Ken Burns on William Segal
William C. Segal (1905-2000) is not as well known in the design world as his magazine contemporaries Alexey Brodovitch or Alexander Lieberman. His name does not appear in so much as a footnote in any design history textbook. Yet he had an equal influence on fashion magazines during the late forties and fifties. Segal was founder and managing director of Reporter Publications in New York City, as well as writer, editor, publisher and art director of its stunning periodicals, Men’s Reporter, American Fabrics and Gentry.
Men’s Reporter was the voice box of men’s’ fashion. AF was an elegant “trade” magazine that combined articles on fine art and commercial textile manufacture aimed at elevating the oft disparaged “rag trade.” Gentry was a general interest quarterly male lifestyle magazine that owing to its special graphic effects rivaled the likes of Esquire for intelligence and Playboy for inventiveness.
Segal may not be well known in design annals because he hired designers to work on projects, so he assumes the appearance of a client rather than a creator. For Segal design was not an isolated, specialized activity, rather it was a part of an entire process.
If the term “auteur” applies to graphic design, then Segal’s total participation in all aspects of his magazines – from editing, to selling ads, to doing layouts – has certainly earned him the distinction of design auteur.
One of his notable collaborations was with Alvin Lustig, who designed his home (below, second), his offices in the Empire State Building, and his magazines (see two covers above and below top). And later this month and next, PBS, which has exclusive rights to Ken Burns’s films, is bringing two of his documentaries, “William Segal” and “In the Marketplace,” to television for the first time. (Viewers should check local listings for broadcast dates.)
These short and intimate movies about Segal that Burns and his colleagues made from 1992 to 2000 were mostly meant to be seen within Mr. Segal’s personal and professional circles. They will focus on his artistic (as painter and poet) and spiritual life (as a confidant of G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greco-Armenian mystic whose self-named esoteric movement wed the wisdom of the East and energy of the West).
“In the last decade of his life he and filmmaker Ken Burns collaborated on an interior trilogy. The film includes segments of Segal in his art studio and garden discussing the creative process and the intimate personal and spiritual relationship between the artist and the work of art. It also includes a segment on Vezelay, inspired by the magnificent basilica at Vezelay, France. There he and Burns probe the eternal question of individual identity and the obstacles of seeing, searching and being.”
Or you can read my essay on Segal and Gentry in “The Graphic Design Reader.”