Yesterday afternoon I learned that the esteemed Modernist graphic designer George Tscherny had died earlier that day at his home. At 99 he lived a long, creative, productive and valued life. One of the few remaining Midcentury Modernists, he saw design as discipline in repose, play at work, and individuality as a virtue to share. I remember visiting him and his wife, Sonia, at their beautiful yet modest brownstone on the Upper East Side, and thinking this is how a designer should live and work. Tscherny was dedicated to the idea that design was noble—not too high, not too low—on the artistic spectrum. Fortunately, I got to see his handiwork everyday: He designed the “flower” logo for SVA that adorns my mouse pad. In Tscherny’s honor, reprinted below is the essay I wrote about him when he received the AIGA Medal in 1989. He deserved it and many more.
(Images courtesy School of Visual Arts Archive)
Over 30 years ago, George Tscherny decided that the real “kick” of design was to keep his hands firmly on all projects, not to supervise other designers’ work. He is now, as he always has been, the sole proprietor of a small office located on the ground floor of his narrow New York City brownstone where he, his wife Sonia (“the conscience of the office”), and two or three assistants attend to the communications needs of some of America’s most prestigious corporations. His surroundings are unpretentious, but his design is strong, provocative and highly conceptual. Though not constricted by design canon or theory, Tscherny is respectful of the modern traditions, as evidenced by the balance between the accessibility and excitability in a broad range of his posters, annual reports and advertisements.
Tscherny has given fresh design ideas to his clients for over three decades, but more significantly, he has toppled corporate Goliaths’ misconceptions of graphic design and designers. Tscherny’s professional life has been devoted to educating the people who manage business to the idea that design should not be a cosmetic service but an integral part of their corporate culture. His success as a designer can be traced back to his childhood, adolescence and early professional years when his resolve to overcome the vicissitudes of fate proved to him how important tenacity can be.
George Tscherny was born in Budapest in 1924, but was raised in Germany from the age of 2. “Hungary,” he says, “exists for me only on my birth certificate.” His mother, a Hungarian with a fervent anti-Fascist bias, so disapproved of her nation’s dictator, Admiral Horthy, that she vowed never to let her children speak Hungarian. His father was Russian, so not even the name Tscherny is Hungarian, rather a German spelling of the Russian word for black.
Tscherny recalls little of those early years in Germany. He knows only that his father was arrested for illegally entering the country, jailed for two days, and then allowed to settle in Berlin. However, he has total recall of the cultural stimuli on which his career is based. One such memory is of a neighborhood movie theater, a virtual palace with huge display windows featuring a visual tableau advertising the current film. “I remember the display for All Quiet on the Western Front. It had real foxholes, gas masks and helmets. But more impressive was the huge hand painted poster of a movie star on the side of the building. This was my first awareness of graphic design—and even then I realized it was what I wanted to do.”
The Tscherny family lived in relative peace in a poor working-class district called Moabit. Then came Adolf Hitler. Jews, especially foreign Jews, were unwelcome in the new Germany. Yet for George and his younger brother, the hardships imposed by Nazi decrees were not as devastating as for others. Not until Nov. 10, 1938, when the 14-year-old Tscherny’s security was turned topsy-turvy. Kristalnacht, the night of broken glass, when all Jewish businesses and institutions were attacked by the Nazis, was a vivid omen of the terror to come. The following month George and his younger brother escaped across the German border into Holland. Eventually they hoped to be reunited with their parents, who were prevented from leaving Germany at that time.
Holland was a safe haven, and the Dutch welcomed thousands of youthful refugees. But when Tscherny’s parents were finally allowed to leave Germany, hopes of retrieving their sons were dashed by the outbreak of war and the 1940 invasion and occupation of Holland. The Germans ordered all refugees moved 30 kilometers away from the border, and the young Tschernys were shuttled from home to home. Finally his brother went to a Jewish orphanage, and George was sent to a farm for a brief period.
In 1941, Tscherny’s parents obtained the papers necessary to bring the boys to the United States. But France, where they hoped to find a ship, was already occupied by the Nazis, and the only scheduled transatlantic departures were from Lisbon, Portugal. “It was a Catch-22 situation,” recalls Tscherny. In order to get to Lisbon, he needed a transit visa to pass through neighboring Spain, but Portugal would not issue one unless Spain did, and Spain would not do so unless Portugal did. “At this point I was 16, and I learned that the only place such visas were issued were at the consulates in Berlin,” he recalls. So in 1941 Tscherny returned to the Nazi capital, where he learned that his parents had been deported as undesirable aliens and that he, too, was subject to the same order. He was summoned to Gestapo headquarters and remembers that “an SS man screamed at me: ‘Where do you get the nerve to come back after having been deported?’ I was ordered to leave Germany.” But owing to bizarre events, the former Berlin police prefect, a Jew who miraculously continued to have some influence in official circles, helped the boys obtain the proper papers.
Tscherny and his brother were seasoned refugees by the time they arrived on what he calls a “floating concentration camp” in New York harbor on June 21, 1941. “The boat sat all night off Staten Island,” he says about the cathartic event, “and in the morning a tugboat pulled alongside, and a crewman held up a Daily News front page with the headline reading ‘Germany Invades Russia.'”
His parents were already settled in Newark, NJ, where Tscherny took a job making automobile lights for 30 cents an hour. Not bad for a greenhorn who knew little English, but paltry for a boy who was determined to improve his lot. In 1942 he joined a government-sponsored training unit. “They made me a machinist in just six weeks,” he says. However, enlisting in the army when he was 18 years old was “the best thing I could have done.” With the $52 a month pay, regular meals and a roof over his head, Tscherny had never had it so good.
Soon he was ordered overseas. Ironically, he landed in France on June 21, 1944, exactly three years to the day of his arrival in New York. While in Europe he served as an interpreter and later was attached to the headquarters of the Allied Military Government. Fortuitously, one of Tscherny’s sergeants was a commercial artist who, in civilian life, worked for one of the big American advertising agencies. After learning about Tscherny’s own desire to become an advertising artist, he took him under his wing. “I got my first understanding about design from him,” says Tscherny.
After being discharged, he enrolled in the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts on the GI Bill. He wanted, however, to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but needed a high school diploma. So in addition to going to art school by day, he took academic courses at night. And when he found that he was lacking a few credits, he even took a course at a local high school during his lunch hour. A year later, he was accepted into Pratt.
But an even more significant piece of Tscherny’s life fell into place at this time. As an aficionado of modern dance, he regularly attended performances at New York’s old Ziegfeld Theatre, where he met Sonia Katz. She, too, came from a German-speaking Jewish family forced to leave Europe. If they had remained in Europe (in better times, of course) their paths might never have crossed since class barriers were profound, and Sonia was from a wealthy family. But in the United States, they both understood the tribulations of being an immigrant. They married and have been together ever since. Indeed, Tscherny cannot conceive of how different his life would have been without her intelligent and loving influence.
At Pratt Institute, industrial design was the hot department. While Tscherny was pretty good at making things with his hands, “I was afraid that industrial design would require too many intellectual activities. I was terrible at math and felt more comfortable going into graphic design, where I believed I could bluff my way through.” Bluffing, however, was not part of Tscherny’s modus operandi. In his first year, he learned fast and studied feverishly on his own. In his second, he was placed into a class taught by Herschel Levit, a highly acclaimed teacher. “It was as if I had just walked through a swamp for one year and all of a sudden hit dry land,” Tscherny says.
The late 1940s was a distinctly modern era of American design when pharmaceutical advertising and record album covers were reaching a creative crescendo. Tscherny devoured the work of Lester Beall, Bill Golden and Bradbury Thompson, among other exemplars. He also developed his own approach, and soon became Levit’s “prize pupil.” Levit recommended Tscherny for his first job with Donald Deskey.
Deskey was the last of the glamorous industrial designers and had earned his reputation for the streamlined interiors of Radio City Music Hall, but in the late ’40s his office was doing staid packaging for Proctor & Gamble. Though Tscherny was not terribly excited about the prospect, he was urged to take the job. And only six weeks before graduation he went to the dean requesting permission to accept the job while completing the remaining assignments on the side in order to qualify for the diploma. The dean, a stickler for procedure, denied the request, and Tscherny left Pratt without graduating. Tscherny cut his teeth at the Deskey office rendering comps for toothpaste and shampoo packages. “By the time I left, two-and-a-half years later, I was still comping virtually the same packages.”
In 1953 he was hired by George Nelson, the visionary furniture and industrial designer and critic, as an assistant to Irving Harper, who was responsible for designing trade advertising for the vanguard furniture manufacturer the Herman Miller Co. As low man, Tscherny was given the sixth-of-a-page magazine ads to design. “I decided to make plums out of them,” he says with pride, and he did an admirable job that earned him the full-page ad assignment. He eventually became head of the graphics department with a staff of his own.
“Working with Nelson was probably the most important thing that happened to me professionally,” says Tscherny. “First of all, in those days the Nelson Office was the office and Herman Miller Co., his main client, shared the crown of the furniture company along with Knoll. I was literally thrown in with the elite of design. But more important, Nelson was one of the few articulate spokesmen for design then—and his ideas rubbed off on me. In fact, the most enduring lesson was not to bring preconceived ideas to any project. When Nelson designed a chair, for example, he didn’t start with the assumption that it had four legs.” But the key advantage for Tscherny was that Nelson had no proprietary interests in graphics. “He was interested in building three-dimensional monuments,” continues Tscherny. “And he thought that graphic design was ephemeral. Although he liked me and appreciated what I was doing, he had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason; I could experiment without looking over my shoulder.”
Tscherny believes that “design communicates best when reduced to the essential elements.” Yet he has resisted the ideological traps of some design theory. His method derives not from a preordained rightness of form, but primarily from instinct. Indeed, one of his most significant accomplishments at Nelson’s was to break the cliché of how furniture was advertised. Most advertising agencies believed that to sell effectively, furniture (and for that matter, many other products) should be presented in a photograph with some good-looking woman in the foreground. Tscherny knew that while some consumers might be seduced by this cheesecake, the approach also had negative connotations. He further realized that the professional audience wanted to see the product alone, but intuited that signifying a human presence was important in both cases. As a consequence, he developed a method called “the human element implied.”
A 1955 advertisement announcing the opening of a new Miller showroom in Dallas was the first time this approach was used. An extraordinarily simple design, it features two spare lines of sans serif type and a high-contrast black-and-white photo of a chair with a cowboy hat resting on the seat. The ad is bathed in red ink with the chair legs dropped out in pure white. “By including the hat, I suggest Dallas,” explains Tscherny, “while at the same time, I show the furniture in use, suggesting the human presence.” Tscherny’s promo did not discriminate against heavy or slim, ordinary or beautiful, male or female, but set an inviting stage. Years later he made a similarly provocative School of Visual Arts poster showing a plaster cast of an ear, symbolizing the study of art, with a real pencil tucked behind the ear, suggesting human practice. Human expression, rather than pure geometric form, has been the key feature of Tscherny’s design.
At 30 years old, Tscherny decided that he wanted to start his own business. However, he did not want to become so big as to lose contact with his materials, and he admits, “I was afraid that it wasn’t enough to simply do the work. Without a front-man or a partner who spoke well, I would have to verbalize what I was doing.” The best way to hone persuasive skills, he thought, was by teaching. “If you are a conscientious teacher, you cannot just say to a student that something either stinks or is beautiful. You must tell them why. Teaching design for eight years at the School of Visual Arts (which was initially geared primarily for cartoonists and illustrators) trained me to the point where Sonia says that I can justify anything.”
Under the direction of Silas Rhodes, Tscherny blazed a trail at the School of Visual Art. As no formal graphic design curriculum existed, his initial course was based on “what I could like to know if I were a student and what I missed as a student.” In addition to assignments, Tscherny played recordings of jazz music and traced its origins, took students to off-Broadway theater and exposed them to those cultural activities that were related to the broader design experience. His teaching method ran the gamut of philosophical extremes. “I attempted to teach the kids—as Nelson taught me—not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas. Indeed, I am happiest when I do what I call ‘Talmudic design;’ when I look at the problem from top to bottom, ask myself questions, provide answers, and most important, try not to fall in love with any one answer until a mental bell rings.”
Tscherny used Henri-Cartier Bresson’s classic book of images The Decisive Moment to explain that design was not merely the decorative layering of type and image, but rather the need to capture, whether on film, canvas or mechanical board, the essence of a subject. “Very often the decisive moment is manufactured,” he says. “One sees it with commercials all the time. Even the flag-raising at Iwo Jima was set up. So I encouraged the students, regardless of subject, to find that essence in their problems, and let it be the focal point.” In his own design, this takes various forms, such as the white face of Marcel Marceau in an otherwise red poster entitled Bip, in which he captures the quintessential symbol of the mime. Or a poster advertising an exhibit of Picasso’s sculpture, lithographs and drawings on which Tscherny reproduces the three subtly different signatures Picasso used to sign each medium.
After eight years of teaching, Tscherny realized that he had learned all he could. “Up to that point, I designed like a cow grazes; just churning it out without really knowing. At SVA I learned how to talk about design and established certain concepts that have become indelible. When I started, it was virgin territory,” he muses. “Silas Rhodes was the perfect client. He sensed what was good and allowed me to go as far as I wished. My early posters gave SVA a sort of presence.” Moreover, Tscherny became impatient at having to be a disciplinarian. It was the 1960s, and students were becoming rebellious. “Chances are that I may have been a little what one might call Prussian in my methods,” he admits. “But I always said that unless the student really assumes that he or she know nothing (which is not the case) and the teacher knows everything (which is not the case either), the teaching process is difficult to accomplish. The student has to be extremely receptive and believing for it to work. But this was a time when questioning authority and arguing with the teacher became a sport. And I was increasingly frustrated.”
He had already established a reputation for designing striking trade ads and promotions for the home furnishings industry, though as a one-man studio he sought clients in other fields. One of the first was an independent producer of souvenir programs for ballets and plays.
Silas Rhodes wrote of Tscherny’s work that, “one sees popular art raised to the highest level.” Indeed, he frequently relies on found objects—not necessarily cultural artifacts, such as old picture postcards, masks and tiles, which he has used to illustrate some posters, calendars and books—but secret graphic clues that he finds within a problem. One such discovery came when he had to graphically show that Ernst & Ernst, a large accounting firm, was changing its name to Ernst & Whinney, and found that by using the right typeface, if he turned the ‘E’ 90 degrees it would become a ‘W.’ How simple and how memorable. A more vivid example of serendipity is a poster for Monadnock Paper Mills designed to show the contrast of its pure white paper. When folded, the poster, entitled NY, shows a stark silhouette of what appears to be a Spanish mission, but when unfolded, reveals that the church is actually in front of the gargantuan twin towers of the World Trade Center. Neither a montage nor manipulation, it was an intelligent use of chance discovery.
Though assignments for paper companies, printers and furniture clients are challenging, Tscherny’s foremost challenge came when he entered the byzantine world of corporate communications. His first retainer client was The Ford Foundation, for which he did all publications. “And that brought me to another level,” Tscherny says. “I started working with printers—my first experience with quality-conscious craftsmen.” It was also the first time he assaulted that ferocious beast known as the corporate annual report. He has since tamed many.
Tscherny has worked with a lion’s share of what could be frankly called difficult clients, those relatively conservative corporations that tend to view uncommon graphic ideas as suspicious. Yet he has also had the good fortune to collaborate directly with the one person making decisions, whom Tscherny calls a “corporate rabbi.” For the Uris Buildings Corporation, which during the late 1950s and early 1960s was one of the major construction firms in New York, he designed a black-and-white annual report cover showing a few artless building blocks asymmetrically composed—a decidedly abstract yet playful idea, which he says “sneaked its way through because one man was convinced that it was the right symbolism.” For Millipore, a manufacturer of scientific instruments for which he designed the identity, Tscherny determined that a style manual—the sacred bible of corporate communications—had little value because “bad designers will use it improperly, and good designers should not be constricted by too many rules.” Instead of a typically elaborate and costly system, Tscherny produced a series of “corporate identity samplers” that concisely describe the graphic parameters within which the designers should work. Again, his corporate mentor saw the logic in this strategy.
During the early 1970s, he worked for a strong decision-maker at Pan American Airways, about whom he says, “When I came to this country, I had an image from the movies of what an American businessman is like. It was Cary Grant, who always had his feet up on the desk, made quick decisions and had a good sense of humor. My first client who matched those specifications turned out to be, to my surprise, an Englishman. He was so astute that his decisions were right 95 percent of the time, which in a starchy company like that was quite a feat.” Together they “churned out graphic stuff like mad,” including an innovative series of modular display panels used by travel agencies to promote Pan Am’s vacation spots. This was an opportunity for Tscherny to play with his own “short-hand drawings,” as well as with original photographs he had taken on his travels. He also worked on Pan Am’s Puerto Rico campaign. “Pan Am had had the exclusive route to Puerto Rico for years,” he explains. “And they became quite arrogant until faced with competition from American Airlines, when all those passengers who had been mistreated for many years switched their loyalties. I had to convince Pan Am that good advertising and promotion are senseless unless the airline treats the customer with respect.” The human element, Tscherny felt, was the key to improving Pan Am’s public image. And concern for the customer was underscored by Tscherny’s designs, which included print promotions, airline terminal displays and a float for the Puerto Rican day parade, all influenced by the country’s folk arts interpreted in a modern idiom.
Tscherny’s clients include other outwardly conservative corporations, including General Dynamics, Johnson & Johnson, CPC grocery products and SEI Corporation. For the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co., he developed a unique modular design system for small cigarette packs that were aimed at a female market and sold in shrink-wrapped sets of four boxes. Before Tscherny took on the W.R. Grace & Co. annual report, this conglomerate was known as a revolving door for graphic designers. Perhaps Tscherny succeeds where others have failed, owing to his belief that “the challenge of working for these corporate clients is to do better work than they think they want and to educate them into accepting graphic concepts that underscore their product or philosophy in ways that they’d never imagined.”
Tscherny often resubmits rejected ideas year after year. Such was the case with the wraparound cover for the 1984 W.R. Grace annual report showing the skyline of New York at dusk, looking north from 42nd Street, with the Grace building in the foreground crowned by its logo. (Incidentally, it was the only type on the front cover, to indicate it was Grace’s report.) It was a tour de force requiring three different photographic sessions to achieve the perfect picture.
Much of Tscherny’s success is attributed to Sonia (who is not a graphic designer) for her invaluable ability to distinguish good from bad and right from wrong. Tscherny admits that his own eyes are more accurately attuned to the “art within commonplace things” because of Sonia’s keen perceptions and sensitivity. “Indeed, nothing leaves the office without her seeing it.”
Tscherny’s approach is neither about conceit nor surface. Graphics are used to enhance content, not to decorate or hid it. Phillip Meggs wrote that Tscherny’s process is one of “selection,” a choice of appropriate tools to convey a client’s message. Jerome Snyder wrote that “[he] strongly believes that the designer is the creator of his own visual vocabulary and the ‘recycled’ form is a denial of that commitment.” Yet an equal amount of Tscherny’s work is formed by traditional images and icons, as it relies on original photography and illustration. In his hands, however, the traditional is afforded new life, while the new is made curiously timeless. This is vividly seen in the 1970 Art Auction Brunch program cover that he designed for the New York Society for Ethical Culture, showing how the disparate ideas of art and breakfast are wittily combined using contemporary and classic symbols as one seamlessly evocative image. About this process, he says, “One plus one equals three? Expressing more with less is a challenge which, if successful, gives me great satisfaction.”
Tscherny’s approach defies strict categorization, though after viewing the vast amount of graphic material he had produced, his recipe for successful communications can be characterized by three principal ingredients: a subtle yet subversively impish sense of humor; a refined yet playful typography (“In typography I strive for legibility and readability—except when I don’t”); and last, but most critical, a genius for transforming decidedly complex problems into disarmingly simple solutions.
Silas Rhodes best characterized Tscherny when he wrote that the work is “elegant but never chic, serious but never pretentious, disciplined but never dull; his posters, annual reports, etc., delight the eye and revive the spirit. They shatter once and for all the myth of the incompatibility of commercial enterprise and graphic integrity. As a designer for the highest echelons in American industry, Tscherny reveals how problems in graphic communication may be solved without the loss of aesthetic sensibility. At once free and daring, his work becomes the most classical.”