Seymour Chwast Profile
posted: February 13, 2008
When he talks, Seymour Chwast, age 75, doesn't sound like a revolutionary. But his quiet, understated introspection belies the impact that he and two classmates from Cooper Union had on the world of illustration after they founded Push Pin Studios.
"The first drawing I remember doing was a profile of a woman’s head that I did with an eyebrow pencil in a beauty parlor where my mother was getting her hair done. It was on a piece of cardboard, and I think I must have been about six.
"After that, it was Walt Disney, Snow White, Pinocchio and comics, as well. I remember doing a drawing of Pinocchio after seeing it in the movies, and I did a series of adventure comics that featured my own characters: Jim Lightnin' and Lucky Day.
"When I went to Abraham Lincoln High School in Brighton Beach, I was in a graphic design class with a terrific teacher, Leon Friend. He was very important to me and to a lot of other people; Richard Wild from SVA and Alex Steinweiss , who invented the concept of album cover art at Columbia records and Gene Federico, who did terrific advertising design. Leon Friend was a little guy, but he was very charismatic. He'd come from Germany, probably early, in the 1930s, and he gave us the incentive to work hard by entering us in every poster competition. There were a lot of competitions then, and there probably still are, and I entered them all. My first published illustration was in Seventeen magazine, for an 'It's All Yours' issue. That means the readership submitted their own work. I did a drawing of sort of a party of young people playing records and dancing. Though for me that was a fantasy: we didn't have a lot of parties and we didn't own a phonograph. We were too poor.
"After high school I went to Cooper Union. I thought I was going to be a cartoonist, but I also learned about Cassandre and all the great poster artists, and developed an interest in classic poster design. So that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to design and draw.
"I was also influenced by some painters, like Ben Shahn, Georges Rouault, George Grosz, people like that. There has always been some sort of political component to their work that I liked, because most of the other kids in Brighton Beach where I lived were sort of left wing. But then I also gained an interest in typography, especially in old stuff that hadn’t been mined at the time, like Victorian wood type.
"After college, I got together with some of my classmates from Cooper, Milton Glaser and Ed Sorel and a few others, and we all hung out in a loft in the East Village. At first we had day jobs and were freelancing on the side. My first job was working in the promotion department of The New York Times, under the art director George Krikorian. It was a very good first job because I was able to do both drawings and layouts for them.
"After that, I was working at a day job at House and Garden magazine and Milton and Ed and I would put out a little promotion piece every month or two which we called the Push Pin Almanack, aimed at getting freelance work for us. And it was successful; we started getting freelance work. The phone number that I gave on the Push Pin Almanack was my job phone number; I remember doing business while on the job at House and Garden.
"I was getting fired a lot from my day jobs and so was Ed. Milton was sort of working freelance for a packaging company in a small studio. In 1954, we decided at that point that we would be a studio, which we called Push Pin. It was tough in the beginning getting work. The biggest things that we were doing were slide shows, educational film strips for schools which paid $15 a drawing.
"I couldn’t have started a studio or even been a freelancer, if not for the support of my classmates. It's part of my nature to worry, and I couldn't have done it alone. Ed Sorel left the studio after about a year and a half, and we eventually got an agent to get us work. It became easy. By the end of the 50's we started hiring people, like Paul Davis and Jim McMullan, and that enhanced our reputation, and we were coming along nicely.
"When I look back ... one thing's never changed. When something goes out, I'm not sure whether it's good enough or not. But I think I've gotten lazier, so I'm more satisfied with work now that might be totally mediocre. The problem is, it’s gotten hard to get ideas. And now there's this generational difference, and trying to figure out what people will respond to. I don’t like the idea of trends and I don’t want to have to just follow what people are doing. On the other hand, if people don’t relate to it, it means that I’m not going to get work and then what am I going to do with myself? I'm always worried when I hand something in.
"While I'm doing something, I never know if it's really good. When I first get an idea, I'm sort of suspicious of it, and it takes a while for me to realize it's a terrific idea. At first I'll just think, 'Let's see if this works.' And hopefully the rendering justifies the idea. After working on a drawing for five minutes, I always think that I can't draw and I'll never draw again. But then I work into it and it works out okay. But there's a struggle in the very beginning, when nothing's happening and then either you go away from it for a while and then go back to it or you just keep working on it and it works itself out.
"I love working, and I like to draw. But what I like best is to see the work in print. Don't you?
"Even my mother, who is 97, worries if she doesn’t see anything of mine in The New York Times. She’s worried that I’m running out of business."