Eminent Designer: Ivan Chermayeff



Ivan Chermayeff, a graphic designer who forged some of the most recognizable corporate logos of the second half of the 20th century passed away early this month. Born in 1932 in London, Chermayeff garnered a string of laurels, also designed posters, created museum and gallery displays and illustrated children’s books. He founded Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv with Tom Geismar in 1957 and this firm, known for its sleek Modernist designs featuring bold primary colors, was among the first to convey corporate identity by means of abstraction, streamlining the fussier logos that had dominated the commercial landscape in the first half of the century. Chermayeff had also designed our logos – Suna and İnan Kıraç Foundation, Pera Museum, and İstanbul Research Institute.

In 2007 as Pera Museum we had presented two exhibitions: Ivan Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculptures and Chermayeff & Geismar: Symbols, logotypes and graphic design from the last five decades. Art critic Joseph Giovannini, talks about Chermayeff in Ivan Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculptures catalogue: “Always in Chermayeff’s framed collages, and now, more recently, in free-standing collage sculpture, the New York artist and graphic designer fuses charm and wit in inimitable mixed-media inventions. But if we are seduced by the unique fusion, and delighted by a cast of characters straight from his own bestiary of imaginary creatures, we too easily overlook the depth of a vision that Chermayeff has evolved from influences rooted in the great Modernist revolution of the early twentieth century, in which his own father, Serge Chermayeff, took an active role through the Bauhaus and later Yale University. Spontaneous, and apparently effortless, Ivan Chermayeff’s collages and sculpture nonetheless are highly literate and cultivated, without being either academic or arch. Picasso always strived to sustain the inner child in his art, and Chermayeff’s works succeed in Picasso’s aim: they have the freshness of a four year old painting his heart out at the easel. Chermayeff’s inner child is alive and well, and the adult has channeled that spirit onto these mixed media collages.”

We are delighted to share a short but sweet essay from our publication Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculptures. Ivan Chermayeff’s “Selecting and Sifting Stuff” essay is full of inspiration and guidance for young artists.


Selecting and Sifting Stuff*
Ivan Chermayeff

geismar 0089

Two Ladies, 1998, Ivan Chermayeff

I am never sure exactly what I’m doing when I start a collage. Doing is doing, thinking about doing is something else. I may start with something. A real something though, not an idea or an image about something. Real something is stuff.

Doing is intimately connected to seeing. Noticing. Realizing that the vague idea of what I might be trying to do will actually be tried and tested by the reality of the stuff that I have and that I have collected which comes into my line of sight as I sift it and stuff tells me that it wants to be included. Perhaps it’s the texture, perhaps it’s the color or the shape, or the edge as it bumps up against another edge, another color, another shape.

Once in a while what really gets me going is the realization that something is missing. That nothing or not enough is there. There’s a hole. A hole that needs to be filled.

And then the process begins. I start imagining what might fill the hole. A splash of color, an image, a visage with a little story behind it. Something to put clothes on the naked body or to add detail to a clothed body. A button, two buttons, a medal, a whiff of collar, even a stain or a piece of breakfast. Something to put in the void, to place on the face.
It’s all about seeing.


Butterfly Mouth, 2002, Ivan Chermayeff

I make a lot of faces, perhaps too many faces, but faces give substance to process. After all, once you put a blank piece of paper in front of yourself you want something on it. It won’t be blank for long. In the back of my mind I’m often thinking of a personage. Whether female, male, drunk, sober, young, old, ugly, comic, or whatever comes later, when the clues build up. First I need a starter: sometimes an eye, in turn demanding another eye. Sometimes a nose. Eyes have attitude and suggest the mouth. With eyes in place, whatever is below them is the mouth. A smile or a frown, a row of teeth, a line, a smudge, a symbol of mouth. What else is it below the eyes or the nose except a mouth? A mouth can be open, closed, red, big, or small. It’s a mouth if it’s in the right place on the face. If the nose has been forgotten, one can be quickly added if it’s clearly missing and needed. Often enough I know it must be there even if I can’t see it. In which case I can then forget about it altogether.

Each time a feature is added in, like the balls on a pool table, they talk to each other and change the possibilities of the next move. What’s next? Ears, earrings, cigarettes, cigars, freckles, warts and scars, blemishes, band-aids. For me they are quite often something already in place on the plate. They are given facts of life in the collage to be: stamps from abroad, airmail stickers, cancellation stamps from post offices or mail rooms fixed in position where they were put in the first place, and can’t move. The address from the sender, stranger or friend; my address, typed differently on different machines or better handwritten, with abbreviations, misspellings, and with extra odd relationships attached, like my wife or my partner perhaps. If, as receiver, all this is in the middle of the envelope where it’s supposed to be, then the stamp is already in position to be an eye sometimes. I can see the eye. But does it need help? Does it need a pupil? Does it need another eye? Is it looking to the side or looking at me? Is the stamp hinting with its illustration of some special place in the world, or is it only a portrait of a hero? Or is there an attitude expressed because of the way the sender plunked the stamp down on the envelope or the package when he or she sent it?

A tough nose needs strong shoulders and maybe a rough hand. Maybe a hanging cigarette from the lips and a swirl of smoke. A smear the color of lipstick obviously suggests a woman. Maybe ears and earrings, blush, a flowered dress, a ring are needed to help define a feminine face. Perhaps a bird, a flower, or something against the grain is needed to bring the face into focus.

Picture 019Next is stopping. Not for long at any given moment, but lots of stops and quick looks back over time are necessary for me to know that the end is near. Sometimes minutes pass, sometimes days, even weeks and months pass before I know I’m done.

But when it’s done it’s done. If it’s not done I know it. I have learnt not to talk myself into thinking otherwise. If in one of those looks back I see errors in my judgment, often, and hopefully before everything is glued down, I can grab my mistakes and strangle them. Very fast usually. Wrong color, wrong stamp, too much, too little. I know right away what the problem is that I have made for myself. I can see it. I never see something wrong and hesitate doing something about it. I easily admit having made a mistake. I can see it fast, change it, and move on.

Of course, sometimes I make a collage, bring it to completion and then decide I hate the end result after all. Rarely, but if this happens I may save a little piece that I like for another try on another day. Or I just throw the collage away entirely. I’m the only one who had seen it, and beyond recognizing that I made a dumb move, which I try not to make again, I forget about it.

*Ivan Chermayeff: Collages and Small Sculpturesr, Pera Museum Publications, 2007, ISBN: 978-975-9123-27-7

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