Remembering Ivan Chermayeff

By Patrick Burgoyne

Along with the likes of Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Massimo Vignelli and Saul Bass, Chermayeff and his partner Tom Geismar helped set the template for how US graphic design would operate in both the commercial and cultural sphere. For what a graphic design studio could be.

Like many of his contemporaries, Chermayeff was born outside the US. Unlike some of the notable ‘emigre’ designers who had come immediately before him, however, he was not fleeing persecution from Europe. Chermayeff was one generation removed from that émigré experience – his architect father Serge had left Russia as a child in the 1900s to settle in London, where Ivan was born in 1932. The family emigrated to the US in 1940 where Chermayeff junior studied design, first at Harvard, then at the Institute of Design in Chicago and finally at Yale. There he met Tom Geismar (above, on left, with Chermayeff), who shared his research interest in type design.

Ivan Chermayeff

After Yale, Geismar went into the Army while Chermayeff headed for New York. He secured a job with Alvin Lustig before a spell designing record covers for CBS. In 1957, the pair reunited to open their own studio.

Initially, there was a third partner in the firm – Robert Brownjohn, who had been close to Chermayeff’s father. Though a brilliant designer, Brownjohn’s drug use became a growing concern until, in 1959, he decided to move to London in the hope that it would help him address the problem.

Back in New York, Chermayeff and Geismar became one of the design studios – along with the likes of Unimark – that, through the 1960s, helped shape the economic and cultural life of the US.

In what would become a familiar model for graphic design studios (with all its inherent contradictions), the practice combined commercial work for the likes of Mobil with cultural projects for arts organisations and the various Expos that helped spread the ‘soft power’ of the American way of life around the world in those Cold War days.

In the emerging field of visual identity, Chermayeff & Geismar’s geometric, abstract symbols provided organisations as diverse as the Smithsonian Institute, Chase Bank and PBS with a contemporary, distinctive face to present to the world. “We try to do something that is memorable for a symbol,” Tom Geismar said of their approach in C Ray Smith’s biography of Chermayeff on the occasion of his award of the 1979 AIGA Medal. “Something that has some barb to it that will make it stick in your mind, make it different from the others, perhaps unique. And we want to make it attractive, pleasant and appropriate. The challenge is to combine all those things into something simple.”

Alongside his commercial work, Chermayeff maintained a parallel art practice in which he would create ‘assemblages’ using discarded paper ephemera. In this respect there are parallels with the late Alan Fletcher. Both delighted in rummaging through discarded items of packaging or printed material in search of the intriguing or something that may suggest an alternate meaning when carefully juxtaposed with other items on a page. For both, this extra-curricular activity also served to inform their commercial practice. Chermayeff’s collages were widely exhibited, including in Ivan Chermayeff: Cut and Paste at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea in 2014. The show neatly brought together three generations of Chermayeffs as it was designed by his son Sam and took place in a building designed by his father.

The witty playfulness in this work (and in the many children’s books Chermayeff created) was, in my limited experience, replicated in the man himself. Spending time with him at the Design Yatra conference in Goa in 2014 remains one of the more treasured highlights of my professional life. That conference was also the occasion of one of my more embarrassing episodes as, in my duty as MC, I had to walk on stage and cut Ivan off mid-flow. He’d been allotted a 40-minue slot by the organisers – far too little in retrospect – and was now well past the hour mark and showing little sign of stopping. With the organisers becoming ever-more agitated, it fell to me to bring things to a close in the gentlest way I could. The shame.

Chermayeff & Geismar never strove for a house style, as such. Though much of their 60s work displayed trademark traits of simplicity and visual wit – such as their logo for the Grey ad agency with the company name rendered, of course, in bright orange. They were never as didactic as Vignelli with his handful of approved typefaces for every occasion, nor perhaps as revered as Rand or as ‘cool’ as the independent studios that emerged in the 80s and 90s. Nevertheless, Chermayeff & Geismar (latterly Chermayeff, Geismar & Haviv) played a central role in the establishment of what we now think of as graphic design.

Chermayeff’s work had intelligence, substance and wit. It lasted, and it helped shape both a culture and a profession. Few of us could wish for more than that.

Read Ivan Chermayeff’s New York Times obituary here

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