When Illustrators Wanted to Be Bob Peak

The 1950s and ’60s were a time when most wanna-be illustrators wanted to be Bob Peak. It was also the moment when illustration was at a crossroads. Would it continue to merely serve or illuminate a text, or would it say something more? Since the emerging editorial themes (war, peace, race, etc.) were more socially and metaphorically charged, the substance and style of illustration could no longer be entirely realistic. Certain levels of abstraction were filtered into the American illustration vocabulary, and by the mid-’60s, illustration was made of varied dialects—representing retro to futuristic with various substrata in between.

Peak was a bridge between the representational and the conceptual, between the Rockwellians and Magritte-ians. His work defines a moment in popular culture when many styles were bombarding the public’s eye through print, TV, and film. Peak may not have intended to alter popular perception, but his work was a milestone (and a lightning rod) in the evolution of illustration from art that mimicked to art that expressed.

A tectonic shift was pushing illustration from the dominant visual medium to a subsidiary one. His work must be celebrated for how it adapted to the new while retaining the heritage of the old. Many loved his work; others, who wanted to be free to express themselves through illustration, found his work to be the problem, not the solution. Now, a massive new book, published by his son, Tom Peak, shows the artistic acuity and strategic variety of his once ubiquitous output. It weighs a lot, but then it is a son’s testament to a father. Some of the material is exquisite, some is not. But for any Peak fan, or interested midcentury-America scholar, these advertisements and editorial jobs speak volumes about who corporations and publishers were their consumers.

Peak also developed identities for films in posters for My Fair Lady, Camelot, Star TrekApocalypse Now, In Like Flint, Modesty Blaise, and Rollerball. Quotes from directors, producers, publishers, and colleagues are sprinkled throughout. You can flip through some pages and order a copy here.

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For more Steven Heller, check out The Education of an Illustrator—one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

6 thoughts on “When Illustrators Wanted to Be Bob Peak

  1. Peak

    Steven Heller, what can I say.  This book on my father was a labor of love for me that took a few years to bring to its completion.  I thank you for your piece about my father in the book and for taking the time to post this on Facebook, Imprint Forum, and The Daily Heller.  My father once told me that when illustration students would ask him if they should or should not continue down the path to become a professional illustrator, he answer was “If you have to you will, if you don’t you won’t.”  Doing this book to celebrate his life and career is something I just had to do.  All the best to you. Tom Peak 

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