Ivan Chermayeff - The Picasso of Persuasion
By Nigel Watson
Ivan Chermayeff’s graphic design has been hugely influential over the past 70 years. Nigel Watson explores ‘Cut and Paste’, an exhibition of his work at Peninsula Arts.
Whether you’ve heard of Ivan Chermayeff or not, you’ve probably seen his work. Over the course of sixty years, his graphic designs have made an outstanding impact on the world’s visual landscape. His ground-breaking graphic design legacy has influenced magazines, newspapers, book covers, posters, logos and product branding.
In a world where our senses are overloaded by messages and information, Chermayeff has made an art of keeping his work simple and direct using nothing more than the clever use of lettering and utilising simple materials. Chermayeff has produced the likes of the multi-coloured peacock logo for NBC television, the distinctive red lettered ‘O’ in the Mobil logo for their petrol stations and the blue globe design for Pan Am airline.
In the case of Mobil, he produced the over-sized O so that drivers on busy freeways could easily recognise it from far away – they knew there was a petrol station ahead long before they could read the rest of the sign. This economy of design served him well for illustrating magazine or newspaper articles. For a report on the collapse of the World Trade Centre, he simply used the letters U.S. with a chunk ripped off the letter U, which was a visual nod to the twin towers as well as having the deeper meaning of the U.S. itself being torn apart.
Chermayeff’s Mobil ‘O’
His simple, yet direct, designs are produced in a very concise manner. At an early age he was dissatisfied with his drawing and painting skills – fortunately he found he could use scissors in much the way other artists use a brush. He merrily cuts up slices of paper or card using a collection of scissors to produce different sizes and types of cut. Working with the cut-outs he moves them around and experiments with them until he gets the right balance of shapes and colours. This method is particularly striking in his poster for the Big Apple Circus, where he uses cut-out shapes to show an elephant on a ball, juggling with red scissor-hewn letters. For Mobil events he produced numerous posters, including one for New York Nights that uses white lettering on a black background with splurges of white and coloured squares to depict an illuminated city.
The key aspect of Chermayeff’s is in his ability to produce connections on a visual and subconscious level – he knowingly plays with the fact that our brains seek out shapes, and attribute meanings to them. As a child he discovered that by making collages with bits of litter he could place two or three completely different elements together to create what look like landscapes or faces, or to produce a visual pun or meaning.
In his ‘Cut and Paste’ exhibition at Peninsula Arts, we can see that his wit and bold use of images are just as suited to books and illustrations aimed at children as they are to the needs of multinational corporations – yet there are always deeper meanings to his work that play on influences from high art. As Chermayeff himself states, artists such as Pablo Picasso (who investigated shapes and colours and who sometimes used collages in this process) underlined to him the importance of how we perceive and interpret the world.
Chermayeff’s Mobil ‘O’
Chermayeff’s work shows the world in a fresh manner, and easily serves the needs of the commercial world of advertising and publishing just as well as his more personal desire to communicate through art.