Winter 2004

Talent in a different league [EXTRACT]

The Push Pin Graphic: A Quarter Century of Innovative Design and Illustration

By Seymour Chwast. Edited by Steven Heller and Martin Venezky. Introduction by Milton Glaser. Chronicle Books, USD50.00, £26.95

The development of graphic design history proceeds in fits and starts. Publishers are not convinced that a big audience exists for scholarly works about the subject, and they may be right. A book-buying audience largely composed of designers in search of visual inspiration, which can be gleaned from the pictures, does not provide firm ground for more intensive forms of research. The number of people formally studying design history is still limited, and graphic design provides only a small percentage of those readers. At the same time, there is barely any wider public interest in the history of graphic design to help sustain the publication of such expensive specialist books.

This is a problem, because anyone with a commitment to graphic design history knows there are many worthwhile subjects crying out for research. The Push Pin Graphic, published in 86 issues from 1957 to 1980 by Push Pin Studios, founded in New York by Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast and Edward Sorel, is a perfect example. When I received a copy of the book, I fell on it with a greater sense of anticipation than I have felt for any other design title this year. I have seen only a few original copies of the journal and here, at last, is a survey that shows spreads from every single issue.

By virtue of its subject alone, the book is unmissable. We don’t talk much about talent these days when it comes to the visual arts – the idea is too exclusionary for an egalitarian age more concerned with individual self-esteem. This doesn’t change the fact that some people possess exceptional visual gifts. If the book thrills, it’s because Glaser, Chwast and their colleagues were brilliant applied image-makers, constantly experimenting with different drawing media and techniques. Take a look at Glaser’s beach scene in issue 19, where the black ink steams like hot tar; or the vivid graphic plumage of Chwast’s wide-eyed bird conjured from diluted oil paint in issue 22. Graphic constructions such as the effortlessly graceful three-colour spice chart in issue 18, with drawings by Reynold Ruffins and Glaser, are in a different league from most contemporary illustration, which often looks stiff and formulaic by comparison.

Early issues of the Monthly Graphic, as it was first called, were printed on newsprint and the frail, yellowing pages are reproduced with their tattered edges and tears left as they are. This is all that such a remarkable publication needs, but the designers have garnished the material with an extra decorative layer. They lift motifs from the pages of the Graphic and superimpose them on spreads, and run patterned backgrounds behind the images. Variations in the style of presentation make it harder to compare issues and gain a sense of how the Graphic developed. Nor is this consistent with a careful, design-history-conscious approach to reproduction. It’s as though Chronicle – well known for its fancy gift books – and even the designers, Martin Venezky and Chwast, can’t quite believe that the material is sufficiently engaging in its own right. [...]

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