Abounding with warmth, character, diversity, irrepressible charm, and wit, the work of Seymour Chwast has always been the antithesis of the Modernist aesthetic. In 1954, he co-founded the influential Push Pin Studios with fellow Cooper Union alumni Milton Glaser, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins. Their expressive approach, which explored and re-interpreted design and illustration of past eras to form an experimental and highly distinctive brand of imagery, redefined graphic communication in the 1960s and ’70s.
With Glaser departing Push Pin in 1975, Chwast continued as director, publishing Push Pin Graphic (a spin-off of the much-celebrated Push Pin Almanack and Monthly Graphic) and Push Pin Press, alongside his client work. Over his seven decade career, Chwast has authored, designed, and illustrated over 80 books for adults and children in addition to four graphic novels, and has made work across a wide spectrum of domains, from posters, packaging, animation, advertising, and typographic design to purer graphic forms with forays into corporate identity.
“No matter the medium, style or content, a Chwast is always a Chwast,” says design historian Steven Heller, who is Chwast’s friend and collaborator, and recently authored the book Seymour Chwast: Inspiration and Process in Design. “He is his art and his art is him. His supremely individualistic approach culminates in art merging into design and vice versa.”
Heller’s book comprises a range of work sourced from Chwast’s archive of unpublished children’s books and cartoon illustration, a welcome reminder that the designer has always intuitively blurred the lines of design and illustration. Drawing, often thought of as an archaic and redundant activity within contemporary design, is the essential lifeblood of Chwast’s work, a vast unlimited resource for visual expression with so many configurations to explore.
Chwast’s images have a way of disarming the viewer instantly with charm, intrigue, or surprise—and so often that singularly uncommon of commodities in contemporary design: humor. British designer David Stuart, who co-authored with Beryl McAlhone A Smile in the Mind, a book about wit in design in which Chwast is featured, recalls: “Seymour is one of those rare animals who can pat his head and rub his tummy: the illustrator-designer. The few illustrator-designers I’ve met (not many) have all used wit in various ways as Seymour does. Because of their personality they can’t avoid employing humor. It’s in their genes.”
In an interview conducted via e-mail and with his customary brevity and diffidence, Chwast reflected on his career, his process, his views on design and illustration today, and on his late friend and colleague, Milton Glaser.
What drives you as an octogenarian designer, when the vast majority of practitioners retire decades earlier?
I don’t play golf and I still love to create posters and design and illustrate books. I can’t just do nothing.
How have you seen design change since you began your career in the 1950s?
When we started out, we were inspired by the greats: Paul Rand, Cassandre, Brodovitch. Now, typography is king.
Designers setting type have allowed for greater creative possibilities. While great design is being made especially with typography, it is driven by business: focus groups, following the brand and other marketing considerations. Marketing results affect the work of the designer, diminishing great innovative possibilities.
Has your approach changed over the course of your career, or do you still use the same modus operandi in tackling jobs?
Using visual language, my job has always been to find the most meaningful, un-cliched approach, consistent with my psyche—always being conscious of the media and the end user. I have a range of styles in my illustration. The style is determined by the media and my literary and aesthetic objective.
What is your view of contemporary graphic design?
There seems to be less interest in images, but concept is important. Since we’re getting smarter, the level of good design should be going up.
How about illustration?
Illustrators seem to be truly dedicated with fewer professional outlets. During the early 1970s many were rich and respected. Now they are just respected.
Drawing and drawings will never go out of style. The computer has made drawing—on it and on paper—more unique and personal. It is closer to the heart and hand than other methods.
Has the process of drawing become a lost art in design?
Drawings that are conceptual equal design. There is so much overlapping of design, photography, illustration, “fine” art, and drawing, it’s hard to find a line between them. Making good drawing helps all disciplines.
With the recent passing of your great friend and colleague Milton Glaser, an epoch of graphic design ended. How would you describe his legacy?
Milton’s great work in design and illustration made him a giant amongst designers and the public. He helped to popularize good design and proved that knowledge of the history of art and design is essential for the profession. He uniquely combined design, the drawn image, and concept, which informed his great work and inspired me.
The topic of war is a significant theme in the book and has been a persistent subject within your work for decades. What is behind your interest in this topic, and is the condition of being war-like simply an inherent part of being human?
War kills people and is carried on for all the wrong reasons. Because too many think it is their duty to go to war no matter what, I have made it my job to dissuade people through my pitifully modest art. It’s all I can do.
Paul Rand, Bob Gill, Ivan Chermayeff, and Marcello Minale are designers who have also created children’s books. For the designer, is this the ultimate form of creative playtime?
Sometimes the children’s book allows for physical concepts that can be creative and satisfying for me. There should be more freedom with ideas, writing and art but publishers can get in the way. Production costs and marketing challenges are a consideration.