Friday 26 September 2014
Meeting Lillian Bassman
»I think you’ll fall in love with Lillian.« This is how Stephen, Lillian Bassman’s assistant, begins a letter to us before our meeting in New York. As it turns out, he’s right. To meet Lillian Bassman is to fall in love and we’re hardly the first ones. In every book and interview we’ve read, it’s obvious that Lillian is irresistible.
We visit Ms. Bassman in her combined home and studio on the Upper East Side. The building is a former carriage house and a black-and-white stone pattern covers up a hole in the floor. We learn that this is where they used to drop down hay to the horses in the old days. Now her son Eric lives on the ground floor, where Lillian and her husband Paul Himmel, who passed away in 2009, used to share a workspace. When we arrive she’s wearing a light blue man’s shirt with her bare feet up on a stool watching a World Cup match, England versus Algeria. Following a brief illness she now needs extra oxygen delivered through her nose via a plastic tube. In spite of the tube Lillian looks cool. It’s summer and her daughter Lizzie offers us iced coffee. We’re afraid that the noise from the fan will drown out the sound on our recording.
Over the past few years there has been a Lillian Bassman revival of sorts, and several books and photo exhibitions of her work have popped up around the world. She began photographing in the late 1940s, and for two decades her work appeared in almost every issue of Harper’s Bazaar, as well as in countless advertisements for high end brands. Her pictures capture the postwar feminine ideal, with long necks, sweeping skirts and narrow waists. It’s said that Carmel Snow, the legendary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, admired Lillian’s ability to make even the simplest piece of clothing seem glamorous. The women in her pictures are inaccessible in a way that’s very sexy; and even though they’re obviously posing, you get the feeling that they don’t know they’re being watched. They ooze integrity.
In the beginning of the 1970s, however, Lillian abruptly lost interest in fashion photography and turned to more personal art projects. She destroyed many of her negatives, but some she boxed up and deposited in an old unheated coal shed behind the house. She continued to shoot commercially and spent two years designing her own fashion line. 30 years later, an artist renting the downstairs studio stumbled upon the boxes while clearing out the shed and Lillian began revisiting her old work. It could be that Lillian’s great success as a photographer casts a shadow over her brief, yet important role within graphic design. In this book we would like to draw attention to that period.
At the end of the 1940s, as the art director at two of the most influential magazines of all time, Harper’s Bazaar and Junior Bazaar, she has a unique insight into the golden age of American magazine culture. The post war era was defined by its belief in the future, an optimistic and experimental climate that never ceases to appeal to art directors. Perhaps that fascination has reached its pinnacle today. After all, we live in a time when aesthetically, we are looking backwards rather than forwards. For years Junior Bazaar was solely a subsection within Harper’s Bazaar, a space dedicated to more youthful style tips and fashion. But from 1945–1948 it was an independent magazine. If we had been teenagers in the 1940s we would have bought every single issue. These days they’re not only hard to find, but also very expensive. When we lament this to writer Vince Aletti, famous for his enormous collection of fashion magazines, he replies: »I know. I’m the one who’s buying them.«
Though Alexey Brodovitch, Lillian’s teacher and mentor, is usually credited as the sole creator of Junior Bazaar, in fact it was Lillian who designed the magazine. Her life story reads like a movie and stretches across the entire 20th century. And because both Lillian and her husband were photographers, there are thousands of pictures from their lives. She describes her childhood as very liberal with a hard-working father and an independent mother clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. She tells us how she and her older sister used to run around naked in the house and sleep on mattresses directly on the floor.
Lillian was just five years old when she met her future husband, Paul when he tried to drown her at the beach on Coney Island. Ten years later they became a couple and moved in together, while Lillian was still in high school. To us, her parents, who were emigrés from Russia and the Ukraine, seem like »real hippies«. Lillian corrects us: »No, they were bohemians.« Later, when we refer to her work as »punk «, she does it again »It was avant garde«.
When we leave the free-minded Lillian we are in an almost euphoric state. We walk along Lexington Avenue and dream about being a fly on the wall at the Bassman’s. Suddenly, the world feels like an open playground, ours for the taking.
Samira Bouabana & Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2010
From Hall of Femmes: Lillian Bassman
Editor: Ika Johannesson
Buy the book here.
Thursday 25 September 2014
Meeting Carin Goldberg
To step into Carin Goldberg’s home in Brooklyn, in a classic brownstone neighborhood with tidily kept gardens, is to step into a small design museum. Her house, where she also has her studio, is full of books and objects, cordially arranged according to their colors, patternsand materials. It looks appetizing, full of layers that beg to be delved into. The first time we visit her she offers us tea and biscuits served on mint colored china . It’s our first interview for this project and we’re so nervous that we forget to introduce ourselves. Though if there’s anyone who will calm you down, just by her mere presence, it’s Carin Goldberg. She has a warm personality and a dry sense of humor. We have already engaged in small talk for quite a long time when she kindly asks us who we actually are. Could we perhaps tell her a bit more about our project? Studying Carin Goldberg’s career as a designer, is like taking a truly contemporary history class. It begins at a time when graphic design was artisanal when work was created by means of pen, paper, scissors and glue and leads to our computer dominated present. During her three decades of working in the field, there’s been a steady change of direction from print to more digital content. But in Carin’s opinion, the communicative role of the designer remains the same .
Carin, a born-and-raised New Yorker, quickly realized what the industry asked of her: to be »a cool, irreverent, experimental, hungry, talented smart-ass«. She was educated at Cooper Union in New York where she graduated in 1975 with a degree in fine arts. Her path as a designer then began at CBS Television where she worked for Lou Dorfsman, who was chief designer in charge of the company’s visual communication for over 40 year. After that she moved on to CBS Records Advertising , followed by a short period of working for Atlantic Records before going back to CBS to the Records Packaging Department.
In the early 1980s she established her own business, Carin Goldberg Design, where she continued to work for the music industry but also became, above all, one of America’s most successful book cover designers. She has designed over a thousand covers for Random House, Harper Collins and most major U.S. publishing houses. Perhaps she conveyed her zeal from the art world and the music industry to the more conventional literary world? In any case, she was quickly identified as one of the stars of a rising 1980s art movement, alongside graphic designers like Paula Scher and Louise Fili, that was celebrated for its eclecticism and humor. Carin has said it was simply a reaction to the aesthetic ideals of that time, »smacking tasteful type on a gorgeous photograph. We were bored with that and wanted to actually make stuff paint, cut, paste and play«. But what she didn’t know was that this movement would soon be labeled »postmodernism«. And that it would stick with her throughout most of her future professional undertakings, in spite of her own dislike for the term.
One example is the heated debate following Carin’s cover design for a new edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The publisher wanted something that resembled the 1949 edition, and so Carin made a pastiche of the modernist typography posters and built the design upon a large »U«. This upset the influential designer Tibor Kalman who accused Carin and her colleagues of being »pillagers«, and an aesthetic discussion within the design world began. One that still, in a way, goes on. Nevertheless, Carin kept cool. »While I was busy pillaging history, Tibor was busy pillaging the vernacular. We were all pillagers«, was her riposte.
For Carin, all this belongs in the past. Along with the fact that she designed the cover for Madonna’s debut album one of the most, especially from our generation’s viewpoint, iconic artists ever (so we keep asking her until she agrees to talk about it). She prefers to look ahead, not back, emphasizing her desire to move forward. In recent years she has, for instance, expanded her work to include publicationdesign and brand consultancy.
The second time we see her it’s been a year and a lot has happened. Carin has been awarded the Gold Medal by the American Institute of Graphic Art (AIGA ), for »sustained contributions to design excellenceand the development of the profession«. She has also received the Art Director Club’s Grand Masters Award, for those whose careers in creative education have impacted upon and inspired generations of student creatives. As if that weren’t enough, she’s working hard on her retrospective, which opens at the Centredu Graphismein Échirolles, France, in November 2010. »I’ve hit my prime«, she says smiling, in what we perceive to be an ironic tone. And it seems only right that, for someone with such a long career, the awards are great in terms of acknowledgement and yes, lovely to glance at from time to time but they are perhaps not the drivingforce. This seems especially the case for Carin Goldberg, who appearsto have a distinct and very holistic approach to success at work, in life, and everywhere in between.
Talking to her is almost like having therapy. Design therapy. She believes that it’s the designer’s responsibility to come up with solutions, and her own ability to do so is palpable. She has an aptitude for educating and since the 1980s she has taught at The School of Visual Arts in New York, where her classes are filled with diligent students. And as Carin facetiously remarks, it’s yet another opportunity to be »arrogant, emphatic, brilliant, bossy, nurturing, thoughtful, smart, and silly«. As we sit in this decorative home full of books, pictures and flea market finds, we realize that it says a great deal about graphic design, the ability to observe, make a selection, disentangle, and place everything in context thus making the viewer look at something differently. And above all, it says a lot about Carin Goldberg. The epitome of an experimental yet disciplinary aesthete, who truly lives for, and with, her profession.
Tuesday 23 September 2014
Meeting Paula Scher
As designer Paula Scher enters the room, we see that how she
describes herself fits: »Short, with a big personality.« Even the
dog she’s brought along is big. We stare at the dog and then make
ourselves guilty of one of our stupidest interview openings yet.
Us: »Hello. We met Carin Goldberg yesterday. (Pause.)
She has a dog too.«
Paula Scher: »Oh really? She’s a friend of mine, we’re the dog-ladies.«
Us (gravely): »Okay.«
It’s the first time we’ve met Paula – in real life, that is. We’ve spent
quite some time with her already, in our office; we’ve read her book,
once, twice, three times. We’ve quoted it. We’ve taken her truths
to heart, and used them when talking to clients, pretending they’re
ours. But now everything feels different. We’re at her workplace,
Pentagram, in New York, one of the world’s most renowned design
agencies. We’ve taken pictures of ourselves at the entrance, posing
under their big red banner. We’ve waited in the conference room for
half an hour, nervously poking around Pentagram’s book shelves,
and unwinding a little leafing through the magazines. Suddenly she’s
standing there: a small woman and a big design star. With a big dog.
Paula Scher began her career in the record business in the 1970s.
After the interview we take out a record we’ve brought, the Yardbirds
from 1977, and ask if she could sign the sleeve. Paula is overjoyed, as
she has no examples of her own (during her years with CBS Records
she designed over 150 records a year), and is pleased to discover
that the record is »… really well designed and hasn’t aged a bit«. She
wonders if she can buy it, or exchange it for something. We give it to
her, and get a proof copy of the same sleeve in return.
It was at CBS Records – in this hierarchical organization – that Paula’s
interest in power structures and workplace psychology began, an
interest we return to during the conversation. To analyze the social
game between customer and designer she wrote her own book,
Make it Bigger (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), in which she
punctures the myth that design is something created in ivory towers.
Design, according to Paula Scher, is about people.
A year later, we hear by chance that Paula Scher is lecturing at a
design seminar in Norway. We ask to meet her there for a follow up
interview and, despite the sudden eruption of the Icelandic volcano
Eyjafjallajökull clouding half of Scandinavia, all three of us make it.
We meet in the not yet open bar of her hotel. It must look better in
the evening; the daylight is merciless. In decor of varying flesh-tones
and pile-covered sofas, we welcome a design queen.
The interview feels more relaxed than last time. Paula talks about
growing up in a suburb outside Washington DC with a cartographer
dad and a teacher mum. The structure of how you were supposed to
look and behave was rigid; she felt suffocated by the suburban ideal,
and criticized for who she was. She responded by rebelling, and we
think that she still burns with a desire to be contrary.
Later in the evening we meet Paula in the bar again, where she and
the other speakers from the seminar have got together for a drink.
The positive feeling from earlier in the day disappears immediately as
we fall back into usual social patterns. We get shy and embarrassed,
creep silently in and take a table some distance away. The young
men in the group, on the other hand, make a grand entrance: greet
everyone cheerfully, say what they’re called, what they do. They have
styled glasses, are charming and self-assured. We’re stiff and acting
But even so, when one of the guys leaves Paula’s table, we take our
chance and quickly sit there. She says hello with a hug and a kiss.
Later she asks nicely to borrow a pen and writes in red ink on a napkin
the names of those women she thinks should be added to our list
for the Hall of Femmes book series. The napkin is immediately worth
At the table a discussion rages on about money and the future of
design. Paula is confrontational and hungry for debate. The men
around her sigh, tell her everything she’s said is wrong, and explain
how things really are. But it’s clear that they have great respect for
her, and it shows in her flashing eyes that she’s never going to let
them be right. At the same table sit two women, 30 years younger,
struck dumb. One of them’s gripping a napkin like it was a life-buoy.
Preface Hall of Femmes: Paula Scher, 2011
Editor: Maina Arvas
Sunday 21 September 2014
Meeting Tomoko Miho
After having tried to get in touch with Tomoko Miho for months, we’re standing in a clothes store on Broadway when the phone rings. It’s Tomoko, and she tells us she’s been in hospital for some time. Without going into details, she explains that the situation is serious, and we understand that there’s little hope that things will improve. But the main reason she’s calling is to say that despite her illness (or maybe because of it) she’s decided that she wants us to make her book, and she’s looking forward to starting work on it as soon as possible. This is the only time Tomoko mentions her illness and, although we’re in close contact we never bring up the subject again. From now on, we just talk about work, and over the following months, the book slowly takes shape.
Tomoko’s friend Eric Breitbart helps her go through the countless boxes of work materials and transparencies that have been stored for years in a room in her apartment. Despite her illness, her stubbornness and her devotion to her work remain intact, as does her need for control and her obsession with details.
Tomoko Miho was born Tomoko Kawakami in 1930s California, where her parents of Japanese descent ran a flower shop. Part of her childhood was spent in one of the camps in the Arizona desert where Japanese Americans were interned after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, during the Second World War. When we ask how this shaped her, it becomes clear that it’s something she doesn’t want to talk about: »Those were difficult times but we all came out well in the end«. After studying at the Minneapolis Art Institute, and then at the Art Center School in California, Tomoko Miho decided she wanted to be a designer. She became one of the best we’ve seen.
We meet Tomoko Miho for the first time in her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side, across from Central Park. The mood is polite nervousness. With her reserved manner, Tomoko feels more Japanese than American. She offers us green tea. Afterwards, we learn that she has deliberated for two months over whether we should or shouldn’t meet. It seems that she never makes hasty decisions.
By the time we leave, we’ll have a notebook full of names. It’s the names of people that Tomoko has been inspired by or worked with: George Nelson, Herman Miller, Frank Gehry, Lester Bookbinder, Ray and Charles Eames, Isamu Noguchi, Buckminster Fuller, Irving Harper, John Massey, Lella and Massimo Vignelli. She spells each of them out carefully for us, »N-O-G-U-C-H-I«, but of Tomoko Miho herself we learn very little. For several hours she skillfully avoids talking about herself, and the only thing we actually learn is that she was married to a man who worked in Chicago, and that one of her brothers was an architect. Optimistically, we schedule a follow-up interview to find out more.
However, what we’ve experienced on this first visit is the charm of browsing through her work, which we’ve previously only seen in pictures, and we’re utterly fascinated. Tomoko Miho is a dedicated modernist and, despite the formalized idiom, her work has a spiritual dimension that greatly moves us emotionally. With her creative solutions and her self-will, Tomoko Miho is a designer’s designer. Although we know that what we’re seeing is the result of many hours of work and the fine tuning of details, it looks so free and easy. Influenced by her Japanese background, she’s an architect in paper, even applying spatial solutions to printed matter. Nothing follows a standard format; her posters are often built on several levels, with different folds and layers. The tactile qualities that arise through particular choices of materials and print techniques can never really be reproduced accurately in pictures.
As so often during the Hall of Femmes project, it feels like we’ve opened the lid of a treasure chest and found something far too valuable to be seen only by us. We want to make this book about Tomoko Miho because we want to show the world everything she’s done. We think that a museum should purchase all of her work. We’re beginning to dream of mounting an exhibition ourselves.
Standing in the doorway to say goodbye, Tomoko takes us by the hand and says, »Everything is history now, and then it all carries on«. When we get out on the street, a downpour has started and we just cry.
We take great pleasure and pride in the fact that Tomoko, after much consideration, decided that this book was worth pursuing, even though she wouldn’t get the chance to see the final result. We hope we’ve managed the task and the responsibility well, and that as many people as possible will become familiar with Tomoko Miho’s work, and be as inspired as we were; her contribution to our design history is significant. Her archive is now part of the design collections of the Rochester Institute of Technology.
– Samira Bouabana, Angela Tillman Sperandio, 2013
Preface Hall of Femmes: Tomoko Miho, 2013
Editor: Maina Arvas
Buy the book here.
Wednesday 28 May 2014
Meeting the Vignelli’s
When we arrive at the Vignellis’ Upper East Side apartment to interview Lella, her husband Massimo answers the door. Their combined home and studio is a duplex apartment, dominated by a giant, lead window. We chat while waiting for Lella to appear – she is not entirely well. A storm rages outside and every so often a lightning strike rattles the church-like window. Later, when we listen to the tape, there’s so much rumbling at times that we can barely hear what we’re saying.
Suddenly Massimo looks up and says, »I think that’s Lella,« sensing her presence. And there she stands, on the balcony that looks out over the large, high-ceilinged room. She comes down to talk and introduces herself. Lella Vignelli is regal. Though today, at the age of 78, she is no longer working, she is sharp, impeccable and has an air of knowing something the rest of us don’t. After all these years in the US, her accent is still unmistakably Italian. Despite her health issues, she projects authority, and it’s easy to see why clients and suppliers did as she said.
Lella and Massimo Vignelli met when they were very young. They both studied architecture in Venice and later moved back and forth between Italy and the US, running a successful business, the Vignelli Office of Design and Architecture, in Milan with big clients like Pirelli and Olivetti. When the pair settled in New York at the end of the 1960s, they, Ralph Eckerstrom and others launched Unimark International, one of the world’s biggest design firms at the time. Lella says they felt like missionaries during those first years; in the US there was much in need of designing.
The Vignellis have a holistic approach to design that they put forward in their book Design is One. Lella’s broad and impressive output proves their motto: »If you can design one thing, you can design everything.« She has turned her hand to every kind of project, from furniture, interiors, showrooms and exhibitions, to product design, silverware and clothing. When we meet, Lella wears a gray pantsuit and jewelry of her own design. The furniture we sit on is from their shared portfolio, and Massimo pours water into glasses he designed. All follows from a directive that is both prosaic and like a command from a higher sphere: »If you can’t find it, design it.«
Ever since they first met, their private relationship has been impossible to separate from their intellectual and creative partnership. In an interview with the couple, from the early 1980s, Lella says that they did compete with each other in the beginning, but that the ambition- to one-up one another in those early years was soon replaced by cooperation. They answer all questions using the pronoun »we.«
Not everyone has understood just how closely they have worked, and the couple is frustrated that Massimo has often gotten sole credit for projects that they have done together, or »for my work,« as Lella sharply puts it.
Throughout art and design history there are a smattering of couples in the same profession. Cipe Pineles and William Golden, and later Will Burtin, for example. But it is more common to find a pairing of two related professions, such as Massimo and Lella Vignelli – graphic- designer and industrial designer. The role distribution, and how the female partner, or wife, has been involved in the process, may not always be clear to others. Bertha Goudy and Edna Beilenson helped their men with typesetting, and Ray Eames took an active part in the Eames’ work as a couple.
The issue of partnership has often surfaced in our work on Hall of Femmes. For us the image of a professional creative couple has always held a certain allure – a partnership in love and work. Perhaps because we too are a »design couple,« albeit not in the romantic sense. For ten years we worked together in a seamless partnership in which it was impossible to divine who did what. In our case this never meant that one of us was obscured by the other. Do women who work in tandem with their men run a higher risk of this?
Admitting to ourselves that the Vignellis’ private relationship inte-rests us as much as their professional one feels shameful, almost taboo. Like everyone else, we’ve been taught that a designer’s actual work is the aspect important to a historical biography. To intrude into the private sphere would be messy. This seems even more loaded when it comes to women. If a woman is living with a man who is successful in her field, people’s opinions of her professional life will likely be influenced by it. Martha Scotford writes about this in her introductory essay. So, in deference to their life-long collaboration, we decided to interview the Vignellis together, although Lella is our main interest.
After the interview, Lella and Massimo walk us to the door. Mas-simo remarks how important it is that Lella get the book she deserves.
We have to agree with him on that. Lella smiles her most radiant smile and says »I never let myself be intimidated by the attitudes
Preface from Hall of Femmes: Lella Vignelli, published 2013
Editor: Sarah Clyne Sundberg
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