The design writer and art director Steven Heller is constantly ‘on’, and always has a range of book projects on the go. Liz Farrelly marvels at his ceaseless energy, as he is honoured by a show at the School of Visual Arts in New York

Get Steven Heller on the subject of writing books, and the man who has produced more than 100 titles on graphic design, illustration, political art and the history of design, begins with a few caveats.

‘I know everyone in the field, and that makes it difficult,’ he says. That he also writes the Visual column in The New York Times Book Review, offering critiques of the most diverse category of publications – those that offer the reader/viewer words and pictures, his own speciality – makes the situation even more complicated. ‘I can’t write reviews about friends, or anyone who’s been to any of my weddings,’ he adds with a grin.

Heller is a larger-than-life character, and this man can multitask. Seated in his well-appointed office, at New York’s School of Visual Arts, where he runs a number of Master of Fine Arts courses, he’s spilling the beans – both on and off the record – while fielding e-mails about book specs and publishing deals. ‘I have ten books going through my head at any one time,’ he reveals.

Outspoken, witty, a fount of knowledge, he’s constantly ‘on’; you wouldn’t expect anything less from someone who’s been a columnist and art director at The New York Times since 1974, and who, working consistently with seven different publishers, has conceived and authored titles as diverse as Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital (1988), Paul Rand (2000), The Education of a Graphic Designer (2005) and The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? (2000). ‘I wrote [The Swastika] because I needed to argue about it with myself; I’m a fucking liberal,’ he bellows, waving his arms around, New York-style.

In the celebrity-driven milieu of the US design scene, Heller is a major player – witness his recent input at US design association AIGA’s ‘tribal gathering’, its national conference, held this year in Denver, Colorado. There, he gave the audience a taster of his current research project, which will build into a visual biography of mid-century designer and art director Alvin Lustig, a cross-disciplinary innovator who died tragically young, but left an uncatalogued – until now – body of inspirational work. Heller is co-writing the book with Lustig’s widow, Elaine.

Mentioning another co-author, Mirko Ilic, Heller describes him as a ‘hunter and gatherer’. Partnering an author close to the source, or a designer who will co-edit material and lay out the book, is a favoured modus operandi for Heller; it widens his reach, giving him access to special, primary sources. Hinting at an underlying pragmatism, though, Heller offers a description of his approach. ‘I always thought I was making stabs, not wanting to go into a subject as an academic. I start and others go in deeper,’ he says.

That said, the current state of design writing worries him. Heller explains that designers write books to add to their professional credibility, but while they are ‘filling the field’, few are adding to it. Publishers rarely make a decent return, and he’s critical of content, too, but, of course, there are worthy exceptions. ‘I don’t want to come down too hard on designers, because there are some who are good writers, and because they are into books,’ he adds.

Continuing to multitask, Heller has been teaching design, both various incarnations of professional practice and the ‘history of’, for more than a decade. Now, with a sabbatical from The New York Times, he’s working full time at the School of Visual Arts, and currently being celebrated with an exhibition in The Masters Series. Its previous laureates are Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher and George Lois – all legends. Designed by his colleague Kevin O’Callaghan, the exhibition is a 3D, multimedia reinterpretation of book culture and the power of the word. More than 100 art-directed covers for The New York Times Book Review share space with a replica newsstand, featuring publications from around the world that Heller has contributed to. Video installations present co-authors, including Seymour Chwast and Gail Anderson, explaining their collaborative process, and many of Heller’s books are there to browse.

On a self-reflective note, Heller happily admit his limits. ‘I never think of myself as doing the definitive work, and so some people poke holes,’ he says. That he loves books is evident though; his world revolves around them. That fascination with words, writing, speaking and teaching feeds into a developing canon – building a history of graphic communication. Heller’s methods – offering documentation and inspiration, combining words and images – appeal to a diverse, growing audience, which can only be a good thing.

The Masters Series: Steven Heller runs at the School of Visual Arts, New York City, until 1 December

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