Will Burtin: Forgotten Master of Design

Will Burtin (portrait above by Arnold Newman. Photo ©Arnold Newman, GettyImages) created intricate scientific models that stunned audiences in the 1950s. As the subject of a new book, his work still manages to amaze, writes Rick Poynor
There can be few harder books to sell to a publisher than historical monographs about graphic designers, especially books about designers who died years ago and are no longer well known today, no matter how renowned they were in their lifetimes. It’s a catch 22 because one reason they are not well known is that there isn’t a book. A case in point is Will Burtin…

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Will Burtin (portrait above by Arnold Newman. Photo ©Arnold Newman, GettyImages) created intricate scientific models that stunned audiences in the 1950s. As the subject of a new book, his work still manages to amaze, writes Rick Poynor in an article in the current issue of Creative Review, reproduced here

There can be few harder books to sell to a publisher than historical monographs about graphic designers, especially books about designers who died years ago and are no longer well known today, no matter how renowned they were in their lifetimes. It’s a catch 22 because one reason they are not well known is that there isn’t a book.

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A case in point is Will Burtin. In the early 1990s, when I first saw Burtin’s 14-page “The American Bazaar” feature (above), created for Fortune magazine in 1947, it struck me as a masterpiece, possibly one of the greatest sequences of its kind ever committed to paper, something so accomplished, extraordinary for its time and memorable that any designer could enjoy it and learn from it. Everything I heard about Burtin convinced me that he was a figure as significant in the history of 20th century graphic design as the handful of heroes we tend to obsess over – Paul Rand, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Wim Crouwel (still alive, of course) – and in some respects even more interesting.

Burtin died in 1972 and it has taken 35 years for the monograph he deserves to appear. Its authors are Roger Remington, professor of graphic design at Rochester Institute of Technology in the US, where Burtin’s archive is held, and Robert Fripp, a writer and producer who worked for Burtin and married his daughter, Carol. Remington has previously written about Burtin in Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design (1989), an essential source book for anyone interested in mid-century American design.

Divided into 13 brief chapters, the book is a meticulously researched and engagingly readable account of Burtin’s life. He was born in Cologne in 1908 and the design studio he ran there in the 1930s was so successful that Josef Goebbels asked him to become design director at the Propaganda Ministry. In 1938, when Hitler repeated the invitation, Burtin made his excuses and left for the US with his wife. He refused ever to speak German again. Within months of arriving in New York, he was landing big commissions with the Federal Works Agency and the Upjohn pharmaceutical company. Drafted into the US Army in 1943, he designed training manuals for aerial gunners. Here was a case where graphic design really was potentially a matter of life and death and Burtin’s pictorial designs, which could be understood by airmen who couldn’t read, show an analytical clarity and consequently a beauty of form that still takes the breath away. Convinced that Burtin was the only man who could be Fortune’s art editor, the magazine prevailed on the army to release him “in the national interest”.

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In 1948, writer Lawrence Lessing, author of the text for Burtin’s gunnery manuals, teamed with him again to describe their project for Graphis. For this, Burtin added lines showing paths taken by trainees’ eyes, on a first pass and on subsequent passes.

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Burtin commissioned Lester Beall to create the Modernist April 1947 “British Railways” cover for Fortune magazine. Beall’s cover remains a leading example of the graphic “layering” technique which would become increasingly common in the post-Modern years. FORTUNE is a trademark of FORTUNE magazine, a division of Time, Inc. All rights reserved

What emerges at every turn in Burtin’s story is his huge dedication to design. He was an obsessive perfectionist with an eye so exacting that his colleagues at Fortune coined a new unit of measurement even smaller than a point: a “Burtin”. He would put in whatever effort it took to achieve what he believed to be possible with a project and he expected others to do the same. He had little business sense and never made much money. When the architect Philip Johnson – loathed by Burtin as a Nazi sympathiser – insisted on even illumination in a building that housed a Burtin exhibition project that depended on subtle lighting, Burtin had an assistant to shoot out the bulbs with a pellet gun. A man of considerable intellectual powers, Burtin was fascinated by new developments in science and always took an experimental view of materials. As the authors note, his “Integration, the New Discipline in Design” exhibition in 1948, built from plastic components permeable by light, had a sci-fi look ahead of its time.

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From Integration, the New Discipline in Design. The Art Directors’ Club of Chicago sponsored the showing of Integration. The catalog included reviews of Burtin and his work. Architect Serge Chermayeff linked Burtin with the “new art of visualization, of giving visual form in two and three dimensions to a message, which may be apprehended simultaneously through the senses and the intellect and is the product of a new kind of artist functionary evolved by our complex society. Among the small band of pioneers who have developed this new language by bringing patient research and brilliant inventiveness is Will Burtin.” Painter and art director Charles Coiner wrote: “… It is refreshing to find an artist aware of stimulus from the world outside, who thrills to the job of making it comprehensible to more people.”

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In 1957, after conducting some careful preliminary research, Burtin proposed to Upjohn that he build them a gigantic model of a human cell (above), then the focus of great scientific and public interest. Upjohn took a gamble and accepted his plan, and it was here, observe Remington and Fripp, “that the modern concept of scientific visualization was born”. Burtin toured American and European universities, gathering the latest research and discussing the best ways to represent a cell’s functions. His walk-through model, one million times larger than life, was built out of plastic – nothing this complex had ever been made in the material – with one mile of electric wiring, and pulsing lights that made it look like the cell was alive. More than 10 million people visited the exhibit in New York, Chicago and San Francisco and in 1959 it was shown on the BBC. The publicity benefit to Upjohn was incalculable.

Burtin went on to devise similarly complex and spectacular models of the brain, the metabolism and blood vessels for Upjohn and an atomic energy model for Union Carbide – electrically powered sculptures of remarkable sophistication. As a design leader, he wrote articles, addressed audiences and organized the seminal Vision 65 and 67 conferences, where luminaries such as Marshall McLuhan, Umberto Eco and Buckminster Fuller spoke alongside some of design’s most distinguished figures.

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The Upjohn Brain, a working schematic in three dimensions. Where the Cell modeled a physical object, the Brain introduced the concept of time—the time messages take to thread neural pathways. Red lights represent visual stimuli; green, auditory; white, muscle function. Photo by Ezra Stoller © Esto. Used by permission of Pfizer Inc.

No designer reading this book could doubt that Burtin was an innovator in the field of information design who can rightly be described as visionary. He remains, though, a slightly distant figure, his voice heard mainly in quotes from formal publications. At times this study is a little too respectful, reflecting the authors’ closeness to their subject. Quoting from an online interview with Ezra Stoller, a good friend of Burtin who worked with him at Fortune and photographed the scientific models, they omit Stoller’s conclusion that Burtin “never got along with the writers. He was strictly a visual man.” This certainly merits discussion: it doesn’t seem to square with their picture of Burtin as an almost academic thinker. It suggests an element of awkwardness, even with his collaborators, that might give us a more nuanced portrait.

It’s a shame the book has space for only 109 pictures. The scale of Burtin’s achievement with Fortune and Upjohn’s Scope, magazines of great beauty, doesn’t come across from the few images shown – perhaps there were copyright problems. I hesitate to complain, though. This is an important study and, given the caution publishers usually show towards lost and forgotten designers, we are lucky to have it.

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From first issue to last, Scope magazine may provide the best case study of how a designer’s skill can translate complex data into easily grasped, symbolic visuals. This cover flags the story, “Telling lines—some notes on graphs” (Spring 1953). Used by permission of Pfizer Inc

Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin by R Roger Remington and Robert SP Fripp is published by Lund Humphries, £35. See here for more details

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