The Daily Heller: The Most Prolific Designer You’ve Never Known

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It should not be surprising that the creators of some of the most well-known graphic design images are on the record as anonymous (or a mistaken attribution). Anonymity reigned in the early commercial art/ad agency days. But anonymity is relative. The “anon” designer may simply not have generated the right kind of self-publicity (or signature) that ensures acknowledgement within or without of the profession. One of the significantly overlooked (at least for me) is Joseph Caroff (b. 1921). He turned 100 years old on Aug. 18.

His work, as you will see, has been visible for the past half-century and more. Still, owing to circumstance, Caroff—who was born in Linden, New Jersey, studied at Pratt Institute and assisted legendary French poster designer Jean Carlu when he had a studio in Manhattan—has been absent from the recent histories and archives. Odd, since he was later proprietor of his own design studios until 2006, when at the age of 85 Caroff, who lives in New York City, ended his graphic design career and turned to painting.

Among his recognizable projects are movie title sequences for Brighton Beach Memoirs, A Bridge Too Far, the film poster for West Side Story, the James Bond 007 gun logo, and the film poster for The Last Temptation of Christ. When he was 27, he designed the book jacket for The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, using the name Joseph Karov.

He was recently rediscovered by the historian Thilo von Debschitz, a designer and author in Wiesbaden, Germany. Von Debschitz also resurrected the oeuvre of Fritz Kahn (which fell into virtual oblivion due to Nazi censorship), and co-authored a monograph on his work for Taschen. On the occasion of Caroff’s 100th birthday (the same day Seymour Chwast turned 90), Debschitz published an article about him in Grafikmagazin (the successor to Novum).

Steven Heller: I have to admit I’d never heard of Joe Caroff.

Thilo von Debschitz: You are not alone.

… Well, that is until you reminded me that in 2016 I actually wrote a Daily Heller story about him. How embarrassing to have forgotten that, especially since the story warned against wrong or anonymous attributions. You’ve gone into much detail in researching his prolific role in film, poster and logo design. So, in this new Daily Heller I hope you’ll share more of your findings about Caroff and his work, which is so well-known, but he is the invisible visual artist. For years I thought that Saul Bass, who designed the title sequence for West Side Story, also designed its poster/logo image. It was not Bass. It was Caroff. Mystery solved. How did you find his work? And how did you locate him?

To answer these questions I have to go into greater detail: A Facebook friend in New York (who somehow liked my Fritz Kahn monograph and thought I could have interest in a new topic) approached me. She told me the story of her father, Kurt Bloch, who left her 95 magazines in pocket size. These magazines with a print-run of one were created by Bloch when he was in hiding from the Nazis back in the 1940s. The publications contain collages, articles and poems (in Dutch and German), all handwritten. Clandestine, they circulated within the hidden group of Jews and their supporters for about one week. When they were returned, Kurt Bloch had already created a new one in his attic to send it on its way—this went on for more than two years until the war was over. A stunning story—and wonderful magazines, which are all preserved! It is just extraordinary how great despair can generate great creativity. We are thinking [about] how to present this story in public (exhibition with catalogue), and are talking with several museums. (I am open to suggestions from your design community.)

One day, when we were video-chatting, my friend told me that she would have to end our talk since she [was leaving] to visit a long-term friend of her father. Casually she mentioned that he had been a designer too, just like me. I was curious and asked about the work he did. And I could not believe what I heard: He was the designer of the West Side Story poster—and more iconic work I knew. I looked for his name but could not find any personal information on the internet. That raised my interest.

I eventually asked him to join in on a Zoom call. Being 99, Joe definitely was in great shape! We had wonderful Zoom meetings (my friend provided the computer), and I learned a lot about his work and design approach. He is such a nice guy with profound knowledge! I also talked with two former freelancers of Joe Caroff Associates and a former business partner of Joe to extend my research. An unexpected “researcher’s treasure” was a video which was given to me; Joe had told his life story to a former partner. This talk was taped but never published. It helped me to close biographical gaps because Joe had forgotten some minor details of his rich personal and professional life.

What else did he do that will come as a surprise? And moreover, how does he feel about being seen but not chronicled?

Joe has created well-drawn logotypes and more than 300 movie posters, e.g., for Cabaret, A Bridge Too Far, A Hard Day’s Night, Too Late the Hero, Zelig, Death of a Salesman or The Last Temptation of Christ, to name just a few. In 1981, his poster for Tattoo—an erotic thriller produced by Joseph E. Levine—caused a scandal because it depicted a naked woman with bound feet. Feminists (and probably pubescent men) tore the posters down in the subway, which led to even more publicity. Levine told Caroff, “You made out with your fucking poster better than I made out with my fucking movie.”

A big surprise for me was that Joe created the 007 logo, which is (with minor changes) still in use. In 1962, Joe received a flat fee of $300 for that job. Decades later—noticing that the logotype was used for promoting the James Bond franchise all over the world—he asked the producers if he may become included in the end titles at least, just like the driver and caterer. But Joe never received an answer. I got in touch with EON, the James Bond production company, but until today I was not successful in convincing the people in charge to honor Joe’s work by including him in the end titles. That is really a pity because it does not require a lot. He would have deserved it. Imagine how much money Joe would have made if he would have participated in the franchising—so many products wore his 007 logo over the course of 25 movies. And no end title promise yet! But I have to say that EON did react when they heard that their 007 logotype designer is still alive: On his 100th birthday last week, he did receive a precious wristwatch with a 007 engraving, supplemented with a letter signed by Barbara Broccoli (the James Bond film producer). For Joe, this has been an unexpected gift.

But Joe does not feel bad for not being chronicled. He saw himself as a service person, as a problem-solver for his clients. Almost none of his work was signed. [Unlike] Saul Bass or Paul Rand—which he admired—Joe did not invest a lot into self-promotion. Therefore, his name did not became famous, therefore he has been mostly unknown for people like you and me. It would be wonderful if a design historian could try to put the pieces of his professional life together—I am sure that there is a lot to discover. Unfortunately, Joe has nothing left from his work as a designer—no sketches, no documents, nothing.

He fits into the Midcentury Modern milieu. How did he interact with his contemporaries?

Joe told me that he observed carefully what other designers did, but he didn’t interact with them.

He turned 100 years old last week. Many of his generation have been edging into their 90s. What contributes to this creative longevity?

His answer: Curiosity, and the fun in being busy as a creative. He still spends time drawing at his desk—as far as his health condition allows. Another reason for his long life: His wife, Phyllis (90+ as well), they are still in deep love. They might form an interdependent symbiosis, keeping vivid one another.

What did you learn and what will you preserve, in addition to your German language essay in Grafikmagazin, that will ensure his place in design history?

At first, I closed the gap on Wikipedia and added a Joe Caroff entry in English and German. In addition to my eight-page article in the German Grafikmagazin, I will also publish an article on Joe in EYE, the British design magazine, later this year. I hope that more interesting details will be found, and that the creative estate of Joe Caroff will become more visible. His oeuvre has become inspirational for many designers. For example, British type designer Colin Brignall created the typeface Tango in 1974, based on Joe Caroff’s handlettering for Last Tango in Paris. And today, designer Emy Storey uses Tango for the identity of the Swedish Folk duo First Aid Kit. I learned that many contemporary visuals are based on Joe’s work—although Caroff as a person is almost unknown. Let’s find out more and pay more attention to his work.