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20 Designers, More Than 1600 Years of Inspirational Wisdom

Certain cultures honor and respect its elders for their knowledge and experience. The graphic designer tribe, not so much. What’s new, what’s hot, what’s trending: on it! Regardless, we now have 20 Over 80: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design.

20 Over 80 is a collection of new and original interviews with twenty of the most successful and acclaimed post-80 seniors in the visual arts, most of whom continue to be significant movers and shakers, a couple of whom have unfortunately died since the book’s completion, but all of whom offer valuable insights and information for current and future generations of creative professionals. You’ll hear from graphic designers Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Bob Gill, Richard Hollis, Lora Lamm, and Deborah Sussman as well as architects Michael Graves, Denise Scott Brown, and Stanley Tigerman and a variety of pros in advertising, product design, and other such careers.

Escher-like pattern graphics Deborah Sussman designed for Standard Shoes, 1970. Sussman/Prejza

The book is the outcome of a great deal of dedicated devotion from design writer and editor Aileen Kwun and graphic designer and critic Bryn Smith. During our conversation these authors detail their motivations, occasional frustrations, and ultimate gratifications in producing this landmark work. They also offer helpful advice for others who might wish to build upon it; indeed, such a narrative from graphic design great Lou Danziger, now in his nineties, deserves a full volume in and of itself.

We begin by discussing the School of Visual Arts’ Design, Writing, Research, and Criticism grad program formerly known as D-Crit, which was founded ten years ago by Alice Twemlow and Steven Heller.

Serigraph self­-portrait, 2012. Courtesy of Bob Gill

How did your D-Crit studies influence your approach to 20 Over 80?

Bryn Smith: Greatly! The design criticism program at SVA has had a lasting influence on how I approach design in my own practice, and specific to the book, how we approached writing—and talking—about the subject. Something that was really important to both Aileen and me was to represent a broad range of practitioners within the field: graphic designers, industrial designers, architects, textile designers, lighting designers, plus design writers and editors. Looking at the field of design with a wide and inclusive lens, and writing the book in a way that appealed to both design geeks and the uninitiated, certainly grew out of our training at D-Crit.

As someone who’s had many different roles and titles within the field, I also believe this kind of approach is more in tune with the ever-changing and fluid nature of the design profession today.

Aileen Kwun: Our book publisher, Princeton Architectural Press was my first employer right out of college, and when they approached us to shape, develop and author this book after we had completed our MFAs at D-Crit, it was a no-brainer.

I went to public schools all the way through undergrad—I was a lit major at UC Berkeley—so my exposure to design was pretty self-initiated up until that point, informed by childhood memories of my father’s expertise in calligraphy, my amateur design attempts at student publications, my love of record sleeves, my obsession with magazines, and printed matter in general. You could say that graphics were my gateway to the design world. When I was in high school and one of my older sisters was in college, she brought home some design books one year during winter holiday, including Design Writing Research by Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller, which just so happened to be published by PAP. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that early exposure really proved to be very formative and revelatory.

I first learned about the D-Crit program by following news on Steve Heller, one of PAP’s authors and a cofounder of the course. I was a book publicist there at the time, so keeping tabs on our authors was a regular activity. Though I hadn’t planned to leave my job anytime soon, the launch of the program so appealed to me, I had to apply. Being engaged in design from the perspective of a then-aspiring writer and editor, I was really drawn to the program’s wide-ranging curriculum, which covered reporting, research, writing and criticism workshops, an interview course, a really excellent history class, as well as a mix of critical theory courses.

That mix of humanities and technical knowledge has been instrumental to shaping my approach to work in the field. Our instructors included Andrea Codrington Lippke, Alexandra Lange, Julie Lasky, Phil Patton, Ralph Caplan, and others, and everyone, including the students, came from a different training and background, but one central lesson that was always taught to us was to create work that was both accessible and challenging. Would your parents, grandparents, or non-design-initiated neighbor understand what it is you’re putting out into the world? That’s something that we’d get asked often in our reviews and crits. The design world can often be overly technical or insular, and sometimes purposely esoteric, but as a design critic, engaging and conversing with a wide public audience is a virtue.

Right after the MFA, I worked as a studio hand at Project Projects—working on a range of projects, helping to run a small business and just being a fly on the wall at one of my favorite studios was also eye-opening, and helped demystify design for me a bit, something that has been important in my approach to writing about the topic.

What made you curious about how graphic designers viewed their profession in relation to fine art?

Aileen Kwun: In my view, the intensely visual aspect of graphic design — working in the realm of color, image, and text applied to a surface, whether a publication, poster, or, even a building facade, interior, structure, or even digital interface—shares a lot of qualities with other forms of visual art. Though the end goals may vary—not just with art versus design, but also from one design project to another—the exercise of visual communication and composition is, at its basis, a creative act, which then gets shaped by the given constraints and goals of a project.

Design schools were also more rarified in the time period in which these figures were coming of age. Architecture and architectural education has a much longer tradition, but graphic design courses are still relatively nascent, in the grand scheme of things, depending on how you define graphic design, which is always expanding and readjusting to the advent of new tools. Meggs says graphic design began with cave paintings but graphic design schools, on the other hand, are a different story.

Many of the graphic designers in our book started out with a general interest in the arts: drawing, painting, or in the case of Bob Gill, music. We wanted to get to the root of those sources that helped them establish their attraction to a creative practice, and see how those impulses continued to evolve over the course of their five to six-decade-long careers. For many of our interviewees, art and design are not mutually exclusive, but part of a wide spectrum of creative work.

Bryn Smith: Art versus design is always a bit of a provocation, but what’s fascinating about design, and graphic design in particular, is it’s shifting definition. How one defines the field they’re in and their relationship to that definition can be quite revelatory, illuminating the cyclical nature of narratives like art vs. design, but also reframing those conversations for a new audience. If you ask a staid question in a creative way, you can often get a refreshing answer.

Poster for the exhibition Big Nudes at the School of Visual Arts, 1967. Courtesy of Milton Glaser

Promotional poster for Olivetti’s Valentine typewriter, 1968. Courtesy of Milton Glaser

Was physical health an issue for any of these designers?

Aileen Kwun: We all deal with aging and health, regardless of age. Rather than ask about this aspect of their lives, we wanted to celebrate our interviewees, their prolificacy, and their enduring commitment to their fields. But the topic did come up from time to time, and we were happy to discuss that, too. Across the board, they were completely generous, candid, and at ease in our conversations, and we’re so grateful for that.

Dreaming up the list and then narrowing it down to twenty, with the goal of representing the spectrum of roles within the design world, was certainly tough. In some cases, accessibility and health informed those decisions. Some of the designers who declined had stopped giving interviews several years ago, or were unavailable for various reasons.

Bryn Smith: More frankly, the urgency of the project was always present over the two-plus years we spent working on the book. One of the challenges—or responsibilities, rather—that we hadn’t fully appreciated at the outset was the poignancy some of the interviews might take on. In that respect, we were incredibly saddened by the passing of Deborah Sussman, Michael Graves, and Richard Sapper.

Interior of a Los Angeles Standard Shoes store Deborah Sussman designed in collaboration with architect Bernard Summerman. Sussman/Prejza

Who else would you’ve liked to include?

Aileen Kwun: Tadanori Yokoo was on my dream list. When we were working on the book he was a few years shy of 80; he’s now 79. I love his use of color, collage, and imagery, which feels like an interesting mashup of western and eastern aesthetics, and would have loved to hear about Japan in the 1960s, and how pop culture has influenced his work. There’s an interesting visual dialogue with some of Milton and Seymour’s Push Pin era work, which was produced around the same time, though of course in very different contexts. I’d love to get them all in the same room one day.

We also tried to track down Mary Wells Lawrence, the founding president of ad agency Wells Rich Greene, which commissioned the “I Heart NY” logo from Milton, but to no avail. I’d still love to meet her and hear her perspective as a female executive during a male-dominated Mad Men era, and what that was like.

Generally, we tried to include as many women as we could. Another figure we would have loved to include was Mildred Friedman, a longtime curator at the Walker Art Center who organized a number of highly influential shows, including 1989’s Graphic Design in America: A Visual History, the first large-scale survey of the field to be organized by a museum.

As a woman of color working in design, I also wanted to include voices from Asia and Latin America, but accessibility and language barriers definitely came into account. That’s not to say we purposefully shied away from them. I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Arata Isozaki and many others were also on our lists at some point.

Bryn Smith: At this point it’s sort of impossible to imagine any other list than the one we have. Of course there were some who declined and others we were unable to reach, but our selection process involved months and months of research and refinement. That being said, yes, we would’ve preferred an equal ratio of women to men and more diversity overall. Our very limited resources restricted travel and access, as Aileen mentioned, and the makeup of the field for that generation also influenced our choices.

Smoking a Pipe Improves One’s Image, The Learning Annex, 1995. Courtesy of Bob Gill

What did you find most inspiring in the course of your interviews?

Bryn Smith: Perspective. The ability by so many of the interviewees to know when to start something new, when to move on, and ultimately what to invest in. I’m continually fascinated by how people move through their careers while staying motivated and relevant: no small feat. Learning to navigate the difficult periods and transitions is truly a skill. So to sit down and hear that you could shift from fine art to architecture, or from editing to urban planning—even that you might consider leaving the field entirely and then come back as one of its most respected members—was inspirational. No two careers look alike.

And I’ll admit, I’m also rethinking the concept of retirement.

Aileen Kwun: We definitely wanted to speak with figures who were still actively engaged in producing new work, but we hadn’t anticipated the level of drive and stamina to which all of these figures have and continue to do so. The topic of retirement came up in a number of conversations, and the general consensus seems to be that it’s never been an appealing option!

The longevity of this generation of creatives is truly awe-inspiring, especially in light of the immense social, political, and technological changes that have taken place in their lifetimes, from being born during the Depression, to growing up through WWII, the rise of the personal computer, the Internet, and more. The solidification of the design industry was really instrumental in the 20th century, particularly with industrial and graphic design, with the growth of both the economic and physical infrastructure to create mass-produced work. Many of our interviewees were fearless pioneers in this respect, shaping and leading the way. That they have all continued to produce new work is so incredibly humbling, inspiring, and admirable.

Surely, experiencing such a wide swath of change is in store for all of our lifetimes, but to have years of perspective and insight on the past eight or nine decades—and with such unassuming charm, honesty, and generosity—it was truly an honor to meet and converse with these twenty history-making figures.

It was also so fun to connect the dots and realize how much smaller the design world was then. Nearly all of them knew each other, or were connected by two or three degrees at most, even across continents and disciplines.

Bryn Smith: What’s been most surprising for me is thinking about the nature of history in a new way. There’s a moment in our interview with Jack Lenor Larsen where he says, “Young people are constantly inventing the midcentury.” I find myself returning to that moment again and again, and to others in the book where a story or anecdote that perhaps began in an interview or conversation, soon veered from first telling to myth, and then much later to fact, whether it was true or not. History is somewhat fluid, and often dependent on faithful retelling.

One of six posters Richard Hollis designed for the African National Congress’s International Year of the Child, 1979. African National Congress

A self­-published lithograph poster based on Richard Hollis’s travels in post­-revolutionary Cuba, printed in an edition of one hundred and sold for a penny each, 1962. Courtesy Richard Hollis

And what’s been most gratifying for you?

Bryn Smith: The warmth and generosity of our interviewees. It’s truly wonderful to be connected to these twenty icons of design, and to feel part of the same community. I’d add that genuine excitement about the material, and our selection of these twenty figures, has been really wonderful. I do think we tapped into fatigue with the constant focus on what—or who—is new and emerging. So it’s nice to sense that the time for this book feels right.

Aileen Kwun: It’s been such a labor of love putting this book together for both of us. It’s taken roughly three years from project inception to launch, and filled many nights and weekends, as we were also working full-time jobs throughout. We’re so excited, grateful, and thrilled to hear it’s being received positively. Definitely feeling all the feels, as the kids say, and very much indebted to the generosity and participation of our twenty interviewees.

Overcast 7, acrylic on canvas, 2008. Courtesy of Seymour Chwast

Advertisement from Push Pin Graphic issue 81, 1979. In exchange for production services, Chwast often created ads for printers, typographers, and color separators. Courtesy of Seymour Chwast

Any follow-up plans?

Bryn Smith: The next project is always top of mind, but I think we’re both planning on a short break before taking on another project of this scale.

Aileen Kwun: I’m looking forward to a relaxing summer, though a few small side-projects, including a text for one of Jon Sueda’s upcoming projects, will be in the mix. And Bryn and I have been joking about 20 More Over 80, kind of semi-seriously, but we’ll see where that goes. We both work full-time, so likely not anytime soon. A lot of people have suggested we revisit our tapes to do some kind of audio spin-off, so that’s definitely a possibility, because there are some more gems to be found on the cutting room floor.

Finally, to paraphrase one of your recurring questions in 20 Over 80: what advice would you give your pre-project selves?

Aileen Kwun: Between the research, image hunting, and the conversations we shared, it’s been a rewarding and rich experience, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I would say: Always be filing. Which is to say, organization in a multi-part project like this is so, so important, especially when working collaboratively with many people. We tried to treat each of these profiles as a mini-monograph, though of course each could lend themselves to a multi-volume monograph, and many have.

Also, befriend librarians. Steve Heller drilled this into us with his infamous “No Google” design research class, but it’s so, so true. Libraries and archives are the best under-tapped resources for anyone looking to do a historical project.

Bryn Smith: Pace yourself. A book will take three times longer than you think, and be twice as hard. But it’s all worth it in the end.

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