Seymour Chwast: Inspiration & Process

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday June 25, 2020

Seymour Chwast is often referred to as “the legendary graphic designer and co-founder of Push Pin Studios.” But how many legends can you think of who are known by a single name? Shakespeare, Caruso, Elvis, Cher, Madonna, Bono, Jesus...The list goes on, of course, and in the world of art and design it includes Leonardo, Daumier, Hopper, Warhol, Milton, Crumb...and Seymour.

Subversive. Personal. Obsessive. Radical. There is no mistaking the work of Seymour Chwast. As co-founder, with Milton Glaser, of Push Pin Studios, they led a revolution in graphic design, producing bold, vibrant work that pushed the limits of nearly every visual medium—from posters, advertisements, book jackets, and magazine covers to album covers, product packaging, typography, and children’s books. His pioneering role as a designer, author, and activist continues to influence and inspire 21st-century designers. 

You could say that Seymour has become a legend in our own minds. And a new book, Seymour Chwast: Inspiration and Process in Design (Moleskin Books) with text by Steven Heller, clearly demonstrates the why of Seymour as a force majeur. 

In founding Pushpin Studios in 1954, he arrived on the scene at just the right moment. In the 1950s, advertising art and design, more commonly known back then as "commercial art," was somewhat like an outcast, with one arm in the grip of an increasingly outmoded form of nostalgia and the other being tugged at by the forces of Swiss-style Modernism of the Helvetica strain.

By that time, Seymour (who had his work published in Seventeen magazine when he was still in high school) had developed a signature approach to the work. Not to be confused with an artistic style, Seymour's approach has to do with a way of exposing (his own term) the content and meaning of his subject rather than by illustrating the subject itself.

He had come up with something new — no, revolutionary, according to Steve Heller — and over the next six decades he opened doors to succeeding generations of artists and designers. Seymour says that he is inspired by great poster art. "I studied their concepts and compositions along with scale, color, and form. [Posters] evoke drama, mystery, humor, and poetry.”

In Digging Into the Weeds, the introductory text for the book, Steve writes, “I have yet to employ my one-semester college course on Freudian and Jungian analysis to dig deep into the “chwasts” (chwast means weed in Polish) of his psyche, and I’m not going to start now. But I can assert that Chwast’s work, including his sketches and doodles, is a window into his heart and soul. There is nothing he would rather do than devise brand new ways to express himself. Since he first put pencil to paper, he has tried virtually every technique imaginable and some that are unimaginable too.”

These elements consistently mark his work, which is virtuosic but never slick, and ranges from illustrations for the New Yorker to art done solely for the sake of exploring an idea, such as the 2019 Beard series, for which he challenged himself to draw a beard a day for 1,001 days. Steve asked if there were parameters for this epic pursuit. For Chwast it is indisputable: “Stubble is definitely not a beard.” The book includes 20 pages on the subject.

In a brief interview for his 2017 book, Seymour Chwast on War, pages from which are included in the new book, I emailed Seymour and Steve about the artist’s evident commitment to peace. it went like this:

Peggy: Why a book that goes to war with war now?  

Seymour: I produced my first book, A Book of Battles, almost 60 years ago. I guess the second book isn’t coming too soon. Unfortunately, the subject will never be outdated.

Peggy: Do you think a book that attempts to prove war futile/absurd/heinous can change minds?

Steve: It's not about changing minds, it’s about showing what’s in our minds. Seymour has been an unvacillating peace advocate since he was a child. This book reiterates how many people feel about the reality and the concept of warfare. Knowing that others also think this way gives hope. 

In a revealing moment at the launch event for a previous book, a member of the audience asked, "Do you feel that your success was inevitable.” Seymour humbly replied, "No, I feel lucky," whereupon an ad hoc discussion of what constituted genius erupted amid the audience. He who had the last word said, "It's so simple. Seymour's on stage and we're out here."

Seymour Chwast: Inspiration and Process in Design (Moeskin Books) with text by Steven Heller is now on shelves. Info Upcoming public events will be posted to the DART Board as they are announced. Info Images here are screenshots from the book, courtesy of the distributor.

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