Visionary, modernist, legend: Ivan Chermayeff in his own words
“A brilliant designer, a gifted artist, and the purveyor of a unique visual language” per Ellen Lupton, Ivan Chermayeff is arguably a man whose design practice formed the visual language and the creative industry as we know it.
Born in London on June 6, 1932, he was the son of Serge Ivan Chermayeff, a Russian-born British architect, industrial designer, writer, and co-founder of several architectural societies, including the American Society of Planners and Architects.
Born into design, Chermayeff attended Harvard University and the Institute of Design in Chicago (founded as the New Bauhaus) before attending Yale University School of Art and Architecture. It was there that he had the privilege to work with legendary Swiss designer Herbert Matter and American masters Alvin Eisenman and Bradbury Thompson.
After graduation Chermayeff did a short apprenticeship with Alvin Lustig -another iconic figure and pioneer of American graphic design-, moved on to CBS as Assistant Art Director in record cover design and by 1957 he co-founded Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar Associate that evolved to Chermayeff & Geismar Inc -and later was renamed Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv in 2013.
The studio became one of the best-known design firms worldwide having designed some of the world’s most recognizable logos ever. Mobil, Xerox, Pan Am, The Chase Manhattan Bank, Armani, Barneys, Hearst, MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), National Geographic, NBC (National Broadcasting Company), PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), Rockefeller, Smithsonian to name a few.
A talented creative director, illustrator artist, and collagist this multi-awarded creative legend -Chermayeff received numerous prizes including AIGA’s Gold Medal (1979), the Yale Arts Medal (1985) and the Cooper Hewitt’s 2014 National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement- published many articles and books on the science and the sensibilities of design.
An admirer of Paul Rand, an iconic figure Chermayeff regarded as his mentor, he believed strongly that “good design is a design that works.”
“Design is not art,” he said in 1981 when he was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. “Design is not terribly significant. Design is not always better than nothing. Design is the solution to problems—real, important, or unimportant problems. The problems of design are not designer problems; they are client problems. Design must therefore grow out of a reasonable understanding of those problems, and their goals and aspirations.”
Circa 2007 in one of his interviews with Designboom, the iconic logo designer Ivan Chermayeff who passed away on December 2, 2017, shared his advice for the young creatives and didn’t hold back to addressing humanity’s criminal attitude that hurts the planet and the inevitable existential threat we brought upon ourselves with our greedy and profit-first attitude.
“Draw a lot” he advised. “Work hard and be as self-critical about what it is that you’re doing. Don’t be put down by not doing something, don’t let it stop you from going further.” But it was the last quotes of his that sound like a wake-up call to all creatives, young & established alike.
“Don’t do projects for companies or products that you think should be eliminated from the face of the earth. There is a lot to be afraid of, in design and everything else. We are ruining the earth at an incredible rate and it’s a major concern. In my opinion, we have already screwed it up royally” said Chermayeff, channeling another iconic and designer who championed morals in design, the legendary Dieter Rams.
“There is a big problem in having a short-term view and a long-term view of the situation. Most people in-particular politicians have a very short-term view that the world can’t afford it, WE can’t afford it. It's shocking to read that we plan to cut Co2 emissions by fifteen percent in the next thirty years, who says we have thirty years!”
“Designers should do something about it, by their way of thinking which is problem-solving. Designers need to be activists and do whatever it is they can. Creative people should get more involved and contribute to something instead of just massaging their egos.”
Chermayeff’s unique legacy is explained in his own words in the following video collection, a must-watch playlist to honor a man and a legend.