If you’ve ever watched Showtime or NBC, visited the Museum of Modern Art or the Smithsonian, read National Geographic or a Harper Collins book, or shopped at Barneys or Armani Exchange, you’ve seen the graphic design of Ivan Chermayeff and his firm. Since starting Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv (then just Chermayeff & Geismar) in 1956, he’s created countless logos that are, to this day, ingrained in western visual culture.
Chermayeff is best known for clean, crisp graphics like NBC’s rainbow peacock. But he also has a chaotic, artistic side: his favorite activity is hacking up colored paper with scissors. Chermayeff’s personal artwork is celebrated in a new exhibit, Cut and Paste, at London’s De La Warr Pavilion. It spans 60 years of work, with 300 collages and posters featuring everything from abstract compositions to brown bears fitted with human noses and fantastical cut-paper elephants. Design runs in Chermayeff’s family, the show reveals: the pavilion was designed in 1935 by Serge Chermayeff, Ivan’s Russian immigrant architect father, and the exhibition was organized, in part, by his son, Sam, also an architect.
Co.Design caught up with the 82-year-old design legend about his love of tearing and slicing, graphic design as a form of play, how he hates sitting still, and dealing with difficult clients.
Co.Design: How has graphic design changed since your career began?
Ivan Chermayeff: We started our firm in ‘56. That’s quite a few years ago, and I’d been working away for some years as a student before that, and as a little boy before that. It all adds up to a hell of a long time. It means I’ve done a lot of work because I really like work a lot. When Tom [Geismar] and I started, there was no such expression as ‘graphic design.’ When a cab driver asked what you did, if you said graphic design, you’d have to explain it for an hour. Instead, we’d just say ‘I’m a commercial artist.’ When I went to Yale [School of Art and Architecture], it was only the second year of the graphic design department. Times have changed–there are now hundreds of thousands of graduates in graphic design in the U.S. alone.
Who inspired you early in your career?
I was inspired by some of the great people that pioneered the racket I’m in, especially Paul Rand, who was a teacher of mine and who became a friend despite the difference in years. There weren’t many people I admired as much as I admired him at the time. Some designers in Germany and Switzerland did tremendously good work, but you could count them on a few hands. Now, you need a whole book to be fair to the number of people that actually do very interesting, original work. Times have changed. There’s a tremendous amount that’s really damn good.
Do you often use collaging techniques to make your logo designs?
Oh yeah, I often use collaging–[logo design is] just taking materials in the form of line, color, type, whatever, that you’re using fragments of to counter or play against other forms. There’s not a real difference [between collage and graphic design] in that sense.
What’s the relationship between your cut and paste work and your logo design? How are the processes different?
Collages are free; graphic design is about solving other people’s problems. When I’m doing collages for myself, I’m the client. I’m just doing something I find interesting, finding visual connections between either images or color or whatever it may be–as opposed to trying to appropriately solve a total image that respects who the client is trying to reach. I have to ask, who’s the audience? An awful lot of design doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the sophistication or lack of sophistication of whom it’s for. And that’s a very important thing if it’s about communication that has a real point.
What are your work habits like?
I do a tremendous volume of work. The way I work is very fast. I just came back from the show in London, and it has 300 things in it. Some are very old, some are recent.
I throw a tremendous amount away, and say okay, it’s just not going to work. I’ve gotten pretty good at rejecting my stuff when it doesn’t work. I throw things right into the garbage can, as opposed to juggling and finicking and doing those things that painters do. I have a small fear of drawing, and an even bigger fear of painting. That’s why I use scissors, and I have lots: short ones, long ones, heavy ones, so I can cut heavy things. Cutting and tearing has a sort of excitement about it. If you tear things, they have a look of being torn, in contrast to a line which has little emotion.
I can’t sit still no matter where I am. Even if I’m lying on the beach in Cape Cod, I’m arranging pebbles in the sand. It’s always play. Play is a very good word for my attitude, even towards making a symbol that has to stand for a company–arriving at that symbol is still a form of play.
Do you have any favorite pieces in this new show, Cut and Paste?
I like anything that hits you right away, and yet wasn’t that easy to come by. For instance, a poster I did for a play called Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, about a period of time when Winston Churchill was out of office. In the graphic, his face is hidden in the smoke of a cigar, but nevertheless, most everybody who sees it knows instantaneously that it’s meant to be Winston Churchill. It’s fairly original and convincing without being so complicated–you don’t have to think hard to know what it’s all about.
What are the biggest challenges you face now as an artist and designer?
Technology is something you have to keep up with. There are many more choices that can be made, there are thousands of typefaces. I’ve narrowed it down to a bunch of choices that work for me. It used to be much more straightforward. It’s a little more complicated today.
Sometimes the business side of things–the preparation of getting a client to understand where you’re coming from, and communicating that intelligibly enough so they might agree with you, is often more work than the design work itself.