In 1979, artist and designer Paul Peter Piech incurred the wrath of the U.S. Embassy in London, which objected to his use of the American flag in a poster. In his design, Piech turned the flag on its side, with the stripes becoming vertical bars behind which black figures looked out, below them a rough cursive text read ‘My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty!’ It was a protest of racial injustice in the country of his birth, highlighting the disparity between American idealism and the stark reality of life there. It’s an expert act of subversion, achieving the desired intent through mere reorientation, even if it’s genius was not exactly appreciated by everyone.
Although his was a singular life, Piech provides a great example of a designer and artist who wasn’t afraid to speak out about injustice and make work promoting the ideals that he believed in. Even through a successful early career in advertising, he spoke openly about his ethics and used his elevated position to celebrate a younger generation of designers, later devoting much of his career to education. But it’s Piech’s political posters, in his signature lino-cut style, that he’s best known for. His commitment to challenging falsehood, fighting apathy, and supporting the oppressed is what makes Piech so worthy of celebration 100 year after his birth, in our current turbulent times.
A Ukrainian-American who spent part of his life in Wales, Piech’s work often tackled literary subjects, as a new exhibition at the Library of Wales, “The Literary World of Paul Peter Piech,” explores. He was a great lover of poetry, philosophy quotations, proverbs, and sayings, as well as Jazz, though his best-known prints are on radical social, political, and humanitarian themes. These frequently tackled difficult subjects that placed him firmly in opposition to the establishment and in support of the marginalized wherever they may be. Although he was well regarded until his death in 1996, Piech’s legacy is curiously absent in design histories. The last decade has seen this partially remedied by a book on Piech co-published by Four Corners Books and the V&A, and a retrospective at the People’s History Museum in 2016.
Piech was born in Brooklyn in 1920 to Ukrainian parents who had emigrated seven years earlier. His parents brought him up speaking Ukrainian, and “instilled in him a love for the country’s language, history, and culture,” says Mari Elin Jones, curator of the current Piech exhibition in Wales. Growing up in a culturally diverse working-class neighborhood during the Great Depression no doubt also shaped Piech’s later globally diverse outlook and interest in equality. At nineteen he enrolled at The Cooper Union in New York, studying under the German émigrés Hans Moller and George Salter.
After graduating top of his class, Piech’s career got off to a promising start, working first at the Dorland Advertising Agency under former Bauhaus teacher Herbert Bayer. Following this, he worked for Columbia Records in the pioneering years of sleeve design with Robert M. Jones. Bayer’s modernist simplicity and Jones’ more playful approach were both formative inspirations to Piech, who listed Klee, Picasso, the Bauhaus, William Blake and German Expressionism as other early influences.
When America entered WWII Piech’s Cooper studies were put on hold; he signed up to serve in the Air Force making equipment, as poor eyesight meant he couldn’t be a pilot. He was posted to the UK, and on a break from service spent in Cardiff, Piech met Welsh nurse Irene Tomkins, then shortly thereafter vowed to marry her. After the war, she refused to move to New York as a GI bride, which may have shaped Piech’s future more than anything else—he promised her that, once his career was off the ground, he would return to Wales in 1947.
After moving back to the UK, Piech used the free tuition for ex-soldiers to study printmaking at Chelsea College of Art in London—a choice that perhaps hints at a desire to break from his commercial background. After graduating, however, it became obvious that the life of an artist was not going to financially support his wife and new daughter Olwen, so Piech decided to once again give a career in advertising his all.
An impeccable background made Piech in demand on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1949, he created a cover for the influential magazine Interiors, whose previous cover artists included Ladislav Sutnar, Alvin Lustig, Le Corbusier, and György Kepes. The same year also saw Piech garner a four-page feature in British magazine Art & Industry, which featured his freelance work for BOAC, Scope Magazine, and British Vogue, and in which leading critic Herbert Read celebrated his “fresh viewpoint and lively sense of design.”
While briefly back in New York, Piech sought out Edward McKnight-Kauffer in the hope of garnering useful connections from one of the few fellow Americans to have worked in British advertising. Kauffer was impressed and recommended Piech to his former colleague Ashley Havinden. Known simply as Ashley, he was London’s highest-profile ad-man, working at the W.S. Crawford agency. The firm’s founder, William Crawford, was one of the few British agency owners who had been aware in the inter-war years of his country’s creative shortcomings in comparison to Europe and America. In the 1930s, Crawford had bemoaned the quality of Britain’s art graduates and declared that he wanted ‘rebels above all’—so hiring wise-talking, Brooklynite Piech was a coup for the agency.
Piech started at Crawford’s in 1951, going straight in as art director at the say-so of Havinden, but much to the dismay of some staff members who resented that Piech didn’t have to work his way up. They were soon proven wrong when Piech showed his ability; his work was regularly shown in annual roundups of advertising such as Modern Publicity (for which he designed a cover in 1960) and the International Poster Annual. By 1956 he was deemed worthy to be a member of the Society of Industrial Artists, and the following year saw Piech profiled in influential German magazine Gebrauchsgraphik which praised his problem-solving approach and the “typically Anglo-American humor which he uses well.”
Piech’s main Crawford clients included ICI Chemicals, Osram, and BP Energol, often these involved the drawing of happy anthropomorphized products like lightbulbs, oil drops, and cars. In some of his designs, you can see the highly-stylized and simplified approach to rendering people which would become a hallmark of his later work. However, he showed a more refined and conceptual approach for his most high-profile British advertising, created for testing machine manufacturer W&T Avery Ltd. His 1957 series of posters for Avery used monochrome simplicity, prescient of later op-art, to graphically represent ideas such as tension, stress, hardness, and compression. These were showcased in a dedicated Gebrauchsgraphik article, which praised Piech for being a designer “who uses an intellectual approach.” Graphic designer and historian Richard Hollis has also noted that Piech was one of the few designers in Britain who “integrated word and image” during the fifties.
Piech worked at Crawford’s until 1968, clocking in 17 years of advertising, which may come as a surprise considering the themes of his later work. However, he was always upfront about his views and ethics. In a 1958 article which praised the new generation of British creatives, such as Alan Fletcher and Ken Garland, Piech wrote that graphic designers have “a social responsibility to live and work within the canons of good taste, faith, and honesty, to achieve self-respect and social utility.” The decision to leave advertising behind was perhaps influenced by the shift in the ad-world towards photography, and also the industry growing ever more corporate, but his main motivation was to devote more time to his personal work. Piech also clearly felt the desire to share his expertise—he took on part-time teaching roles at a variety of art schools for nearly two decades after leaving advertising, and the importance of education was a recurring theme in his work.
In 1959 Piech had launched The Taurus Press, his own private press using printing equipment he had acquired in the past few years and stored in garages in his suburban homes on the outer fringes of North London. With Taurus, Piech began to produce linocut and woodcut prints, posters, and books exploring his interests and passions. Such traditional printing techniques had long been a creative outlet—he had begun his career in the heyday of Ben Shahn and Antonio Frasconi, who like Piech held left-leaning political views and used traditional printing methods to blend idiosyncratic illustration and lettering in both commercial and artistic work.
Throughout the last three decades of his life, Piech worked feverishly to produce his prints and posters with a sense of urgency that came from both his passion and the magnitude of the kind of issues he wanted his work to tackle. It has been said that he was rarely without his cutter and a block of lino, even working on Christmas day, in front of the television every night, and from a hospital bed when his health deteriorated.
Piech wrote that when he felt some truth was being missed he ‘didn’t want to sit around and be silent.’ Over the years, his work increasingly took up themes of injustice, reflecting his progressive humanistic political views, which had no doubt been further shaped by the wider context of the turbulent sixties and its countercultural flowerings, including later movements around ecology; he supported Greenpeace and produced many posters with environmental messages. The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam were major factors in his disillusion with the country of his birth. One of his first major undertakings was 100 posters commemorating the life of Martin Luther King. He also contributed poster designs to causes he believed in, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International, and Pestalozzi, a charity promoting education in some of the world’s poorest communities.
Piech’s focus ranged widely, tackling subjects from a global-perspective including racism, pacifism, sexism, poverty, and inequality, condemning the likes of Apartheid, torture, the CIA, Richard Nixon, American imperialism, the Falklands War, and the British Conservative Party. Often passages from his favorite writers, poets, philosophers, and thinkers, along with proverbs and religious quotes, were used to express his viewpoints, which he was always keen to stress couldn’t be limited to any ‘ism’ or label. In his imagery, Piech did not shy away from difficult truths and the unpleasantness of the world; skeletal suffering figures were a common subject matter ever since he had flown over a prisoner of war camp during his wartime days, a sight which would stay with him and greatly impact the political viewpoint he held for the rest of his life.
Piech moved to Porthcawl, a small seaside town in South Wales, in 1986 and continued to work there in the last decade of his life. It was here that Welsh themes began to spring up in his work. Piech had always sided with and celebrated the underdog throughout his life, so it isn’t a surprise that he identified with this small country long-subjugated by its neighbor. Matt Jones, a principal designer at Google AI, grew up in Porthcawl and remembers Piech, who was a regular at his father’s picture framing business, as a “very friendly, curious and obviously intelligent old man. A bit of a Yoda figure in a way,” he says. “He was very indulgent of my questions and didn’t ever talk down to me. He was very encouraging.”
The recent centenary of Piech’s birth is an opportunity for us to look back on his prodigious output and the issues of the times that it speaks to. But it’s also a chance to consider the role of a designer in a changing world. Above all, Piech was a believer in the power of communication and of the individual to use this power. As curator Mary Elin Jones points out, “his main aim with his posters and prints was to say something, to convey a message, and I think as long as we as a society continue to want to speak up about the issues we believe in, Piech’s work will continue to appeal.”
The Literary World of Paul Peter Piech is on at The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth until January 2021.