Ivan the Great

There is a portrait I love of Chermayeff and Geismar. It must have been taken in the early sixties, shortly after the two Yale classmates set out to take the New York design world by storm. They are original Mad Men. Tom is in back, looking all-the-world like a young Barry Goldwater: chunky glasses, fist to the chin, conservative black suit. He is the cornerstone. Ivan lounges in front, the jacket of his continental chalk-stripe suit thrown rakishly open, a fat Rep tie in a double Windsor, his hair combed back and curling over the ear in a style at once that of a Victorian poet and presaging the gathering revolution. His briefcase is at the ready, stuffed presumably with some remarkable new concept and he is flanked by the de rigueur African sculpture, emblem of any died-in-the-wool modernist. But it is his expression that captures me: it’s a combination of Ivy hauteur and Russian intensity. He’s a part émigré, part Andover man. He defies the camera.

Some forty or fifty years later he is still debonair – something of Nabokov in his Montreux years — and wears a slightly bemused expression as if he finds my interest in him charming, if a bit naïve. We’re in his studio, surrounded by Saul Steinberg drawings, talking about his father, the infamous architect and teacher Serge Chermayeff. “He was probably a little too difficult to be an architect,” he recalls with a laugh, “or at least one that has to be nice to clients. He was very outspoken and he scared the daylights out of people. He demanded rigorous thinking. He was always telling his students that they should forget architecture and think about driving a taxi or something…”

And as a father? “As a father he had a very different perspective. He thought anything that my brother or I did was great, whether it was good or not. He was totally supportive of us.”

When you describe his rigor, the way he got his students to push beyond received ideas and get to something new, something essential, I see a parallel in your work. It is all about honing down an idea to an essence. “Well, I do believe in boiling things down to make an idea as simple, direct and unencumbered as possible.” A search for purity? “Purity is not so easy to achieve. It takes a lot of work to get rid of the stuff that creeps up around you. People will tell you that something is great and you believe them because you want to, not because it actually is. You have to stay rational and keep pushing.” You have to have discipline? “It’s not so much a matter of discipline as it is of attitude. Just because you put in 10 hours doesn’t mean it’s worth anything. You have to stop talking yourself into solutions that don’t work… it’s an endless task.”

So how do you get there? “I think a good place to design is in the cab returning from a meeting. You’re infused with the problem and there’s no interference or telephones ringing, and you don’t have to talk to the driver. You can just think. It’s a very intense 15 or 20 minutes. Of course technically things have changed radically. Just think about having to paste things together! But fundamentally the process is the same: it is always a matter of achieving simplicity. That’s why I still prefer pencils and pens to anything that has buttons.

You suggested Serge was abrasive, but you’re fabled as a brilliant presenter and advocate for your ideas. Are you smoother than he was? “Yes, I think so. I’ve always been fairly good at it. But you know, being a graphic designer you’re solving other people’s problems. It’s a very collaborative act but in order to do it well you’ve got to be tough too. You cannot allow people to destroy themselves, which they have a tendency to do.” Destroy themselves? “Yes! Very often clients are extremely smart people who don’t know that they’re their own worst enemies. It takes a special client to realize that their consultants are actually better at something than they are.”

And it takes balls to walk into a room of clients and after months of working and thousands of dollars show them something very simple, and they’re like… that’s it? “Yes it does and it takes good clients too, clients who respect the process. Having been working now for over 50 years, I can count the good clients on 2 or 3 hands. Why they’re good is a magical thing: It has to do with wanting to participate in something they don’t really understand. Most people are blind. And to be simultaneously very smart and blind — and to recognize it — takes a rare person.”

And you were leading them into new visual territory. Do you think your move toward abstraction in the early sixties paralleled the emergence of multinationals conglomerates that were no longer identified with any particular product? “You mean that something abstract that can take on almost any meaning and still function because it has enough intricacy — not necessarily visual but intellectual intricacy — to enable anyone to bring to it what they want and still have it fit? Well maybe it’s like a really good piece of pottery, a really good bowl — which by the way, is not that common either. You still have to make a very good bowl.”

And you made some of the best. Did you have a sense in 1960 that you were trying to create a new visual language? “No, I don’t think so. You always are trying but you cannot create new languages by decree, they come from a reasonable, open attitude towards the work itself. You do what you can do and it becomes new if you keep chopping off the excess baggage that you’re carrying around.” And can you recognize when you’re done with all that chopping? “There is a moment and it usually has nothing to do with the deadline. Sometimes you have the answer immediately and the best thing you can possibly do is to forget it for 2 weeks. Then you pick it back up and it changes anyway.” Because? “Because reality sets in. Then you have to be careful not to destroy it with too much reality.” I think that’s a great thought to finish on.

© Michael Rock