American designer Roy Kuhlman (1923-2007) is best known for his iconic, spontaneous book covers for Grove Press (now Grove Atlantic), a freelance gig that lasted from 1952-1971, for which he was paid only $50 per cover. After his relationship with the company’s groundbreaking publisher Barney Rosset ended, Kuhlman may have lost the public forum those covers afforded, but he continued to create vital work. During his Grove stint, he worked for several top studios and companies, including Columbia Records as art director, and Sudler & Hennessey—a pharmaceutical agency—for creative director Herb Lubalin, working alongside designer/photographer Henry Wolf, advertising man George Lois, and photographer Carl Fischer. About his time at Grove working for Rosset, Kuhlman said:
“I usually had five seconds to get a yes or no from Rosset. So, I walked slowly across the office toward Rosset’s desk, holding the comp up so he’d have some [extra] time to look at it. Barney was the greatest client I ever had. He gave me the freedom to explore, to fail, and to win.”
Following Sudler & Hennessey, Kuhlman became art director at the PR firm Ruder Finn Inc. AIGA’s Design Archives include their 1957 annual report, as well as the company letterhead and a booklet he designed for them in 1958. Kuhlman then moved on to Lester Rossin Associates, a “completely integrated creative studio for design, illustration, and photography,” which represented Saul Bass, Bob Gill, David Stone Martin, et al.
Later, at New York ad agency Benton & Bowles, he designed the award-winning IBM “Mathematics Serving Man” campaign (above) that appeared in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, and won the AIGA Best Ads of the Year Award in 1960.
Unlike the covers for Grove, the IBM campaign came with a generous budget that allowed Kuhlman to really strut his stuff, both conceptually and aesthetically. The campaign featured his photographs of eclectic objects, like an abacus, arrowheads, and shells, alongside his roughhewn illustrations and generous amounts of white space.
Following the success of the campaign, IBM commissioned him to produce 700 slides and 52 live-action and animated shorts to promote computer sales and relieve the common fear that computers would render human workers obsolete. But during the two-year campaign, computers became more widely accepted, rendering Kuhlman’s efforts obsolete. Unfortunately, he ended up signing a confidentiality agreement to never show this work.
In 1964 he formed Kuhlman Associates Inc. to focus on advertising work for a client roster that included AT&T, Hertz, Ciba, Chemstrand, and, of course, Grove Press, where his cover rate was eventually doubled. Conceptually, his work humanized these cold corporations—even a corporate takeover. When he freelanced for five years as creative director for U.S. Plywood Corporation, he designed an annual report cover the year they merged with Champion Paper. It showed the two company logos carved in two entwined hearts on the bark of a tree, predating Milton Glaser’s use of a vernacular heart to represent “love” by several years.
During the last three decades of his career, Kuhlman worked in film, animation, and photography, in addition to design, before retiring in the late ’90s, following his induction into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1995. “In this business,” he said about his decision to retire, “if you have a ten-year life span, you’re lucky—mine lasted 35 years.”