A master of historical styles and movements, graphic designer Seymour Chwast is known for his diverse body of work, and lasting influence on American visual culture. Cofounder of the internationally recognized and critically acclaimed Push Pin Studios, Chwast has developed and refined his innovative approach to design over the course of six decades. Personal, urgent, and obsessive, his eclectic oeuvre has delighted and guided subsequent generations, while revolutionizing the field of graphic design.
The Revolutionary Seymour
By Steven Heller
Seymour Chwast is not your typical revolutionary firebrand. HIs name is a dead giveaway. It is inconceivable that the masses could be moved to frothing frenzy by chanting SEE-MORE, SEE-MORE, SEE-MORE! It just doesn’t have the same rousing cadence as CHE, CHE, CHE, or MAO, MAO, MAO, or even BO-NO, BO-NO, BO-NO! Nonetheless, Seymour led a major revolution in American illustration and graphic design during the late 1950s and early 1960s, triggering the shift from sentimental realism to comic expressionism, among other radical feats. The illustrations for magazines, posters, advertisements, book jackets, record covers, product packages, and children’s books that he created after founding Push Pin Studios with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel in 1954 directly influenced two generations (statistical fact) and indirectly inspired another two (educated conjecture) of international illustrators and designers to explore an eclectic range of stylistic an conceptual methods. He was very instrumental in wedding illustration to typographic design (a concept that was viewed as passé by modernists). In addition, Chwast (pronounced “kwast”) contributed his distinct brand of absurdist wit to twentieth-century applied art and design. And although his methods were unapologetically rooted in vintage-style decorative traditions, his work never slavishly copied the past. Instead, he synthesized, reinvented, and often parodied it.
Seymour’s art was postmodern long before the term was coined. Yet it was resolutely modern in its rejection of the nostalgic and romantic representation, as in the acolytes of Norman Rockwell, that had been popular in mainstream advertising magazines at the time. Instead of prosaic or melodramatic tableau, Seymour emphasized clever concept. What makes the very best of his art so arresting, and so identifiable, is the tenacity of his ideas—simple, complex, rational, and even absurd ideas. Droll humor and conceptual acuity were the foundation on which he built a visual language that advanced editorial illustration beyond pictorial mimicry of a sentence or headline. His images complemented and supplemented the words, gave them additional layers of meaning. What’s more, Seymour is master of the visual pun, which enables him to manipulate pictorial concepts as a sculptor shapes soft clay.
He is also skilled at what comedians call the slow burn or double take: using commonplace things as foils for uncommon illusions, he twists imagery into double entendres. Seymour employs one of the most adaptable pictorial lexicons in the world (big claim based on educational conjecture and rooted in statistical fact). Yet when he repeats himself, as all artists do, he makes every effort to turn such repetition into something great. Seymour is nothing if not novel (you can make a book on that).
However concept—the big idea—alone does not make art that shall be called “a Seymour.” Although Seymours are rendered in various media and numerous techniques, there are some quintessential graphic traits. Each of his imaginary characters (even portraits of real individuals) have similar facial features—round lips, slits for eyes, bulbous noses. They never scowl, yet they are not cute. A seymour can be a simple vignette or a large tableau, but in whatever form the look is unmistakable. His ideas are routinely framed by means of playful stylistic conceits that, although varied, express his singular personality. Virtuosic drawing underpins almost everything he touches, but the results are never slick. His finishes are often unfinished looking and not tethered to one particular method; instead his illustration ranges from gnarly to precise, from naive to sophisticated. He is versatile with media, including monoprint, woodcut, collage, and montage; paint, ink, and charcoal; pencil, burin, and graver. Few are as flexible yet so consistent. Decades ago he may have ended the revolutionary phase of his career (even Mao knew one cannot be a revolutionary forever), but judging from his output, we see that Seymour is resilient, and endures as restlessly motivated as ever.
The Historical Seymour
Push Pin fostered an adventurously eclectic aesthetic that revived Victorian, art nouveau, and art deco (what Seymour dubbed his “Roxy Style”) and may have, at least in part, contributed to the demise of orthodox modernism. The studio certainly created contemporary contexts for older graphic methods foreshadowing the postmodernism of the ’80s. Seymour collected styles, drawing nourishment and then discarding them as necessary. He said he gave up woodcuts in the ’60s because the German expressionist manner had lost its vigor. What’s more, with the studio’s sampler of Push Pin styles, clients were asking for certain looks and moods, and Seymour tried to fulfill this need while tapping his own inclinations. What became known as the Push Pin Style—an eclectic mélange of illustration and design—derived, according to Seymour, not from forced imposition of a “look” but from the requisites of each assignment. It was his goal to state a client’s message in as personal yet as public and engaging vocabulary as possible.
Push Pin was on the cutting edge of popular art. This was manifest in highly visible, mass-media jobs, including book jackets, record covers, posters, advertisements, and magazine covers. During the ’60s and ’70s it was impossible not to see Push Pin’s work (and those it influenced). Push Pin was so popular, its output predictably fostered opposition among those who saw the studio’s style as too dominant.
Seymour was a willing collaborator with others, yet it is fairly easy, even for the untrained eye, to pick out his contributions. Seymour’s approach—regardless of media—relied so much on humor, bawdy at times, but never crass. His talent has always been demonstrated in his ability to wed sophistication to pop and pop to old and new vernaculars.
Glaser left Push Pin in 1975 to explore different media and métiers, ending their twenty-year collaboration. But Seymour felt no need to abandon the studio. He continued as Push Pin’s director, and he became an early proponent of design entrepreneurialism. He formed a company to develop and market a line of candies called “Pushpinoff.” It was a way to generate work when the phone didn’t ring and it “fit with my ’30s depression mentality.” He also continued publishing on a regular basis the highly popular, though occasional Push Pin Graphic, which evolved directly from the Push Pin Almanack and Monthly Graphic into a thematic showcase of Push Pin’s art and ideas. Thematic issues, including “Mothers,” “the Condensed History of the World,””Food and Violence,””New Jersey,” and “the Chicken,” served as an outlet for Seymour’s creative obsessions as well as a showcase for other members of the new Push Pin Studios. More than a decade after the Graphic folded, Seymour started the Nose, a twice-yearly festschrift devoted to ideas on politics, society, and culture. Seymour also began something of a poster renaissance with projects for Forbes magazine and Mobil. During this time Push Pin Press was founded as a means to package books that appealed to his sense of playfulness. In fact, the second stage of Seymour’s career as a solo act, so to speak, was consumed with an insatiable desire to play.
Seymour: The Legacy
For almost six decades, Seymour has unpretentiously contributed to the visual culture of his epoch. Unpretentiously because anyone who knows him will attest that he just does his “jobs” with no other ambition than to do them. Sometimes they are just fine, but sometimes they are masterpieces of visual erudition. Some illustrators and designers continue to work only as long as their styles are popular, but Seymour has not suffered the vicissitudes of the marketplace in large part because he was never merely a stylist. When his monograph The Left-Handed Designer (Harry N. Abrams) was published in 1985, it might have marked the pinnacle of his career. But in the years since its publication, Seymour has filled another volume and could easily fill one more.
It may seem trite to call Seymour a consummate artist. Yet he is consumed by art. Seymour is his art; he is what he makes. His hands are always covered with ink; his clothes are stained with paint; his hair is speckled with pigment. There isn’t a day when he doesn’t create something. His collected physical work could easily fill a sizable warehouse (or cruise ship); children’s book and editorial illustrations (before digital files) alone number in the thousands. And after all this he continues to generate witty, beautiful, and more often than not, smart work. In the pantheon of American (nay, world) illustration, he stands, albeit slightly shorter and a little more rumpled, beside N.C. Wyeth, J. C. Leyendecker, and Normal Rockwell—and he’s not through yet.
— Reprinted, edited and condensed, from Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast published by Chronicle Books
“What makes the very best of his art so arresting, and so identifiable, is the tenacity of his ideas—simple, complex, rational, and even absurd ideas.”
— Steven Heller
“Seymour has always managed to work outside his reputation, his legend, his towering historical position.”
— Paula Scher
“He is flexible without being eclectic, sentimental without being maudlin, an artist for commerce whose individuality is never for sale.”
— Alan Fern