Designing for clients such as the Museum of Modern Art, AIGA, Knoll International, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press. Exhibiting work at the Whitney, MoMA, the Smithsonian and the Walker Art Center. Teaching alongside Herbert Matter, Paul Rand, Armin Hofmann, Bradbury Thompson and Josef Albers. These are the kind of achievements you would think were guarantees of fame for a 20th-century graphic designer. In the case of designer, artist, and teacher Norman S. Ives, the subject of a much-needed monograph edited by John T. Hill, success and prestige certainly came with this not inconsiderable list of key achievements, yet Ives never quite scaled the same heights of recognition as many of his friends and contemporaries. While he may not be a household name, Ives’ incredible abstract typographic art works, innovative posters, and beautifully simple logos deserve appreciation and a contemporary audience. Much of his work looks as fresh today as it did in the fifties and sixties.
Writing in a foreword to the book on Ives; Norman Ives: Constructions and Reconstructions, which was published by powerHouse Books last Fall, design historian Steven Heller admits that as a 24-year old art director at The New York Times he was ‘unaware of Ives’s graphic design or painting’ and had ‘even less understanding of his historic place in the American mid-modern canon’. Heller remembers that he had been asked in 1974 by fellow art director Ruth Ansel to commission an image by Ives to accompany a magazine article, but passed up on the chance, noting that he now regrets his ‘youthful ignorance and the missed opportunity.’ At the time, four years before his death from lung cancer at only 54, Ives’ career was at its zenith, after twenty years as a faculty member he was appointed as Professor of Graphic Design at the prestigious Yale School of Art in 1972. Five years earlier, in 1967, he had been recognized with induction to the Alliance Graphique Internationale. Ives’ relative obscurity at the time, illustrated by Heller’s unfamiliarity, was in-part a symptom of his own ‘reticent nature and his distaste for self-promotion’, as Hill writes in the book, as well as his straddling of multiple careers; graphic designer, fine artist, publisher and perhaps most of all educator.
As is often the case, the biggest names don’t necessarily make the best teachers, and Ives’ lack of ego, generosity of spirit and closeness with his students – both socially and literally, in that his studios tended to be near the campus – made him an excellent teacher. As R. Roger Remington points out in his essay in the monograph, many of Ives students ‘have gone on to be design leaders and major design educators.’ Hill, who had studied under Ives at Yale and later taught alongside him becoming close friends, in an interview with Heller for Print recalled that Ives ‘lack of celebrity meant that students found him ‘more accessible’. A glance at Hill’s Wikipedia page is indicative: of the list of his former Yale colleagues, Ives is the only one without an entry in the online encyclopedia. While he may not have courted fame, Ives’ relative obscurity is unfair given the exceptional quality of his work as both a designer and artist during his relatively short 26-year professional career. Hill’s excellent and lavishly illustrated title, decades in the making, will hopefully help to remedy this, as will the work of the Norman S. Ives Foundation who co-published the book.
Ives was born in 1923 near the Panama Canal, where his father served in the US Navy. By World War II, the Ives family, after years of moving around, was living in Hawaii and following tradition, Norman was soon serving in the Coast Guard. By 1948 he had enrolled at Wesleyan University in Connecticut following the end of his service. Professor Samuel Green, the head of the art department there, was a huge early influence on Ives, who dabbled in typography, book-binding and printmaking techniques like lithography, screenprinting and etching alongside conventional painting while an undergraduate. His work from this student period – which included illustrated books designed, printed and bound by Ives – showed clear progressive influences from avant-garde pioneers like Jean Arp, Paul Klee and Joan Miró. Alongside the visual influences, Hill credits Ives’ classics professor, the philosopher Norman O. Brown, as another key figure in his time at Wesleyan. As his later career would show, Ives’ had a deep fascination with literature, language and the written word — its structure, possibilities and limitations.
From Wesleyan, Ives was headhunted by Charles Sawyer, Yale’s Dean of Arts, to join the first cohort of students on the new post-graduate program in Graphic Design. Josef Albers, the former Bauhaus student and teacher, had just joined as Head of the Art department, taking Yale in a new modernist direction. Albers brought in his old Black Mountain College colleague Alvin Lustig, who joined Herbert Matter, Alexey Brodovitch, Lester Beale, Bradbury Thompson, and Paul Rand, as the staff of the new graphic design course headed by Alvin Eisenman and overseen by Albers.
At Yale, Ives began focusing on collage, using the prints he made on a Vandercook proof press with the school’s Victorian wood-type as his raw material. Rather than the anarchic quality of much famous collage, such as those by Kurt Schwitters, Ives’ use of the medium was rigorous and calculated, showing the influence of the grids and systems advocated by Swiss modernists. For all this control, they were no less visually exciting or appealing. In fact, they are full of energy and intrigue. Ives never worked in moving image, but his static work manages to fizz with kinetic potential. As fellow artist and Albers-protégé Sewell Silman wrote in a 1977 essay on Ives, reproduced in the book: ‘in his collages, segments of letter-forms maintain the integrity of their graphic origins but now appear to combine and recombine to produce new configurations which ail visually for something more than factual meaning’. The collage style he began at Yale, which show the influence of both Lustig’s pre-war abstract typographic compositions and Albers’ theories on color interaction, would come to define his artistic career. The same techniques would be used at times in commercial design projects and mural commissions, but typographic collage – which accounted for the great majority of his output – was mostly personal artistic work. Writing for Industrial Design in 1970, Ives would define his graphic design as ‘public symbols’ while his ‘graphic art’ he noted, ‘deals in private symbols’. Later in his career, he would experiment with using the same approach in different mediums; such as gouache paint, sculpture and three-dimensional bas reliefs.
The transition from Yale MFA student to faculty member seems to have been both smooth and immediate for Ives, who would also work closely on projects with fellow teacher Herbert Matter in the aftermath of his graduation — most notably in work for Knoll and on the famous typographic identity for New Haven Railroad. Ives built on the friendships he had made with his teachers as a student while also befriending other Yale staff — including photographer Walker Evans — and developed an easy, approachable manner with his students. Designer Christopher Pullman, who like Ives transitioned from student to teacher at Yale, recounts in the monograph that Norman was a ‘naturally gifted teacher’ who was ‘admired for his succinctness, dearth of rhetoric, mature criticism, and supportive nature.’ Reproduced in Constructions and Reconstructions are many examples of the work produced by Ives’ students in response to his assignments. Another former Ives’ student quoted in the book, Nathan Garland, recalls that Ives’ ‘wry humor could soften the blows of his critical comments’ and that in ‘spite of his shyness, he reached many students on a personal level.’
While he was clearly a beloved figure at Yale, often nominated for teaching awards by his students, Ives had also taught as visiting critic at RISD from 1960-62, at the University of Hawaii from 63-64 and in 1961 he had crossed the Atlantic for a brief stint as visiting professor at the Royal College of Art in London. His connection to the RCA may have come through future Pentagram co-founder Alan Fletcher. Fletcher had studied under Ives at Yale as an exchange student from the college in 1956-7, and his later interest in typographic collages may have had something to do with Ives’ tutelage. In fact, the highest-profile work created by Fletcher during his time in America; the January 1958 Fortune magazine cover commissioned by Leo Lionni, had definite shades of Ives’ abstract compositions. Fletcher, working back in London with Theo Crosby and Colin Forbes, would later include work by Ives, reproduced in foil, as part of a portfolio designed as a direct mailer for ICI Chemicals that also included Armin Hofmann, Enzo Mari and Dieter Rot. A logo by Ives also appears in Fletcher’s seminal 1963 book Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons, co-authored with Forbes and Bob Gill.
Although his work as a teacher and artist perhaps overshadowed his design career, Ives was very much engaged in commercial graphics work throughout his professional life. By the late fifties he was designing catalogues for MoMA’s exhibitions of prestigious artists such as Jackson Pollock and Picasso. He would later do the same for his friends like Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Walker Evans who were exhibiting at other museums and galleries. Much of his commercial work came through Yale, where he would design books for the university’s publishing house and art gallery, as well as a number of magazines connected to the school. Some of his best commercial work were the posters where he could put his poetic typographic touch to good use. As he wrote in 1970: ‘this kind of design has more freedom: since there is no great tradition of poster design in this country, the designer has greater latitude for the exercise of his talents’. Ives’ graphic design ability and standing was recognized in 1967 when he appeared in an exhibition at MoMA titled ‘3 Graphic Designers’ alongside Massimo Vignelli and the Brazilian artist and designer Almir Mavignier. Writing in the exhibition catalogue Associate Curator Mildred Constantine observes that ‘Ives uses very little pictorial imagery and has gone even further than Vignelli with typography, by making the single letter, numeral, or symbol the main element of a composition’.
Included in the exhibition was a selection of Ives’ logo designs, some of his most memorable and well-known pieces of commercial design. Earlier in 1960 Ives had published a small book, 8 Symbols, in which he showcased and discussed 8 of his best logos; all of which are incredibly simple, yet intelligent and dynamic, and made using the bare minimum of shape – usually letters when possible, in keeping with his artistic oeuvre. Writing in his introduction to the book, Ives shows his Swiss influences and the impact of former mentor Herbert Matter on his work, observing that; ‘Symbols demand a solution through the most economical of means to be successful. There is no part of a symbol that could be taken away without destroying the image. It is a true gestalt, in which the psychological effect of the total image is greater than the sum of its parts would indicate.’ Albers contributed a text exploring the historical context of emblem design to the book; which was included in AIGA’s 50 Books of the year in 1961.
Alongside logos, Ives was particularly interested in the potentials of collaboration between architects and graphic designers, which had been the subject of his MFA thesis. Soon he put this into practice; working frequently with Boston architect William Riesman creating giant murals for schools, restaurants, cinemas and corporate offices. In 1963, he would work with legendary architect Paul Rudolph on his Art & Architecture Building at Yale (now Rudolph Hall) creating a large, striking monochrome mural. These works, which helped create exciting interiors, put Ives at the cutting edge of the emerging ‘supergraphics’ genre of design.
If graphic design, fine art, teaching and architectural collaborations weren’t enough, a final string to Ives’ bow came through publishing, an area which, given his design and printing expertise and network of friends, was a natural fit. In 1958, he and Sewell Sillman – a fellow Yale staffer teaching courses in color, drawing, and painting – founded Ives-Sillman. Over the next twenty years, the duo would publish prints and portfolios by artists such as Dieter Roth, Walker Evans, Piet Mondrian, Anni Albers, Herbert Matter and most notably; Josef Albers. In 1963, working with Yale Press, Ives-Sillman published the first edition of Albers seminal book Interaction of Color, with Ives responsible for designing the interpretation of Albers’ famous color course developed since his Bauhaus days. Running a publisher also gave Ives a chance to give real-world experience to his students, one of whom, Julie Curtis, contributed a text to the monograph in which she explains how Ives ‘seemed most in his element in his studio, teaching by example.’
Ives was working right up until his death in 1978, which came a few weeks after the opening of a one-man show at the Marilyn Pearl Gallery in Manhattan. A decade later his work would be shown at the Madison Gallery in Connecticut, but it would be almost twenty years until another exhibition focused on Ives alone; the 2007 exhibition titled, like the book; Constructions & Reconstructions, curated by John T. Hill and shown at the AIGA gallery in New York. The same exhibition was repeated ten years later at RIT. Hill is to thank for Ives not slipping further through histories’ cracks, and his monograph is a fitting testament to Ives, both for his work and his life. The fact that so many of his former students are in the book rhapsodizing about their teacher some 42 years after his death, tells you a lot about Norman Ives. As Heller writes, Ives was a pioneer of ‘typography as an expressive medium’ and was ahead of his time, to the extent that ‘the book reverberates forward rather than reflects backward.’