corporate logos — and “human” cigars

| 31 Mar 2015 | 11:31

Paul Rand (1914-1996), the legendary graphics designer and advertising art director, started small. Born Peretz Rosenbaum to Orthodox Jewish parents in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he began his career at age 3, copying images from Palmolive ads that he spied in his parents’ grocery store. By the end of his 60-year career, he had earned the moniker “the Picasso of graphic design” and was showered with accolades for his trailblazing corporate logos and designs for books, magazines and ads. Think of him as a branding genius.

The Museum of the City of New York pays tribute to this native son with the colorful exhibit, “Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand,” now through July 19. A video at the show’s entrance introduces us to the designer and his core beliefs, among them: “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.”

The 150 graphic elements here—magazine covers, book covers, a movie billboard, ad posters and corporate signage—are both, actually. Rand found inspiration in European modernism—Dutch De Stijl, the German Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, Le Corbusier. His talent ran the gamut, from highbrow philosophical treatises about the principles of design (e.g., “Thoughts on Design,” 1947) to children’s books.

He was schooled in art in New York, first at Pratt Institute, where he took night classes, and then at The Art Students League and Parsons School of Design. He later taught briefly at Pratt in 1946. But he made a virtual second career out of teaching at Yale, where he preached what he practiced for nearly 40 years, adding educator to his distinguished résumé.

In 1941, Rand parlayed his early work designing magazine covers and layouts into a job as art director at the first “Jewish” ad agency, William H. Weintraub & Co.—but not before rebranding himself and reluctantly changing his name to obscure his Jewish roots (he found the name a hindrance when he was looking for work in the early part of his career). He is best known for developing iconic logos for corporate giants such as IBM, ABC, UPS, Westinghouse and Enron, some of which are still in use.

His long tenure as a consultant to IBM from 1956 to 1991 defined his career, and the show pays ample tribute to his efforts to transform the company’s visual identity and mark its entry into electronic computing. The walls are filled with photos of the modern logo—the plain version and the striped version—that he created to adorn buildings, office interiors and advertisements. Glass cases contain booklets, boxes and business cards boasting the new look—a system-wide graphics makeover that was simple, elegant and surprisingly playful.

Rand’s colleague Louis Danziger summed up his legacy when he stated that Rand “almost single-handedly convinced the business world that design was an effective tool.” One of his most famous clients, Steve Jobs, embraced the philosophy, hiring Rand to create a logo for NeXT, the educational computer company he started in 1985 after he left Apple. The assignment posed a particular challenge for Rand because the product was hush-hush. As exhibit co-chair Steven Heller explains in his monograph, “Paul Rand,” the designer used a black cube to evoke the computer’s case, with the company name sporting a lowercase “e” to suggest education.

Earlier campaigns for El Producto cigars and Coronet brandy conjure up mid-century America, when smoking and cocktail drinking were pervasive. Rand whimsically fashioned the cigars as human characters, with a cigar Santa giving a snowman a light in one classic ad on display here. He also developed the Coronet Brandy Man, whose head was comically shaped like a snifter. Humor was important to Rand. He silenced non-believers with the observation that “In short, the notion that the humorous approach to visual communication is undignified or belittling is sheer nonsense.” His innovative approach to advertising stemmed from his belief that the image should trump the text, a concept that seems obvious now but was revolutionary at the time.

The show gives equal treatment to Rand’s career in publishing, with display cases containing vintage copies of covers he designed for art monographs and for works by the likes of Thomas Mann, H.L. Mencken, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Strongly influenced by Europe’s avant-garde artists—e.g., Cézanne, Klee, Mondrian, Duchamp—he created covers with bold abstract forms, stylized figures, silhouettes and, in some cases, just large lettering.

Rand was a visionary who raised the bar and set the standard for the profession. As famed adman George Lois said in a speech when the design guru was alive: “Every art director and graphic designer in the world should kiss (as they say in Paul Rand’s native Brooklyn) his ass.”