An Interview with Seymour Chwast

The list of accomplishments associated with Seymour Chwast is almost impossible to fit into one small blog post. So naturally, when he agreed to speak with me for this site, which barely even has an official domain name, I was pretty elated to say the least.

Even if you don’t know the name Seymour Chwast, his work has undoubtedly seeped into the social consciousness one way or another throughout his more than 60+ year career. His iconic illustrations and poster designs have appeared all over the world, from the gallery walls of the Louvre’s famed Musée des Arts Décoratifs, to the Madison Ave. offices on Mad Men. His clients have included The New York TimesVanity Fair and many of his posters currently reside in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Design Museum and the Library of Congress.

Chwast_DantesInferno_PosterIt’s hard to imagine contemporary graphic design without the influence of Seymour Chwast. His playful and loose style of illustration and typographic elements came to prominence during the design revolution of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and for six decades, Seymour has made his mark on modern society. With his playful anti-war illustrations, his poignant social commentaries as seen in “The South” and his endearing stamp on graphic design, which can be found throughout all of his work as the co-founder of Push Pin Studios—the legendary design studio he started with Ed Sorel and Milton Glaser—the “Left-Handed Designer” Seymour Chwast has rightfully earned his place in art history.

I got the chance to talk to Seymour to discuss the legendary “End Bad Breath” poster, finding the humor in serious subjects and Push Pin Studios.

Out of all the possible mediums you’ve worked in, what about poster design really drew you in?

Well, I learned about all the great poster artists in the past and I really loved the stuff that all those guys did. So, I wanted to do that. That of course was after I thought I wanted to work for Walt Disney and become an animator. I was pretty inspired after I saw Pinocchio and Snow White when I was a kid.

Early in your career, you worked at the New York Times and learned about typography from George Krikorian. What were some takeaways you learned under his guidance?

I learned about ordering type and laying it out. He really taught me what all the good typefaces were. During that time at the New York Times, we did a lot with Franklin Gothic and Century Expanded. But, I learned a lot there doing the small promotion pieces on my first job.

You’re work takes from several different styles, and you refer to yourself as a “generalist.” What is a benefit of being able to adapt to all these different techniques?

I don’t really have one particular style. I like to be able to use a style that fits best for the project I’m working on at that moment. The style is also an element that expresses an idea, so it’s important that I find the right style to work with. I can’t do everything, but I try to find something that’s appropriate and if I have an idea I like, I try to find the best way to express that idea.

How important is freelancing and choosing the designs you want to work on and how did that lead to you starting Push Pin Studios?

That was really just a way for us to market ourselves, especially when we were just starting out. Others were doing promotion pieces and I started working with my classmates at the time—Ed Sorel and Milton Glaser. That’s when we first put out a mailer called the Push Pin Almanack and started getting freelance work from there, while we were still on other jobs. Although, I of course kept getting fired from almost every job I’d work on. Since I couldn’t really hold a job, freelance was definitely it for me. So Milton, Ed and I decided to start a studio, which took very little those days. All we had to begin with at that time was a pay phone and a T-square. We started looking for freelance work and named ourselves Push Pin Studios, after the Push Pin Almanack, and eventually work started rolling in. We did a lot of different things—ads, book jackets and the occasional poster. You know, things of that sort.

Chwast_GraphicStyle_BookCVRDid you, Milton Glaser and Ed Sorel feed off of each other a lot?

Oh yeah, I learned a whole lot from them. It was a really interesting time, so we were really inspired by many things going on—other designers, other artworks and the world around us. Everything really inspired the type of work we were doing.

The impact that Push Pin has had in the graphic design community is pretty remarkable. Why do you think—especially when it was founded—it had such a huge impact?

We were part of the illustration revolution that was going on during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Things were changing and our work started to become more graphic and we tried lots of different techniques. It was definitely less realistic and less romantic than the usual things you saw in magazines up to that point. Things just started changing all over, so we really just went with the times. There were revolutions in every aspect, including the sexual revolution. So, we were part of that and luckily we were able to express that in the work we were doing.

One specific issue of the Push Pin Graphic I want to ask about is “The South.” The juxtaposition of the bullet hole going through the images of dead African Americans overlaid on these stereotypical, dandy Southern images is very powerful. Could you explain the inception of these designs and what made you want to cover such a topic?

Well, I liked the way you expressed it. You did it very well. When I was doing The South issue, we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and I was seeing how difficult it was to get us away from segregation and I wanted to do something to help show that. So, the Push Pin Graphic was a good vehicle for me to do that. I never heard about any controversy or got any letters about “The South.” I have gotten a number of letters throughout the years complaining, but never about “The South.”

Another poster—and maybe your most famous designs—is the “End Bad Breath” poster. What effect do you think that’s had on illustrative design and what about the poster medium made it the perfect way to communicate this message?

We can never really know how much posters actually affect people to understand and act on what the message is. But, I made that illustration during a time when posters were big. During that time, people bought posters—anti-war posters, psychedelic ones for music—and this sense of promotion and expression of ideas through poster designing was in the air. So “End Bad Breath” was just an idea I’d happen to come up with. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War and bombing Hanoi at the time that I was working on it. By putting these bombs in the mouth of Uncle Sam, with the “End Bad Breath” under it, it just expressed how I felt about the war. It was just a stupid war centered around pointless death and destruction and I had to do something.

Years after the Push Pin Graphic, you started The Nose with Steven Heller, which covered much less serious topics than Push Pin, but ones that were still pretty relevant to everyday life. What made you want to start The Nose?

Chwast_Nose8_Fear_CVRThat was really an extension of the Push Pin Graphic, which we had abandoned many years before. I wanted to do another mailing piece, first to express ideas that I’d had, but to also to get some work. So we sent that first one out to maybe 3,000 respected editors, art directors and other people that might have an assignment for me to do. Steve was the editor of those and we’d worked together on books before that, so that worked out really nicely. Like with the Push Pin Graphic, each issue was about its own separate topic and there was always a theme—although, The Nose was much more modest than the Push Pin Graphic. With the Push Pin Graphic, many of us were contributing to the issues, but I was mostly doing it by myself with The Nose. Luckily, we were able to get printers and paper companies to participate, so it made it easy.

A lot of your work—even some of the political and religious pieces—still usually has a pretty good sense of humor. Is this something you prefer putting into your work, or do certain projects just call for it sometimes?

It’s sort of just part of the package that comes with me. I guess it’s sort of an extension of my personality. Obviously, I do some work that is funny at times, but I have work that calls for more of a serious tone sometimes. It really depends on what the goal is that I’m after.

War is a topic you haven’t been shy to speak out about. In your book At War With War, you show a timeline of war, depicting the repetition of unnecessary war. Why did you decide on this technique, and what are your thoughts on war?

It was really a way to show how war is just so stupid and it’s been going on for so long. I wanted to show that there must be a better way to solve things than these countries going to war with each other over and over. It’s political, it’s greedy and it doesn’t serve the people at all. Ordinary people are just duped into going into war and getting themselves killed. I wanted to show that the persistence of wars after wars after wars throughout the years hasn’t changed very much and still goes on unfortunately. Even after all these years, we still haven’t learned anything from it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 6.37.55 PMIn the ‘60s with art directors like George Lois and yourself, there seemed to be a bigger emphasis on the artwork when it came to magazine covers. What do you think is the difference between the advertisements and magazine covers of today compared to then?

What’s different seems to be the market for graphic ideas, today. Magazine covers are just not they used to be, you know? George Lois did terrific covers, but it’s hard to do something as good today, because you have to have a lot of cover lines and selling the magazine is the most important thing. Plus, everything is just gonna be online anyway, so it’s very different these days, especially for cover art. Magazines are designed to be sold. So, especially if the magazines are gonna be sold through subscriptions anyway, the covers aren’t as important. But, even still, if you see a publication on a newsstand, it’s still important to see something that might pique your interest and make you want to buy it that way. A wonderful example of that is The New Yorker. With that magazine, there are no cover lines and it’s all illustration when it goes out through subscription. But, when you see it on the newsstand, you see a sort of half-cover on each edition that lists some of the important articles specifically for those copies to get readers.

Your marriage to Paula Scher is pretty celebrated amongst illustration fans, although you never really collaborate on art projects together. Why not?

Yeah, we can’t work together on art. We both have too strong personalities and we’d kill each other. We’ve tried it, but it doesn’t work. But otherwise, we have good taste and we get along very nicely.

Do you ever see some of these younger artists and designers that are creating today and draw inspiration from them?

Chwast_MothersOh sure. There’s great illustration being done today. Some of them end up on covers and some end up inside magazines. But, with illustration—while there might be fewer outlets—the work is really terrific.

Looking back at your career, how has your work changed since you started to today?

Looking back, I probably haven’t done as much changing, as maybe I should have. I just do what my brain tells my hand to do. But, I’m still just as curious as ever and I strive to do work that people would still be interested in.

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