Ken Burns on William Segal

 

 
William C. Segal
(1905-2000) is not as well known in the design world as his magazine
contemporaries Alexey Brodovitch or Alexander Lieberman. His name does
not appear in so much as a footnote in any design history textbook. Yet
he had an equal influence on fashion magazines during the late forties
and fifties. Segal was founder and managing director of Reporter
Publications in New York City, as well as writer, editor, publisher and
art director of its stunning periodicals, Men’s ReporterAmerican Fabrics and Gentry.

Men’s Reporter was the voice box of men’s’ fashion. AF
was an elegant “trade” magazine that combined articles on fine art and
commercial textile manufacture aimed at elevating the oft disparaged
“rag trade.” Gentry was a general interest quarterly male lifestyle magazine that owing to its special graphic effects rivaled the likes of Esquire for intelligence and Playboy for inventiveness.

Segal may not be well known in design annals because he hired
designers to work on projects, so he  assumes the appearance of a client
rather than a creator. For Segal design was not an isolated,
specialized activity, rather it was a part of an entire process.

If the term “auteur” applies to graphic design, then Segal’s total
participation in all aspects of his magazines – from editing, to selling
ads, to doing layouts – has certainly earned him the distinction of
design auteur.

One of his notable collaborations was with Alvin Lustig,
who designed his home (below, second), his offices in the Empire State
Building, and his magazines (see two covers above and below top). And
later this month and next, PBS,
which has exclusive rights to Ken Burns’s films, is bringing two of
his documentaries, “William Segal” and “In the Marketplace,” to
television for the first time. (Viewers should check local listings for
broadcast dates.)

These  short and intimate movies about Segal
that Burns and his colleagues made from 1992 to 2000 were mostly meant
to be seen within Mr. Segal’s personal and professional circles. They
will focus on his artistic (as painter and poet) and spiritual life (as
a confidant of G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greco-Armenian mystic whose
self-named esoteric movement wed the wisdom of the East and energy of
the West).

“In the last decade of his life he and filmmaker Ken
Burns collaborated on an interior trilogy. The film includes segments
of Segal in his art studio and garden discussing the creative process
and the intimate personal and spiritual relationship between the artist
and the work of art. It also includes a segment on Vezelay, inspired
by the magnificent basilica at Vezelay, France. There he and Burns
probe the eternal question of individual identity and the obstacles of
seeing, searching and being.”

Or you can read my essay on Segal and Gentry in “The Graphic Design Reader.”
 
 

 

 

 


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes a weekly column for The Atlantic online and is the "Visuals" Columnist for the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of over 160 books on design and visual culture. And he is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

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