Seymour Chwast is a well-known name in American graphic design history, but how many people have seen the breadth of his over long (six decades and counting) career?
At the recently launched Seymour Chwast Archive, anyone around the world can now scroll and click into Chwast’s witty and provocative oeuvre in the comfort of their pajamas. From a 1940s illustrated book featuring protesting farm animals to a 2011 woodcut portrait of The Notorious B.I.G for Fader magazine, this digital-only archive features some 300 posters, books, identities, and paintings by Chwast, once described by former colleague Milton Glaser as a “brilliant typographer, terrific designer, unique illustrator” all rolled into one.
The idea to build Chwast a digital home arose two years ago when his wife Paula Scher, a Pentagram partner, came across the online archive for the late Alan Fletcher, the venerable British graphic designer and co-founder of her agency. She enlisted design critic Bryn Smith (who writes our monthly “graphic design in the wild” series) and interactive designer Frank LaRocca to develop an online website for Chwast, separate from the Push Pin Gallery, which continues to sell classic posters, paintings, and magazines by the legendary Push Pin Studios he co-founded in 1954 with Glaser and Edward Sorel.
While Chwast’s works have been collected by various museums, libraries, and also compiled into two monographs, the designer recognized the advantage of having an online archive. “Being digital allows any one at any time to access my work,” he said over an e-mail interview.
For Smith, this accessibility is amplified by an archive designed to offer new ways to see connections in Chwast’s works, whether you’re familiar with them or not. One can browse a salon-style gallery, surf via categories ranging from themes to techniques and time periods, or navigate a historical timeline that outlines the designer’s career milestones alongside relevant works.
“We hope people might stumble in through one image, and then discover the broader range of Seymour’s work,” says Smith. “Ultimately, we really wanted the archive to be shareable, which I think is a distinct advantage of a digital versus physical space.”
In assembling the archive for a designer whom Smith was not intimately familiar with at first, she read up about Chwast to draft a list of his significant works. She also got access to his works that had already been digitized for earlier projects and—the gold dust—was sifting through boxes Chwast often brought into the city from his weekend home in Connecticut. One such delivery led Smith to the first book Chwast ever made, just one of several never-before-seen pieces up on the archive. Farmer Goosby Gives In illustrates unhappy animals standing up against an abusive farmer, a storyline that offers a glimpse of Chwast’s revolutionary character that blossomed in later works. In 1968, he subverted the Uncle Sam mascot to create the now iconic “End Bad Breath” poster, his protest of the United States involvement in the Vietnam War.
Other Chwast designs found only in the archive include price lists hand-drawn by the designer in the ’90s to track the sales of his metal sculptures. Convincing the designer to archive such ephemera ensured the site wasn’t just another portfolio showcase. “I thought of this as a much broader project in the sense that it would have history and context,” she explains. “Older things, like ephemera, you would get rid of for a streamlined portfolio site.”
Besides selecting the works to feature, Smith also wrote captions for many of them based on her research and hours of interviews conducted with Chwast. Nuggets of information revealed include learning how Chwast really wanted to submit his 1957 anti-war publication, A Book of Battles, for AIGA’s 50 Books/50 Covers competition but was stopped by his integrity.
“He had made 80 books and the requirement was 100 and he could have easily just lied, but he didn’t,” says Smith. “Hopefully, his personality comes across in these descriptions.”
Even with the estimated 600 images of works up online, the archive offers just a slice of Chwast’s sheer volume of works. Many books by the designer could not be photographed for inclusion due to budgetary reasons. Chwast’s first-ever illustration, published in a 1948 issue of Seventeen magazine, remains missing. The silver lining for Smith is that a digital archive can easily be updated over time.
It’s an idea that Chwast is toying with for now. “I hadn’t thought about it, but I guess I should.”