Alvin Eisenman



Alvin Eisenman combined serendipity, curiosity and tenacity to move from a boyhood love of a printing plant to the helm of the first graduate school in graphic design in the United States, at Yale University. For forty years he assembled diverse and brilliant classes to be taught by the legends of design history, and left the imprint of his interests on several generations of designers. Recently he retired amid much fanfare at a gala party. When pressed on current plans, he said, “All I know is I won’t make a firm appointment if it’s a nice day to go to a museum.” Yet, his calendar is dotted with trips to Silicon Valley to see new products unveiled, with meetings at the Morgan Guaranty Trust—where he is a design consultant—and sessions at his computer to finish his account of how graphic design came to be and his speculation on where it is going.

A review of Eisenman’s career reveals the beginning of his lifelong romance with typography and its use to communicate ideas. In rural DuBois, Pennsylvania, his family lived across Scribner Avenue from Harold Gray, the childless owner of the DuBois Morning Courier, with its monotype printing plant. By the age of five, Alvin was delivering papers and soon became part of the coterie of neighborhood children with whom Gray shared his love of printing in hopes of developing their interest in presses and publishing. In grade school Alvin designed his first book and saw it to press at age eleven. By high school, Eisenman was collaborating with sweetheart Hope Greer on the school yearbook and newspaper. The paper won awards for its design, which included neatly justified columns Alvin cleverly created by disengaging the typewriter carriage to manually space each line. This willingness to challenge technology to serve typography would become a recurrent theme in Eisenman’s design work, and in his pursuit of design hardware and software for Yale.

Tracing a great educator’s pedigree of influence is always revealing. Ray Nash at Dartmouth was another important model for Eisenman. Nash had been influenced by John Dewey and the extraordinary staff of the New School to develop the workshop concept of education and the apprenticeship model of experience. Imprinted with this successful approach, Eisenman facilitated apprenticeships and collaborated with students throughout his leadership of the graphic design program at Yale.

Nash was a man of caring, depth and character—adjectives students later used to describe Eisenman as well. They both lived on farms, worked with the university presses at their institutions, read broadly and nurtured their students. Nash the mentor was reflected in Eisenman the protégé.

After World War II, a uniform-clad Eisenman arrived on the McGraw-Hill Book Company’s doorstep, armed with a portfolio of army manuals, Dartmouth work and six months of experience as production manager at Tri-Arts Press. Appointed head of the design department, Eisenman assembled a staff responsible for the design of hundreds of books.

In an historic McGraw-Hill collaboration with author Paul Samuelson, Eisenman designed the first edition of Samuelson’s Economics. Notable in its preparation was Eisenman’s design of several versions of the material, which were tested on Samuelson’s MIT students. It was found that a combination of graphs, numeric tables and descriptive narrative could more effectively communicate Samuelson’s economic principles than any single design approach.

Eisenman respected books. He said, “A book is a container to save things permanently; better than a picture frame or filing cabinet.” He shied away from bleeds in a design, or margins that were too small, because he knew books were trimmed when they were re-bound by library binders. He respected the content of a book and took seriously the designer’s charge to make it clear as well as beautiful.

McGraw-Hill marked the first of his three major design commitments. Next, Eisenman would divide his time between design for the Yale Press and administration of Yale’s graduate program. It was during this period in New Haven that Eisenman also began a 20-year relationship with the Morgan Guaranty Trust Company as its design consultant. Clearly Eisenman was an educator/practitioner.

At the Yale Press, Eisenman often saw design projects as opportunities to explore new technologies. Eero Saarinen on his Work was the first book set by photocomposition and the first 300-line book at the Yale Press. It was also the first perfect-bound book produced with an acid-free polyvinyl chloride glue on a machine imported from Germany by Polly Lada-Mocarski. For A Pictorial History of Yale, Eisenman specified a custom Mohawk paper that later became Mohawk Superfine Soft White, an industry standard.

For Morgan, Eisenman’s most challenging and enduring work has been The World Holiday and Time Guide, which calculates the business day around the world and notes significant national holidays. Won Chung ’75, Morgan’s current Design Director, tells how Omnitek operators tore their hair out as Eisenman insisted they program hairline rules, charts and graphs that pushed past the limits of their computer system and expertise. The teenager who tinkered with a typewriter became the typographer who challenged the computer.

Eisenman’s greatest accomplishment, however, was the formation and development of the first graduate program in graphic design in the United States. Eisenman got his opportunity to teach at Yale by chance. In New Haven in 1950 to research a book about James Boswell for McGraw-Hill, he bumped into Carl Rollins, the Yale Press printer and longtime friend of Ray Nash. Rollins persuaded the Yale Press Director to offer the design position there to Eisenman, sweetening the meager salary available with an extra thousand dollars to teach in the Art School. When he found a farm in nearby Bethany which sparked memories of his rural roots, Eisenman sealed the deal.

Charles Sawyer, Dean of the Yale School of Art and Architecture, had listened to the rumblings of post-war students decrying the school’s beaux-arts focus. He initiated the idea of using practicing artists and designers for major responsibilities in the graduate programs, and so accepted the proposed joint Yale Press-Art School appointment for Eisenman. Under Dean Sawyer, the school emphasized greater professionalism in the graduate programs while philosophically supporting the liberal education of Yale College for undergraduates. Eisenman’s McGraw-Hill experience and Dartmouth education made him a good fit.

Eisenman’s new program was called “graphic arts” in its 1950s infancy, after the American Institute of Graphic Arts. However, Yale soon followed the lead of the Royal College of Art in London and changed the name of the department to “graphic design.” The Royal College had a long connection with Yale, and faculty exchanges occurred between the two schools throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

For 40 years there were never more than one or two full-time faculty members in graphic design at Yale, but an amazing group of visiting faculty influenced the students. Students learned from exposure to these great talents and from each other. Diversity is a hallmark of the program. Eisenman feels that if people are good at different things, this reduces competition. One learns to respect someone who does something very well. He claims that, “The idea of the university, or the idea of being universal, is to have all things represented—everything from Marxism to the bloody right. You should listen to everybody, talk to everybody and look at everything.”

Eisenman sought out students with intellectual depth, not merely skillful artists. Most classes included foreign students—from India, Iraq, England, Switzerland, Germany, China or Iran—who enriched the mix and turned the sights of their classmates to international vistas. Classes were drawn almost equally from liberal arts and art schools, notably Yale, Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design. When the program began, there were so few undergraduate programs in design that Yale provided both the introductory and advanced training the students needed. “Baby graphics” became an additional year of work that prepared students for the two-year graduate program.

Eisenman talks of assembling his diverse faculty and reminisces, “I’m paternal and Herbert (Matter) was supportive. We needed a New York tough guy. (Alvin) Lustig wasn’t from New York, but filled that role. He asked for a wastebasket up in front of his classroom and threw in student work if it was the wrong size.” Rob Roy Kelly ’55, remembers Lustig demanding, “What is the organizing principle? Everything begins with an organizing principle.”

By contrast, Herbert Matter, famous for his reticence, taught by example and demonstration, cigarette ash dangling dangerously from his lip. Bradbury Thompson taught typography and publication design from a series of timeless principles. Paul Rand’s acerbic critiques established high standards of performance. Rand demanded that solutions grow from problem objectives. He encouraged intuitive processes and playful solutions. Eisenman himself contributed an historic and global context for design investigations, digressing with students into discussions about the development of the Korean alphabet or the theory that one of Shakespeare’s typesetters was a woman. (Tom Geismar ’55, once joked, “Alvin knows everything about the history of Walbaum and thousands of other arcane things.”)

The program was a collage of important design ideas laid down by the faculty. Josef Albers (who had known Alvin’s wife Hope at Black Mountain College) taught basic perceptual studies in huge classes of 150 students. Alexey Brodovitch challenged the students to experiment. Following Diter Rot’s visits to the school, students experimented with die-cuts. Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn wandered into the design studios. Later, Luce Marinetti took up residence in New Haven and sparked the study of Futurism and its effect on modern typography. Jan Tschichold arrived to lecture in a limousine, provided by the mayor of New Haven. As current Yale Dean David Pease reflects, “Alvin Eisenman was a great man in an era of great men.... He was an enabler.”

Faculty were sometimes chosen simply because the uncanny Eisenman eye found their work intriguing and important, as in the case of Matter, Rand and Thompson (though Thompson had also become a friend during Eisenman’s 1960–1963 AIGA presidency). Armin Hofmann’s serendipitous invitation to Yale began decades of interaction between Yale and the Basel School of Design in Switzerland.

The story of Hofmann’s link to Yale began when Herbert Matter suggested Eisenman invite his cousin Dorothea and her husband Armin to New Haven because their appointment was not working out at the Philadelphia Museum School (later the Philadelphia College of Art and recently renamed the University of the Arts). It is ironic that UA’s program today is so influenced by the pedagogy Armin Hofmann developed in Basel, because in the 1950s Dorothea Hofmann recalls, “Armin’s definite ideas about education” were an uneasy fit with the school.

At Yale, Hofmann was influential in treating design as a slow and evolving process dependent on highly developed hand skills. Like Herbert Matter, he emphasized the simple and symbolic image, which could create a bold and impactful statement. Eisenman said, “The great thing about the Basel School is the looking at the little details so closely and looking for a long time and questioning what you see.”

Hofmann came from Switzerland to teach at Yale for over 30 years. Basel faculty, including Wolfgang Weingart, Peter von Arx and Andre Gürtler, were invited to give lectures and lead seminars at Yale. In addition, Basel graduates Phillip Burton, Inge Druckery, Dan Friedman and Lorraine Ferguson taught at Yale, reinforcing what Eisenman calls the “International Style” of design. Burton helped administer another legacy of the Eisenman years, the Yale-Brissago summer program. Hofmann, and often Eisenman, taught in Brissago in what became for many students a first step toward graduate work in New Haven. In the mountains of Switzerland, students were immersed in studies enlivened by the glorious landscape.

Although there were many faculty voices and influences, the main themes that characterized the Yale curriculum were invariably Alvin’s own. Eisenman is a “fussy” typographer. Norman Ives and Bradbury Thompson shared this reverence for type and communicated their fascination to the students. Students in turn collected display types and experimented with the large wood type from Deberny and Peignot that Eisenman had brought from a 1953 trip to Europe. Contemplation of type had its lighter moments.

Art history also heavily influenced the work of Bradbury Thompson and Paul Rand and was an important component of the graduate education at Yale. Virtually all the students took classes with Vincent Scully and Robert L. Herbert or savored electives with teachers such as George Kubler.

In Eisenman’s view, competent drawing was a basic design skill, so an emphasis on drawing distinguished the program. Students studied drawing with luminaries such as Bernard Chaet, Andrew Forge, Dorothea Hofmann, Lester Johnson and Philip Pearlstein. With delight, Eisenman points to the many drawings by students used to illustrate Chaet’s Drawing text.

Eisenman also made photography an important part of the graphic design curriculum. Students were introduced to large-format cameras, studio lighting and photomechanical processes. One Eisenman legacy to the School of Art is the photography program which grew from the courses and visitors in photography facilitated by him. Jerry Thompson, ’73, remembers that with inimitable tenacity Alvin tried 13 times before successfully wooing Walker Evans to a Yale appointment. On his retirement from Yale, Evans selected Diane Arbus to succeed him. Tragically, she committed suicide before Eisenman could convey Walker Evans’ offer. Her death was felt keenly by the Eisenmans, who had known Diane as a young bride learning photography over her husband’s shoulder at Fort Monmouth.

Part of Eisenman’s enthusiasm for new technology stemmed from its potential to make the merger of word and image more manageable in one machine. Eisenman saw the potential for service to graphic designers in emerging technologies long before they provided real service. His vision and curiosity made Yale a testing ground for hardware and software.

Computers found Alvin in 1955. More precisely, a chain printer from IBM had been installed at the Medical Center, and he was tapped as a consultant for a project to computerize the card catalogue.

Handsetting the type was laborious for students. When told by their teachers to make the type smaller or use a different face, students might find that their classmates had the type they needed locked up in their own galleys. A way to generate type quickly and cheaply so that students could focus their energies on design variations was a priority. Arthur Penn had told Alvin that film students needed to “push lots of film through the camera” and Alvin dreamed of a day when design students could push lots of type through the computer.

In 1970, the Linotype Company donated the Linofilm SuperQuick to the department. It was set up without a computer, and run by unreadable paper tapes. The files were unsaveable. No digital record existed, so correcting keystroke errors was impossible. Still, at Alvin’s urging, graduate students attempted the impossible—to learn the rudiments of machine-driven typesetting. This Linofilm SuperQuick with a perforator was followed by a Linofilm SuperQuick fronted by PDP11 computers. These were located in the Computer Science building on Hillhouse Avenue where the female graduate students in graphic design became the first women to frequent the computer rooms. Format codes were entered on the PDP11 with the text, then turned into paper tapes, which in turn drove the Linofilm machine. The advantage of the film fonts was that every size font was made separately and type remained sharp when enlarged. It was an exciting time for Eisenman, who foresaw the revolution in type generation that would occur when the hyphenation program and exception dictionary the computer scientists were researching were completed.

The next machine to make an appearance in the service of typography for the graphic design program was a Linoterm, featuring film strips wrapped around a cylinder and exposed with a strobe. It had only 3 ranges, with 8-, 12- and 18-point masters. The subsequent teaching machine, the laser-driven, digital Omnitek, used a coated instead of a photo paper and a dry baking process. It was a model for how the laser printer would later work. Early in 1984, a Mac arrived with an ImageWriter. Later that year the LaserWriter was brought on line. At last, students were pushing lots of type through the laser printer.

Talking about the other potential benefits of computer technology, Eisenman relates a favorite story. Lenin had proposed that there be one alphabet and one center for printing in Moscow. Stalin rescinded that notion, which would have wiped out the Georgian language and presses in his mother tongue. Eisenman calls the preservation of regional presses “the only good thing Stalin ever did.” Perhaps because of that decision, there is more poetry published per capita in the Soviet Union than anywhere else in the world.

At Yale, this complex man provided an eclectic education that prepared graduates to move into an expanding profession no longer confined to advertising and illustration. Armed with Yale degrees, the graduates moved into corporate communications at places like Container Corporation, Olivetti, CIBA, CBS and IBM. They joined museums, public television, publishing houses, government agencies and architectural offices. They became influential members of the design community like Condé Nast Paris head Jocelyn Kargère ’62 or Clarence Lee ’58, one of Hawaii’s leading designers.

For one group of students, work that began as a thesis project became a life-long pursuit. The seeds sown at Yale changed them as individuals and helped to diversify what design would become. Norman Ives’ ’52 thesis investigated found letterforms. Together with Si Sillman, Ives formed Ives-Sillman and produced limited edition formal investigations for people like Josef Albers and Diter Rot. Mike Parker ’56, worked on the Garamond typeface at Yale, later to collaborate with Matthew Carter on Galliard. And Bryce Ambo ’87, with a Fontographer-loader Mac at his desk in the Yale studios, drew Ambo Bembo. Garry Trudeau ’73, created a mythical Nazi for his Yale thesis at the same time he was refining the cast of his newly syndicated Doonesbury characters.

Of course there were the gadget lovers—the students who embraced the computer technology that fascinated Eisenman and frustrated many of their classmates. Aaron Marcus ’68, Larry Yang ’79 and Hugh Dubberly ’83 are off in computer fields undreamed of by the young Yale chairman who started with etching and lithography presses in 1950.

Classmate partnerships were another school legacy. New York’s 212 Associates was formed by three friends from the class of ’80 who named their New York firm for the address of the graphic design department in New Haven. More recently, ’87 classmates Burns, Connacher & Waldron and partners Peter Laundy ’75 and Susan Rogers ’73 have hung out Yale shingles in the Big Apple.

Members of many classes chose, like Eisenman, to combine design practice with teaching, translating Yale pedagogy for a national audience. Some graduates were tapped to teach at Yale: John McCrillis ’52, Norman Ives ’52, Sheldon Brody ’56, John Hill ’60, Chris Pullman ’66 and Doug Scott ’74. Those who left for education established design schools that were Yale’s progeny: Rob Roy Kelly ’55, at the Kansas City Art Institute, Sheila de Bretteville ’64, at Otis Parsons, Gordon Salchow ’65, at the University of Cincinnati, Tom Ockerse ’65, at the Rhode Island School of Design, Doug Wadden, ’70, at the University of Washington, and Lorraine Wild ’82 at the California Institute of the Arts all left their mark on a new generation of programs. Yale graduates are heading programs, teaching and lecturing in Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, West Virginia—from Boston to Los Angeles.

During the 1950s and 1960s Yale graduates had a tremendous impact on the emerging “graphic design” profession. They were teaching subsequent generations of designers and producing definitive design work. By 1970, Montreal’s Expo was a Yale showcase. Benoy Sarkar ’66, had a room in the Indian pavilion. Classmate partners Ivan Chermayeff ’55, and Tom Geismar ’55, designed the U.S. pavilion. Alan Fletcher ’58, designed the upper areas of the British pavilion. Israel Charney ’66, designed kiosks and street furniture in La Road.

Truly, the first graduate design program in the country made a name for design quality that endures. But people who recall their education at Yale remember Alvin’s personal touch more than the design landmarks they studied. Picnics at Eisenman’s farm, replete with homemade rolls and cider pressed from his Macintosh apples, were memorable events each year for generations of students.

Nathan Garland ’70, once tried to list Eisenman’s admonitions: “See connections; have ideas; read, listen, learn, teach: yourself, classmates, clients, students; be a good student in school and beyond; work hard; care about other people and their work; learn , share and pass it on.” Alvin’s generosity of spirit, humanity and concern for others permeates his interactions and secures his place in the affections of his students. Eisenman is a model of the multidimensional designer. He knows history and embraces diversity. Through the leadership of this eclectic seer, many have found paths to an information society too complex and rapidly evolving for any single design approach to encompass.

Copyright 1991 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.