The iconic figure of Ivan Chermayeff is still going strong well into his 70s, and has won every accolade worth having. Mike Dempsey reflects on the work of this veteran, and very individual, graphic designer

For most people, getting well-bedded into their seventh decade usually means endless hours on the golf course or maybe embracing that elusive creative hobby. Perhaps cat-napping during the long winter afternoons or simply gazing out of the window, watching passers-by while the blanket of melancholic memories descends.

Unless, that is, you happen to be a graphic designer. There’s no time for all that reflective stuff. You’re in the best playground there is and you’re not ready to leave it unless the hand of fate points its ugly little finger.

When I think of all the graphic designers that I have truly admired, all have worked, or are still working, well into their 70s – David Gentleman, Michael Wolff, Derek Birdsall, Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, as did the late, great Alan Fletcher, Paul Rand and Saul Bass.

Ivan Chermayeff is another seventysomething who shows no sign of slowing down, and he is in town next week to give a D&AD President’s Lecture.

As a young graphic designer in the 1960s, I had my little collection of flagged books, tearsheets and stolen book covers all featuring the designers I wanted to emulate. Chermayeff’s stunningly simple book covers, always invested with a solid idea, were a prime target on my scouting trips. Forty years on, I still have them in my collection. I still love them.

Perhaps a surprise to many is the fact that this very New York-based icon of the graphic world was actually born here in London, of an English mother and a Russian father – the distinguished architect Serge Chermayeff, who, together with the German architect Erich Mendelsohn, formed an architectural practice which created some key works in the British Modernist movement, most notably the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.

So, with such an enriching creative backdrop, it was inevitable that the right hemisphere of the young Chermayeff’s brain would be highly developed. With the aid of four Moholy-Nagy scholarships, he attended Harvard University in the US, the Institute of Design and Yale, after which Chermayeff was ready to be unleashed on the creative world. He first worked as assistant to Alvin Lustig at Columbia Records, before setting up as a freelance designer and starting a spell of teaching.

In 1957, along with Robert Brownjohn (who defied the rules of this article by departing prematurely) and Thomas Geismar, he founded one of the earliest multidisciplinary design groups in New York, and they have since worked under various versions of the Chermayeff & Geismar name. They quickly rose to fame following the creation of their identities for Chase Manhattan Bank and NBC.

Over the years, a diet of corporate, social, entertainment and three-dimensional projects have kept them to the fore. But, the wonderful thing about signature designers is the need to express themselves beyond the confines of large corporate projects. Chermayeff has constantly managed to reveal his individuality through a body of clearly identifiable work, when others have sometimes disappeared within the structure of a large design group. His characteristic handwriting and brightly coloured collages still convey a fantastic sense of freedom, joy and fun – witness the illustration work he created for Mothercare last year. His giant, free-standing number ‘9’ for the Solow Building on West 57th Street, created in 1980, is still one of New York’s most recognised landmarks. In conjunction with his long-standing and enlightened client Mobil, Chermayeff produced a stunning body of work for that company’s various sponsorships, most notably PBS Television, which spawned a treasure trove of beautiful posters. And his most personal work can be found in the many illustrated children’s books he has given birth to.

The late graphic designer Henry Wolf, a contemporary of Chermayeff, said of him in affectionate admiration, ‘If I didn’t like him so much, the temptation to burn his studio down might become irresistible.’

Chermayeff has reached that point in his life where he has won everything and received every accolade, including being made an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry from the Royal Society of Arts. He’s in all of the ‘halls of fame’ and his mantelpiece must groan under the strain of all that glittering hardware.

But, I suspect that he likes nothing better than to roll up his sleeves, pick up a pencil, surround himself with colour, and enter into that magical world that is graphic design, ever faithful, absorbing and always rewarding. Keep doing it, Ivan – it gives us much pleasure.

Ivan Chermayeff gives a D&AD President’s Lecture on Wednesday 31 October at the Peacock Theatre, Portugal Street, off Kingsway, London WC2

Mike Dempsey is Master of The Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry and founding partner of CDT Design

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