Foreign art students would come by, asking
for permission to photograph everything, including the
content of the trash cans.
In the 1950s, no one aspired to be young. On the contrary. Baby-faced
adolescents wore traditional blazers, white shirts and ties in order to look
more grown-up. Artists and creative types, always suspected of being immature,
sported expensive tweed jackets and smoked pipes in an attempt to cut an
authoritative figure. Back then, even rebels were older people. In 1955, Salvador Dali was 51,
Buckminster Fuller was 60, Le Corbusier was 68 and Picasso was 78. Emblematic of the period
was president Dwight Eisenhower, a man in his mid-sixties.
A few issues of these small pamphlets have been preserved, their yellowing pages as fragile as the wings of some extinct Lepidoptera. These diminutive, 33/4" by 81/4" booklets show a singular editorial vigor. Illustrated by then unknown artists — Edward Sorel, Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Reynold Ruffins — their content is an odd compilation of serendipitous material in the style of old American farmer's almanacks.
Quotes by Macchiavelli fraternize with advice on how to clean carpets. Whimsical woodcuts consort with audacious typographical exercises. The primitive, two-color process is systematically exploited to create maximum brilliance.
Back then, illustrators would advertise their work by sending art directors printed blotters. "The ball point pen had replaced pen and ink," recalls Ed Sorel, "and so these promotional blotters were obsolete. We had to come up with a novel way to let advertising agencies know that we were around."
Soon, people came to associate the unorthodox orange-and-pink or navy-and-green color equations of the Almanack with the name of the group. Push Pin was a style even before it was a studio. Ed's former wife, Elaine Sorel, remembers that the style of the Almanack was so fresh, it had its imitators right away. "In hindsight, I now realize that part of the fascination with that look was the fact that it heralded the end of the Modernist rule," she says.
From narrative to conceptual
The world of illustration was due for a change. At the time, American illustrators were working in the narrative genre on large canvases which had to be shipped to magazines or advertising agencies at great expense. To the chagrin of these wannabe Rembrandts, major improvements in the quality of color photography (better paper, increasingly more sensitive film, faster processing and more economical reproduction techniques) were enabling photographers to deliver realistic images at a price that was competitive with color illustrations. To contend with photography, illustrators now had to offer something more.
The members of the Push Pin consortium were the first to figure out what that "something" was. Instead of painting bigger, brighter and bolder illustrations, they set out to develop conceptual images.
Conceptual illustrations were not a new idea in Europe where Italian graphic designer Armando Testa and Polish artist Tadeusz Trekowski were borrowing from the Surrealist vocabulary to create starling posters. But their innovative approach was ignored in the USA until, ironically, photography forced illustrators to rethink their craft. Free at long last from the iconographic responsibilities of linear story telling, a new generation of picturialists were now interpreting rather than illustrating ideas and integrating words with images.
"We were working on paper, not canvas," recalls James McMullan, who joined Push Pin in the mid-sixties. "It was perceived as a European thing. We adjusted ourselves to the limitations of the printing process. We were thinking about the whole page."
In an interview with Peter Mayer in 1972, Glaser explains how his decision to become a conceptual designer/illustrator stemmed from a love of calligraphy and typography as well as from a desire to gain control over the communication process. "I [stayed] away from situations in which I would have to entrust my illustration to someone's else notion of design," he said. Now—24 years later—he comments: "Somehow, I was always good at putting information together in a way people could understand."
The end of Modernism
Being able to put words and images together was a valuable skill in the mid-1950s. It was the dawn of the information age. While televisions were invading living rooms, print media were experiencing tremendous growth and quality paperbacks were making culture much more accessible. "We had come to the end of the evolution of the Modernist style," explains Seymour Chwast. "We began to look around for new sources of inspiration. It was a timely process of discovery. We started investigating art from the beginning of the century and moved chronologically up, from Victoriana to Art Nouveau, and then to what, in my innocence, I called the 'Roxy' style. I only realized later that it was Art Deco."
Although the Push Pin illustrators admired their mentors — Ben Shahn, Cassandre, Bradbury Thompson, Paul Rand — they felt no pressure to follow in their footsteps. " We were ready to turn a corner," says Paul Davis, who became a member of the Push Pin Studios in the late Fifties. "We weren't compelled to be minimalist or modern. We invented post-modernism before it was even a concept."
In retrospect, it's easy to see where it all began — with the unassuming Push Pin Almanack. No heavier than a pack of seeds, it contained all the principles that, eventually, nurtured a fertile new crop of talented, eclectic, individualistic graphic designers. There could have been no better metaphor for this seminal publication than, indeed, a farmer's almanack.
In August 1954, Milton Glaser, who had been away in Italy on a Fullbright scholarship to study etching under Giorgio Morandi, came back to New York and the Push Pin Studios were formed. "In those low-tech days, it took very little cash to go into business," recalls Seymour Chwast. "At the beginning, we didn't have a grand plan. We just needed a space to do our freelance work. We certainly had no idea Push Pin was going to be as influential as it was."
Sorel, Ruffins, Chwast and Glaser rented a flat in a small brownstone on East 17th Street, in what was the first of a series of temporary spaces that would house them for the next decade. "We were so determined to minimize our expenses that we only had a pay phone in the studio," says Ed Sorel. "We had to drop a dime for each call." It's only in 1965 that Chwast and Glaser gathered enough capital to buy a building at 207 East 32 Street—an elegant limestone townhouse now considered a landmark in the history of graphic design in America—and the place where Milton Glaser still has his studio.
Back in 1954, the four partners had briefly toyed with the idea of changing the Push Pin name, deemed too frivolous by that period's standards, for something more serious, more adult. But they soon realized that it was too late to pry the catchy little words from their peers' consciousness. Like a thumb tack, it had stuck. And so had the Almanack.
In addition to the growing mailing list of art directors in the New York area, the young illustrators were now getting requests for their in-house newsletter from readers from Los Angeles to East Berlin. Recast as The Push Pin Monthly Graphic, the original almanack became a more sophisticated promo piece. First, it was published as a series of poster-size broadsheets, later it adopted a tabloid format.
"While it seldom managed to live up to the 'monthly' part of its name," says Myrna Davis, who edited the publication from 1960 to 1965, "it certainly fulfilled its 'graphic' promise."
Work and play
For the founders of Push Pin, the most important promise was to themselves. They all defined success as being able to maintain a consistent level of creativity. "We never confused the meaning of the work with how we were rewarded for it," says Milton Glaser. Right from its inception, the studio was organized to allow its members to channel all their energy in creativity. "The place was structured in an unstructured way," says Phyllis Rich Flood, who was hired in 1969 to mastermind Push Pin's public relations.
"There was no hierarchy—yet everyone had a real sense of productivity and responsibility to deadlines." It was all very efficient. According to Barry Zaid, a Canadian illustrator who worked at Push Pin in the early Seventies, "there was always someone to pick up the pieces behind you so that you could do your best work at all times." Ruffins credits Chwast for inspiring a high level of excellence: "It was very intimidating to see how much Seymour worked," he says. "He arrived before anyone and was always the last to leave." To explain his power of concentration, Chwast simply notes: "I just work until I get it right."
The working atmosphere was disciplined, but there was a buzz about it — with friends or family dropping by, messengers going in and out and suppliers delivering art material. Thanks to articles in Graphis magazine, the studio was attracting the curiosity of graphic designers worldwide. Groups of foreign art students would come by, asking for permission to photograph everything, including drawings thrown in the trash can. Around bagels and coffee, there was endless talk about food, art, music, philosophy and politics.
If a job was rejected by a client — which happened from time to time — the whole studio would break into a spontaneous rejection chant. Soon they were all dancing around the drawing boards, singing re-jex-shion, re-jex-shion on a Calypso tune. "There was a sense of delight," says Flood. "It was like a family." Once, a grey-suited student walked in to show his portfolio, only to find Glaser in his bathing suit, playing the banjo while talking on the phone.
Early on, an agent had been hired — someone with a couple of suits and a good control of the English language. A critical member of the team, he or she would drum up new business and deal with the specifics of each assignment. "You had to be able to defend the vision of the illustrator, even if it was different from the vision of the client," recalls Myrna Davis, who would sometimes second Jane Lander in her role as femme d'artiste.
"The Push Pin illustrators didn't see themselves as hired guns," she explains. "They were fine artists who, somehow, were willing to subject themselves to the tension of solving someone else's problem—while still doing the work they wanted to do." Seymour Chwast agrees. "I have always tried to use my assignments as platforms for whatever I have to say, while the client, in turn, uses me."
To further simplify the work of designers and keep a high level of productivity throughout the day, a research assistant was dispatched to the 42nd Street Public Library to find inspiring reference material. Acting as a divining rod, he or she would often return to the studio with unexpected iconographic loot.
The research process was so stimulating that it became the basis of Push Pin's unique brand of historicism.
Soon, Glaser realized that these scraps of visual clichés were more revealing of a particular period than traditional historical analysis. As if accidentally, he began to integrate in his work obscure vernacular references to little known art forms: A piece on e. e. cummings was influenced by Japanese calligraphic washes; a record cover for Richard Strauss' Don Quixote would be directly inspired by Picasso drawings; the famous Dylan poster, which became an icon to the Sixties' generation, integrated a Marcel Duchamps silhouette with Arabic design elements.
"The study of cliché as a mode of expression is fundamental to an understanding of design," said Glaser in his 1972 interview. "Clichés are symbols or devices that have lost their power and magic; yet they persist because of some kind of essential truth."
Oklahoma-born Paul Davis, who came to New York in 1955 and joined Push Pin in 1959, remembers being swept off his feet by this constant flow of hybrid cultural stimulation. "Where I came from, people only collected stamps or comic books, but these people were different," he says. "Seymour and Milton were relentless foragers, always bringing to the studio wonderful products, ceramics or labels from one place or another. Milton collected Indian miniatures while Seymour collected Victorian children books. There was so much stuff around that we had this fantasy about opening a store."
The studio was a clearing house for ideas and artifacts, but it was also a clearing house for people. "Everybody used Push Pin as a starting point to develop significant careers," says Glaser. Two of the original founders, Sorel and Ruffins, left after a couple of years to work on their own, the first as a major political satirist, the second as a children's-book illustrator.
Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser remained sole owners, hiring illustrators either as staff or as featured artists with star billing in the Push Pin dramatis personae. In two decades, between 1954 and 1974, more than 20 people contributed their formidable personality and talent to Push Pin's reputation.
Meeting of remarkable men
Many, like Glaser, Chwast, Ruffins and Sorel were Cooper Union's alumni. Among them were John Alcorn, Vincent Ceci, Herb Levitt, George Leavitt, Norman Green and Loring Eutemey. Others came from some of the best schools in the country: Jason McWhorter, Tim Lewis and Paul Davis were graduates from the School of Visual Arts; Jerry Smokler and James McMullan from Pratt Institute; Isadore Seltzer from the Art Center in Los Angeles; Cosmos Sarchiapone from Columbia University; Jerry Joyner from California College of Arts and Crafts; Sam Antupit from the Yale School of Architecture and Design. Haruo Miyauchi, a graduate of design schools in Japan, joined Push Pin as an intern and returned to Japan several years later as an accomplished artist.
Barry Zaid, who stayed at Push Pin six years, was a self-taught illustrator, but he had studied archeology and art history at the University of Toronto. "It's hard to go back and look at the work we did then," he says. "You can't help but feel nostalgic. Push Pin was so irresistible—yet, sooner or later, we all had to move on."
What kept the studio together was the meeting of two remarkable men, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast. One could hardly imagine two people more patently dissimilar yet at the same time more philosophically compatible.
"Milton would propose and Seymour would resist," says James McMullan who met them just before they made their first down payment on the 32nd Street townhouse. "But it infallibly worked out. They got things done this way." Sitting back to back at their respective drawing boards in the middle of the studio, Glaser and Chwast were a study in contrast.
Glaser is the optimist. "I have never experienced hardship at work," he says. "My mind doesn't work that way. I have always been interested in the creation of pleasure, the creation of interest." Even when the going got tough—when, for example, imitators like Peter Max or Heinz Edelmann received the acclaim he, Milton Glaser, deserved—he would gracefully conceded. "I couldn't have done what they did. And I am grateful for what I have done," he'd say earnestly. The soul of fairness, Glaser is such a likable character, it's almost alarming. No wonder he is a mentor figure to successive generations of students, peers and clients.
Unlike Glaser who works with ease, Chwast works against the grain — starting at seven in the morning and only stopping when he "gets it right." Watercolor and delicate pen work are not his favorite media. He prefers to battle with ball point pens, colored pencils, chisels, wood, metal, cardboard.
On purpose, he uses a primitive style to slow down his hand and make sure that his talent does not get ahead of his mind. "The concept has always been most important," he says in the introduction to his book, The Left-Handed Designer. "Surface, neatness, rendering, and craft are things that interest me less." A strained rusticity betrays his odd ambivalence, as if he meant to encourage his subject matter to resist being objectified on the page.
Not a man easily seduced by charismatic people, Seymour Chwast paid Milton Glaser the ultimate compliment: He never tried to placate him.
Undone by success
Their coming together was a rare event. Their coming apart was just as momentous. In a way, their split, made official in 1974, was a re-affirmation of what they had always believed, namely, that you can't remain creative if you become entrapped in your own image.
It happened slowly. First, Push Pin illustrators began to win gold medals, accolades and honorary positions; sometimes, twenty five percent of the awards in a show were presented to members of the studio; there were numerous articles and profiles published in prestigious magazines like Graphis, Idea, Communication Arts and even Newsweek; last but not least, Push Pin's alumni — Paul Davis and James McMullan in particular — contributed to the legend by becoming extremely successful on their own.
Davis, who is as much of a painter as he is a designer, was doing posters, book jackets and album covers that were the subjects of numerous museum retrospectives worldwide. Eventually, he served as art director of the Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater between 1984 and 1991. McMullan gained tremendous visibility with his journalistic illustrations for magazines and for his posters for the Lincoln Center Theater. Like Davis' paintings, McMullan's watercolors became an integral part of the New York cultural scene.
In 1970, there was a major retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in the Louvre, in Paris, followed by an exhibition in London. It was an unprecedented achievement: for the first time, illustrators were treated like real artists. The French press gave them a standing ovation. "The most brilliant graphic art team in the world" raved Le Nouvel Observateur. "When one goes to see the Push Pin show, one's vision is cleansed, and one's spirit refreshed," wrote Le Figaro. "Push Pin is a Renaissance force in graphics," proclaimed La Dépèche du Midi.
To Milton Glaser, these flattering headlines read like the writing on the wall. "I felt that we were lodged in history," he now says. "We had become a cultural commodity. Because I was interested in more than what Push Pin was becoming known for, I had to leave."
Twenty years after he founded Push Pin, Milton Glaser walked away from it. His sudden freedom gave him a chance to increase his involvement with New York Magazine, a weekly publication he had founded with Clay Felker in 1968, and to form Milton Glaser Inc., a design consultancy handling a wide range of disciplines from corporate identity programs to interior design. Later, in 1983, he teamed with Walter Bernard to create WBMG, a firm specializing in editorial design.
From Push Pin to Pushpin
Without losing any momentum, Seymour Chwast took full ownership of the Push Pin Studios, continuing to publish the newsletter—renamed Push Pin Graphic — with as much inventiveness as if it were a full-fledged literary magazine. Issues like New York at Night, What is This Thing Called Love? Going to Hell or Mothers are classics, displayed Push Pin's verve at its best. In 1982, Chwast joined with Steven Heller to produce books, principally on graphic design. "We would meet late at night and come up with intriguing themes, like New Jersey or Johann Sebastian Bach's birthday," recalls Heller. "Eventually, some of them would become illustrated books."
As much an author as he is a designer, Chwast can't help but be himself in everything he does. His phenomenal prolificness is a measure of his wits. In 1995, D.K. Holland joined the Pushpin Group as partner while Chwast remains its director.
And so, almost fifty years after the first Push Pin Almanack came off the press, the Push Pin spirit flourishes — it spelling now "Pushpin," but its pictorial message still germane to the times. Don't look at the work shown here from the vantage point of nostalgia — you would miss the fun.
"The architects of the Push Pin 'style' have hardly bothered to look back," wrote Lou Dorfsman, the legendary CBS creative director, on the occasion of Push Pin's fifteenth anniversary. "They have continued to refine their techniques and increase their powers, so that, while the world of American graphics may have at times seemed to be 'drowning in Push Pin,' Glaser, Chwast and their fertile crew were always safely somewhere else."