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You Can't Influence People If You Live in a Vacuum
by RitaSue Siegel
Recently I went to a Pratt Institute class reunion as proxy for Richard C. Siegel, an advertising design major and my deceased first husband. I was invited because an organizer mistakenly assumed I was in the class. As soon as
I heard who might be attending, people Richard really liked and talked a lot about, I accepted. I love reunions; I love seeing old friends and acquaintances. This particular reunion was deeply affecting due to the strong testimonials each made describing the value of their Pratt experience to their lives and careers. Most were positively passionate about their education. They talked about individual teachers, what they learned from them and how their encouragement was so important. I was stunned at how fresh their memories were, as if what they were describing happened yesterday. (These alums had left Pratt in 1960.)
It struck me as I was sitting there what a profound influence my Pratt industrial design education has had on my life, and hearing similar stories from graduates of other departments astonished me. (Silly me; I thought our department was unique.) About half the alums who spoke that day are still working in their original or related fields—architecture, fashion, industrial design, library science, art or design. Some are teaching, some had retired, but most are active. (I guess the unsatisfied customers stayed home.)
Here are the stories of three alums:
In 1960, right out-of-the-gate, Ron Travisano got a job in the mat room of Young & Rubicam. That was a coveted spot. Don’t laugh; cutting mat boards for comps in a famous agency began many an enviable career. Within two years Travisano was an assistant art director; moved on for two years as art director at McCann Marshalk, then a year as advertising supervisor at Delehanty Kurnit & Geller and finally, art supervisor at Ted Bates. After just seven years in the business, Travisano founded Della Femina, Travisano & Partners, with Jerry Della Femina, a copywriter he met at DKG. Ron was 29; Jerry, 30. In two years, billings were $20 million. I recently told this story to a 34-year-old and she’d never heard of the agency or either man. (Ad agency execs used to be stars,1 but that was before her time.) She probably never saw the commercial for Meow Mix, which brought happiness to millions and was chosen as one of the 100 best commercials ever. It's an important piece of American culture; Travisano created, wrote and directed it. He directed the Lying Joe Isuzu commercials and won fifteen Clios and several One Show gold and silver awards while at the agency. He was part of the 1984 team creating the campaign to elect Ronald Reagan, chosen “100 best ever.”
Next Travisano became a successful film director, winning the Gold and Silver Lions at Cannes for commercials like “The Bullet.” He retired in 2001, writes screenplays, plays the piano, cooks, paints and has taught advertising at Pratt for the last seven years.
Travisano tries to “emulate and feed” his students as his teacher Herschel Levit did. He says Levit changed his life: “Opening my eyes to the world of music, playing records in class, creativity, the ballet, painting; showing us photos of Italy, etc.” Some students complained and tried to get him fired, saying “We didn’t sign up for art appreciation, we came here to study advertising,” but Travisano, Marshall Arisman and Santo Cambarrari went to the Dean’s office to counter the complaints.
Levit’s Art Directors Club Hall of Fame bio states: “Herschel Levit was more than merely an instructor. He was an artist, a designer, a photographer, a writer and a prophet. A true Renaissance man in 20th century clothing, he believed in a working knowledge of all aesthetic and classical disciplines in order to be a successful designer. ‘You can’t influence people if you live in a vacuum,’ Levit once remarked. His prolific professional design career closely paralleled his teaching career. The constant high level of professionalism he demanded of himself was also expected of his students. He was by no means an ‘easy’ teacher. Levit figuratively threw the books at them! He insisted upon total commitment and most students, hanging on his every word, gave it to him.”
At the end of each semester, Travisano tells his students, "There were two classes going on at once; me teaching you and you teaching me."
In 1960 Barbara Nessim graduated from the graphic arts and illustration department, influenced by teachers Richard Lindner and Walter Murch. Also an early success, after a year or two of freelancing she became one of her generation's most successful female freelance illustrators. Throughout her career, she has taught and exhibited work in solo and group shows. Her work is so familiar; it’s difficult to imagine the visual environment without it.