Rip it up and start again

A new exhibition of the work of US graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff reveals how his experiments in collage influenced his more commercial projects, says Sarah Snaith

Ivan Chermayeff’s collages are “fresh and free” with the “knots, warts and idiosyncrasies” he values in the qualities of handwriting. “I can cut and slice, tear and manipulate the pieces … after assembling comes the search for new connections. The power that the elements have on each other changes meanings or builds them,” he writes.

These passages come from his book Suspects, Smokers, Soldiers and Salesladies: Collages (Lars Müller, 2001) and tally with the current exhibition Ivan Chermayeff: Cut and Paste at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea. Many of the charming collage portraits originally constructed from disparate scraps of paper and found materials like Doorman at the Lindenhof (1998), Femail from Toshima (1994) and Geisha in Amsterdam (1991) are within both. But from the exhibition emerges the relationship between Chermayeff’s playful practice and his highly regarded design – from fresh and free collage techniques, he shows that design is also about making connections and building meaning. Chermayeff’s work is not the product of his Harvard or Yale education, which he says he “spent the next seven years recovering from”, but is instead a response to “not being able to draw”. His output since that time is a lesson in observation and response, freshness and collaboration.

This is the first exhibition of his work in the UK, aptly shown in a building co-designed by his father Serge Chermayeff and architect Erich Mendelsohn. Ivan was born in London, but has made his career as a graphic designer in New York, as part of brand design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, founded in 1958 – they branded Mobil, Chase Bank and National Geographic to name a few. Since 2003, the practice has included partner Sagi Haviv. (Chermayeff and Tom Geismar are this year’s Cooper-Hewitt 2014 National Design Award winners for Lifetime Achievement.) The exhibition is also designed by 2 3 architecture practice June14, which consists of Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Ivan Chermayeff’s son Sam, and in including drawings from her childhood, Ivan’s daughter Catherine is also featured in the space as part of two collages, Catherine’s America and Young Girl in Costume, both from 2001.

The exhibition design mirrors Chermayeff’s practice by physically dividing ‘work’ from ‘play’ and ‘design’ from ‘art’. His vibrant collages are positioned nearest to the sunshine streaming through the large glass windows of the 1935 Modernist pavilion. The design work is set back against the walls and is laid out on the long table at the gallery’s entrance. Peering in, however, the exhibition demonstrates that Chermayeff’s most playful practice of manipulating materials to form quirky and quick-witted portraits, collages and colourful illustrations informed some of his iconic designs for Mobil, The Atlantic, the Shoshin Society and the School of Visual Arts. After the Mobil logo (1964) come several posters for Mobil’s Masterpiece Theatre that utilise a hand-rendered aesthetic with features that resemble torn paper, scribbled lines and the confetti-like chads from a hole-punch. His hard-hitting covers for The Atlantic broach the subjects of Aids, immigration and race, again with scribbled lines and assemblage techniques. And like many pieces in the exhibition, the Shoshin Society peace poster uses short measures of tape to express fragility and to make visible the methods of construction.

Chermayeff is a master at simplifying a message down to its fundamental features – see, for example, his 2001 ‘US’ illustration for the New York Times op-ed column that used the torn uprights of the uppercase U to signify the fallen twin towers, or another of his purely typographic illustrations showing the border conflict between Israel and Palestine (also for the New York Times). His work achieves this by establishing contrasts, sharp cut edges with torn ones and hand-drawn with digitally rendered. He mixes different shades of the same colour to expose their similarities and differences, juxtaposes the playful with the serious and the valuable with the discarded without muddying the image with unnecessary elements. He asks the viewer to look beyond what appear to be simple, light-hearted constructs.

Portraits like Femail from Toshima (1994), Butterfly Mouth (2002) and Celery Nose (2004) show that “if a collage presents two eyes, then the nose and the mouth in the right place complete the face. Under these circumstances tremendous liberties can be taken,” he writes. “How and in what position these disparate elements are placed makes them come together as a face, friendly or dangerous, male or female, funny or peculiar, old or young.” Chermayeff makes smart and unexpected connections with found materials. A pellet gun target, with a cropped portrait of a young African girl with a flattened, rusty can becomes the collage African Girl (with squashed can, 2001) which comments on larger global issues – child labour, poverty, war. There are also several references to the Disney corporation that go unexplained but catch attention.

Above all, Cut and Paste shows how Chermayeff uses collage as a form of documentation, an observation of people, places and situations – they are a “marriage” of unrelated objects, where the “joints disappear”. In the spirit of bringing together multiple generations of the Chermayeff family in one space, the De La Warr exhibition aims to not only engage but to inspire visitors to ‘cut and paste’. On the far side of the gallery a video of Chermayeff speaking about his work plays out over a huge table covered in tiny scraps of paper. Children and adults can create their own collages with newspapers, construction paper, card and other bits and pieces. The designer’s voice chimes over the table with yet another reminder to pursue a career you would never want to part with: “I prefer scissors to brushes,” he says, “and I never intend on retiring … ever.” 1

Sarah Snaith is a design writer and editor based in London. Ivan Chermayeff: Cut and Paste is at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea until September 14. See for more details. Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv’s site is

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