The American dream team

Pentagram in London will have been going on for 25 years next month. Ten years ago a sister office in New York was set up, which is now a formidable force, discovers Michael Johnson.

Last year, when I interviewed Alan Fletcher about life, the universe and his new book, the conversation turned to where the “power” lay in world graphics. His view was that it was nestling in the US.

It’s ironic that it is Pentagram’s New York office (Fletcher was a founder member of the first office, set up in London) that is now a potent symbol of the change.

A decade ago, the New York office seemed little more than an ambitious, perhaps foolhardy venture on behalf of Colin Forbes. Sure, they did the odd nice annual report here and there, but nothing to change the world. Given carte blanche and no green card problems, most of the world’s design students would still have opted to pester for jobs in Notting Hill, not Fifth Avenue.

But then came the dream team. In the space of a couple of years Forbes signed up some of the brightest lights of American design. If Woody Pirtle wasn’t enough, to follow that with both Michael Bierut and Paula Scher seemed almost unfair. One of their most loyal subjects, Michael Gericke, was promoted and then in an unusual move, one of New York’s most promising interior designers, Jim Biber, was added to the team.

In a short period, the US office became a hotbed of great design. The list of awards it won in 1996 alone fills two A4 pages of text.

In case you don’t know the designers in the previous paragraphs, it’s a bit like suggesting that Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville should all have joined the London office. (Of course, Saville did, briefly, but that’s a different and rather more painful story).

In the past six years, the new partners have bonded together into a pretty formidable team, and it’s pretty hard to separate them, especially when they all talk simultaneously, as they did with me one lunchtime last month.

For all the plaudits their work is winning both individually and collectively, they’re still pretty modest about the achievements of the office so far. “We’re just hitting our stride” says Pirtle.

When they talk of the early days of the New York office, they recognise the limitations of its origins. “It was two guys versus six in terms of partners here and over in London” says Scher. “It was just a colony,” adds Pirtle.

Bierut, who often takes on the role of office spokesman, explains further: “Colin [Forbes] admitted it was harder than he thought. He thought he could transfer the Pentagram name to New York, and at first they used the annual report industry as a teat to suckle on because it’s good money. But in this town that can be a real speciality and a dangerous one. The office wasn’t multi-disciplinary like in London.”

Fast forward to the Nineties and the “collection of stars” that are the New York office gravitate around a whole of host of clients from The Brooklyn Academy of Music to The Public Theatre to The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… and so the list goes on.

And you just can’t help feeling that this office has a groovier feel than the London one. As Biber admits, “the work in this office is much more idiosyncratic, much more personal”. There’s a lot more glitz and a lot less “institution” about the Fifth Avenue office. In fact, the feeling really is of a bunch of old friends hanging around, not worrying about what’s trendy or classic but simply trying to “solve the problem, satisfy the client and please themselves”.

Of course, these are designers who could easily go back to working for themselves. Why did they sacrifice their independence to join a group of over-sized egos and the inevitable conflicts it might create? But they seem to relish the team spirit. “Most of us think it was the best thing we ever did”, says Pirtle. Biber describes his decision to join as “a leap of faith, like joining a cult”. Bierut is honest enough to admit that he never wanted to work on his own. “I get lonely very easily, plus I get insecure if I have no one to compare myself against. My partners make great company and great competition.”

“You trade your autonomy for greater possibilities” is Scher’s one-liner for that one.

The leverage of a worldwide group definitely helps. Bierut says: “When I first joined, I was thrilled at the possibilities of the portfolio and the illusion of size and the opportunities that suggested themselves. I would tell clients that we could ‘out-Landor’ Landor. But what I found was that they couldn’t be fooled because we don’t really offer their depth of resources.” It’s clear that Pentagram New York is as unprepared as Pentagram London to provide the comfort levels to clients that the marketing-led groups have always done. As they point out, they’re not in the business of “minimal change with maximum comfort” because the clients they attract are genuinely seeking change.

When asked about recent English designers they have become aware of, Bierut reels off a long list ranging from Mark Farrow to The Designers Republic. But when pushed, a few criticisms begin to surface. Scher is the most vocal: “When you look at Rick Poynor’s books (Typography Now, and so on) there doesn’t seem to be any breadth of visual vocabulary. It’s a collective style of one school. It’s just like the way Swiss design used to be except there’s more stuff in it”.

And while Bierut admits that Tomato’s clever layouts are one thing, he thinks Born Slippy by Underworld is the “real genius” coming out of that particular collective. But he admits that the experimental nature of the American colleges such as Cranbrook and Cal Arts has drawbacks of its own: “I fear a future in which the clever designers are busy decorating snowboards and making invitations for Ed Fella lectures while the world that normal civilians live in goes to hell.”

There is, however, a recognition that the music and fashion scene is ahead in London. Perhaps because it rains a lot, we all spend too many teenage years in garages learning to play guitars. Or as Scher remarks, “in Europe, the worse the cuisine, the better the rock and roll”.

One issue that they are all uncharacteristically shy about is future American partners, although they will concede that they are already overdue. Designers such as Stefan Sagmeiseter and James Victore come up in the conversation, but in answer to the question “if you had the pick of American designers to be the next partner, who would it be”, Scher enigmatically replies “we do, and it will”.

But Pirtle is more realistic about future recruits. “You can count the list of possibles on one hand”, which is a little surprising since there are, in theory, five times the amount of designers in the US as there are in the UK.

In many respects it doesn’t really matter. Because this particular office of designers has managed to achieve what very few actually do – the founder members approached retirement age and brought in some of the most highly respected designers in the world. While this may have been the first major regeneration of the New York office, it certainly won’t be the last. And it stands as a lesson to all companies wondering where to go and with whom – find the best and everything else will follow.

Pirtle admits that “we’re lucky, we’re very very lucky”. But Scher has the last word: “This is like an arranged marriage that worked”.

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