job in New York was as promotion art director of Seventeen magazine, then located at 11 West 42nd Street, where coincidentally Will Burtin also had an office. “I didn't get to meet him until 13 years later when we became good friends,” de Harak says. Seventeen soon moved to 488 Madison Avenue—the Look Building—which was a hotbed of publishing and advertising activity. Not only were Look, where Alan Hurlburt was art director, and Coronet headquartered in the modernistic, step-backed structure, but so was the Weintraub Agency where Paul Rand was art director, Esquire, where Henry Wolf was art director, and Seventeen itself, where Art Kane was art director. De Harak, Wolf and Kane were all friends and deeply interested in photography. On weekends they would take photographs and discuss design together.

De Harak's ideas about design were still being formulated, and the uneven quality of his Seventeen promotions revealed certain growing pains. And yet because he was intent of formulating a direction, a personality was beginning to emerge. De Harak has a vivid memory of this early stage: “Around 1950, I was particularly influenced by Alvin Lustig and Saul Bass, who were poles apart. Bass, who was a very content-conscious designer, would get a strong idea and put together a beautiful design based on that idea. Lustig, on the other hand, was a strong formalist, much less concerned with content, but deeply interested in developing forms and relating the type to them. I too went off in that direction and [became] dedicated to the concept of form. I was always looking for the hidden order, trying to somehow either develop new forms or manipulate existing form. Therefore, I think my work was more obscure, and certainly very abstract. Sometimes it was hard for me to understand why [my solutions] fell short. But one thing I did, was to sharpen my design sensibilities to the point that my work generally fell into a purist category.”

Purism was not, however, an extremely marketable methodology in the crassly commercial post-war culture. Frustrated by the limitations that business had placed on him, de Harak stayed at Seventeen for only 18 months, and then did a stint at an advertising agency for about four months, the last full-time job he would ever take. “I think it was too hard for me to work for somebody. It's not that I didn't want to, but I was very strong in my convictions and the way I wanted to work is antithetical to the way most advertising agencies think. Actually, I didn't take direction too well. Therefore, going out on my own was a choice of necessity, not so much something I wanted to do.”

A few commissions came de Harak's way. Eventually, the most long-term was a 20-year relationship with the Kurt Versen Lighting Company designing the trademark, house style, packaging and catalogs. Yet de Harak's most public work in the early 1950s were the monthly illustrations that Henry Wolf assigned him to do for Esquire. These little “design illustrations, a kind of 1950s Dada,” as de Harak refers to them, married conceptual and formal thinking; they were collages comprised of photographs, drawings and found materials which he juxtaposed in rebus-like compositions and then rendered as composite photographs. These gems of abstract illustration were like jazz improvisations. At the same time de Harak was improvising with various photographic methods, such as photograms and reticulating processes, that were ultimately used, not coincidentally, in his work for Columbia, Oxford, Circle and Westminster record covers, all of which were also his labs for typographic experimentation.

With one eye on the International Style, the other was focused on pushing the boundaries of letterform composition. Following in the tradition of 1920s poetic typography, de Harak imposed his own levels of legibility through experimentation with various forms of letter and word spacing.

For all his efforts, de Harak was finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet from design alone. In 1952 he began a long tenure at Cooper Union teaching what in those days was called “advertising” design. “I hadn't been a designer long, but what I lacked in experience I made up for in enthusiasm and commitment,” he says. And many former students agree that he brought intelligence and excitement, free of dogma, to teaching both the process and ethic of design. And yet by 1955 business was so bad that he decided to put together a photographic portfolio which did earn him more work shooting many fashion still lifes, and set-up assignments for Esquire, Apparel Arts and various ad agencies. But he was never really satisfied with the direction of this interim career. So around 1958, throwing caution to the wind, he moved into an office on Lexington Avenue, hired a couple of students from Cooper Union, and began seriously selling design under the name Rudolph de Harak Incorporated.

“This was a very exciting ad crucial point in my life,” de Harak explains. “It was when I was introduced to specimens of Berthold's Akzidenz Grotsk from Berlin.” This bold European typeface effectively anchored de Harak's design approach and afforded him a neutral element against which to play with a growing repertoire of images. His early experiments, including 50 covers done for Westminster Records, were the basis for the decidedly Modern book jackets that he designed for Meridian Press, New Directions, Holt Rhineheart and Winston, and Doubleday. And all the approaches that he developed during the late Fifties led to his opus—the McGraw-Hill paperback covers which became laboratories for his experiments with color, type, optical illusion, photography and other techniques. More important, these covers would define his design for years to follow.

To understand de Harak's influence on graphic design during the Sixties it is necessary to know that the McGraw-Hill paperbacks were emblematic of that period. They were based on the most contemporary design systems, and were unique compared to other covers and jackets in the marketplace. At this time the International Style and American Eclecticism were the two primary design methodologies at play in the United States. The former represented Bauhaus rationalism, the latter Sixties exuberance. De Harak was profoundly influenced by the exquisite simplicity of the great Swiss Modernist, Max Bill, but as an American he wanted to find a vehicle for somehow reconciling these two conflicting sensibilities. Although, just as he resisted the hard sell approach in advertising, he also rejected the eclectic trend to make typography too blatantly symbolic. “I never saw the need to put snowcaps on a letterform to suggest the cold,” he offers as an example of the extreme case. Instead he worked with a limited number of typefaces, at first Franklin Gothic and News Gothic (preferring it over Futura), and then Akzidenz Grotesk, and ultimately Helvetica. De Harak still believes that the last gave him all the color, weight and nuance he needed to express a variety of themes and ideas.

The McGraw-Hill covers were paradigms of purist visual communication. Each element was fundamental since de Harak did not allow for the extraneous. Yet, as economical as they were, each was also a marriage of expressionistic or illusionistic imagery and systematic typography, the same repertoire of elements that he would later use in other graphic work. De Harak became known for simplifying the complex without lessening meaning.

In the mid-Sixties, as de Harak was building a solid reputation as a teacher and practitioner, a new facet to his career, exhibition design, began almost by accident. In 1965 a friend, Nicholas Chaparos who taught at Canada's University of Waterloo, recommended de Harak to design the “Man, His Planet, and Space” pavilion at Montreal's Expo '67. At the times, de Harak notes, there were simply not enough Canadian designers to handle the volume of work that went into making this milestone exposition. He spent two intensive years researching and developing information modules comprised of light, sound and text that presented complex information. It would become the cornerstone of his expanding practice which eventually included signage, exposition and exhibition design.

For the design of the U.S. Pavilion in Japan, Osaka's Expo '70, de Harak teamed up with Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar creating a tour de force of information communications. Subsequently, he earned commissions from U.S. government agencies, among them the Atomic Energy Commission, National Parks Service, National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Postal Service. He was also in demand for large commercial assignments, such as the United Nations Plaza Hotel, for which he created graphic programs and wayfinding systems. Although pleased with these commissions, even more satisfying than developing livable environments such as this, presenting histories and stories became de Harak's prime talent and greatest pleasure. The Cummins Engine Company museum is not only a masterpiece of corporate culture, but of retelling—what de Harak refers to as “real people's stories.” He interviewed scores of Cummins workers to develop the museum's content. With its 1,000-plus-pieces exploded engine as a dynamic focal point, de Harak created a living testament to the company's commitment to progress through artful displays that pull in history and contemporary practice without a hint of nostalgia. The combination of de Harak's modernism and eclecticism are fully realized through his museum designs.

The commission to participate in the design of the Egyptian Wing of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is another key example. When the Met's architect, Kevin Roche, invited de Harak to work on the new wing he wanted someone who would conform to the modern scheme of the new wing and its master plan, and yet be sympathetic to the Met's traditions. The project took 10 years to complete—years that were devoted to exhaustive research of every nuance of the magnificent collection before the design process began. Deciding what and how to show the panorama of ancient history with enough entry-points to engage event the casual viewer was as difficult a challenge as de Harak had ever faced. How to identify the invaluable materials required a variety of inventive formats. Transparency was one of the keys. De Harak discretely printed captions on glass, which gave the viewer the option to learn about and/or see the treasured objects at the same time. A photographic timeline, which was also available as an accordion-fold booklet, provided another level of access for the viewer. Over a decade after its opening, the Egyptian Wing is still a popular attraction, perhaps as much for de Harak's design purity as for the stunning artifacts in the collection itself. Despite his passions for purism, de Harak has also embraced the virtues of randomness. “I love the ambivalence,” he says about the essence of art and design, “of what happens visually when you see something that you're not sure of, then all of a sudden you get a handle on it. What's really important is getting the viewer to participate. If that person can look at an image and say 'Wow!' in some way, that is a key function of design.” And so that is a nutshell is what he has taught and how he has practiced.

As the 1980s came to a close, de Harak turned from the rigors of multi-disciplinary, systematic design to abstract art. Then in his sixties, the thought of stepping away from his business to pursue other interests—once unthinkable to the veteran—became an appealing prospect. It would allow him to pursue and investigate more fully other passions he harbored since entering the field. Of course, even in the work-a-day world he continued to seriously practice painting, photography, and collage. But leaving New York with his wife Carol to the home they designed and built in Maine allowed him more freedom for his interests in the visual arts and music. Like the other milestones of design that defined de Harak's long career, his last “official” graphic design while still the head of his design office was the jacket design for the AIGA Annual, Graphic Design USA: 9. It is fitting since moving to Maine, he has been elected into the Art Directors Hall of Fame, received a Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree from the Corcoran Museum School of Art and now AIGA's highest award, the Gold Medal. For decades de Harak used his art to fulfill clients' needs. He stands poised to make art for himself. It is a meaningful conclusion to one career and the beginning of a new life of a man who has imbued graphic design with both a vocabulary and an ethic.

Copyright 1993 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.