Routes: The boy art director
A salesman from a graphic arts house was in the other day with nothing apparently on his mind. Queried, he said, `My boss says the great Paul Rand works here, and I thought I might get a look at him.' Just then Rand swept through the room. Asked if he was impressed, the salesman said, `But he's so young.'
`Paul Rand', The Insider, September 1939
When Paul Rand died on 26 November 1996 at eighty-two, his career had spanned six decades, three generations and numerous chapters of design history. In the late 1930s he began to transform commercial art from craft to profession. By the early 1940s he influenced the look of advertising, book and magazine cover design. By the late 1940s he proffered a graphic design vocabulary based on pure form where once only style and technique prevailed. By the mid-1950s he altered the ways in which major corporations used graphic identity. And by the mid-1960s he had created some of the world's most enduring corporate logos, including IBM, UPS, ABC and Westinghouse. He was the channel through which European modern art and design Russian Constructivism, Dutch De Stijl and the German Bauhaus was introduced to American commercial art. The first of his four books, Thoughts on Design, published in 1946 when he was thirty-two, was a bible of Modernism. In his later years he was a teacher, theorist and philosopher of design. Although intolerant of faddish trends, Rand ended his career with the same guiding belief as when he had begun: good design is good will.
Rand did not set out to reform graphic design, he just wanted to be the best at what he did. Reared in the commercial art production departments or `bullpens' of New York's publishing and advertising industries, he understood the demands of the marketplace and accepted that design was a service not an end, or an art, in itself. Yet he was critical of the poor aesthetic standards that prevailed, maintaining that everyday life especially commercial art could be enriched by the artist's touch. He modelled himself on avant-garde artists, such as painter Paul Klee, designer El Lissitzky and architect Le Corbusier, each of whom advocated a timeless spirit in design. Adhering to Le Corbusier's dictum that `to be modern is not a fashion, it is a state', Rand devoted his life to making what he modestly called `good work', and what others called exceptional design.
When Rand was twenty-four, just barely into his career, PM (October/November 1938), America's leading graphic arts trade magazine, hailed him as the most promising young influence on American graphic design. He was singled out for editorial, advertising and promotional work that was so original in form and content that it caught the conservative graphics magazines so unawares that they subsequently ignored him. But PM demanded that Rand be taken seriously because neither dogma nor fashion dictated. `Rand is unhampered by traditions,' the magazine declared. `He has no stereotyped style because every task is something new and demands its own solution. Consequently, there is nothing labored or forced about his work."
Hard sell, copy-driven American advertising that spanned the turn-of-the-century through the 1930s was laboured and forced. The Great Depression of 1929 had brought America's phenomenal post-war economic growth to a standstill, yet the marketing strategy known as forced obsolescence, which when introduced during the 1920s ushered in an era of fervid consumerism, continued to demand aggressive advertising campaigns in order to capture what consumer dollars remained. A handful of inspired advertising campaigns were exceptions to an overall industry standard that favoured proven formulas and tired clichés. The credo was, if at first it did succeed, milk it for all it is worth. Clients demanded the squeezing of superfluous decoration on to layouts like icing on a wedding cake. And what passed for art was what Rand derisively called the `Uncle Joe school of realistic illustration'.
Rand repudiated what passed for acceptable design. He argued that it was wrong just to make pictures of Uncle Joe. `It doesn't solve any problems ... it's run-of-the-mill thinking. It depends completely on the skill of the illustrator; and back then there weren't many good ones.' Looking to the European Moderns for inspiration, he developed a fresh and individual approach to visual communications. His magazine and advertising layouts wedded functional simplicity to abstract complexity. They did not cater to the common denominator. Devoid of ornament, they were conceptually sharp and visually smart. Every detail was strategically planned to attract the eye and convey a message. Yet nothing was formulaic. The page was a stage on which Rand performed feats of artistic virtuosity. `He is an artist's artist, yet he delights the man in the street with his wit, inventiveness, and showmanship,' hailed Percy Seitlin in American Artist (1942); `It is quite an accomplishment to make art and entertainment out of advertising.' Rand's work was so distinct from both his traditional and faddish contemporaries so radically counter to the accepted norms yet progressive in ways that acutely tested the limits of the print design that his admirers called him the Picasso of Graphic Design.
Paul Rand was born Peretz Rosenbaum on 15 August 1914 and was raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, in a strict Orthodox Jewish home, along with his twin brother Fishel (Philip) and an older sister Ruth. His father, Itzhak Yehuda, an immigrant from Galicia, Poland, and mother, Leah, from Brooklyn, worked long hours running a neighbourhood grocery store. Rand remembered that his father's clientele included mobsters from the `Jewish mafia', the notorious Murder Incorporated, `who were always polite and paid in cash'. Besides working in the store, as youngsters Rand and his brother attended a Brooklyn state school by day and studied the Talmud at the local Yeshiva (religious school) in the afternoons. Their grandfather, who was later brutally bludgeoned to death by a robber while taking a ritual bath at a Mikvah, referred to the boys as the `two goyim' because they occasionally cut religious school for sojourns outside the neighbourhood. But the first sign of Rand's rebellion had emerged much earlier.
At three he began copying pictures of the attractive Palmolive models shown on advertising displays hanging in his father's store. `I used a tiny stool as my table and I drew without stopping,' Rand recalled; adding, `But you realize, in the Orthodox religion you don't draw the human figure. It's against the rules.' Showing his independence, however, he violated the religious strictures and drawing became his emotional and creative release. While the neighbourhood children played outside, he remained inside the dark back room of the grocery store devoted to his precious scraps of paper. His artistic interests were later piqued by the comic strip `Krazy Kat' by George Herriman, Frederick Opper's `Happy Hooligan', and the comic women by Mel Brinkley in The New York World. And as his secular interests broadened, Rand recalled that on numerous occasions he was scolded for reading comic books: `We will lose you because you live in a secular world,' chided his father. `Your language is Yiddish, and your faith is Hebrew. Reading this will spoil you; it will destroy you as a Jew.'
The two brothers were torn between observing their parents' religious traditions and aspiring to live in the outside world where basic urges were not arrested by ancient ritual. Together they took baby steps and then giant ones further from the fold. One chose art and the other became a musician (Philip played in dance bands in his twenties until he was killed in an automobile accident on his way to a job in the Catskill Mountains). Rand's friend and former colleague, Morris Wyszogrod, explained that `they both somehow ventured out because they wanted to see how the weather looked outside and they managed to do so. Ultimately Paul realized you can live in the world and believe in your faith.'
At Public School 109 in East New York, Rand created signs for school events and painted a large mural with a picture of a stone bridge that hung behind the faculty sign-in desk. These extra-curricular duties, he explained, got him excused from `not-so-interesting classes, like gym, math, social studies, and English.' He earned the title `chief class artist' and drew in the realistic styles of American illustrators J.C. Lyendecker and Norman Rockwell. `As a matter of fact,' he confessed, `I went Lyendecker and Rockwell one better.' While they used models of photographs, Rand did not. `I thought [an artist] had to sit down and do something without any reference. And I never did.' Later on, in high school he knew people who used to produce what he called designs 'abstract things without reference which I could do too'. And once in elementary school, he recalled making wallpaper: `I think it was trees, very simplified forms, and I didn't have any great difficulty doing it. But I thought that that was only for decorators. It was something less than being able to draw soldiers dying on the battlefield which is what I used to do Civil War, World War I, soldiers in the trenches childish notions of what art should be.'
When Rand entered high school, other students prepared themselves for jobs or professions that guaranteed liveable wages in a Depression-ravaged city, but he was intent on making artwork. Putting his religious convictions aside, Rand's father frequently warned that art was no way to make a living. Nevertheless, his father agreed to advance the $25 entrance fee that enabled Rand to enrol in night school art classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on the condition that he attend Harren High School in Manhattan during the day. While riding the Canarsie subway back and forth across the East River left little opportunity for recreation, Rand was most content to pursue his passion. In 1932 he successfully earned two high school diplomas a general one after four years at Harren High and an art certificate after three years at Pratt. Though proud of his accomplishments, these documents were ultimately empty symbols.
Neither school had offered Rand enough stimulation to satisfy his needs. Harren High barely had an art department and Pratt Institute was mired in convention. In later years he severely criticized his teachers at Pratt who, he insisted in retrospect, went out of their way to ignore Matisse, Gris and Picasso. `I literally learned nothing at Pratt; or whatever little I learned, I learned by doing myself.' He remembered a painting teacher who did beautiful work but he used to walk around talking about Raphael. `Not that you could learn anything from him; he would just say things like "Raphael was a great painter," and other meaningless historical statements.' He also recalled another teacher whose entire pedagogy was `how to indicate the three-dimensional by having a highlight on one side, and the darkest near the lightest spot'. Indeed if Rand wanted knowledge, he knew he had to acquire it on his own.
Perhaps school soured him, or his father's pragmatism swayed him, or simply growing up poor was enough motivation, but Rand decided early on that `I was too practical to want to be a painter.' Making money, at least earning more than his parents earned, was an important determinant in how he saw his future unfolding. He therefore focused on the commercial side of art as a career. One of the keys to economic solvency was learning to letter. But even this practical skill was not well taught in art school. `You'd be given a book, and you'd copy the alphabet,' he reported. `There wasn't any explanation of basic principles, like the verticals should be the heaviest optically, the horizontals are the lightest, diagonals are in between, the round letters are bigger than the others you never had any of that. I just did it myself.' The reason for this paucity of such useful information was that most of the art teachers were illustrators. They were not concerned with layout and lettering per se, but with exactly how models looked and what kind of clothing they wore. Rand summed up his years in art school as `all fact, no fancy'. But in truth, there was not even enough fact.
Rand's genuine education had already begun in 1929 at Macy's department store in Manhattan. `My mother and I used to buy cigarettes to sell in our store at Macy's because they were cheaper there than from wholesalers,' he related. While his mother filled up her shopping bag, he used to look around Macy's bookshop and there he found a bound volume of Commercial Art, the leading British graphics trade magazine. `I'd never heard of Picasso or Modernism until reading about it here.' Coincidentally, that same year, at a small bookstore adjacent to the Brooklyn Paramount theatre, he stumbled upon his first copy of Gebrauchsgrafik, Germany's premier advertising arts journal, which routinely showcased an international array of leading practitioners. `The cover was a sort of imitation of Léger not very good,' he recalled. `But I never forgot it.' And from that moment on he collected all the bilingual issues, which later became the cornerstone of an expansive design library. In that single issue, he discovered such notables as the Bauhaus master Lázló Moholy-Nagy; the painter Richard Lindner, who had originally designed posters in Germany; and a virtuoso German trademark designer, Valentin Ziatara. But Gebrauchsgrafik offered more than an introduction to contemporary graphic art masters; it opened his eyes to the formal issues inherent in all art, especially commercial art.
One memorable issue contained the reproduction of a cigarette poster that used classical forms as props rendered in a contemporary, modernistic style. A figure shown smoking a cigarette was wearing a laurel wreath of victory, in which the overlapping leaves were pointed ovals. Rand was intrigued that the tip of the cigarette shown in the poster was also an oval marked by points along its curves: `I asked my teacher "How is it possible to draw an oval with points?" He replied that "the [poster artist] just didn't know how to draw." But I said to myself that this couldn't be ... Everything else was so beautifully done ... Then I realized that the interesting thing about [this poster], which my teacher failed to see, was that the artist was repeating the oval shapes everywhere else. It was not only a beautiful drawing, it was brilliant design.'
It was also Rand's first epiphany that art and design were unified a notion that forever changed his attitude and set him on the course that would lead him to reject forever pure illustration in favour of graphic design.
Still, Rand complained that the teachers at Pratt encouraged students to identify themselves only with the great artists Michelangelo and Rembrandt, because they represented the highest level of human endeavour. `Graphic design was rarely mentioned,' he opined. Despite the revolutionary modern design being practised in Europe, Rand regretted that such things were ignored, and that discussions of the avant-garde never surfaced in his classes. `Being at Pratt Institute, you didn't know about [Jan] Tschichold [the codifier of the New Typography in the mid-1920s],' adding sarcastically, `or for that matter, you didn't know about him if you were in Brooklyn, or Brownsville or East New York. What you knew about were gangsters and icepick murderers.'
Discouraged by the dearth of practical information about design and a surfeit of what he called `misinformation', Rand consoled himself behind the large oak doors of Room 313 at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. In this grand old reading room, he consumed the library's rich collection of art books, European design annuals, and printing and type journals. It was here that he learned about the work of Cubist-inspired advertising poster artists in France and England, A. M. Cassandre and E. McKnight Kauffer. Through their abstract and symbolic compositions for department stores, shipping lines and railway companies, he could see the intersection of functionality and imagination. He began to understand that in Europe art was not hidden away from view, entombed in exalted institutions, but rather was part of ordinary life. Commercial art was one means of disseminating art to the masses. And this total experience, he learned, was the mission of Europe's modern art movements and schools.