“Carin had more ideas in an afternoon than I had in a year. She was incredibly prolific, doing 5 or 10 versions of everything she designed”, says architect and former Pentagram partner James Biber of his wife, Carin Goldberg, an influential graphic designer and educator who died on 19 January 2023 at the age of 69.
“Truthfully, she needed all those ideas, and I could survive on just a few. Different design metabolisms, graphic design and architecture”, he says.
Born in New York City in 1953, Goldberg received a BFA from the Cooper Union School of Art in 1975. After graduating she worked with Lou Dorfsman at CBS Television, before going on to work for CBS Records and Atlantic Records. Over a number of years, Goldberg created cover designs for artists such as Steve Reich, Glenn Gould, and Sly and the Family Stone, but her best-known commission is the cover of Madonna’s self-titled 1983 debut album, which came shortly after establishing her own studio, Carin Goldberg Design, in 1982.
Madonna’s subsequent rise meant this project was the one Goldberg was asked about most, as Goldberg explained to the Cut in 2015. Writing of the project in Print magazine, writer, designer, educator, consultant and podcaster Debbie Millman described Goldberg’s ability to capture the then-unknown’s essence, writing “the cover conveyed an attitude that was distinctly Madonna long before the singer had cultivated her characteristic bravado”. But Goldberg herself seemed to downplay the work, saying it was “probably the easiest job I ever had — the most cooperation from a recording artist I think I ever had”.
She was also happy share her initial reaction to hearing of yet another first-name-only artist at the time. As Biber recounts it to Design Week, “I was sitting in the studio we shared, and while she was talking to the record company, she covered the phone (this was before cell phone and mute buttons) and rolling her eyes said, ‘get this, her name is Madonna…’.”
Goldberg started to work on book jacket designs in the mid-1980s, building a large portfolio of work including an edition of James Joyces’ Ulysses, and a series of Kurt Vonnegut covers. In a tribute on Instagram last week, Michael Bierut wrote, “I promise you have a Carin Goldberg book cover in your library or a Carin Goldberg album cover in your record collection.” She also worked in editorial design for clients such as Time Inc., The Hearst Company, The New York Times, Conde Nast and many more.
The strength of her style meant that Goldberg was named as one of four designers featured in an article for Print magazine by design historian Philip Meggs. Alongside the later-renowned Lorraine Louie, Paula Scher and Louise Fili, his headline heralds Goldberg as was one of “The Women Who Saved New York!” In the article, Meggs wrote: “their attitudes toward space, colour, and texture are extremely personal and idiosyncratic […] Unorthodox attitudes about the rules and regulations of ‘proper’ design and typography permit them to take risks and experiment.”
For others, the postmodern approach drawing deeply on historical references, such as her design for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus inspired by Josef Hoffmann’s 1903 design for the Wiener Werkstätte, caused waves, with the writer Tibor Kalman speaking of Goldberg and her contemporaries “pillaging history” at an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) conference in 1989.
Goldberg’s many accolades include the AIGA Gold Medal in 2012; The Cooper Union Augustus Saint-Gaudens Medal for distinguished achievement in art, and the Cooper Union President’s Citation for “exceptional contributions to the field of graphic design … recognizing outstanding citizenship, ethics and social responsibility” in 2009; and the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize for Design, earning Goldberg a six-month fellowship at The American Academy in Rome. She was also a president of the New York chapter of AIGA between 2006 and 2008, and a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale from 1998 onwards, serving on its board of directors between 2006 and 2009.
Goldberg’s work has also featured in exhibitions, including the Walker Art Center’s 1989 Graphic Design in America, Cooper Hewitt’s 1996 exhibition Mixing Messages: Graphic Design in Contemporary Culture, and in 2010, there was a retrospective of her work at the Musée Géo-Charles, Échirolles, France.
“She made those around her better”
“You can search online to learn about Carin’s many design accolades, accomplishments, and incredible projects. They’re abundant and easy to find”, writes her colleague Gail Anderson, chair of BFA advertising and BFA design at School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City.
But her time as a teacher, during which she “cared deeply” for her students, Anderson says, is just as vital a part of her legacy. “More than once, Carin told me that she thought she was probably a better teacher than she was a designer”, she adds. “Carin was among the top of the top tier on both fronts, so I beg to differ.”
Working at the SVA for 35 years, Goldberg received an Art Directors Club Grandmasters Award for Excellence in Education, and is remembered by a great many of her former colleagues and students, now designers in their own right.
Drew Hodges, founder of creative agency SpotCo, remembers taking Goldberg’s first class at SVA.
“There was Carin. It was her first year, her first class teaching. And she was terrifying. Hip, arty, smart, funny, and filled with art history. Every project, she would say ‘look at Cassandra,’ ‘Look at Warhol,’ ‘Look at Jim Dine,’ ‘Look at Jasper Johns,’ ‘look at these fonts,’ look here, look there.”
“Carin was frankly overwhelming”, he adds. “Not because she was brutal – we all came to know later as contemporaries that she did not suffer fools gladly – but she loved her students and brought them forward with kindness and caring. Took them under her wing. She just expected magic.”
Others report that her care and encouragement extended beyond education. Speaking of their time at AIGA NY, Bobby C. Martin Jr., founder of Champions Design, says, “Carin was incredibly supportive and encouraging in the way that a teacher of over twenty years would be”. He adds, “she made those around her better”.
Another colleague from AIGA NY, current executive director Stacey Panousopoulos echoes this sentiment, saying that her meeting with Goldberg and Liz Danzico “would take me on a trajectory of community, service and deep appreciation for the NYC design community”.
“Carin was my first AIGA NY boss as board president. I learned from her how to fight for this community, be bold and love it so much”, she says.
“A graphic designer’s graphic designer”
Martin Jr., makes a link between her work and her caring nature, which he says “comes through so clearly in her work. Warm and tactile, her design work often felt like it had been around for years, rich with stories and character.”
And while in his tribute Bierut calls Goldberg a “graphic designer’s, graphic designer”, he notes that her attributes are far from the buzzwords of today: “Carin Goldberg was not a networker. She didn’t talk about “design thinking” or make claims about design’s importance to the corporate bottom line. She simply did beautiful, original, courageous work, day after day, year after year.”
Reflecting on her legacy, Hodges says “famous didn’t matter to her”, but says, “I want everyone to know that she was the funniest, most elegant designer I ever saw. So look at her work. Celebrate it. She deserves it.” Anderson, meanwhile, adds that her spirit “now lives in all of us; her friends, colleagues, and students”.
Carin Goldberg is survived by her husband James Biber and her son Julian Biber.
“I’ve always been happy to be Mr. Carin Goldberg some of the time, and Carin seemed happy to be the opposite occasionally”, Biber says. “But mostly it was me; she is (and this is evidenced by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion at her death) and always will be the famous one.”
Images throughout courtesy of James Biber. Thanks to Debbie Millman for permission to use Drew Hodges’ tribute, initially shared with Print magazine.