The Daily Heller: Rudolph de Harak, a Monograph at Last

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Not every pioneer graphic designer has been honored with a monograph devoted to their work. For too long, this has been the case with Rudolph de Harak (1924–2002). The fact is, he was so good, indeed diversified, during a period from the 1950s through the 1980s, when modern design was represented by so many distinctive talents. De Harak’s mastery of graphic, environmental and exhibition design was not lost among this wave, but his champions for posterity had yet to emerge. A different monograph was in the planning stages before Richard Poulin, a former associate of de Harak and principal of Poulin + Morris, put his dog in the race and got to the finish line first. The result, Rudolph de Harak Graphic Designer: Rational Simplicity (Thames & Hudson) is a valuable addition to the chronicling of modernism, and was worth the wait.

It is a big book that gracefully covers his graphic (notably book covers) and interior design, writing and philosophy, and is filled with just the right amount of historical, professional and personal detail. Poulin has given us an ideal monograph.

The title derives from a few simple facts. Rudy was committed to the tenets of modern idealism and pragmatics, yet his work was often reduced to simple elements, but never devoid of visual challenges and graphic beauty. As the cover pictorially suggests, he was free and constrained at the same time. This book proves that de Harak’s modernism was a lively, intimate language.

I asked Poulin to reflect on the designer he learned from and the testament he created on his behalf.

You worked for and with Rudolph de Harak for many years. I presume that is one reason for doing this excellent retrospective book. What other motivations were there?
I always felt Rudy was one of the unsung forces of modernist graphic design. He possessed a definitive and unique point of view, which he stayed true to throughout his entire career, yet he and his body of work have never been celebrated nor explored in depth. He was a rare individual—a thinker, a challenger, an advocate for new ideas, and an inspiring colleague. He believed that all great ideas, and all significant works of art and architecture, came from dreamers, visionaries and communicators. Rudy was an anomaly among his peers in the graphic design profession, yet no one equals his diversity nor his accomplishments across the various design disciplines.

I enjoyed and learned from your concise biographical prologue. I knew Rudy but did not know he grew up in Queens at the MET projects (I was raised in Stuy Town, also a Metropolitan Life Insurance housing project). But more surprising was his friendship with Anthony Benedetto (aka Tony Bennett). What did the designer-to-be share with the singer-to-be that stayed with them?
Rudy and Tony Bennett became lifelong friends in 1938 when the Benedetto family moved into the Metropolitan Apartments in Astoria, Queens. Both attended their local grammar school, P. S. 141, and shared a love of music and drawing. When they were considering high schools, Tony applied to the prestigious High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan but was not accepted. Rudy attended the School of Industrial Art (also located in Manhattan) and persuaded Bennett to join him. While he initially regretted this decision, years later he came to a different realization and was indebted to Rudy for his persuasive interference. Bennett wrote in his 1998 autobiography The Good Life that he was extremely grateful for his time and training at Industrial Art. He ultimately felt it was a wonderful experience because he learned the importance and value of technique; everything from silk-screening and lithography to sculpture, painting and photography. He went on to describe Rudy as one of the few people in his life who continuously encouraged him in his love of art and music: “He became a dear friend of my family’s, and even came to think of my mom as his ‘other mother.’ We hung out together because of our mutual love of jazz and drawing. In fact, Rudy took up the saxophone as a kid. I remember it well because in the summertime, when everybody had their windows wide open, the whole building could hear Rudy blowing away, learning his scales. Eventually, he became quite a proficient sax player.”

I always had the impression that despite Rudy’s footprint in New York City, he was one of the major California modernists. You write about his influence in California that made him into a modern designer. Would you provide a brief account of how he went from amateur to pro?
Following four years of military service in Europe, Rudy returned to Southern California, reuniting with his family and landing his first job as a mechanical art apprentice at a small art studio in 1946. He also reconnected with a former high school classmate, Hal Tritel, who was now a graphic designer working in the same office building in downtown Los Angeles. Rudy described Hal as a talented intellectual who took him under his wing and introduced him to the world of modernist design, as well as museums, galleries, avant garde art movements, music and literature. His entire world and outlook was now brighter and ripe with opportunities. It was during this time period that Tritel invited him to attend two lectures at the Art Center School in Los Angeles given by the renowned European modernist émigrés Will Burtin and György Kepes. Rudy later recalled to a friend that “he was blown away” by these lectures and that they had made a profound and lasting impact on his life.

This marked the beginning of Rudy’s realization that it was possible for him to communicate visual information that could transcend common graphic conventions and become art. He also quickly came to an understanding that he could have a viable vocation in graphic design while simultaneously experiencing deep personal fulfillment, so he quit his job and committed himself completely and wholeheartedly to his new profession. In 1948, he and Tritel assembled a portfolio of their work and started making the rounds.

In less than a year, Rudy started doing freelance work for Monogram Art Studios, a New York City–based design firm that was redesigning a portion of the CBS Columbia Records library. While his design solutions were somewhat naïve and derivative of contemporaries he admired, such as Saul Bass, Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig, his early work provided him with an opportunity to evaluate varied approaches to graphic design and visual storytelling. Whatever his early work lacked from a conceptual perspective was made up for in the breadth of his experimentations in shape, form, color, scale, image, composition and typography. In the early years of his career in Southern California, he was impatient, passionate and determined to make his individual mark on the profession and the world. He fondly described these inspiring times: “We worked out of a basement that was really kind of marvelous … and there was a group of us that worked together, and it was a pretty exciting time, trying to learn new things. … I rarely went to bed. I would just go to sleep, exhausted, because I would spend all of my time reading, trying to do some writing. I bought a camera, taking photographs, experimenting with emulsions, and going to museums.”

His collage work for Esquire looks as fresh in your book as it does when I flip through those magnificent old magazines. What triggered his collage approach?
In 1953, Rudy created his most visible work to date—a series of monthly spot illustrations for Esquire magazine commissioned by his friend and colleague Henry Wolf, art director of the magazine. These unusual editorial collages, 41 in all, produced over a period of five years, were referred to by Rudy as “jazz-like improvisations and a kind of 1950s Dada.” Composed from found print ephemera, his own photographs, and drawings that he had either collected or produced over the past few years, these impromptu conceptual compositions reflected his ever-growing interests in abstract expressionism, photographic experimentation and visual communications.

In the first few months following his return to New York City, Rudy was obsessed with learning, experimenting and experiencing as much as he could while simultaneously looking for a job. He started to paint, which became a means of self-expression and a major visual element in his early graphic design work.

Modern art, specifically abstract expressionism, was a major influence—he particularly admired the work of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. He was also drawn to avant-garde photography and film, especially the work of Man Ray, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí and Hans Richter. He purchased a new Leica III camera and started buying and testing different films, experimenting with different emulsions, and teaching himself various film processing techniques.

It was through these initial experiences that he discovered that content could follow concept. These collective experiences all led to his unique and unconventional approach to his collages for Esquire.

Rudy seems clearly driven by two strands of modern DNA—Alvin Lustig, Will Burtin and György Kepes as one, with Swiss rationalist design as the other. Were there other influences that stand out?
European Modernism and Swiss Rationalism were essential to Rudy’s DNA, as well as the individuals you mention (including Saul Bass), who were extremely influential on his life and career. He was fortunate enough to have developed lifelong friendships with all of these men. First, in the late 1940s, while still living in Southern California, with Bass and Lustig. And then following his move back to New York City, with both Burtin and Kepes.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention his other heroes, including Max Bill, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Armin Hofmann, Max Huber, El Lissitzky, Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodchenko, Carlo Vivarelli and Piet Zwart.

You generously exhibit much of his abstract design dramatically with a gatefold of his book covers. These are masterpieces on so many levels. How would you describe their impact?
Whether he realized it at the time or not, Rudy pushed the boundaries of modernism to new heights within the publishing world with his landmark and pioneering work for McGraw-Hill Paperbacks. Over a period of five years, he designed approximately 400 covers for the publisher. Even if he was self-taught, at this point in his evolution, Rudy clearly understood the fundamental visual principles of graphic design. Each of these groundbreaking covers shares a common compositional system that applies the basic tenets of the International Typographic Style, with the use of a mathematically constructed page grid, uniform sans-serif typography (Akzidenz-Grotesk) set flush left and ragged right, and an asymmetrical composition. His reliance upon these visual principles further enhanced and increased the viewer’s ability to organize, differentiate and, most importantly, interact with the cover’s visual content.

When he considered the act and process of image-making for these covers, whether glyph, pictogram, symbol, sign, drawing, illustration, painting, photography or typography, Rudy always considered numerous forms and methodologies. While these all possessed their own distinct and varied visual characteristics and functions, he also understood their value and potential as meaningful and obvious visual counterpoints to narrative form. Each image represented an emotional experience that could be immediately understood and embraced by the viewer. The broad range of images he created spanned a full spectrum defined at one end by realism and at the other by abstraction. Between these two visual extremes were a myriad of possibilities for him to choose from: the more realistic, the more direct and immediate the image; the more abstract, the more restrained and interpretive the image. His innovative approach to a book cover’s visual content, as well as its compositional layout, ultimately gave the entire range of McGraw-Hill Paperbacks a distinctive visual brand that remained resonant and unique for decades to come.

You appear to have a rather complete assortment of known and lesser-known examples. Where did you do your research? And, given your earlier relationship, was your scholarship more revealing than you had expected?
While I relied upon numerous resources for my research, the majority of it was done at the Cary Graphic Arts Collection at the RIT Libraries, Rochester Institute of Technology, in upstate New York. Rudy’s archive, which was donated to the RIT Libraries by his wife, Carol de Harak, in 2008, is comprised of approximately 15 linear feet (19 archival boxes and several poster flat files) of correspondence and personal papers (1952–1997), photographs (1950–2000), writings (1948–2001), design projects (1936–1994), fine art (1963–2001), and reference materials including over 1,000 color transparencies.

I came across more than a few surprises, especially among Rudy’s writings and papers, such as his personal insights about his 50-year career; his friendships with Saul Bass, Alvin Lustig and Will Burtin; and his recollections about his experiences in World War II and starting out in New York City in the early 1950s. It was truly a once-in-a lifetime experience I will never forget.

Another important addition to my research was made by Carol, Rudy’s wife, who shared with me early visual material, memories and rare insights into her husband and companion of over 35 years. This monograph would not have become a reality without her support, encouragement and generosity. I am forever grateful for her invaluable contributions and friendship.

I remember Lou Silverstein, my boss at The New York Times, always praising Rudy’s talents. He even had him redesign the Times delivery trucks, which prefigured the modernization that was to come. Do you believe that Rudy had a set of guiding design principles and, if so, what were they?
Rudy believed that good design could change the world. Early on in his career he fully adopted the tenets and philosophy of European Modernism with great intensity and enthusiasm, believing that effective design meant cutting away all of the unnecessary appendages, leaving only those elements that stated facts, thoughts and ideas. There are numerous quotes of Rudy’s that I use throughout the book’s narrative, however the following clearly represents his career-long thinking and mindset:

“I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. Change comes about through a natural process of development or because something needs improving. Modernism suggests a movement that is ahead of its time. If we do something that has been done before, we are not being creative, we are being redundant. Creativity, which is what Modernism is all about, is a constant searching process that promises a greater chance for failure than it does success.”

What is Rudy de Harak’s legacy?
Rudy believed that a modernist’s foundation and philosophy provided creative freedom to practice and move from one design discipline to another. Whether designing a poster, a book, an exhibition or a house, the creative process and approach were always the same—it was a shared process and approach.

Whatever his chosen creative endeavor at any particular stage of life, as his wife Carol explained, “he went into it with an intense amount of effort, energy and enthusiasm. If he didn’t know specific aspects of any process, he would teach himself and learn along the way. That’s the way he was with everything that he became involved with. Rudy possessed this inner strength that allowed him to keep on learning, absorbing and observing and not giving up on anything, nor on the dreams and aspirations that he had.”

Rudy was intensely interested and passionate about the visual world and his place within it. Always encountering new ideas to explore and new things to discover, his interest in life and his surroundings, large and small, always kept him vibrant and energized. He breathed new life into the world of graphic design, stripping away unnecessary ornament and excess and leaving only what was deemed essential. He firmly believed that being simpler didn’t necessarily mean the end result would be less profound. His work was thoughtful, systematic and timeless.

This was, and is, his legacy.