Louis Danziger

1998 AIGA Medal

A few years ago a publisher asked Lou Danziger to give advice to art students. He offered these words—“Work. Think. Feel.”—and elaborated thus: Work: “No matter how brilliant, talented, exceptional, and wonderful the student may be, without work there is nothing but potential and talk.” Think: “Design is a problem-solving activity. Thinking is the application of intelligence to arrive at the appropriate solution to the problem.” Feel: “Work without feeling, intuition, and spontaneity is devoid of humanity.”

These sentiments are not, however, applicable only to students. Rather, they underscore Danziger's own half-century career as a graphic designer, design consultant, educator, and one of the most prolific of America's late Modern practitioners—the generation that came immediately after Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Will Burtin and others.

Born into the generation for whom design was a mission to give order, beauty, and utility (often cut with wit) to a crassly commercial world, Danziger stood on the shoulders of pioneer Modernists, yet extended the reach of Modernism through his own achievements. Although Danziger is reluctant to be tied to any dogma, insisting, “No matter what I do, I want to do it well,” his design exemplifies the diversity of Modernism and his teaching promotes the diversity of design. Danziger is a “designer's designer and an educator's educator,” states Katherine McCoy, former co-chair of Cranbrook Academy, about the man for whom designing and teaching are two distinct but decidedly unified disciplines. Indeed, he has significantly affected many design genres—including advertising, corporate work, and the design of books, periodicals, museum catalogues, and exhibitions—and influenced the hundreds of students who attended his classes at Chouinard, CalArts, Harvard University, and the Art Center College of Design, where he currently teaches.

Twenty years ago Danziger “retired” from designing per se (although he continues to consult for Microsoft and others) and devoted himself almost entirely to teaching. Yet his print work from the '50s, '60s, and '70s is not Modernist nostalgia. Certainly the advertisements, brochures, catalogs and posters that fill his extensive oeuvre reveal certain formal, architectonic, and conceptual characteristics of their times, but they also stand as testaments to his individuality. In Danziger's hands, Modernism was not simply the cold, formulaic template developed to unify corporate messages; rather, each of his problems demanded and received appropriate, unique, and often inspired solutions. His common sense approach to the needs of business demanded that at all times he see the elegant solution, which he defines as “taking a minimal amount of material and a minimal amount of effort—nothing wasted—to achieve maximum impact.” Although his work promoted a time-sensitive product or idea, Danziger used a timeless design intelligence—a true universality that defies the parameters of the period—when he ensured that the page or pages he designed were structurally sound, piqued the audience's interest, imparted a message, and left a mark. Danziger's work challenges the notion that all graphic design is ephemeral. Though the message may eventually be obsolete, like a classic painting or sculpture, the formal essence of his work is as fresh as the day it was composed.

Louis Danziger was born in 1923 and raised in the Bronx, New York. At eleven, he was interested in letterforms and was an avid browser of the German language design magazine Gebrauchsgraphik, which he found in the public library. “I discovered that the Germans were doing the most interesting things with book jackets and posters,” he says about these early inspirations, which led him to become an art major at Evander Childs High School. “Although most Americans at the time were either hostile to or ignorant of modern art,” he says, “in my high school? all the art majors were given student memberships to the Museum of Modern Art.” Commercial art was offered as a viable profession for the artistically inclined and, although his parents were less than sanguine about his becoming a commercial artist, Danziger decided to follow this path. After high school, he served in the Army in the South Pacific (New Guinea, the Admiralties, the Philippines, and Japan) from 1943 through 1945 and designed the occasional poster. After being discharged, he moved to California—escaping New York's cold weather—and attended the Art Center School on the G.I. Bill.

Postwar California did not have the media industries that supported modern graphic design in the same way that New York did, but it was a burgeoning hotbed of contemporary design thinking. Other East Coast designers had already trekked to the City of Angels, none having a greater effect on Danziger's life than Alvin Lustig (posthumous recipient of the AIGA Lifetime Achievement Award), who was teaching graphic and industrial design classes at Art Center. Danziger remembers his first encounter with Lustig in 1947 as accidental: “I didn't like school at all, because it was very rigid at that time. But one day I heard this voice coming out of a classroom talking about social structure, religion, and the broadest implications of design. So I stuck my nose in the door and saw that it was Lustig. From then on I sat in on every class.” Lustig connected design to the worlds of art, music, and literature and instilled in students a belief that design was socially and culturally important.

Danziger became part of the Design Group, like-minded designers who had been students of Lustig and were “opposed to mindless, sentimental, nostalgic, commercial design.” In turn, he and his peers aspired to promote attitudes about design that were loftier than the profession itself. He became friends with Saul Bass, Rudolph de Harak, and Charles Eames (who introduced him to Buckminster Fuller's book Nine Chains to the Moon) and recalls the palpable excitement among them that they were missionaries of progressive design. “But I don't think we talked about our work in the philosophical or theoretical terms that are discussed today,” he says. “We were talking about very practical matters.”

Danziger and his colleagues vied for what little work was available at that time. “This was the problem,” he explains. “Any client that had any money went to an advertising agency. Annual reports in those days were designed by printing firms. So the only clients that were really interested in modern work were essentially furniture and lighting manufacturers that advertised in architectural magazines.” Although Danziger did some striking early identity and advertising for Flax Artist's Materials (including a trademark that is used today), General Lighting, Steelbuilt, Inc., and Fraymart Gallery, he was disenchanted with the provincialism of Los Angeles and referred to it as a “hick town.” He returned to New York, working briefly with Alexander Ross, a graphic designer who specialized in pharmaceutical products, and then taking a job at Esquire magazine, where he sat in the art department next to Helmut Krone (later chief art director for Doyle Dane Bernbach). At the time, Krone so admired Paul Rand that his work area, covered with Rand's tearsheets, was like a shrine. Danziger used top hang reproductions of Egyptian and Chinese artifacts at his desk and recalls saying to Krone, “If you want to be as good as Rand, don't look at Rand; look at what Rand looks at.”

Since the Esquire job offered him little chance to do good work, Danziger took refuge in Alexey Brodovitch's legendary “Graphic Journalism” night class at the New School. On the very first evening when the students were asked to bring in their portfolios, Danziger recalls that Brodovitch, who was not given to parceling out praise, “spent much of the evening favorably discussing my work.” Brodovitch taught Danziger to believe in his own uniqueness. “He instilled the idea that you cannot do good work unless you have guts to do something you have not seen before,” Danziger says. He also learned to have “a proper disrespect for design.” Unlike Lustig, Brodovitch did not need to attach world-shaping significance to design. “I always felt that it was the contradictions between my two masters that allowed me to form my own point of view,” Danziger adds.

After finishing the course with Brodovitch, the peripatetic Danziger went west again, this time to study architecture, which he thought was more socially meaningful. At the newly founded and short-lived California School of the Arts, he resumed his studies with Lustig, as well as with architect Raphael Soriano and engineer Edgardo Contini. It was here that he embraced Buckminster Fuller's principle of “de-selfing.” “Most young designers are very much concerned about being present in their work,” Danziger explains. “And Bucky Fuller's idea was that you are invisible—everything is objective. And a very important thing was the idea of doing a great deal with very little—maximum performance with minimal means.” Danziger was also influenced by Paul Rand's book Thoughts on Design because it clarified issues that had been running through his mind, “particularly where he talked about symbols and metaphors,” he says. “Finding something that stands for something else. Being able to encapsulate ideas in a single image.” For Danziger, it was equally important to be astutely analytical enough to understand the essence of what needed to be communicated. “You can always find the appropriate symbol for the wrong message,” he cautions.

Copyright 1999 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.