The Daily Heller: Remembering Dugald Stermer, Art Director-Illustrator, Friend

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This year, as more influential friends, designers and illustrators, many of them teachers, have begun to leave the planet, I am called upon to jumpstart my former avocation of writing obituaries and remembrances—and in the process revisit the history of design that I and others have written. As I ponder this responsibility, I don't want certain of these people to fall between the cracks. Dugald Stermer was an important mentor to me as art director of Ramparts magazine, and a close friend during the time he was an illustrator. 2021 marks 10 years since he prematurely passed at 74, and although this is not the exact anniversary of his passing (Dec. 2, to be exact), I think of him often.

To satisfy my fondness and everlasting respect for Stermer and his work—and avoid any maudlin nostalgia—I offer a video made for his memorial, as well as an interview we did together when he received AIGA San Francisco's 2011 Fellowship recognition prior to his death 12 months later.

From the interview:

I met Dugald Stermer over 20 years ago, but I knew of him decades before that. As art director of the leftwing Ramparts magazine, he showed me through elegant typography and smart illustration that there was a profession that could be carved out of a passion—and for me it was magazines. Stermer has been a perpetually vital force in San Francisco as art director, activist, civil servant and, of course, artist and teacher. His own work is exemplary of illustration art and craft, and the work he enables from his students maintains the standard and pushes the boundaries of visual culture. Stermer would hate to be called a “moral compass,” but for me, he’s been a model, balancing art and message and conscience too. This interview was done on Jan. 21, 2011, on the occasion of being named a Design Fellow by AIGA/SF.

Let’s start simple. How did you become a graphic designer?

I majored at art at UCLA. I was a graphic designer, such as it was. At least I learned there was something called graphic design. When I left school, the job I got was at a graphic design company, Richard Kuhn + Associates. I was the associate. Then I was recruited for a job in Houston, TX. Houston was booming. It was fun. Lots and lots of work, with good people down there.

What put you on the design map in the 1960s, and brought you onto my radar, was when you were art director of Ramparts magazine, a liberal/radical journal of politics and culture. I have been told that your classic design was the inspiration for both Rolling Stone and New York Magazine's formats. How did you get the gig?

I just started doing it; I remember the first cover I did was for a Leslie Fiedler story called “The Last Jew in America,” and I had an elegant photograph of a menorah with only one candle lit.

Warren Hinckle, the editor, who was the loudest spirit in the magazine, came in and showed me some cartoons that I thought were pretty anti-Semitic—he said they were going to be on the cover. I said, “No, this is the cover.” And we argued back and forth. So I said, “OK.” And I walked out the door.

He asked where I was going and I said, “I’m going back to Texas; I have a return trip ticket.” And he said why, and I said, “I run the design department or I don’t. This isn’t a democracy.” So I won that battle and most others.

Ramparts was a great experience; I’ve never had one like it since. The three of us, Warren Hinckle, Robert Shear and I, really ran the magazine. And if I wanted six pages to do something, they pretty much would let me do it without explanation or question.

Why did you categorize Ramparts as a “nutty” magazine?

A liberal Catholic, anti-clerical billionaire started the magazine to express his views. But he made the mistake of hiring people who did not think the church was the cause of all the evils in the world. He lost control of the magazine and it was foundering for a while. When I got there it had just stopped looking like a Midwest private girls’ school poetry quarterly. It was pretty low level. So I thought we could do anything. Gossage said you now have a minimum of 64 pages to do whatever you like on a monthly basis. Think of the freedom that gives you.

Freedom means nothing unless you have a strong structure. What was the context and content of the magazine?

The context was basically the liberal/radical issues of the time: the Vietnam War (anti-, of course), Women’s Movement (pro) and Civil Rights (pro). We exposed the CIA funding of the National Students’ Association. We tried to develop news stories. It was our inclination that we wanted to change the world. It wasn’t that we were ideologues at all, but we all had similar instincts. And that’s the direction we led the magazine. Our greatest success was when Time magazine called us “irresponsible.”

Along those lines, there was a memorable cover in which you and three editors were shown from the elbows up burning your draft cards, an illegal act of protest at the time. This caused quite a stir in Washington.

Indeed [laughs]! I got to see the inside of the Federal grand jury as the target of an investigation. Interestingly enough, because I was listed as the art director, and the art director commissions the art—in this case the photography—I was the primary target of the investigation. I was instigating action harmful to the best interests of the United States by encouraging civil disobedience. The four of us were called back to the grand jury and testified, but I was the primary target. I don’t know of any other art directors who were hauled before a jury for doing their job.

After leaving Ramparts you focused more on illustration. Why was that?

When I was in school I always wanted to make pictures. But I wasn’t very good at drawing, and lousy at painting. So there was graphic design staring me in the face. I could make marks on paper without actually having to draw something. But when I left Ramparts I was a freelance-something. I didn’t exactly know what. I didn’t want to have a staff. But I did design work for quite a while, always trying to shoehorn my illustration into those projects. Since my design work was essentially redesigning magazines, I had a good sho
t at commissioning myself and got a foothold in the illustration door that way.

I recall you did a few Time magazine covers that were very stylized portraits, nothing like you do today. They were OK by virtue of the post-hippy aesthetic, but looked so relentlessly stylized that that approach couldn’t hope to be viable into the future. So how did you make the shift from fashionable stylization to exquisite, classical rendering that you became known for?

You can fool other people for a while, but you can’t fool yourself forever. I looked at those things I did for Time and realized they were a crutch—an excuse for not being able to draw or model well. So I just said to myself, I’m not going to do them anymore. I also realized what you said: It is a very limiting style. I just got tired of it. I remember having done a commissioned cover for Time; their practice was to commission several artists, and I was one of them, but mine was not selected as the final cover. When they sent the painting back, I opened the package and realized it looked ghastly—it looked like my own imitator, imitating me at my worst.

I never did anything like that again. Picked up a pencil and, more or less, taught myself to draw. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since—teaching myself to draw.

What did you use? Models, photographs, objects?

Always something. I think most of us cannot draw only from imagination. I like individuality and accuracy. I like the individual parts of things, like the elements in somebody’s face that makes them different from another person’s face. I work from photographs when I have to, from real life when I can, or still life if necessary. But there is always something, often many somethings, right in front of me.

It is interesting that many people turn from illustration to design because it pays more, or it's higher up on the communication art food chain. You went against the traffic. You used your illustration as your voice. You did two books on endangered flora and fauna (Vanishing Flora: Endangered Plants Around the World and Vanishing Creatures: A Series of Portraits) and other things that spoke to the human and environmental conditions long before it became chic. How did that come about?

Just making “art” was not of interest to me. I always wanted to use my craft to say something to people I could not speak to directly—large groups of people who I would never meet, but who I could address about issues that I thought important. The Vanishing Flora book was important to me because there were a number of books on endangered animals, but nothing on plants, which is a more critical issue. So the publisher Harry Abrams, through editor/design director Sam Antupit, agreed to publish it. I’ll always be grateful to both.

I wanted to say something with my work—not with every job, of course, and certainly not preachy or scolding. I don’t want it to sound as if every job I do is a lecture. There are many, even most, that are money jobs: “draw this!” And I will draw this, whatever this is, because I like drawing. Sometimes when I’m drawing something that seems remarkably stupid, it doesn’t seem stupid when I’m into the work and concentrating. I make it the best drawing I can make of that subject.

As Howard Gossage used to say, “The only fit work for an adult is to change the world” [laughs]. He said it straight-faced, and while other people might laugh, I always have that in the back of my mind. I don’t walk around with my heart on my sleeve, but I do feel that using our abilities to make things better is a pretty good way of spending a life.

The other thing is, I haven’t got the brains to cure cancer or world hunger; or bring warring parties to the peace table; or any of the big issues. All I know how to do is to draw pictures and write a little bit. So it becomes more important that I try to use those abilities to do good.

How do you feel about this AIGA Fellows honor?

I’m honored by it. Also a little bemused, because the truth is the award I get is a one-year paid membership to the AIGA. Well, about 10 years ago I told AIGA Director Ric Grefe that I was resigning—not because I didn’t think the AIGA was a great organization, but because we had gradually diverged. I [felt], maybe wrongly, that the AIGA didn’t have a lot to offer me in my life at that time, and I didn’t have a whole lot to give back to the AIGA. I had served on its board for a time. So then I got this call: “I’m a member again.”

But I’m also bemused because I haven’t been a graphic designer for a long time. And the AIGA doesn’t really represent illustration as a high priority. In fact, the whole graphic design community doesn’t give illustration much attention.

Still, I feel very honored. I’ve been doing this for so long, and have been out of the design part of it for so long … that people still remember and respect my contribution is really gratifying.

You have indeed been doing it for a long time. So what is the quintessential pleasure and passion in your wealth of accomplishments?

I’ll answer with two: The Vanishing Flora book was as important a piece of work as I’ve ever done. I wrote the thing, I designed it. It was a true labor of love. My reward was seeing one perfect copy coming off the press, on a theme that I care about, that I can give my mother. And I did.

And the job as chair of the illustration department of the California College of the Arts has become a huge part of my life. Over the years it has become increasingly more gratifying and important. I’m proud of the way the department has grown, the faculty we have attracted, the quality of the students coming through. I know this because when I go into class, I want to be there, I want to talk with those kids. Maybe help them to see a world beyond making images.

I get the last word. I became aware of design when I was a teenager through a few people who I had never met but had seen their work. You were one of them. Through your work, you made a difference for those of us who were looking for that alternative culture. Since I’ve known you, I believe you are the foremost teacher I’ve ever met. If I were giving this award, it would be for the history you’ve helped create, and the work you continue to do at CCA by putting talented others into the world.