Who Are Steve Heller?

The first book I ever owned was a gift from my Uncle Al: Tom Swift and His Motor Boat, by Victor Appleton. The second book I bought myself: Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, by the same author.  Over time I added Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, soon followed by Tom Swift and His War Tank, and then His Submarine, His Airship, His Giant Telescope, and others—all allegedly written by the same man. Marveling at his prolificacy, I wondered how one author could write so many books: Who was Victor Appleton? I was an adult by the time I learned that Victor Appleton was not one man but many, a name owned by a syndicate and assigned, along with the plot lines, to a legion of ghostwriters.

If you are at all familiar with Steven Heller’s oeuvre, you can see where I’m going with this; but don’t worry. I am going there, but I promise not to stay long, because Steven Heller’s legendary productivity is not a destination, but a point of departure.

The present exhibition is the latest in the “Masters Series,” an annual award exhibition at SVA honoring “a person who, over the course of his or her career, has been recognized as one of the great visual communicators of our time.” If visual communication is the subject, then Steven Heller wrote the book on it. At least. For, as the writer and radio host Kurt Andersen once claimed jokingly, he wrote a million of them. And they are still coming. Odds are that by the time you read this, he will have written another. For those unwilling to wait that long, there is The Daily Heller, a blog appearing with the promised regularity in Print online.

Unlike Victor Appleton, Steven Heller is real and there is only one of him. Still, the mystique persists. A few years ago I met Steve Heller for lunch, and, as he usually did at such times, he handed me a book by Steve Heller. It was an advance copy that had just been hand-delivered by his publisher.

“I’m honored,” I said, “to be the first to have a copy of your latest.”

“Actually, it isn’t,” he said, explaining that another was coming out later in the day.

Probably everyone who knows Steve Heller has a similar story. And while they may all be true (mine is), collectively they are misleading. Graphic design is a vast field stretching literally as far as the eye can see. Understanding that vastness entails encompassing both the big picture and a multitude of small ones. Heller’s unique contribution is that he does both on a continuing basis. Although, in a Guinness-World-Records sense, his prodigious output of books on the subject is his most conspicuous achievement, it is emblematic of an accomplishment far more pervasive and, what is more important, ongoing.

A retrospective exhibition by definition records what an artist has already done, invariably raising in the viewer’s mind some variation of the old punch line, “Yeah, but what has he done for me lately?” Obviating that response, much of the current exhibition is focused on what Heller is up to now as designer, art director, author, teacher, lecturer, conference organizer, editor, raconteur and educational administrator. What he is up to consists pretty much of telling the story of graphic design.

That story is richer and more complex than even graphic designers might have imagined, loaded with enough colorful characters, plot twists and conflicts to fill a thousand novels. Telling this story, keeping the narrative going, is necessary in two respects: public and professional.

As a matter of public record, the various design disciplines include architecture, product design, interior design, landscape design, and, common to them all, graphics. Each of them is extended by such specialties as exhibition, events design, illustration, software and typography. Throw art direction into the mix and it is small wonder that practitioners constantly complain that they are not understood, for what they do is in many respects barely understandable. Michael Bierut, one of graphic design’s wittiest spokesmen, wrote a mock anthem for the American Institute of Graphic Arts consisting of a litany of reasons to sing that organization’s praises. The anthem ends:

“Oh AIGA

No matter what your faults I love you still

For you understand what we do

And our moms never will.”

Our moms stand as a universal symbol of the public’s failure to understand what designers are for, a failure especially troublesome when registered not by mothers, but by clients. And while it is certainly desirable to dispel such confusion, an even higher priority is to heighten the designer’s understanding of her own professional discipline. With Heller’s cascade of books, articles, lectures, conferences, exhibitions, courses, blogs, radio essays, podcasts, and rants and raves, he labors mightily to help find a foundation under the eclectic range of activities that designers practice. This is not to say that he has defined graphic design exactly. Rather, he shows its myriad facets clearly enough to make definitions credible.           A logical approach to making design intelligible is to abstract a pattern or theory showing what its disparate ventures have in common. This is not, for the most part, Heller’s way; even so general a book as his Design Literacy does not take that tack. Each of his many books, articles and exhibitions freshly examines a single aspect of graphic design. Together they may one day add up to a comprehensive picture of the subject, but that day has not yet come, and Heller does not appear to be impatient for its arrival. Neither should we be, for what we are getting in the meantime is a mosaic of instruction and entertainment, each piece illuminating an aspect of the designer’s world.

That world, as Heller offers it up to us in various media, is organized politically (The Swastika; Red Scared!; Angry Graphics: Protest Posters of the Reagan-Bush Era; Art Against War; Cartoonists for a Nuclear Freeze; Political Art); regionally (New York Observed; Italian Art Deco; American Art Deco); and in fact according to whatever style, period, subject and flavor catch his interest.

Heller seems to have been aware from the start that the dignity of the graphic arts does not require a slavish concern with dignity. Thomas Nast, George Grosz, Pablo Picasso, Stan Lee and M.C. Escher all serve to remind him—and us—of the human need to fool around. Even the most serious graphic design tends to be edged with humor, playfulness, quirkiness and sheer fun. It is no strain for Heller to move from the geopolitical import of the swastika to the restraints of taste and prudery in condom ads.

Heller’s writing frequently has a moralistic bent, which does not, as it does with some designers, cause him to keep his distance from the commercial world: in fact, several of his books concentrate on the business side of design. Designers have at times argued that their role is to be “the conscience of industry.” Heller knows better. Conscience is not for hire and cannot be outsourced or delegated. Clients have to take it on for themselves. But designers can conscientiously avoid particular clients.

One way for them to do that is to become their own clients. Ten years ago, Heller initiated the Designer as Entrepreneur program at SVA, which he co-directs with Lita Talarico. It is aimed at encouraging and enabling students to conceive, create and market their own products and services. Not everyone wants to do that, and not everyone who wants to has the requisite talent and temperament. But they can all benefit hugely from the experience of initiating work based on their own ideas, as opposed to depending on so-called “content providers.” In years of working with designers, I have found the distinction between the provider of content and the communicator of content to be at best dangerous and at worst pernicious. I have known designers who were not only comfortable with the distinction, but were downright resistant to considering any other way to work. A program like Heller’s at SVA would benefit them profoundly.

***

It is commonly accepted that no profession can be taken seriously until it has a history, an archive of critical analyses and an educational apparatus. For the profession of graphic design, Heller is helping to forge all three. In the process he has expanded and deepened our familiarity with individual designers. In 1989, for example, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, with the cooperation of the AIGA, presented the exhibition “Graphic Design in America.” Created by the Walker’s curator of design Mildred Friedman, the show disappointed many designers who felt that the selections were arbitrary and not accurately representative of the field. Friedman countered that professional designers, accustomed to submitting their work to be judged by committees of their peers, were—unlike, say, painters and sculptors—simply unaccustomed to curated shows. Heller organized and moderated a public panel discussion of the issue, which was held at The Cooper Union. Like most panels, this one settled nothing; but it did clear the air enough to allow for general agreement that a much less grandly promissory title would have been 
more accurate.

The exhibition was accompanied by a book of the same name, featuring essays by outstanding critics like Lorraine Wild, Joseph Giovannini, and the team of Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller. It was also weighted with a series of interviews Heller conducted with leading American designers, including Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermayeff, April Greiman, Muriel Cooper, Leo Lionni, Bradbury Thompson and Paul Rand. A master interviewer, Heller often reprises that role in Print magazine and in the online AIGA Journal, consistently posing questions that yield new information and insights.

Heller is able to do this, someone remarked, “because he knows where the bodies are buried.” This turns out to have more than metaphorical implications, for some of his best writing about individual designers takes the form of obituaries for The New York Times, which unfailingly pinpoint each late designer’s particular contribution to the field. The interviews and obituaries themselves add up to a real picture of graphic design in America. The same depth of knowledge makes Heller equally effective as an interviewee on radio and video.    Heller’s own life story is fairly well known, and accounts, in part, for his eclecticism. The trajectory of his career follows a crooked line from Screw magazine, where he was the boy art director, to The New York Times, where over the last 33 years he has art-directed the Op-Ed page and the Book Review.

In his own review of Gordon Bruce’s book on industrial designer Eliot Noyes, Heller highlighted Noyes’s role in bringing top-flight designers like Paul Rand, Chermayeff & Geismar, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen to such clients as IBM and Westinghouse. Noyes himself was a consultant to those corporations, for whom he not only designed but also functioned brilliantly in identifying other consultants and supporting their work. For example, when Paul Rand’s presentation of his new Westinghouse logo sparked a management debate (one executive protested that it looked like the three balls in a pawn shop window), CEO Mark Cresap turned to Noyes and asked, “How do we resolve something like this?” Noyes replied, “Well, I guess that’s what I’m here for.” And he decided.

It was natural for Heller to seize on this material in a book about an industrial designer. Noyes was in effect a surrogate rabbi, in the sense of Milton Glaser’s observation that every designer with a corporate client needs “a rabbi inside the corporation.” Using the term more loosely than dictated by either common usage or Mosaic Law, Glaser drew on the shtetl wisdom declaring that the vicissitudes of being Jewish necessitate having someone in your corner. Milton saw the corporate rabbi as a defender of the faith, an advocate who actually had the authority to make advocacy stick.

Sometimes the CEO himself is the rabbi, as Frank Stanton was at CBS and Walter Paepcke at Container Corporation, but it is a function that can effectively be assigned to someone else, as it was to Noyes. Like a real rabbi, the design advocate relies regularly on fellow “clerics” and “congregants.” In this tradition, Heller, rabbi to the entire graphic design community, embraces collaboration, and a key to his output is his talent for being a co-editor, co-author, co-designer, co-chair and co-conspirator in the plot to expose design’s infinite richness. Some of his collaborators are luminaries themselves, among them Seymour Chwast, Karrie Jacobs, Louise Fili, Steven Guarnaccia, Paula Scher, Julie Lasky, Michael Bierut, Gail Anderson, Marshall Arisman, Jessica Helfand, Philip Meggs, Veronique Vienne, Richard Wilde and Brad Holland.

Co-pilots like these enhance the prospect of soaring high and covering a lot of territory. One of them, I.D. magazine’s editor-in-chief Julie Lasky, has worked with Steve Heller in almost as many capacities as there are: as an editor and researcher at the book publisher Van Nostrand Rhinehold, and later at Print and I.D.; as a co-author of Borrowed Design; and as an instructor at SVA, where he co-chairs the MFA program and she taught a magazine workshop.

Heller not only has an eye for details, Lasky says, but also an unwillingness to stop at merely observing them. Once, looking over a catalog of Ladislaw Sutnar’s early work, Heller noticed that someone named Philip Pearlstein was on the staff. Could this be the painter? he wondered. Someone else spotting the name might have been struck by the same thing and gone no further. Not Heller. He called Pearlstein up and asked him. The artist confirmed that he had, indeed, worked for Sutnar, and agreed to speak about the experience at a conference on design history that Heller was chairing.

“Steve got me into my adult working life,” Lasky says. “It’s the kind of thing he’s done for lots of people. He is incredibly generous, and the same generosity that has helped so many young designers and writers he has shown as well to name designers like Paul Rand, Seymour Chwast and Tibor Kalman—people with whom he has developed special friendships.”

In my opinion, Steve Heller’s generosity makes a larger contribution to design than in just establishing connections between people who need each other and between people and companies that need each other. A free-flowing generosity informs the very quality of his productivity. Heller holds nothing back. He collects—he is a prodigious collector, as this exhibition reveals—but he does not hoard.

In this, Heller may be the most writerly of writers. In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now….Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Steven Heller, Lasky points out, is not a trained designer, not a historian, an educator, but not formally educated. “He approaches everything as an outsider,” she says.

Maybe. But if he is an outsider, he is the insider’s outsider. And therein lies his value.

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