If anyone can turn a Christmas tree into an esoteric design joke, it would be Milton Glaser. The proof is in the archives of the Herb Lubalin Center at Cooper Union, which has in its possession a holiday card designed by Glaser for the typography company Advertising Composition Inc.—adorned with a spindly red and green tree built from the type settings of the company’s catalog. In the same collection, gifted to the Lubalin Center by designer Arnold Roston, another card sports a Christmas tree comprised of the factorial sequence. The greeting that lies below, “May good health and prosperous times equal happiness in 1958,” is signed by the designer Tom Courtos.
It turns out mid-century graphic designers cannot be beat when it comes to spreading the season’s greetings.
Evidence of this is not only stored away in the Lubalin Center archives—though they do have an impressive collection of holiday cards, sent from the likes of Paul Rand, Chermayeff & Geismar, Ladislav Sutnar, and Lou Dorfsman. Once you start asking around, there’s a wealth of impeccably designed holiday cheer tucked away in flat files and storage bins: in the archives at Herman Miller, in the modern graphic design collection of Display, and of course in our own AIGA archives.
There’s the 1962 New Year’s greeting card from German graphic designer Anton Stankowski, for example, which doubles as a calendar. The days of the year are arranged in a spiral of dots, with the red indicating weekends and holidays. Both Ray and Charles Eames and the family of Alexander Girard sent a yearly holiday card to Jim Eppinger, Herman Miller’s East Coast sales manager, a few of which have been kept for prosperity. While the Eames’ chose to riff on the famous image of the couple pinned by their chair bases (the picture later graced the cover of Architectural Design magazine), Girard’s cards took a totally different direction than the Modernist architecture and textile designs he’s known for, with hand-crafted designs and scrawled lettering.
Herman Miller’s known for dedicating some legendary design talent to internal communications (recall Steve Frykholm’s posters for the company picnic, now a part of MoMA’s permanent collection), and they certainly didn’t skimp on the posters for the company holiday parties. Graphic designer Linda Powell, who worked with Frykholm in the ’70s and ’80s, made the posters below for a 1978 party with a theme of “Sounds of Christmas.” According to the West Michigan Graphic Design Archives, which Powell runs with fellow former Herman Miller designer Barbara Loveland, instead of just designing one, Powell made four posters, each depicting one sound: Ho Ho Ho, Fa la la la la, Smack, and Jingle.
There’s also Herb Lubalin’s New Years card for the year 1972, which looks like any other Lubalin lettering or logo. The only indication that it’s wishing the receiver a Happy New Year is in the phrase “’69 was good. ’72 is better,” wedged between the voluptuous 7 and 2, which are actually the same glyph flipped upside down. A card from the Met spells out Noel in the style of its logo (pre-Wolff Olins redesign), and MoMA’s 1975 holiday card carries an abstract design from none other than Elaine Lustig Cohen. A card designed by Louis Silverstein, the art director for The New York Times, turns the paper’s grid into a holiday ribbon.
If these cards seem more clever than most, consider that before the internet the office holiday card was a excellent annual excuse to show off your work, and experiment with designs without the constraints of a client. Here’s what you get when some of the best minds in the history of graphic design put their talent toward the humble holiday missive.