The Daily Heller: The Public’s Paula Scher

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Paula Scher's recent book, 25 Years at the Public: A Love Story, has been available for months, almost since the shutdown began; yet any fanfare for it has been postponed. I've held back as well. I was scheduled to interview her for a School of Visual Arts event last April (I even have an essay in the book) that was postponed in the hope that normalcy might return before the Fall to ensure a more deserving book launch. But as lockdown promises to increase and neither of us are fond of doing this kind of presentation on Zoom, I've decided to at least tip my hat to this very impressive case-study/memoir about a very special personal/client relationship. I will not, however, excerpt my essay from the book (nor those of the other contributors, Ellen Lupton and the theater's artistic directors, George C. Wolfe and Oskar Eustis) but rather offer another tribute to Scher's incomparable work.

The greatest praise that one can give a designer is that her work has risen to the level of vernacular. To be so considered, a piece or body of design must be more than familiar, It must be deeply embedded into the culture where it was created and resides. It must be so ingrained in the consciousness of the times that one cannot imagine the environment or society without its presence. Design history books are full of memorable work, but few are truly vernacular. Paula Scher has come as close as anyone to achieving this status through the typography and posters she designed for the New York Public Theater. In fact, she took the existing vernacular of bold advertising typefaces endemic to common advertising bills and flyers and transformed this into a distinctive street-language-cum-brand.

One cannot look at any of the work from her 25 year "love story" as graphic design maestro for The Public Theater without thinking that this endeavor is as integral to New York’s essence as are Times Square sign spectaculars. Scher's work has made a profound impact on the overall look of New York through numerous environmental graphics. It is possible (and probable) to take a walking tour of NYC and pick out dozens of artifacts.

She has also so inexorably contributed to the cityscape through designs for museums, schools, institutions and retail stores—and magazines, too—that she was named to the City Arts Commission. While her oeuvre is not only New York–centric, it is largely comprised of iconography rooted in the ethos of the city. Her penchant for bold, slab-serif, gothic type is as much homage to the monumental architecture of New York as it is a tool that competes with the onslaught of media, covering this town.

Add to this her signature conceptual acuity born of urbane wit and it is fair to say that Scher’s design, while uniquely her own, epitomizes a New York attitude. He first monograph, Make it Bigger (not an ad for Viagra), while meant to be an ironic title, defines who she is: a master of the Big Idea—those extraordinary concepts that entertain, inform and arrest through wit, intelligence and eccentricity.

Her work abounds with nuance yet is rarely subtle. Her fondness for jarring primary colors, audaciously cropped pictures and comic texts derives from her big closet of influences. Scher's Make it Bigger does, however, beg a question: What exactly is this it?

Is it the surface—type or ornament?

Is it the attitude—sarcastic or ironic?

Is it the style—retro or contemporary?

It is this and more. It is that thing that Scher does to translate smart design into a startling object, meaningful artifact, and memorable message. It is what gives a job its character. It is a demonstrative personality.

Scher has a gift for making the timely timeless, and an eye for extracting the extraordinary from the everyday. She creates languages and identities for cultural and commercial institutions, yet she does not sacrifice an imprimatur. Her visual persona is pervasive without subsuming message—function is paramount. She imbues the things that she is asked to promote, sell and brand, from The New York Shakespeare Festival to Asia Society to Citibank, with character. Not surprisingly, she is a character too. The petite Scher is brash and self-assured whose design presence commands attention.

Every seven years she gets the itch to change direction, and recently acquired a passion for wedding graphic design with architecture, a practice she calls “landmarking.”

Working with architects on interior and exterior sign and marquee commissions for two New York attractions, The New 42nd Street and Symphony Space, Scher integrated big ideas and big typography in ways that permanently enhance the surroundings more than any of her printed ephemera. After three decades of making graphics that speak to the public, she currently revels in making buildings talk.

Scher is the epitome of the new multimedia, simultaneous platform designer who is currently defining the field. In fact, she is to design in New York what—you fill in the blank …