Steff Geissbuhler

1942, Zofingen, Switzerland


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 20th century.

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 Partners.

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.