Gene Federico

1918, New York


Good design has been an anomaly in American advertising ever since the turn of the century when copywriters were given total rein over image makers. Unlike European advertising of the same period when the foremost artist/designers were made culture heroes, it was virtually inconceivable that an American art director could be more than just a layout person. This changed in the 1930s when the advertising pioneer Ernest Elmo Caulkins, realizing the strength of word and picture, devised the forerunner of the creative team. By 1939, when Gene Federico, a twenty-one-year-old Pratt Institute graduate with a special interest in typography, entered the profession, a few exceptional designers had already begun to change the look and content of some mainstream advertising, paving the way for a distinctly American modern style.

By the late 1940s, after an apprenticeship at an ad agency, a tour of duty in the Army and an unexceptional stint as a magazine art associate, Federico realized that graphic design was his passion and advertising his métier. Soon he became one of America's premiere advertising art directors and designers, bridging the often wide gap between the two jobs. His selection as the 1987 AIGA Medalist is important for two reasons: It honors someone who, for over four decades, has responsibly stretched the boundaries of advertising design with typographic elegance and conceptual acuity, and, as a principal of Lord Geller Federico Einstein, continues to contribute to an American graphic design vocabulary.

Born on February 6, 1918, in New York's Greenwich Village, Federico was the middle child with two sisters. When the family moved to the Bronx, he attended P.S. 89 which, in keeping with a venerable New York City public school tradition, sponsored a number of poster competitions for city agencies and events. Federico's earliest advertisement was a poster painted in tempera for the ASPCA. When the family moved to Coney Island a few years later, he enrolled in Abraham Lincoln High School. This was the home of the legendary Art Squad led by Leon Friend, who taught intensive classes in commercial design and illustration for over fifty years. As an Art Squad member Federico was exposed to the work of the leading European advertising artists. One inspiration was an arresting, Cubist-inspired poster by A.M. Cassandre promoting the S.S. Amsterdam. Awed by its stark geometry and subtle hues, he modeled his own early poster style on Cassandre's use of bold lettering and dominant painted image. Though he designed pages for school publications, Federico explains that “it was the direct message of a poster that propelled me into advertising.”

Brooklyn's Pratt Institute was the next stage in his education. In its voluminous library, Federico pored though the current European design magazines and American design annuals soaking up the influence of Cassandre, Lester Beall and Paul Rand (the latter, only a few years older than Federico, was already making significant inroads into advertising design). At Pratt form became an enduring watchword, which Federico says is the basis of “a work so powerful that it is hard to find any weakness in it.”

Tom Benrimo, a popular advertising designer and illustrator at the time, was a formidable teacher who recommended that Federico take a job with his client, the Abbott Kimball Company, a small advertising agency in New York. One of Federico's first professional assignments was a clever conceptual piece entitled “Brains and Luck,” a brochure promoting the agency that was accepted into the 1939 New York Art Director's show. Concurrently, he took a few weeknight classes at the Art Students League in Manhattan under the tutelage of Howard Trafton. One Lesson was on the effects of dumb light in which Federico recalls “you just hang a naked lit bulb to see its effects on a model.” Another was Trafton's analysis of African sculpture, “his emphasis on distortion and negative space explained the root of all graphic experience.” On those seemingly endless, noisy subway rides back to his home in Brooklyn he would often discuss the evening's lessons with Norman Geller, a younger classmate, who years later would become his business partner.

In 1941, seduced by a job offer in the ad department at Bamberger's Department Store, he decided to migrate to Newark, New Jersey. There he could do good work, double his salary and most important, live away from home for the first time. Four months later, Uncle Sam offered a less comfortable home away from home. From April 1941 to November 1945 Federico was a GI first stationed in the United States and then sent to North Africa and Europe, where he served in a camouflage unit. Field work allowed the occasional respite to design manuals, posters, paint a mural for an officer's club and, in Oran, organize an enlisted man's art show. Federico returned from the war to the job at Abbott Kimball, where he stayed less than a year.

Federico's pre- and postwar design was exhibited in 1946 at the prestigious A-D Gallery in a show entitled “The Four Veterans.” Will Burtin, then art director of Fortune magazine, impressed by what he saw, asked the young designer to become his art associate. “I thought that I should try editorial,” he painfully recalls, “but I hated it. I loved Will, but I couldn't follow the way he designed. So completely analytical, he could take the most complex subject and then build it into a dramatic structure. It was brilliant, but it wasn't my kind of design.” Federico resigned after 10 months, and took a temporary job supervising layout at Architectural Forum where, admitting to his preference for the single image and a definite problem with achieving kinetic flow through pictures, he did merely a so-so job. At this point, he decided to freelance.

For a year and a half Federico struggled while his wife, Helen, worked as an assistant to Paul Rand. “With Helen's salary, we were able to manage,” he says. Rand suggested that Federico take a job at Grey Advertising where he met Bill Bernbach, Phyllis Robinson, Ned Doyle and Bob Gage. They left shortly to open an agency with Mac Dane, called Doyle Dane Bernbach. Three years later, Gage invited Federico to join the new firm, and he was given the Woman's Day magazine account. This resulted in a series of ads that revealed Federico's deft pictographic sensibility.

Though some advertising designers, like Rand and Beall, signed their already distinctive work, Federico's signature was found in the construction of the typographical image. “Lester Beall opened my eyes to the idea that type could be used to emphasize the message,” says Federico talking about his roots. “One of his ads had the great line, 'To hell with eventually. Let's concentrate on now.' The 'e' in 'eventually' was very large and 'now' was the same size. The simple manipulation of these letter forms allowed the viewer to immediately comprehend the message.” Federico's method is also based on the integration of text and image and so he has always worked intimately with a copywriter. He says, “I too look for those simple elements in copy.” And warns that “when the designer doesn't read the copy to catch the sound of the words, he runs the risk of misusing the typography. If the rhythm of the words is disregarded, the copy is likely to be laid out incorrectly.” Federico's best-known ad for Woman's Day typifies this rhythmic sensitivity. It has the catch-line “Going Out,” and shows a photo of a woman riding a bicycle with wheels made from the two lowercase Futura 'o's in the headline. The aim of this ad was to persuade potential advertisers that three million-plus devoted readers went out of their way to buy this check-out counter magazine. The ads apparently did well for the client, but more importantly proved the power of persuasive visual simplicity in a field that often errs on the side of overstatement.

Federico's advertising approach is more related to attitude than style. Despite Lou Dorfsman's assertion that Federico is the prince of Light Line Gothic (admittedly on of his favorite typefaces), few of his ads conform to a single formula or evoke stylistic déjà vu. Nevertheless, one trait is dominant: his love of and skill with type. This talent matured during the mid-1950s. He fondly remembers, “It was then that Aaron Burns (who was working at the Composing Room) introduced me to a range of new typefaces. He would get so excited about new developments, and we would have fun working together.” This was more than the typical designer and supplier relationship; Burns also developed formative outlets for Federico and others to experiment with expressive typography. One was a series of four sixteen-page booklets (written by Percy Seitlin) that allowed designers total freedom to interpret a specific subject with type, photography and illustration. Herb Lubalin did one on jazz, Lester Beall did cars, Brownjohn Chermeyeff and Geismar did New York City and Federico did Love of Apples. “I wanted to try something where I used metal type in extreme ways without having to cut it-without cutting up proofs or playing with stats,” explains Federico about this masterpiece of descriptive typography. “For some time, I had known that if you stacked Title Gothics they would have a different look than traditional types. So the whole book was based on that simple idea.” But the aesthetics of type were not his only concern, as he says, “The message of the book was that nature's beauty is being radically altered. There's a line that reads 'When we, in business, industrial America began to get smart about apples, we packaged them and packaged them and packaged them until the apple itself became a package.' I illustrated that point with a photograph of an apple with a string tied around it.” In another designer's hands, this subtle environmental critique might have become a screaming polemic, yet Federico's elegant touch transformed these few pages into memorable visual poetry. One could say the same for a great deal of his advertising.

After the stint with Doyle Dane Bernbach, he went to Douglas D. Simon and then spent seven and a half years at Benton and Bowles. There he says “practically nothing happened,” though he actually created some memorable advertising for IBM's Office Products Division, including those for the introduction of the early electric and first Selectric typewriters. For the Selectric, the first office machine to use a type element, Federico wrote a slogan, “A new type of writer,” which, like some other excellent ideas for IBM, went unused. One of his favorites, and therefore the most frustrating rejection, is a 'knotted pencil,' a symbol to announce IBM's new 'Stretch' computer, which at the time could solve more problems than any other computer. With his creative-teammate copywriter Bob Larimer, Federico devised the archetype of one of today's favored visual cliches. Larimer has recently written about it, saying, “When longer ago than we care to admit we created an ad for IBM illustrated with a knotted pencil, we thought the symbol was totally original. Since that distant day, the knotted pencil has turned up repeatedly in art, advertising and commercial illustration.” Despite the reasons for IBM's rejection (and Federico never really found out why), it underscores the heart of the advertising dilemma: How effectively does good design contribute to selling an advertising concept? Federico says, “It depends on who is doing the selling. If I were a salesman like George Lois or Lou Dorfsman, I could sell almost anything. But you don't always have such good fortune. Your work is presented by account people who lack sufficient feeling for it.”

The need for more control over the quality and destiny of his work motivated Federico to start his own agency. However, the process was not rapid or easy. In the early 1960s at Benton and Bowles, Federico ran an art group that included Emil Gargano, Roy Grace and Dick Hess. There he met a copywriter named Dick Lord, who left to become creative director of Warwick & Legler and invited Federico to join him. Four years passed before taking up the offer to become art supervisor. Eight months later in early 1967, citing general malaise, both Lord and Federico decided to form a partnership called Lord Southard Federico. Southard, who was brought in to lure accounts, soon left making it Lord Federico. “That added a sort of regal sound to my name,” muses Federico. One day on the street, he ran into Norman Geller, his former classmate and subway companion, who as a former art director turned business wiz had done quite well with his own agency. Wanting to take on a new challenge, he joined the fledgling firm. Soon the name of copywriter, Arthur Einstein, was added to the shingle. With two writers and two art people as principals, Lord Geller Federico Einstein was built on a solid creative foundation. At first business was slow, but in time the firm acquired some fashion, beauty and “nuts and bolt” accounts. One of Federico's most pleasing assignments is for Napier Jewelry, which for eighteen years he has done single-handedly, and whose basic format has not changed since the first ad. Of the format, a close-up photograph of the product on a model with the simple line, “Napier is? (with a descriptive word),” Federico says, “It's still fresh! And that to me, is the best advertising.” In the early days of LGFE, he and Lord collaborated on a delightful campaign of full-page newspaper ads advertising The New Yorker using selected editorial contents from the product, with only one small advertising line at the bottom, “Yes, The New Yorker.” Its message is as naturally timely and its design as fittingly timeless as the magazine itself.

As the firm grew, so did Federico's reputation. “He was called El Supremo,” says Sam Antupit, vice president of design at Harry N. Abrams Inc. who as a student met Federico over thirty years ago. “Gene was, and is, considered the art director's art director. Even when he became a principal in a firm, he never renounced his creative role. His was also the first name on the list of important people to see when a young design student came to New York. And he actually made time to see you too.”

With his mild, sometimes self-effacing manner, wry wit and palpable concern for good design and its creators, Federico is a bona fide elder statesman of this profession. What characterizes this eminence? Attitude is key, and passion is paramount. Respect, not only for his clients (“Finding the best solution for a client's identity is not a matter or a means of self expression,” he says) but deference for his audience dictates his practice. By not underestimating the consumer's intelligence, and by recognizing the constraints of this persuasive art, Federico continues to expand advertising's boundaries and set its standards.

Copyright 1988 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.