Illustrator profile - Steven Guarnaccia: "The world needs artists to tell stories"

By Robert Newman   Friday September 30, 2016

Steven Guarnaccia is a graphic grandmaster—a Brooklyn-based illustrator, artist, book author, designer, educator and all-around brilliant visual thinker whose imagery has appeared in countless publications, books, on product design, posters, and much more. At SVA and Parsons and as an art director at The New York Times, Guarnaccia has been responsible for teaching, nurturing and showcasing generations of visual creative talent. And while he’s been in the business long enough to have a section on his websitedevoted to “The 80’s,” Guarnaccia’s ever-evolving styles and methodology have kept his illustration work fresh, smart and entertaining.

I live in Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, a stone’s throw from Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum and the Botanical Gardens. I’m married to illustrator Nora Krug, who is also a professor at Parsons. We have a 13-month-old daughter. I also have a 27-year-old son, who lives a few blocks away, and is already planning his little sister’s 21st birthday.

My parents were both high school Spanish teachers who were closet artists, drawing caricatures on their high school textbook end-papers (I still have the books). When I was a child, my mother was an avid crafter, and she was always working on some new craft project with her friends.  They also subscribed to The New Yorker, where I was first exposed to the work of Charles Addams, among others. Plus, growing up in suburban Connecticut, we were regular visitors throughout my childhood to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Met.

I had rheumatic fever twice as a child, which left me bed-ridden for a couple of crucial socializing, sports-playing years. The upside was that I spent all of that time reading and drawing. I even gave art lessons to the other geeks, nerds and dorks who couldn’t or didn’t want to go out onto the playground for recess—in the principal’s office, no less. I don’t know that I’d be an illustrator today without that incubator of childhood illness.

I attended Brown University for two and a half years (Tom Bodkin, design director of The New York Times, and I dropped out of Brown within a year of each other). I took classes at RISD while at Brown (the relationship between the two institutions is one of the reasons I went to Brown). I also took Milton Glaser’s evening course at SVA when I first got to the city in 1977. I worked briefly doing paste-ups at New York magazine under J.C. Suares until my illustration career took off. Though my first illustration was published for Steve Heller (for The New York Times letters page in 1977), my first commission came the day before, from then New York Times Magazine deputy art director Michael Valenti (this was in the Ruth Ansel days) to illustrate a regular column written by Russell Baker. I also began illustrating regularly for New York magazine around the same time. These two steady gigs gave me the confidence to keep going at the beginning, and their visibility helped establish my career.

I’ve been an Associate Professor in the Illustration program at Parsons School of Design since 2005, and I was director of the program for seven of those years (I was an adjunct at Parsons from 1980-1990). I’m currently teaching two print-based classes that deal with the future of the book and print in some way: The Book as Object, and Pictozine, which is basically a self-publishing class. Previous to going to work at Parsons, I art directed The New York Times Op-Ed page for three years. And before that I taught for six years in the SVA MFA Design program. Sometime in the 80s I spent a year as a kind of freelance art director for a small ad agency in Boston, Altman and Manley, and in the 90s I spent a year as a creative consultant for Hallmark Cards. During all of this time I was also freelancing as an illustrator.

Nora and I share a studio on the second floor of our Brooklyn limestone house, though she or I can be found with books and papers strewn about in any room on any floor of the house at any time, working on one project or another.

It’s great to share a home and workspace(s) with such a creative person as Nora, and we surround ourselves with walls of books and objects that reflect our dovetailing interests. She’s one of the smartest people I know and continually pushes her work in new directions and really demands a lot of herself. She’s got an incredible work ethic. It really keeps me on point.

I pretty much make my work the same way I have since the beginning of my career: with pen and ink (from a Pelikan fountain pen and FW ink to a Uniball Vision Micro) and watercolor. Though, that said, I do make forays into unfamiliar territory with some regularity, which has always had a marked affect on the development of my work. At the moment, that means assembling and painting found objects (mostly wood and acrylic)) into something like sculpture. But in the past that has meant working with Mexican metalworkers to make wire versions of drawings or painting lobster buoys and ukeleles. There was a period when I discovered drawing on brown wrapping paper with black magic marker and coloring it with colored pencil and I did a lot of work in that medium.

The one-two punch of being offered the Russell Baker column in The New York Times Magazine, followed by Steve Heller’s letters spot, gave me a sense that that I could build a creative life making illustrations. I worked regularly for the Book Review under Steve for many years and then began doing regular front of the book political spot illustrations at New York magazine. The continuity helped give me the confidence to both experiment and forge a personal style. My working with Steve Heller at the NYTimes developed into a long creative and personal relationship that has included co-authoring and/or illustrating books, as well as teaching and lecturing together. He was also instrumental in helping me secure the Op-Ed art directorship.

I’m influenced every day by a new experience or encounter with a new image or artist, or by a book I’m reading or dipping into. Being in a constant personal and creative dialogue with Nora sharpens all of my faculties.

There was a cheap print of Peter Breughel’s Peasant Wedding hanging outside my bedroom door when I was a kid. I passed it every time I went to the bathroom. Breughel’s humanistic worldview, his paintings of visual lists (one of my all-time favorite paintings is his Children’s Games), and his rounded, satisfyingly chunky people, were etched onto my visual cortex at a young age. My favorite artist in high school was Paul Klee, not only because of the photos of him painting in a suit and tie. He was a direct link to my discovery of the work of the line artists who defined my early illustration interests.

In terms of the illustrators who pointed the way for me, they began with Maurice Sendak and Saul Steinberg. I discovered Milton Glaser through his seminal book, Graphic Design, which I found at the Brown University Bookstore where I was working. I brought it home to my parents at Thanksgiving and said, “This is what I want to do for a living.” Which was partly due to the fact that among the things that Glaser included in the book under the rubric of design, was a cocktail. I discovered Tadanori Yokoo through Milton Glaser’s article about him in Graphis. Early in my career Guy Billout and Seymour Chwast were my two points of reference for what illustration, at its best, could be. And they still exemplify the smart, elegant illustration solution that I aspire to in my work.

Well, Nora Krug, for starters. Brian Eno, David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello and David Hockney for the diversity and multiplicity of their creative endeavors. Federico Fellini, Marcel Duchamp, Vladimir Nabokov, Oliver Sacks, clothing designer Paul Smith, Erik Satie, Edward Gorey, Wes Anderson, Chris Ware and Bjork for creating their own worlds on their own terms, which required the developing of new sets of standards to consider them by.

The books on my bookshelves. There’s nothing like picking a book at random off a shelf and opening it to a page (again at random) and being struck by an unexpected phrase or image to get the juices flowing. I regularly look at the websites 50 Watts and Agence Eureka for the shock of the old. I haunt second-hand book and junk stores with a probably unhealthy frequency (in terms of the dwindling space that can accommodate the spoils from the hunt).

It’s also the greatest pleasure: being thrown back on your own devices and diving deep into your own head to come up with an idea and a feeling that you can generate into a picture or a sculpture or a story.

It was one I gave myself: Over the last three or four years, I created a series of interconnected painted found-object sculptures and drawings that formed a kind of autobiography, which I called Fatherland. It opened last spring in Bologna, traveled to ELCAF (East London Comic and Art Fair, organized by Nobrow) last summer and is on its way to Barcelona. I’m in the process of looking for a New York venue for it.

It’s the next series of objects I’m making, to be called Childproof.

I’ve been fortunate to have quite long-term relationships with art directors, designers and publishers.

Steve Heller was the art director who I worked with most closely early in my career, first on the Op-Ed page, then in the Book Review. We went on to co-author a number of books together and then I joined him at the SVA MFA Design program, which he had just developed. I always felt like he brought out the best in me. It developed into a close friendship, and there’s nothing better than making an illustration for a friend.

In recent years I’ve had a similar relationship with Italo Lupi, the terrific Italian graphic designer and art director, with whom I collaborated monthly for about six years on the Italian design magazines Abitare and Domus.

I’ve made many books, for both children and adults, with Marzia and Maurizio Corraini of Corraini Edizioni (the publishers of Bruno Munari’s books, among others) based in Mantova, Italy, over the last 15 years, and we have a very close personal and creative relationship. Somehow, to my great good fortune, the books I want to do seem to be books they want to publish.

George Hardie, one of the best and most interesting visual thinkers in the field.

Blexbolex, for his fresh graphic sensibility and his ability to work equally fluently above and below ground.

Henrik Drescher, ditto. He also has an admirable longevity and he’s always been true to himself as an artist.

Joost Swarte, another shape-shifter and prodigious polymath.

I’ve made three-dimensional and non-traditional illustrative work since the early days of my career, as an antidote to conventional print illustration. Among the 3-D pieces I’ve made are a series of rugs with Reactor Art and Design, my Toronto-based agent. The painted ukeleles, lobster buoys and wire versions of my drawings were made for shows I had at the Reactor Gallery.

I’ve also designed watches and t-shirts for Swatch. One of the perks of working with them was having a one-person show at their old flagship store on East 57th Street.

I’ve designed a collection of ties for Rooster, an iconic 50s and 60s brand that I collect. Some years ago I wrote a short article for GQ about the collection and was contacted by the company, which lead to my being asked to design the ties for them.

I’ve written or co-written a number of books on popular visual culture, including A Stiff Drink and a Close Shave and Hi-Fis and Hi-Balls, both for Chronicle, about mid-century guy culture, that I wrote with my friend Bob Sloan; School Days, about the American school-going experience, with Steve Heller, and Black and White (also Chronicle) about, well, black-and-white things. With Corraini Edizioni I’ve illustrated three kids books about 20th century design told through well-known fairy tales, (published by Abrams in the US), two books about Italian 20th century designers for adults, (one, about Achille Castiglioni, began as illustrations for a show at MoMA, which I did with Paola Antonelli, the curator of design) and a book about the graphic iconography of Camparisoda.

Over the years I’ve also designed about a half dozen Christmas cards for MoMA and a series of murals for the Disney cruise ship, the Magic.

Really since the beginning of my career in the late 70s, I’ve been allergic to stasis. I’ve always looked for ways to make professional work in contexts where my work wasn’t already being commissioned. This led to many self-initiated projects, which led to more diverse commissioned work. I also worked with recent students as studio assistants for many years, and they always honed my taste in visual art and music. I recognized fairly early on that the nature of the culture was changing, and that that in turn was having a profound effect on the nature of the field. At that point I began to explore other ways to share my ideas about visual image-making, beyond making visual images. I began art directing, writing more, and then took on the job of directing the Illustration program (and rethinking it for the future) at Parsons. I also at that point became more involved at the Society of Illustrators, where I helped start, and chaired for two years, the Comic and Cartoon Art Annual and where I’ve been chairing the Eisner Foundation Scholar competition for the last two years. I also lecture and give workshops fairly widely.

I used to be an assiduous mailer of postcards, and a submitter to juried annuals, but in recent years, as the bulk of my work is self-generated, I don’t use the annuals or the mails, snail or e-, as much as I used to. I find that producing and publishing work and finding ways to share it, in person or online, is my most effective promotional strategy.

Have a story to tell. We focus on narrative at Parsons—it’s no longer enough to be an image-maker or a responder to text. Increasingly, being able to create a visual narrative puts you in a better position to be in control of your work and thus your creative destiny. The world increasingly needs artists to tell stories.

Just keep drawing. Draw and draw and draw some more. I strongly believe in sketchbook keeping. Drawing is a way of thinking, thinking while and thinking through drawing. I actually think everyone, not just artists, should draw, in the same way that everyone is expected to have some basic level of writing skill. It seems a shame to me that children stop drawing at the point at which they deem themselves not “good enough” drawers (this extends into other areas of activity as well). Being good at something, good enough to excel at it, seems to be the baseline for endeavor in our culture, where in fact simply being adequate at something can give tremendous satisfaction and you still reap the benefits of the activity. I know this to be true personally from playing merely adequate ping-pong.

Read. Read about whatever interests you. We emphasize research in the Illustration program at Parsons, and we don’t mean Google. The broader the space between your ears, the broader your frame of reference for creating compelling imagery and engaging stories.

See more Steven Guarnaccia illustrations, new work and updates:
Steven Guarnaccia website