Renowned Graphic Designer Michael Bierut Gets His First Retrospective

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By Zachary Edelson / Published by Dwell
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Unlike architecture, graphic design has only moments to communicate information, emotion, and intention. Through November 7, 2015, at a Chelsea gallery, visitors can soak in the work of one contemporary master—whose work isn't only in two dimensions.

Instead of Farrah Fawcett, there was Massimo Vignelli on Michael Bierut's highschool bedroom wall. Or to be more precise, there was the iconic New York City subway map designed by Vignelli Associates. Bierut saw the Vignelli map on a high school field trip to New York City in 1974; it was the only souvenir he brought back. Little did he know that, by luck, he would work in Massimo and his wife Lella's office for ten years before joining Pentagram, a multidisciplinary design firm known for its non-hierarchical structure, in 1990. In his long career of design, there's a very good chance you've seen his work, even if you don't realize it yet.

New Yorkers, architects, and international travellers alike will immediately recognize Bierut's most prominent work: the New York Times logo on the paper's eponymous building. The teardrop shape of the black forms don't block views and sunlight while the logo appears opaque from street level.

Bierut's work is broad in scope: from the architectural (the New York Times Building's signage) to the palm-sized (corporate logos from Guitar Hero to Hillary Clinton's latest presidenital campaign). It's all on display at the School of Visual Art's Chelsea gallery as part of a long-running Masters Series that honors "great visual communicators of our time." Each of exhibition's four rooms focuses on a certain theme: 1) New York City, which encompases everything from the now-ubiquitous WalkNYC street signage to the New York Jet's graphic identity. 2) Bierut's early work, which includes a host of sketchbooks dating back to his youth. 3) Work for architects, both in terms of monographs and his numerous Yale School of Architecture speaker series posters. 4) Corporate logos, which range from the Atlantic magazine to the AIA.

In addition to the New York Times, Bierut had a hand in designing the city's ubiquitous wayfinding system. Read Dwell's article on the challenge of designing modern wayfinding!

Bierut describes his work as very client-oriented: "an artist needs personal inspiration," he says, "even it's just two words like Peter Pan or Tinkerbell for a school play poster." This is perhaps what allows such aesthetic breadth in his work: it's not about Bierut, it's about the client and their message. It may also by why his first monograph—How to, coming out in early November to coincide with the exhibtion—was such a struggle. For a "client's designer," Bierut says, designing a book of purely his own work was a "cringe-inducing" experience. How to's design is clean and simple; like the graphic design books that inspired him—such as Milton Glaser's Graphic Design—Bierut's book is simply showing you the work and "telling you what was like to do it."

Bierut and his team translated the Jet's classic logo into an entire typeface and graphic identity.

Admission is free to the SVA's Chelsea gallery, which is open 10:00am to 6:00pm, Monday through Saturday, 601 West 26th Street, 15th floor, New York City.

Thanks to a long-standing relationship with Yale School of Architecture's former dean, Robert A.M. Stern, Bierut has designed scores of their speaker series posters. Each poster deploys an entirely new style. Bierut has also designed numerous architectural monographs, all of which are on view. He describes each monograph as attempting to embody the work and aesthetic of the architect.

 

Last but not least, Bierut is the author behind numerous logos, from the ominous Bulletin of Atomic Scientists clock to the playful Guitar Hero emblem.