Lester Beall

1992 AIGA Medal
1903, Kansas City, Missouri

Creativity speaks to the heart of the process of graphic design. What were the creative forces that allowed Lester Beall to produce consistently treat art and design over the span of a 44-year career? Over this span of time, Beall produced solutions to design problems that were fresh and innovative. He studied the dynamic visual form of the European avant-garde, synthesized parts into his own aesthetic and formed graphic design applications for business and industry that were appropriate, bold, and imaginative. In his mature years he led the way with creative and comprehensive packaging and corporate identity programs that met the needs of his clients. Along the way in his work manner and style, Beall proved to American business that the graphic designer was a professional that could creatively solve problems and at the same time deal with pragmatic issues of marketing and budget. The qualities and values that led to Beall's effectiveness are timeless and provide contemporary practitioners with an historical reference base upon which to evaluate present standards.

Beall felt that the designer “must work with one goal in mind—to integrate the elements in such a manner that they will combine to produce a result that will convey not merely a static commercial message, but an emotional reaction as well. If we can produce the kind of art which harnesses the power of the human instinct for that harmony of form, beauty and cleanness that seems inevitable when you see it? then I think we may be doing a job for our clients.” For Beall that creativity was present at every stage of the design process. He said, “the designer's role in the development, application and protection of the trademark may be described as pre-creative, creative and post-creative.”

Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1903, Beall's early childhood years were spent in St. Louis and Chicago. He was educated at Chicago's Lane Technical School and graduated from the University of Chicago. He began his design career in 1927. By 1935 Beall had decided to move to New York and in late September of that year had opened a studio/office in his apartment in Tudor City on Manhattan's east side. In 1936, while maintaining the office in New York, he moved to Wilton, Connecticut where he established his home and studio in a rural setting. He was to remain in Wilton until 1950. Many of the significant works from this period were done in this location. Through the 1930s and 1940s Beall produced innovative and highly regarded work for clients including the Chicago Tribune, Sterling Engraving, The Art Directors Club of New York, Hiram Walker, Abbott Laboratories and Time magazine. Of particular interest was his work for the Crowell Publishing Company which produced Colliers magazine. The promotional covers “Will There Be War?” and “Hitler's Nightmare” are powerful designs which distill messages of the time. In these works he utilizes angled elements, iconic arrows, silhouetted photographs and dynamic shapes, all of which captures the essence of his personal style of the late 1930s. Also of interest in this period are the remarkable poster series for the United States Government's Rural Electrification Administration. In all Beall designed three series of posters between 1937 and 1941 with the simple goals of increasing the number of rural Americans who would electrify their homes and increasing public awareness of the benefits of electricity. His poster for the ill-fated “Freedom Pavilion” at the 1939 World's Fair was another dynamic example of this time in which he used what he called “thrust and counter-thrust” of design elements.

Beall had moved his office to 580 Fifth Avenue around 1940. He worked there as well as from his home in Wilton, Connecticut. In 1949 he purchased Dumbarton Farm in Brookfield and, in 1950, he moved to consolidate all his operation there. He had developed some of the farm's out buildings into a professionally-praised office and studio space. During the 1950s and '60s Beall's design office expanded both in its staff and scope, adding associate designers and mounting full-scale corporate identification campaigns for large companies such as a Caterpillar Tractor, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, The New York Hilton and Merrill Lynch, Fenner Pierce and Smith, Inc. His identity program for International Paper Company from 1960 was his most extensive identity program and is noteworthy for the graphics standards manual, one of the first to be so fully articulated.

Beall maintained, throughout his life, a core of sources which stimulated his perception, creativity and methods of making art and design. He was a highly visual person with a great need to express himself. Always first and at the center of his ways of working were his form experimentation in the drawing and painting of the human figure. He was always at work in his studio, whether it was creating design, art or photography. His wife, Dorothy Miller Beall, characterized her husband as “first of all an artist, not only because of a vital and important talent, but because of an emotional spiritual quality, a very special attitude.” His daughter Joanna remembers this fine art expression as “a major part of his thinking.” Beall, in his memoirs, confirms this by recalling that “all through my life as a designer, I have spent considerable time developing myself as an artist. I am constantly drawing, with particular emphasis on the figure, which I find fascinating though difficult in term of evolving something that is not completely abstract but certainly not literal or realistic.”

Photography also was a lifelong interest to Beall and an important part of his creative process. He experimented with photography and photographic processes almost from the beginning of his career in design in Chicago. Cameras, a photographic studio and a darkroom were always necessary for his visual experiments. In the '30s he had seen the experimental photographic work of the European avant-garde designers such as Herbert Bayer, El Lissitzky, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Beall would experiment regularly with photograms, and with straight photography both in and out of the studio. Even today, many of Beall's photographic images remain unusual and innovative visual experiments. Beall carried his camera with him on all his travels. These images formed an image bank from which he drew inspiration for his lectures. Others found their way into direct graphic design application for his clients such as in the cover for ORS, a journal for health services professionals. A more complex photographic technique is used on the cover of What's New, a house organ of Abbott Laboratories. This image from 1939 shows a complex integration of photographic and graphic elements, set in a scale which juxtaposes the size relationships of foreground and background.

The psychologist Erich Fromm said, “Education for creativity is nothing short of education for living.” Beall's creative activities were powerfully influenced, enhanced and supported by the working environments that he established to support them. Whether he was working from his office near the Loop in Chicago, an office in a New York skyscraper or from the pastoral setting in Connecticut, Beall was sensitive to the importance of the space around him and how this could influence his creativity. In 1968 he wrote: “By living and working in the country I felt I could enjoy a more integrated life, and although I still need the periodic stimulation of New York City, the opportunity and creative activity in an area of both beauty and tranquility seemed to me to far exceed anything that a studio and residence in New York might offer—the way a man lives is essential to the work he produces. The two cannot be separated. If I could condense into a single idea the thinking we are trying to do here at Dumbarton Farm, it would be to achieve, through organic and integrated design, that power of inevitability. This has for a long time been an effort to work out a way of living for me and my family—and for the people who work with me. It gives me more time at home. It surrounds me with atmosphere I feel is pretty essential to good creativity.” With Beall it was not so much that he had his studio in the country, but that he had a way of life built around the country, part of which involved having his studio there at his elbow.

As with other pioneers of his era, Beall believed that the designer cannot work in a vacuum. He remarked, “all experience in fields directly or indirectly related to design must be absorbed and stored up, to provide the inspirational source that guides, nourishes and enriches the idea-flow of the designer.” Beall's own interests in other art forms provided further stimulus to his immense curiosity and creativity. Dorothy Beall wrote that Lester “believed that anyone interested in design must necessarily be interested in other fields of expression—the theatre, ballet, photography, painting, literature, as well as music, for from any of these the alert designer can at times obtain not only ideas related to his advertising problem, but genuine inspiration.” His books and periodicals were another great source of inspiration for Beall. He collected books and periodicals seriously from the beginning of his design career in Chicago. By the Sixties, Beall had accumulated a major personal collection of publications on creative forms such as art, design, photography and architecture. He also collected seminal magazines such as Cahiers d'Art and rare volumes such as the famous Bauhausbucher. Music was another important ingredient of Beall's creative environment. He was very familiar with jazz, having grown up with it in Chicago. While working in his studio there in the mid-'20s, he would often listen to live broadcasts on radio. Throughout his life, he would surround himself with music, be it jazz, or the classical compositions of Europeans such as Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Beall, in 1963, when writing about what he saw as the qualifications for a designer, listed “an understanding wife.” Throughout their life together, from the earliest days of struggle in Chicago to the golden years at Dumbarton Farm, Dorothy Miller Beall was by his side, relating to his friends and clients. She participated as she could to realize her husband's work, career and life. She said, “I have always felt very close to my husband's career, having been a part of it from the very beginning.” Together Dorothy and Lester built living environments for themselves and their family which were rich with collected folk art, antiques, Americana, as well as contemporary works. Beall said, “A lot of wives take a dim view of their husbands coming home for lunch. Dorothy actually looks forward to my coming home; perhaps even too much so. I enjoy getting over to the house, being surrounded by the things in my home.” In remembering the beginning of Beall's career, Dorothy recalled “It was a time of discovering the interdependence of painting, sculpture and the technique of modern industry and of the underlying unity of all creative work.” For many years after Beall's death, Dorothy preserved the artifacts of his career, sustained his name in the design press with articles and was continually supportive to inquiring students or researchers.

Beall was a major synthesizer of the ideas of European avant-garde artists and designers into the mainstream of design for American business. An associate Fred Hauck, with whom he had shared office space in Chicago, was probably the major vehicle through which Beall received those exciting ideas from Europe. Hauck, who had lived and painted in Paris and had gone to Hans Hofman's school in Munich, returned to Chicago and shared with Beall an enthusiasm for the European artists and designers, especially the Bauhaus. Hauck showed Beall valued copies of the Bauhaus books and publications of the avant-garde which he had brought back with him. This interest as well as such publications as Arts et Metier Graphiques, and Bebrauschgraphik helped Beall consolidate his own thinking away from a limiting vision of design as ordinary middle-American commercial illustration and towards a new dynamic, progressive form of graphic communication.

Beall earned great respect form his clients and staff. Bob Pliskin recalled that Beall “was a good man to work for. He had the gift of enthusiasm and he knew how to communicate it. He gave us freedom and guidance too. His studio was a happy, stimulating place where work was fun and clocks did not exist. And Beall could teach. He taught us to spurn symmetry, which he called an easy out? a static response to a dynamic world. He taught us that the solution to a design problem must come from the problem. That form must follow function.” About Beall's graphic design imagery of the 1940s Plisken wrote, “You couldn't miss Beall's work. It riveted you? held your attention? and planted an idea in you head. He was a skillful typographic designer and he liked working with type and typographic symbols. He loved arrows. Loved them and used them in nearly everything he did. It was a natural symbolism for him because the arrow was and is the simplest, most direct way to move the eye from one spot to another.”

The recognition of Lester Beall's pioneering efforts has been slow in coming. It is fitting that his importance to design is now to be acknowledged again by The American Institute of Graphic Arts. Looking back, however, he was consistently commended for the excellence of this work. As early as 1937 Beall was given the first one-man exhibit of graphic design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then, in 1942, Beall's greatness was acknowledged as he accompanied a distinguished group of colleagues, namely Dr. Agha, Alexey Brodovitch, A.M. Cassandre, Bob Gage, William Golden and Paul Rand in an ADG exhibit, “A Half Century on the Greatest Artists of the Modern Media.” August Freundlich remarked in the brochure, “These are men who have bridged the gap between art and commerce. Although we fully recognize their success within their commercial regions, it is their success as creative artists, as creative thinkers, as innovators, as inventors that concerns us.” It took the New York Art Directors Club until 4 years after Beall's death in 1969, to vote him into their prestigious Hall of fame in 1973. At that time Bob Plisken, who worked for Beall in the early 1940s, spoke on his behalf, “In my opinion, Beall did more than anyone to make graphic design in America a distinct and respected profession.” Lorraine Wild, in her writing on American design history, has characterized Beall as a leader of those designers form the Thirties to the Fifties whose work has a “quality of openness and accessibility. It is evidence of all the energy spent trying to make a real contribution to the common good and the environment. The stakes were clear—a new profession was formed.” Another distinguished design historian, Ann Ferebee, knew Beall personally and is steadfast in referring to his formative work as “the conscience of American design.” Philip Meggs in his A History of Graphic Design, credits Beall with “almost single-handedly launching the Modern movement in American design.” The excellence of Beall's life and work has made him into a near mythic figure who, even a quarter of a century after his death, still dazzles the imagination of many students and professionals alike.

“The quality of any man's life has got to be a full measure of that man's personal commitment to excellence?” Beall would have felt good about these words spoken by Vince Lombardi, because competition and commitment were the ways in which he was able to achieve brilliance in his professional career in design. Beall said, “When a designer designs a beautiful product he has unveiled a simple truth. In short, this product of his creativeness communicates a simple message—a message that will outlast the product's function or salability. The designer, furthermore, can then be said to have contributed something of value to his culture.” So it is entirely appropriate that Lester Beall's legacy to the profession is now honored; his was surely a “lifetime achievement.”

Copyright 1993 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.