Columns / Insights

Hitting It on the Nose

Seymour Chwast

How would you describe your work? My work is all over the place. This has always been a problem for me, being a jack of all trades and master of none. I take an assignment and try to find the best solution for it. Some of them require a humorous solution, some of them are more serious. My work has been a mix of being a cartoonist and wanting to work for Disney, then also making a poster that is as good as the poster artist Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, who went by the pseudonym Cassandre.

Which other artists and designers have influenced you? Art comes from what has been done before since we don’t work in a vacuum. What we see becomes embedded in our brains, and sometimes it comes out in the way we approach our work on paper.

I went to the Museum of Modern Art every Saturday when I was in high school and just starting to develop my work. I learned everything from that museum. I remember one exhibit with artist Ben Shahn, whose usage of flat shapes rather than rendered 3-D shapes modernized illustration. Also at the Modern is their permanent collection, and most of that same work is on view even today—they’ve become my friends. I go to see them again and I nod to them. Those paintings are still important and so familiar.

I’ve also been inspired by the work of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, especially his beautiful and ugly Disasters of War etchings, which fits with my feelings about war. The illustrator Saul Steinberg was also a real problem for me. When I looked at his work, my hand so naturally went the way his hand would go. I had to stop looking at his work for 30 years because I didn’t want to do another Steinberg. Steinberg’s sophisticated humor—rendered with ideas and concepts along with his conventional, graphic cartoon forms—were meaningful to me. I learned about decorative design and very funny ways to draw from the kind of magic that Steinberg put into his work.

Art comes from what has been done before since we don’t work in a vacuum.


How do you avoid repetition in your work? Being repetitive is not a problem. Picasso did dozens of paintings of just a naked figure. During the Renaissance, people kept on painting Madonnas and children. These artists wanted to do each one a little bit differently than the last one. That kind of repetition is alright—their paintings can be less concerned with literal content and more concerned with the meaning, ideas and formal concerns of painting. Good painters are not merely storytellers. Paintings by great artists like Philip Guston, Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon have other objectives which can be observed through the senses.

Your poster End Bad Breath from 1968 is an icon of antiwar dissent. Were you ever fearful to take part in this larger conversation? No. My opinions are not that controversial. Most of us were against the Vietnam War, so that wasn’t a problem.

But sometimes you want controversy. Push Pin also had a show called The Push Pin Style at the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, France, in 1970. A few reviews of the show were trying to make a controversy out of our work, saying that we were somewhat avant garde for the time. There were even some reviewers who said that we were going against the free enterprise system (even though we were doing commercial work for corporations). But we read those reviews with joy, because it only made us look good. You want to shake things up a little bit and get attention. That’s all we want: to be better artists, with the understanding that we know what’s going on in the world and to show it in our work.

Do you have a piece that you’re most sentimental about? For one issue of the Push Pin Graphic called the South, I was reacting to the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the ’60s. People were going down South and protesting, and some of them were assassinated, so I did a sixteen-page brochure showing some of the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. I designed a hole—representing bullet holes—that was punched through the whole issue.

The last scene was the giant Civil Rights march on Washington, D.C. In the middle was a photograph of a woman who represented the whole South, and there was a hole punched through her head, meaning that the South was changing. I was happy to be able to express my feelings with this issue, that this racist society was shifting.

Why did you choose to stay with Push Pin when your partner Milton Glaser had left? Milton was more secure with his reputation. I am less secure. I felt that I needed some help, and the name Push Pin came with a reputation, so I continued to use the name Push Pin and do whatever it could do in terms of developing projects. For example, the Push Pin Graphic used the Push Pin name. Push Pin—as a style, movement or producer—had a bigger reputation than my reputation. Although, right now, my reputation may be bigger.

The Pushpin Group published the Nose from 1997 to 2007. Why did you decide to call this the Nose? I thought of the nose because eye was already taken. Eye is a British design magazine. I also wanted the name to be a little irreverent. I didn’t want people to take this thing too seriously.

I wanted to do serious articles and drawings, but not to appear to be so. Conched in some humor were issues like capital punishment and racism that we couldn’t get into too deeply because we were no experts and it was more of an arts journal.

In any inevitable moments of self doubt, how do you continue producing good work? You reflect for a minute and you just keep on going. The incentive here is to get over the self doubt. After working on an assignment for five minutes, I think that I can never draw again. But then I continue working on it, and somehow, I get something decent out of me.

Work hasn’t gotten any easier, even though I’ve been at it for a long time. As a matter of fact, because I’ve been at it for so long and done so many things, I have to look at it in a new way: a new approach to solving a graphic problem. I have to go against those tendencies to express visual cliches.

Do you have any advice you would give to a young designer today? Work hard and save your money. You should not isolate yourself. Know what’s going on in terms of society and culture and see what fellow designers are doing. You need the right kind of incentive and taste to know what’s important. But if you do, there’s no shortage of outlets—online and print—for that. See everything that’s happening and forget about Facebook. You need to concentrate on your work.

Seymour Chwast is a cofounder of Push Pin Studios and the director of the Pushpin Group, where he has reintroduced graphic styles and transformed them into a contemporary vocabulary. His designs and illustrations have been used in advertising, animated films, and editorial, corporate and environmental graphics. He has created more than 100 posters and has designed and illustrated more than 30 children’s books. His work has been the subject of many books, including Seymour Chwast: The Left Handed Designer (Abrams, 1985) and Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast. He is in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and received the 1985 Medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Portrait of Chwast by artist Zina Saunders. 

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