Woody Pirtle

1944, Corsicana, Texas


We have been witnessing the gradual fading of one era of graphic design and the emergence of another through AIGA’s selection of recipients for its most prestigious award, the AIGA Medal. The selection of Stan Richards in 1995 was perhaps, and I confess a bias here, a most appropriate gateway to the emergence of the next era.

The next era is marked by the not-so-sudden recognition that graphic life existed outside Chicago, Los Angeles or—especially—New York. A passage that happened over 30 years ago is only now surfacing in the form of AIGA’s ultimate recognition. Beginning in the late 1950s, it was Stan Richards who plowed the ground that allowed a new crop of designers to grow and be recognized. Stan’s efforts began to really pay off in the ’70s, when one of this year’s two AIGA Medal recipients was there to benefit, flourish and influence.

Woodrow Tyler Pirtle, Jr., was born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1944, but by the time Woody was three years old his father had moved the family to Shreveport, Louisiana, so he could become a corporate pilot for what was to become Pennzoil. The world that Woody inhabited from the ages of 3 to 24—Louisiana and later Arkansas—really gave no clues of what was to come.

Armed with a body of work in fine arts from the University of Arkansas, Woody made his first stop after finishing college in 1967 at a small ad agency in Shreveport. A couple of years later, realizing that he needed to be in a larger market if he was to make anything of himself, he moved his young family to Dallas. Woody may have been born in Corsicana and raised in Shreveport, but his professional birth was in Dallas in 1972. That was when he went to work for Stan Richards and where he would grow up for the next seven years.

It was not until he finally landed a position with Stan Richards and Associates that he really knew what making something not only of himself, but of design as well, would entail. Single, reactive projects would become well-conceived programs where design was pervasive and execution was critical. “realized when I walked in the door with my portfolio and saw a campaign that Jim Jacobs was working on, that Stan’s was where I needed to be.”

These would be the formative years, the ’70s. His teachers would be those around him and those in New York: Push Pin Studios, Chermayeff and Geismar, Herb Lubalin, Tom Carnase—especially Push Pin Studios. It was as if New York were the Montparnasse of graphic design. In the growing days at Stan’s, Woody’s work was a marriage of Seymour Chwast and Herb Lubalin, but—even then—he brought enough of himself to the game that you could never call his work imitative, just influenced. I do, however, remember one humorous moment when Woody, while admiring a piece of Seymour Chwast’s in a Communication Arts annual, said, “Damn! I wish he hadn’t done that.” As if Seymour hadn’t, Woody would have.

Woody worked at Stan’s until 1979, with the exception of a 9-month experiment as the partner of Houston designer Jerry Herring in 1975. To this day, Herring Design is actually legally entitled Herring/Pirtle Design. The split was an amicable one and mainly the result of Woody’s inability to warm up to the industrial nature of the Houston design market, and perhaps a lack of planning.

Stan welcomed Woody, the prodigal son, and there the son remained until the minor exodus. By 1977, Stan had set a definite course for the world of advertising and had renamed Stan Richards and Associates The Richards Group. Bob Dennard, I myself, Larry Sons, Woody and ultimately Ron Sullivan would all be gone, in that order, by 1984. All had worked in ad agencies and either did not want that environment or just simply thought it was a good time to make a change. All had been with Stan for 7 to 12 years, testimony to the fact that Stan’s place, by any name, had an impact on us all and was tough to leave.

In 1980 Woody formed Pirtle Design and was a one-man shop, but not for long. Initially, he built his business much as he had built his reputation at Stan’s, on ephemera. Letterheads, announcements, invitations, menus for T. G. I. Friday’s, small brochures and posters that were mailed in tubes were his staple, and the supply seemed endless. Each was also a challenge to the great Dallas printers. He seldom took the easy way, and assumed that anything could be produced perfectly. The Push Pin influence so evident in much of the T. G. I. Friday’s material, the Moonlight Serenade poster for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra or the Pinwheel Color poster soon faded, and Woody gained a voice of his own.

Ephemera, while ever a part of the orchestra, took second chair to larger, more visible assignments such as annual reports, exhibitions and paper company campaigns. Push Pin was gradually pushed aside, and what were style-driven ideas in the ’70s became idea driven style in the ’80s. And what may, for a moment, have been “Push Pin perfected” became “polished Pirtle.” Perhaps technology can be given only slight credit for aiding in the metamorphosis. And morph is a key root word, because there was a very brief period when Woody played with Photoshop-like imagery, as in the 1989 poster for UCLA’s summer session.

When told that he was a big influence on Woody’s early work, Seymour Chwast seemed surprised. He recalled judging a competition in Dallas: “Woody was the star, but I don’t recall the work looking like Push Pin or anything being done in New York. It was special in its production, the attention to paper and ink usage. It was handsome work and made a big impression.” .

By the mid- to late ’80s, Woody had won most of the awards there were to win, judged most of the shows and been elected into the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). Career-wise, things were great. Then, in the late ’80s, the Texas economy went bust. An economy that had been fueled by oil—fueling real estate development, banks, and savings and loans—collapsed when oil prices dropped to lows not seen since.

A fortuitous marriage was formed as a result of cheap oil. Colin Forbes approached Woody with an invitation to join Pentagram in New York. Woody made the pilgrimage to the center of design and there he has remained. Today, he is a director of Pentagram. .

Always restless and on the alert for opportunities to make things right, today, when he is not overseeing graphics and branding for clients like the American Folk Art Museum, or some other equally prestigious challenge, Woody is creating his own challenges. There is the late-eighteenth-century, three-building compound in upstate New York that serves as home and studio for Woody, his wife Leslie and son Luke. Then there is the “junk art.” Before junk art, there were wooden household brooms that he transformed into gallery-quality art with imaginative paint schemes. He refers to it as “broomschtick.” And, even further back, there was cut aluminum sculpture made from discarded lithography plates. These just might be Woody at his best.

Those who have known Woody for any length of time are not surprised by his success. “He has known what he was from the start, and the rest was just filling in the blanks. He was focused and smart, but for someone who was as incredibly driven as he was, he was incredibly nice and gracious,” said Jim Jacobs, the very person that Woody cites as showing him what design could be.

Jerry Herring remembers the work that Woody did in Texas and says, “When you think of Woody, you think of what he did while he was in Dallas.” He adds, “I have often thought of Woody as Mozart in the 1984 movie Amadeus. He seemed to create beautiful images spontaneously and effortlessly while the rest of us, like Salieri, struggled to produce our craft.”

Finally, Stan Richards pays homage when he says, “Woody left a significant mark on The Richards Group. Much of what we are today is attributable to Woody’s contribution.”

This year, we don’t have just an AIGA medalist, we have a symbol. A symbol of a generation of designers with similar roots and identical influences—New York influences. And, generations after, especially in places that were either in tandem with or just behind Texas in design recognition in the ’80s and yes, even New York, designers will be influenced not only by those same New York greats, but now, by one who has become another New York great, Woodrow Tyler Pirtle Jr.