Back to the AIGA/NY Past: Recollections on 30 Years

What can you learn from 12 big-name designers about 30 years of New York design history? You can learn that everyone sees things in a different way and brings his or her own spin to the table (or to the stage and the slide show, in this case).

The New York chapter of the AIGA, the professional association for design, was founded in 1982, and is in the midst of a multi-event 30th anniversary party. As part of the festivities, a celebration took place at the SVA Theatre last Tuesday, at which attendees got an entertaining and elucidating mix of the personal, the professional, and the organizational: the same 30 years viewed through the lenses and experiences of people whom board member Glen Cummings introduced as “a lineup of fabulous talent as we noodle our way from the chapter’s founding through the early years to the present.” The purpose of this ramble through history was “not to dredge up,” he emphasized, “but to celebrate and to look to the next 30 years.”

First up at the podium was Debbie Millman, who told the packed house that AIGA/NY is not only the nation’s largest chapter, with 3,000 members, but the coolest. She scrolled through images of 1982, showing Ronald Reagan in the White House, “Dallas” on TV, the BeeGees on the stereo, and big shoulders on women’s suits. And there was a photograph of Debbie herself, with somewhat big hair and a résumé listing “stat camera operation” as one of her notable skills.

Paul Sahre reflects on the benefits of work-casual outfits

Paula Scher talked about the founding of the chapter—the brainchild of Massimo Vignelli—explaining how the AIGA, “before it was National, was just the AIGA.” Then headquartered at 1059 Third Avenue, the organization was for and about New York designers. “We knew each other through our work,” she said, showing some of her influential album covers for CBS Records.

Steff Geissbuhler read a long letter by Richard Danne, unable to attend because of a jazz festival he was organizing in California. Danne reminisced about his involvement in starting up chapters across the country with New York as the model and summarized the tribulations of building what is now a network of 66 chapters with 22,000 members. For his own part, Geissbuhler read his 1986 “swan song of a retiring chapter president,” which included references to the AIGA contract and design management seminars. To wit, the first two stanzas:

If my math makes any sense
We had last year 14 events
So let me rerun with some reason
What has happened this past season.

Two hundred posters celebrat’n peace
Designers designing without fees
Rememberin’ the bombing of Japan
It was like in the ’60s—man.

Steven Heller contributed a history of AIGA’s print publications. A survey of the organization’s catalogs from the 1970s and ’80s brought back memories of the days when several exhibitions a year showcased the best in posters, covers, layouts, and illustration. “The AIGA Journal did not shy away from controversy,” he asserted, showing covers and spreads of the black-and-white tabloid with articles about race and professional ethics—and how it morphed into a more magazine-like format, and finally into Voice, the AIGA online journal.

Brian Collins talked about the intersection of advertising and design, showing how Ogilvy’s “smarter planet” campaign for IBM was inspired by Paul Rand. “You can’t tell if these were done in 1962 or 1982 or now,” he said, explaining that great work is the result of a visionary client, good writing, and inspired, timeless design. He expressed hope that designers in the marketing-driven world of agencies and big brands could “keep a clear personal voice, like Rand’s, and not be swallowed up cranking out anonymous stuff for brand managers” or creating yet another “spin” logo with an orbit or swoosh.

“I don’t know nothing about advertising or branding,” said Michael Bierut as he arrived on stage. “I just know about the AIGA.” Bierut’s talk was themed “Just Say Yes,” and he showed examples of pro bono projects including the first AIGA/NY chapter newsletter, which he typed on the IBM Selectric, “just like the church bulletin.” In the case of the newsletter, of course, the mastheads were designed by A-list contributing designers.

Carin Goldberg discusses the benefits of "No."

David Gibson opened with heartbreaking pictures of his downtown design office right after September 11, 2001, the space and all its contents destroyed by fire caused by the attacks on the World Trade Center. “9/11 erased two decades of work,” he said, recounting how his team sought solace that day on the roof of the AIGA building on Fifth Avenue and 21st Street. Later, they had to reconstruct from scratch. In the aftermath of 9/11, he explained, architects and designers were instrumental in the rebuilding of lower Manhattan and “became dedicated to contributing to something larger than themselves.”

Next, Jake Barton talked about technology: an overview beginning with the first IBM PC and the Apple Lisa through showing how today’s designers are using their phones and iPads. I sighed when he showed a picture of the bulky blue-and-white Macintoshes that once defined the color scheme for my office—and ended up in a landfill.

Carin Goldberg reminisced about how she “succumbed to high school peer pressure” and joined the AIGA board, heading up the branding effort for the chapter—”Fast–Cheap–Easy”—that led to the slash as the unifying element on postcards and posters while giving various designers the freedom to pick the typeface and Pantone color they wanted to use on a particular piece. “We didn’t want to get into the business of art direction,” she asserted.

The life of the solo practitioner who bonds solely with his computer was celebrated (?) by Paul Sahre, who showed, as a background to his talk, a video of himself in his underwear doing just that. “AIGA/NY has long supported this lonely wolf,” he said, describing a wild goose chase of a project that he headed up for the chapter; the adventure in question involved a photo shoot on a freezing day at an abandoned mining town in Pennsylvania.

Paula Scher considers the AIGA identity

Finally, Emily Oberman and Scott Stowell introduced ten recent graduates who each got a minute to show a senior project or something else of interest about themselves and/or their work. Rest assured: There is a whole new generation of potential speakers out there who will add interest and wit to the next 30 years of AIGA/NY programming.

And then everyone who spoke went up on stage.

And talked about the commemorative posters they and their colleagues had designed. Here are a few examples:

Bobby C. Martin Jr.'s poster celebrating the AIGA's 30th anniversary

Matteo Bologna's tribute

Homage by Ken Carbone

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