Paul Rand knew how to seduce a client. With his dynamite combination of intelligence, wit, and design talent, Rand got his way nine times out of ten by using a special strategy: at the beginning of a corporate branding job, he created a custom booklet that elegantly outlined his idea for the company. There was just one—the idea—not multiple options. But that idea was always smart, innovative, and engaging. Seeing their companies through Rand’s eyes, clients were able to visualize the future and how design could help get them there. Post-war giants like IBM and Westinghouse permanently shifted design from a supporting to a leading role, thanks in large part to Rand’s irresistible ideas.
Rand’s legendary success as a design communicator is celebrated in “Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand,” an exhibition of 150 works at the Museum of the City of New York (open through July 19). Looking at Rand’s work across six decades, the show organizes a range of print work into chronological and typological categories, with prodigious amounts of material loaned from the personal collection of Steven Heller (author of a monograph on Rand published by Phaidon in 2000) and from the Herb Lubalin Archive.
Early in his career, Rand moved from illustration to advertising, and his ad work is fun and irreverent, from the character he created for Coronet Brandy in 1948, whose squared-off head may be read either as a flat-top haircut or as a brandy snifter, to the cigar he brought to life for El Producto in the ’50s (over the course of a series of ads, the little cigar graduates college and travels the globe). Amid the laughs there are unexpected moments of arresting beauty, like a counter card for El Producto using a photogram technique, which transforms cigars and an ashtray into ethereal, abstract silhouettes. The ads are followed by an array of very recognizable corporate work, book design, a selection of Rand’s own books, and finally his work while teaching at Yale and in late life.
Curator Donald Albrecht has handled the archival material with a light touch, leaving Rand’s evocative work to speak for itself, occasionally illuminated by his quotes running along the bases of the vitrines. One worthy of note: “I signed [my work] simply as a way of publicizing myself,” Rand told Steven Heller in a 1987 interview. When Rand began working in advertising, signing one’s work was not the norm for commercial artists, and Rand had to fight for it. Sure enough, if you look carefully, Rand’s signature is everywhere throughout the show, underscoring his position that graphic design was art and that designers deserved recognition.
That name wasn’t always Paul Rand. The designer, born in Brooklyn in 1914, changed his name from Peretz Rosenbaum early in his career to sidestep any anti-Semitism that might hinder his progress. The show highlights key biographical points like this one, but other behind-the-scenes or contextual material is largely absent. There are a few glimpses into the more personal side of Rand, such as the photographs that bookend the exhibition. A blown-up snapshot at the entry shows the designer on the island of Rhodes, leaning on an ancient Greek lion sculpture, and a photo in the last vitrine captures an older Rand in his Connecticut home office, kept company by his pet cat. It’s through images like these, representations of some irreverent doodling (the Westinghouse logo as smiley face), and a great four-minute film by Imaginary Forces (produced when Rand was inducted into The One Club’s Creative Hall of Fame in 2007) that we get a glimpse of the witty and worldly man behind the persuasive commercial images.
While visitors just discovering Rand may be delighted to learn about his pivotal role in the development of some of the world’s biggest brands, curious students of design will be left wanting more—more background about Rand himself, more about his education and influence on his own students, more about his relationship with other designers, artists, and architects and how it impacted his own design philosophy, more about his personal life (relevant here, since his second wife Ann was a frequent collaborator and co-author), and more about his own sources of inspiration. Leave them wanting more—that may be just the way Rand would have designed the show himself.