3 June 2015

Chwast On…: The legendary designer and illustrator shares wisdom on a host of subjects


3 June 2015


Before you were born, most likely before your parents were born, a couple of New York kids were changing the landscape of visual culture and giving the middle finger to a pervading tide of modernism that threatened to homogenise the world of contemporary design. Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel were a pair of young upstarts from Cooper Union who – after being simultaneously fired from Esquire – put their heads together and set up shop as a commercial design enterprise, trading under the name of Push Pin Studios.

Edward bailed a year later and was replaced by Milton Glaser who, together with Seymour, went on a 20-year creative bender, producing some of the most forward-thinking, backward-facing graphic design ever made, defining the aesthetic of posters, record sleeves, book covers, beer brands and Happy Meals throughout the 1960s and 1970s. With their instantly recognisable aesthetic, Push Pin provided the visual backdrop for numerous generations of Americans and sparked a wave of imitators – the progeny of which are still making work that’s Push Pin-inspired to this day.

With such a long and powerful career behind him, Seymour Chwast has much to say on the subject of the creative industries, but also on creativity in general – he’s shaken up pretty much every type of brief you can imagine and produced a raft of personal work too. In fact he’s got pearls of wisdom on any number of subjects, from pride and talent to war and marriage. Here are a few of them, gleaned from an enjoyable hour with the great man, before he disappeared off to speak at London’s POINT conference with a gaggle of buzzing minders in tow.

On Commercial Art

I always knew I was going to be a commercial artist because people actually see your work and you can make much more money than if you’re a fine artist.

I came from a poor family – I was an only child with parents that divorced – so making a living was important. Besides I learned about poster design in high school from a terrific teacher who’d come over from Germany. He showed us work by the great poster artists like Cassandre and Toulouse Lautrec and I really wanted to work like that. I really wanted to become a poster artist. It was unusual because it was just one man teaching at a public high school near Coney Island where I was living. It was pure chance that I got to go to that school.

On Contemporary Illustration

Illustration has gone downhill a lot. There are fewer magazines that show illustration and fewer books too, as fewer books are being produced. It’s a problem. The only areas that seem okay are children’s books and animation – there seem to be more animated films out there than ever before – and graphic novels, which is still a fairly new outlet for illustration. Maybe people don’t think illustration is cool anymore. Photography has just become so easy to manipulate that you don’t even need a photographer anymore – you just need a found photograph and you can manipulate it in any way you want, so illustration is valued even less.

On Graphic Novels

Some graphic novels have original stories but the ones that I’ve done are based on the classics, so people are interested in them for different reasons. I think the comic technique appeals to people because they enjoy the visual work, but also because they’re too lazy to read the original. Just like me. I’ve made comic books out of things I was supposed to read in college but never did.

On Visual Communication

Visual communication always has to be propaganda for something, to promote ideas, medical affairs, literacy – particularly in countries where people may be less literate. Seeing an image that describes how to take care of yourself in terms of health is important, so that skill will always be needed. Visual expression is a way to communicate ideas in another form; a way that can be beautiful, expressive and poetic. It delivers ideas the way the artist wants it to be delivered in a much more potent way.

On War

There’s a great tradition of design and illustration for political ends. I did my most famous poster during the Vietnam War. During the Iraq War I felt less inspired but during the Vietnam War in the 1960s there were a lot of graphic things going on – music posters promoting punk rock concerts and other anti-war stuff, some anti-drug posters and a lot of other poster activity. People back then had posters hanging up in their rooms but they don’t anymore. That was just a great time for visual material.

On Talent

There are some terrific illustrators working out there – some satirical, some just straight – and there’s a range of styles and attitudes in the work that’s being produced by different people. There’s so much talent out there but unfortunately there isn’t enough work out there for all of them. But also I think there are some people who really don’t deserve to get illustration assignments.

On Personal Work

I usually make personal work on weekends, either working on a book or doing paintings. I’ve always just sort of painted as I was doing work, doing paintings on cheap metal and cutting them out. I used to do shows with that work and I made papier-mâché at one time. Now I just paint on canvas but that’s weekend work, or whenever I have time.

On Pride

I’m not very precious about my work. If I see something of mine that’s been stolen I get pissed, of course. But otherwise artists and designers all learn from each other. Most ideas have been done before so you just have to keep doing them in a better way. We all learn from the past so the best thing to do is just keep discovering things.

On Ideas

It gets harder and harder to come up with fresh ideas. I like what I’m doing now – books and occasional illustrations for publications – and I still enjoy doing it. Milton always said that having something to work on was what would get him up in the morning and that’s the same for me.

On His Wife (Paula Scher)

We like to show each other our work and we’re free to express ourselves. If Paula doesn’t like something I’m doing she’ll tell me – she wouldn’t hide. She’s always concerned about style and thinks my work should still have some vitality after all these years, rather than doing things I’ve already done before. She’ll show me what she’s working on and if there’s something

I don’t like, I’ll tell her. Fortunately most of what she’s doing is terrific so I don’t have a lot to say, but I am free to say it. I enjoy that criticism, but we could never work together.

On Magazines

Magazines in terms of design have changed. If you look back, things used to be very conservative. I worked at Esquire when it was changing from a magazine from the 1930s to one that was avant-garde for the time. During the middle of the century everything was changing; illustration was changing, design was changing and we all became modernists.

On Writing

We counted once and it turned out I’d had approximately 35 book proposals rejected. I’m not a writer and I really shouldn’t make any more attempts.

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About the Author

James Cartwright

James started out as an intern in 2011 and came back in summer of 2012 to work online and latterly as Print Editor, before leaving in May 2015.

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