The Four Seasons Restaurant in New York is celebrated by many as a temple of modern design. Housed in a restrained interior designed by architect Philip Johnson are the elegant furniture of his collaborator Mies van der Rohe, elemental tableware by architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable and her industrial designer husband Garth, artist Richard Lippold’s abstract ceiling sculpture, and the shimmering aluminum curtains of textile artist Marie Nichols.
But much less talked about is the landmark restaurant’s logo, a design of the late Emil Antonucci—a mid-century American illustrator who has been forgotten with time.
Antonucci waited until the weekend before his presentation of the logo to start working on it, and came up with four trees from the different seasons to depict the restaurant’s name. What could have been a cliché blossomed into a now classic wood-cut-style identity under his hands. “That’s where style comes in,” he explained in a New York Magazine feature on the restaurant. “You can overcome banality with style. But the style in those years was geometric, hard-edged like the CBS eye, I didn’t want a hard edge.”
The hand-drawn dots and lines that effortlessly come together in The Four Seasons logo in 1959 are also a good indicator of Antonucci’s personal aesthetic: modernism with a soft touch. The work also marked a breakthrough for the then 30-year-old freelance illustrator. Since graduating from The Cooper Union Art School in 1950, the Brooklyn-born son of Italian immigrants had largely been designing book covers and illustrations for New York publishers like Sheed & Ward, Charles Scribner’s Sons, and Harper & Brothers—following in the footsteps of his famous tutors Paul Standard, Philip Grushkin, and George Salter, who’s credited for revolutionizing American book cover design in the ’30s and ’40s.
But for Antonucci, The Four Seasons project wasn’t the only milestone of 1959. That year, with money from a Guggenheim grant, he also designed and published poet Robert Lax’s The Circus of the Sun, a now famous book of poems that compared the circus to how God created the universe. This was perhaps Antonucci’s way of thanking Lax, who had introduced him to the agent who brought Antonucci to the attention of Johnson, which led to first The Four Seasons project, and later on, collaborations on work for the 1964 World’s Fair and New York University. Lax was also one of Antonucci’s earliest clients. As editor of the new Catholic picture magazine, Jubilee, the poet had commissioned work from the young and struggling illustrator in 1955 and even took up Antonucci’s offer to print chapter books of his poetry under his hobby imprint, The Hand Press. As Antonucci recalled decades later, “He actually trusted me to design and illustrate his work with total freedom and confidence in my artistic judgement. Heady stuff!”
Antonucci’s collaboration with Lax continued over the next 25 years under Journeyman Press, an experimental printing house the illustrator set up. Beginning with The Circus of the Sun, Journeyman produced close to 30 now-hard-to-find pamphlets—and a handful of short films—based on Lax’s poems. Mostly Blue (1971) was a half-letter size pamphlet with just two columns of red and blue squares hand-colored into four gridded pages that sold for a dollar each. This was just one of a series of experimental publications that combined Lax’s minimalist poetry with Antonucci’s expressive lines and dots. Many were published when the duo were artists-in-residence at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, from 1974 to 1976. Acknowledging the significance of the collaboration, Lax dedicated his 1997 book, A Thing That Is, with this inscription: “for / Emil Antonucci, / whose / Journeyman Press / began / it / all.”
While running Journeyman as his art practice, Antonucci taught graphic design at Parsons School of Design (for over 40 years), and ran a design studio from his Brooklyn home studio. Over a five-decade long career, Antonucci went from illustrating book covers to designing annual reports and corporate identities for organizations like the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and the Times Square Business Improvement District. However, it was Antonucci’s illustration skills, where he often used nothing more than lines and dots to conjure distinctive patterns and designs, where his work stood out. For the cover of the essay collection, Quarrels that Have Shaped the Constitutio (1966), he shaded handwritten lines of text into red and blue arrows that ran across as if in dialogue. His covers of exhibition catalogs for the Museum of Contemporary Crafts done between the mid-60s and early ’70s often contained an array of child-like, hand-drawn elements that came together to invite readers to explore them one by one.
Explaining his design approach in the catalog for a 1969 exhibition of his works at the Mead Library of Ideas, a gallery of the Mead paper company in New York’s Pan Am building, Antonucci wrote:
“What I want is the impossible. I want as much diversity in things, in people, in places, in ideas as possible. But I want unity among things and people and places and ideas. I want that unity without anything losing its uniqueness.”
Relating his practice to life, he added, “Each of us contains more lives than can be lived. The artist can live out his other lives in his work. It is this diversity within the unity of the personality that is my particular interest, and is, I hope, what this exhibit in some way reveals.”
Of Antonucci’s many lives, the one he devoted design to entirely was that as a Catholic. He sought to introduce Catholic art and graphics into the American mainstream, influenced by European Catholic artists and writers including British designer Eric Gill, French painter Georges Rouault, and novelists including Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, François Mauriac. and Georges Bernanos. This he did by contributing drawings to New York’s Catholic Worker newspaper and Jubilee magazine (where he first met Lax) early in his career. But it was at the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, where an “entirely unassuming and gentle man” dressed in a dark shirt and workman’s pants made the most impact, recalls the magazine’s ex-managing editor, Patrick Jordan. Catholicism appealed to Antonucci for how it connected the physical and spiritual worlds, but also framed the purpose of his art and design. “I see art as the creation of structures, the creation of worlds that meaning may inhabit, but not defined,” he once wrote in Commonweal. “I see the way art works as an analog of God’s presence in the world.”