Interfering with past, future and certainly present time, Paula Scher told us about how she took up designing, her days at Pentagram, digitalized culture and arts industries and her future plans. You are invited to this pleasant interview.
How did you become a designer? Can you inform us about the process?
I went to Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. I majored in Illustration and Design. My teacher, Stanislaw Zagorski, encouraged me to move to New York City to work. I started by trying to freelance as an illustrator, didn’t get very much work and then took an entry level design job designing the pages of children’s books at Random House. After a year and a half, my boss, Herb Levitt, took another job at an advertising agency. He was afraid I would lose my position with a new boss who would most certainly want their own assistant, so he helped me get a job with his friend Ted Bernstein, who was an art director in the promotion department of CBS Records.
Identities are the beginning of everything.
How were the days in CBS Records?
At first I designed trade ads for records that appeared weekly in Cashbox, Billboard and Rolling Stone magazines. The Art Director of Atlantic Records, Bob Defrin, noticed the ads and he hired me to work at Atlantic Records. I worked for Atlantic for about a year. At Atlantic, the ads and record covers were designed in the same department, so I began designing record covers and some of them which won awards. After working at Atlantic for a year, John Berg, who was the head art director in CBS Records’ cover department, hired me back, and made me the East Coast art director. I was 26 years old. I had the responsibility for the design and/or production of about 150 record covers a year. All of the recording artists had cover approval by contract. Sometimes that meant a band of 6 people, their managers, their wives and other friends, sometimes they were musicians who didn’t care what was on their covers (usually jazz musicians), sometimes there were managers who were brilliant and had incredibly sophisticated taste, and sometimes the opposite was the case. It was the 1970s, and the music business was had a lot of potential; a little corrupt with a lot of drugs around. It was a wild place. The designers in the art department were all very talented. It was a great place to work for a long time. Then durin the recession of the early ’80s it came apart. Large covers transformed to CD covers, a quarter of their original size. During the time I worked for CBS Records, I thought I had an ordinary job. I had no idea how lucky I was.
We are curious why you joined Pentagram…
After I left CBS Records, I freelanced for a while and then opened a small design firm called Koppel and Scher with a designer named Terry Koppel. He and I knew each other from Tyler School of Art. We had a business together for seven years until the Gulf War recession of 1989. He was a magazine designer and there were no magazines to design, so he took a job at Esquire magazine, and I continued running the business by myself. In 1990, Woody Pirtle came around and asked me if I would be interested in joining Pentagram. It was a great opportunity, but it meant that I would be the only woman in a large group of men.
Can you tell us more about the design process of The Metropolitan Opera’s and New York City Ballet’s identities?
The Metropolitan Opera was being re-invented by the new director, Peter Gelb. He hired me to create an identity that modernized the institution. The New York City Ballet was a similar project. The ballet mostly performs 20th-century works by Balanchine, one of its founders, but also develops contemporary works and wanted to attract new audiences.
By the way, where do you get motivation to design identities?
Identities are the beginning of everything. They are how an organization, corporation or institution are recognized. There is nothing more important or interesting for a graphic designer than to design.
How can you explain the impact of technology on creative industries?
Technology changed the amount of time it takes to accomplish a design and eliminated certain forms of craft. It also changed expectations from a client about how long it takes to make something and changed the emphasis from making something to talking about making something.
How do you spend your days?
Designing and in meetings during the week and painting on the weekends.
We heard that your husband is also doing creative work. Are you collaborating with him?
My husband is Seymour Chwast, an illustrator and designer and founder of Push Pin Studios along with Milton Glaser. We don’t collaborate and have our own bodies of work.
What do you recommend for the young designers?
To have a viewpoint about the world and understand that contemporary technology has a short lifespan. If you can think for yourself, you will be OK.
What do you think about the concept of environmental design?
Environmental graphics bring life and personality to public spaces, as well as the necessary wayfinding.
Paula Scher’s painting Antarctica, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 8.3 by 8.8 feet.
People really adored your first solo exhibition… What did you feel after all of this success?
I thought it was lucky.
We are surrounded by digital media. As a designer how is your relationship with the digitalized world?
I love my iPhone and hate my email.
What is next for you?