NEW YORK — Chances are good that you don’t recognize Paul Rand’s name. Chances are far better that you recognize his handiwork. The IBM logo? The ABC logo? Rand created them, as he did numerous other graphic designs during his long and highly influential career.
Rand created those logos during his heyday, the ’50s and ’60s. Yet he remained a force in design right up to his death, in 1996. Rand’s last logo was for a company called Enron. The logo’s tilting upper-case “E” recalls the angled orientation of another that he did in the ’90s. When the most design-conscious mogul of the computer age was forced out at Apple and founded a new company, it was Rand who he turned to. Steve Jobs paid Rand $100,000 to come up with that distinctive four-color logo for NeXT.
“Everything Is Design: The Work of Paul Rand,” which runs through July 19 at the Museum of the City of New York, surveys a remarkable career — as design teacher and theorist as well as practitioner. The show comprises more than 150 items: photographs, posters, advertisements, books, brochures, stationery, product packaging, annual reports, at least two cigar boxes (El Producto was a Rand client), and a fabric sample.
It wasn’t just that Rand was so versatile (though he was). Or even that he was so talented (ditto). It’s that he grasped, as no one else quite had, the degree to which corporate design was a totality — and how much that totality could attract consumers.
IBM would have been every bit as profitable, and prominent, in the postwar US economy without Rand associating it with a sleek, white-striped blueness. But it would not have loomed as large in the popular imagination as a technological, economic, and even cultural touchstone.
Rand was on intimate terms with transformation. He was born Perutz Rosenbaum, in Brooklyn, in 1914. After studying at the Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, he went to work in advertising. Thinking his Jewish identity would be held against him in what was then a tradition-bound field, he changed his name. The irony was that advertising was about to become highly untraditional, and Rand would have a lot to do with that.
“Everything Is Design” includes a selection of early designs and layouts by him. They look busy and cluttered in a way that one would never expect from Rand. That look would soon change, thanks to the influence of European Modernism. Visual simplicity married to conceptual richness would become Rand’s stock in trade. “Design is so simple,” he liked to say, “that’s why it’s so complicated.”
During his Madison Avenue years, Rand integrated text, image, and layout to an unprecedented degree. That was along with his employing the cleaner, clearer, more functional look of European innovators. Both integration and up-to-the-minute style are evident in the poster Rand did for the 1950 film “No Way Out.” Richard Widmark’s eyes — not his face, just his eyes — divide a pair of black rectangles, and intersect the lower-case, sans-serif title (sliced on the bias, no less), which appears on an abstracted arrow. These elements emerge from a white background. Even as they clash, they harmonize for an overall effect of tension and struggle, mirroring the film with its story of racial strife. If all that weren’t enough, the jagged layering of energetic planes looks back to Cubism — and ahead to Saul Bass, the dominant figure in film titles during the following decade.
One of Rand’s advertising clients was the Pittsburgh department store chain Kaufmann’s. Its owner, Edgar J. Kaufmann, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, Fallingwater. In his very different way, Rand exemplified a similar yoking together of commerce and Modernism. Instead of one patron, though, he had many: UPS, Westinghouse, American Express, The Limited, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf (for whom he designed many dust jackets), and, of course, ABC and IBM.
The curved letters of the ABC logo echo the shape of the circle that contains them. The sans-serif letters are white (and lower case), the circle black. What could be simpler — or harder to forget? As for IBM, its design program was Rand’s magnum opus: from logo to packaging to color palette. He made IBM as much state of mind as corporation. The letters stand for International Business Machines. Rand made them stand for something else too: the future.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.