Date
6 April 2021
Reading Time
8 minute read
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Rational Simplicity: Celebrating Rudolph de Harak, an unsung hero of mid-century graphic design

Richard Poulin pays homage to the trailblazing American graphic designer, hoping to share his rich, varied and vibrant portfolio with a wider audience.

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Date
6 April 2021
Reading Time
8 minute read

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Born in Culver City, California in 1924, Rudolph de Harak was influenced heavily by the masters of modernism, in both art and architecture. While his practice was informed by a highly systematic approach, de Harak infused his designs with colour, wit and warmth. He once said: “I tried to evolve forms that in feeling covered the entire emotional spectrum, and also were impeccable in their sense of order. This to me was modernism, and toward that end, I wanted to create constellations so rich that they in themselves would communicate content.” Steven Heller describes his work as “a solid link between American and Swiss modernism... an exemplar of minimalist form with a conceptual content”.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

In his five-decade career he brought this sensibility to everything from record sleeves and magazine covers to exhibitions and building facades, via furniture, corporate identities and pictograms, not to mention the iconic paper shopping bags for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His book covers for publishers McGraw-Hill rival the Penguin covers of that era in their visual impact. And yet, his work remains largely under the radar. A new book from publishers Volume aims to change that, authored by Richard Poulin, a respected graphic design practitioner in his own right. Here, Richard writes for It’s Nice That about de Harak’s ethos and impact, and selects five of his works to delve into further.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

A new objective rationalism took hold of graphic design in the United States during the post-war era of the 1950s. Modernism, devoid of style and of the outdated influence of prevalent art movements of the earlier part of the 20th century – art nouveau and art deco – became a powerful and pervasive point of view. During this same era, a common movement in graphic design arrived from Switzerland and Germany that became one of the most influential design movements of the century.

Rudolph de Harak was one of the first American graphic designers to embrace the formal principles of modernism and the International Typographic Style, eagerly assimilating its rigorous and rational ideas while simultaneously pushing the limits of his own design concepts. At the same time, he was also influenced by the art movements of the era – abstract expressionism, Dada, op art and pop art. Throughout his illustrious career, he was consciously and continuously exploring the potential of abstraction, geometry and colour, as well as experimenting with photography and various photographic techniques in new and exciting ways.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

De Harak understood that his approach to his work was independent and not part of our visual world. He wanted his work to always be a sensory experience that reshaped the familiar into the expressive. His work was consistently reductive, symbolic, interpretive, imaginary, impressionistic, non-representational, non-objective, non-figurative and purely of his own making. He continually relied upon rational simplification in his work as a means to communicate visual messages that the viewer could connect with immediately, intuitively, and most importantly, emotionally.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

Esquire magazine, New York, spot illustrations (1953–1958)

From 1953 to 1958, Henry Wolf, art director at Esquire magazine, commissioned de Harak’s most visible work to date – a series of monthly spot illustrations for the magazine. These unusual editorial collages, 16 in all and produced over a period of five years, were referred to by de Harak as “jazz-like improvisations and a kind of 1950s Dada”. Comprised of found print ephemera, photographs and drawings that he collected and/or produced over the years, these impromptu compositions reflected his ever-growing interests in abstract expressionism, photographic experimentation and visual communications.

The work de Harak did for Esquire magazine is emblematic of his ability at the beginning of his career to experiment and explore a wide range of approaches, techniques, photographic processes, colour palettes, typography, and geometric and abstract forms.

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

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Rudolph de Harak: Album covers for Westminster Records (Copyright © Westminster Recording Corporation, 1960)

Westminster Records album covers

From 1959 to 1961, de Harak designed approximately 50 record album covers for Westminster Records. From its early beginnings, Westminster was known for its technically superior recordings which became extremely popular among a growing community of audiophiles, especially when the company began issuing stereophonic recordings in the late 1950s. With this work, de Harak allowed himself the opportunity to seriously consider the diverse worlds of hard, delineated geometry and soft, hand-drawn lines of ethereal forms and shapes. This was one of the first times in his career that he methodically attempted to reveal the “hidden order” within each of his projects – in this case a series of record album covers – by developing conceptual images that evoked the emotional and melodic essence of each musical composition.

For example, with his album cover for Sounds from the Alps, de Harak created three bold brushstrokes that were symbolic of the Swiss Alpine region, while simultaneously conveying melodious sound waves. In a similar approach, he created a dynamic composition of multi-coloured squares that functioned as a contemporary visual and emotional counterpoint to the Italian Baroque musical compositions of Antonio Vivaldi in Vivaldi Gloria, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.

De Harak’s work for Westminster Records was his initial testing ground for his subsequent book jackets and covers for publishers such as Meridian Books, New Directions, Holt Rinehart & Winston, and Doubleday. Ultimately, this led to his pioneering tour de force – over 400 book covers for McGraw-Hill Paperbacks that reflected his detailed explorations of visual form through colour, typography, optical illusions and photography.

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Rudolph de Harak and Emery Roth & Sons: 127 John Street, New York (Copyright © William Kaufman Organization, 1968)

127 John Street, New York

The practice of modern graphic design dramatically expanded beyond the printed page and into environmental graphics and wayfinding systems in the 1960s. Collaborations between architects and graphic designers became more of a norm, as a more holistic approach to design emerged between like-minded professionals. De Harak was one of the first in his profession to spearhead this collaborative effort.

127 John Street, completed in 1968, was one of de Harak’s first large-scale, multidisciplinary projects where he literally transformed the identity of a cold, sterile and faceless 32-storey, multi-tenant commercial office building located in New York City’s financial district into an unforgettable visual experience filled with an “atmosphere of pleasure, humour and excitement for people”.

Even before entering the building, visitors were greeted by an enormous digital clock (the world’s largest at the time of its completion) measuring 12.2 metres high by 15.2 metres wide that covered the Water Street facade. This kinetic numerical supergraphic marked time by a series of rear-illuminated light boxes organised in a grid and composed of 72 squares each measuring 1.2m – 12 for hours, 60 for minutes and seconds. The clock’s rigorous composition and imposing scale captured de Harak’s modernist principles for the first time in an architectural context that he had done so memorably in his smaller-scale print-related projects.

A structure comprised of tubular stainless steel scaffolding, supported brightly coloured stretched canvas squares and multi-levelled platforms that served as protection and sun decks for passers-by, as well as provocatively framed the entrance to the building. At street level, love seats of welded, folded steel painted in bright, primary colours provided respite for pedestrians. De Harak also reinvented other street furniture for the building’s vibrant and engaging public plaza, that included bicycle racks, a red telephone booth and trash receptacles.

Entering the building from Fulton Street, a 76-metre-long galvanised, corrugated steel tunnel illuminated by multiple rings of blue argon-gas filled tubes, greeted and guided visitors to the low- and high-rise elevators. The end result was one of de Harak’s most humanistic projects – a veritable visual playground that entertained pedestrians, enlivened a faceless street, greatly enhanced the building architecture and ultimately redefined what a modern-day street-level entrance for a speculative office building could be.

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Rudolph de Harak and Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Copyright © Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983)

Metropolitan Museum of Art

From 1975–1983, the Metropolitan Museum of Art undertook a major redesign, renovation, expansion and reinstallation programme for the Lila Acheson Wallace Galleries of Egyptian Art. The museum’s collection of Ancient Egyptian art, considered the finest and most comprehensive in the western hemisphere, consisted of approximately 45,000 objects of artistic, historical and cultural importance, dating from the Paleolithic to the Roman period (ca. 300,000 BC–AD 641).

De Harak and his staff were responsible throughout the three phases of the project for the design of all casework displays, interpretive graphics, didactic labels, maps and exhibition information tables. The project provided for the display of all 45,000 objects arranged chronologically in 32 galleries so that all material of a particular period was integrated.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

Extensive educational and interpretive materials in the form of rear-illuminated information tables and extended captions were installed throughout the galleries to introduce basic concepts of Ancient Egyptian art and culture, as well as provide descriptions of individual exhibition areas. Information tables and casework were constructed of polished stainless steel and glass with rear-illuminated transparencies. Exhibition text and captions were silkscreened on the second surface of glass casework, allowing for legible yet unobtrusive reading and simple maintenance. De Harak believed that the viewer should always be immediately aware of the exhibition’s content and not the manner in which content was displayed.

For over ten years, de Harak and his design team were also responsible for the branding and design of the highly visible Metropolitan Museum of Art shopping bag programme, as well as exhibition design, interpretive graphics, and an environmental graphics, donor recognition and wayfinding sign programme for the Uris Center for Education, the Andre Meyer Galleries of European Painting and Sculpture, the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing for Twentieth-Century Art and The Museum Bookstore.

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Rudolph de Harak and Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates: Cummins Engine Company Corporate Museum (Copyright © Cummins Engine Company, 1989)

Cummins Engine Company Corporate Museum

Completed in 1983, the Cummins Engine Corporate Museum was an integral component of the new company’s corporate headquarters building in downtown Columbus, Indiana. De Harak’s goal was to create a museum experience that enhanced the relationship between the company’s product – diesel engines – and its dedication to timeless design, namely, between the engines themselves and the new corporate headquarters building. Industrial equipment was taken out of the manufacturing shop and treated as an art form.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

The museum itself highlighted the past, present and future of one of the world’s leading engine-producing companies, enhanced the headquarters’ work environment and celebrated the history of Cummins from its early beginnings in 1919 to the present. Employees, tourists, tour groups, architectural students and clients were able to view a collection of restored, early engines (including the first diesel-powered race car that ran the Indianapolis 500 in 1952); a video presentation showing the race car in action; cranks and camshafts; current diesel engine models in production; a video of the history of the company; and a timeline of Cummins’ history.

The centrepiece of the museum was the company’s largest diesel engine, disassembled into approximately 1,000 parts, suspended in tension by stainless steel cables, spanning the two-storey exhibition space. De Harak called it an “exploded” diesel engine. The presence of this unique centrepiece, as well as a changing display of the company’s current diesel engine line, allowed the Museum to also function as a hands-on product marketing centre.

Volume is currently running a fundraising campaign to publish Rational Simplicity: Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer. Find out more and pledge here.

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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Richard Poulin: Rational Simplicity, Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer (Copyright © Volume, 2021)

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About the Author

Richard Poulin

Richard Poulin is the co-founder of design consultancy Poulin + Morris, which since 1986 has created visual communications for clients including Carnegie Hall, The New York Public Library and Yale University. He was formerly president of The American Institute of Graphic Arts/New York Chapter, and is a longtime professor at the School of Visual Arts, as well as an author of several books on graphic design.

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