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.
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.
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."
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.
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