The Look of the Word: Alan Peckolick, 1940-2017

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The cover of Alan’s book, “Teaching Type to Talk,” Pointed Leaf Press, 2013

“Basically, for me, if a word was a beautiful word, it wasn’t the sound of the word that intrigued me, but the look of the word. I saw each letterform as a piece of design. Cat is not ‘cat,’ it’s c-a-t. That’s what led to the beginning of the expressive topography that we talk about. Letterforms themselves can support the visual idea of what the message is. You’ve got to have a love and understanding of the letterform itself before you can put this stuff together.” So said Alan Peckolick in an interview two years ago with the Arts & Culture editor of the Huffington Post.

Yesterday, in a chapel in New York’s Temple Emanu-El, a group of about 100 old friends, typophiles — and now mourners — said goodbye to Alan, who died last week at age 76 from what was described as “a catastrophic fall” at his country house in Connecticut.

A selection of spreads from “Teaching Type to Talk,” which illustrate Alan’s passion. He wrote: “I give words their own language by designing letters that graphically suggest meaning… not only do I make type talk, I give it a mood—sometimes a temper. It can be violet or peaceful, irreverent or polite, severe or whimsical.”

“I start by reading the copy, to get the essence of the message that needs to be conveyed” he wrote. “Then I look for graphic opportunities. This is when the creative juices start to flow.” These two book jackets, which both involve facial hair, illustrate Alan’s approach to expressive typography.

“The influence of Alan Peckolick on graphic design cannot be overstated,” wrote Alexander Tochilovsky, director of The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography at the Cooper Union, in an email today. “Lubalin — Alan’s mentor and business partner — was a great and visionary designer, and he was especially keen at spotting talent. Talent that would make his studio flourish. He knew how important it was to find the right people who could not only understand his vision but would also possess their own vision. He sought designers with a deep understanding of the potential of typography. Alan was exactly that kind of person. He had a deft intuition of how letterforms could gel together into memorable marks. He knew what Herb aimed to do with language, with graphic forms, and was able to bring that to the studio,” Tochilovsky added. ”The Herb Lubalin Study Center is fortunate to have Alan’s work in its collection. We constantly remind our visitors about the many individuals who helped define American graphic design and those who helped shape the legacy of the Lubalin studios. It’s impossible not to include Alan in those conversations.”

Programs at yesterday’s memorial service. “Alan is looking out the window ,” the rabbi noted. “He is wracked with pain but still full of curiosity and wonder.”

Jessica Weber speaking in the Temple Emanu-El chapel.

After expressing her gratitude to all who came to the service, Alan’s wife of 33 years, the designer Jessica Weber, told us that in the last years her major role had been “making sure Alan was safe from all things.” Those of us who weren’t family members or close friends learned that for 15 years Alan had been suffering from Parkinson’s, a neurological disease that causes tremors and loss of coordination and balance. Most did know that he’d segued from finessing typographic ligatures to making and exhibiting large-scale paintings of fading advertising messages that captured his love of vintage type.

“It was stunning in its swiftness,” Jessica said of the fall, recalling how Alan had recently painted an 18-foot mural on the walls of the loft in the Connecticut house.

“In a merciful moment God took Alan away,” added Rabbi Ronald Sobel, the officiant, more than hinting that the past few years had been painful and difficult. I closed my eyes and pictured Alan standing on a ladder, painting a mural on the ceiling, just before that moment.

“Sign of the Times” by Alan Peckolick, 48 x 60, acrylic on canvas

I met Alan in 1974 when I was Herb Lubalin’s design assistant at Lubalin, Smith, Carnase, Inc., a position Alan had previously filled. All of a sudden he was back, as lead designer and kind of team captain. All of a sudden a big, blustery guy was going around the studio barking orders like, “Don’t spend so much time on it!” That caused resentment. Herb always encouraged us to spend as much time as needed to make the work as beautiful as possible. In retrospect, could Alan have been interested in keeping the studio alive — no one knew then that Herb had been diagnosed with cancer — and maybe even increasing profitability?

Two years ago I had dinner with Alan and friends after a panel discussion on The Lubalin Legacy at Cooper Union. He was sweet, generous, apologetic. “I’m different,” he said. He was. There was no hint of bluster. And no hint of tremor in the hands that passed around menus and handed his credit card to the server, paying above all objections for steak dinners for five or so of us. He was the guy that Rabbi Sobel described as “a man of daring and brilliant artistic accomplishments” and “a towering figure with the gentle soul of a little boy.”

So what about the “tough guy” stance of decades past? Larry Miller, an Atlanta-based design consultant who lived and worked in New York for many years, some at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, and some as assistant to Lou Dorfsman — Herb Lubalin’s best pal — remembers the era like this: “There was a tough-guy pattern, almost a tough-guy obligation, in the years after the so-called Creative Revolution that began when Ned Doyle, Maxwell Dane, and Bill Bernbach created their ad agency (now DDB). It was exemplified by George Lois. Maybe it had to do with having unachievable standards, tight deadline
s, and having to work with others who might carry out your ideas less than perfectly. The work counted. And the awards. And the self-importance. Art directors had to work with writers and paste-up artists and illustrators and typesetters — all tough, creative and temperamental. And you also had to coexist with New York’s many neighborhood ethnicities and accents, people accustomed to the indignities of the subway. Creatives working together knew how to yell at each other and not take it personally: ‘Go f- yourself’ or ‘Here’s the coffee wagon, get me a black, huh.” Alan was of that persuasion, you might say. Now the iMac generation works mostly solo, doing all aspects, and things are peaceful, at least during the creative process.”

Ina Saltz, designer, design critic and professor who teaches classes including typography, design entrepreneurship and senior portfolio at the City College of New York, eulogized Alan as “a great, classic American success story who began by drawing hot rods in his working-class family’s humble Bronx kitchen and was lucky and talented enough to be part of the expressive typography revolution.”

She concluded: “He never stopped creating. It spilled out in very direction. His larger-than-life presence will be sorely missed.”