Creative Hall of Fame

Paul Rand

(1914-1996)
Inducted: 2007

"A salesman from a graphic arts house was in the other day with nothing apparently on his mind. Queried, he said, 'My boss says the great Paul Rand works here, and I thought I might get a look at him.' Just then Rand swept through the room. Asked if he was impressed, the salesman said, ‘But he's so young.' " – The Insider, September 1939.

When in 1941 William Weintraub left the Esquire-Coronet magazine company to start an advertising agency at Rockefeller Center, Paul Rand left with him. As art director of the Wm. H. Weintraub Agency he was given license and power, and within a short period Rand was working on campaigns for Dubonet, Shenley liquors, Lee Hats, Disney Hats, Revlon, Hilbros Watches, El Producto Cigars, Stafford Fabrics, Kaiser Corporation and Auto Car. He hired a relatively large staff, but by his own admission, he never acted like a traditional art director; he would rarely delegate, but instead he'd design everything himself, except for certain illustrations by the likes of Ludwig Bemelmans, William Steig or Richard Lindner. Most of the time he would only come into the office for half of the week, sometimes only for half a day. The other time he attended to freelance projects for such companies as Smith Klein and French and Orbachs (where he worked with Bill Bernbach as copywriter). His keen ability to use design to sell quotidian products was earning him a considerable reputation.

Rand's importance at this period was the modernization of advertising design. Before he came to Mad Ave in the '40s, very little American advertising was really designed, but rather simply laid out by board men. Conversely, Rand was intimately involved in the entire design and typographic process. He brought to advertisements his unique appreciation of Modernist collage, which underscored his playful use of type and image. Rand was also influenced by Jan Tschichold's New Typography, the Modern typographic bible, and accepted the dogma—"I took it literally," he once said. "You don't do illustration, you use photography; you don't do handmade things, you do it by machine. I did it that way because that's how one learns. Even if you disagree you do it that way and then later throw it away." But Rand being Rand inevitably took liberties. Although he never studied calligraphy—because it was unnatural and stuck in time—he used his own informal handwriting whenever he could. Handwriting, he said, "is the most natural form of communicating." His advertising was also a blend of modernist economy and American wit. Of his work at the time he says: "You don't imitate anything. Collages are important, because they are not imitations of reality, but rather juxtaposed pieces of different realities."

What made Rand's work so extraordinary was the fact that they were ads for common products, produced in uncharacteristically witty, imaginative and memorable ways. Of this shirt-sleeve style he said, "I knew that not too many other guys were doing this in the US, but I never claimed that this was original stuff, because other guys were doing it in Europe."

His campaigns were never cookie cutter; they showed range and versatility. Moreover, they proved how Rand's intelligent application of abstract form was highly successful in a competitive market. About this he wrote: "For an advertisement to hold its own in a competitive race, it must be led off the beaten path by some more interesting device: the abstract symbol. If this symbol is too obscure in itself, it should be balanced with universally recognized forms."

While his newspaper ads for Orbachs and El Producto were unique in their day, the promotional brochure for Auto Car Corporation was a masterpiece of design erudition. Auto Car wanted a promotion that would show the public how they supported the war effort through the efficient manufacture of armored trucks and personnel carriers. For this they wanted to show off their plant in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. Rand hired photographer Andreas Feininger to shoot the plant in action—the assembly line, the welders, etc. When developed, however, the images were lackluster. The deadline was tight, so relying on his sharp wits and scissor he proceeded to collage the essential images, placing them with studied serendipity on the top of the page. On the bottom half of each page, he left space for text and then handed the layouts to Bill Bernbach who wrote the copy. By the way, contrary to myth, Bernbach did not teach Rand everything he ever knew about advertising; rather it is safe to say that Rand taught the golden boy a few lessons.

While making silk purses from found materials was not new to Rand (and was certainly in keeping with modernist tradition), it was unusual in the agency environment, where copywriters reigned supreme and usually give layouts to art directors who would make them pretty. To the consternation of many a copywriter, Rand took great pleasure in tearing up their layouts, particularly those that he thought were "lousy," and would often rewrite the headline. Rand was not known for his patience in such matters. "I was not going to let myself be treated like a job printer on Pitkin Avenue," he recalled.

Incidentally, Rand was the first to sign his work, which at the time (and even today) was no mean feat. When one day Weintraub called him into his office and demanded that he take his name off an ad, Rand said "this is your agency and I'll take it off, but then take my name off your door, because I'm leaving." The signature stayed on almost all his ads. But he admits that if a client had asked, he would have acquiesced. No client ever made such a request.

Rand didn't sign his ads because he believed they were art, but rather for self-promotion. Since he never took out ads in the Art Director's annuals, nor sent around flyers soliciting work, the signature was all the personal advertising he needed. For a similar reason, yet with a decidedly different result, he agreed in 1946 at the age of 32 to write a book about his work, entitled Thoughts on Design, published by Wittenborn the following year. Sharing his knowledge and insight with students and professionals was not the primary reason: He logically thought, "If ever there were a fire, at least I'd have all my samples in one place." But as the book took shape a more significant purpose became evident. In the preface he wrote: "This book attempts to arrange in some logical order certain principles governing advertising design. The pictorial examples used to illustrate these principles are taken from work in which I was directly engaged. This choice was made deliberately, and with no intention to imply that it represents the best translation of those principles into visual terms. There are artists and designers of great talent whose work would be perhaps more suitable. But I do not feel justified in speaking for them, nor secure in attempting to explain their work without any possibility of misrepresentation. This is not to say that this book is purely the result of my efforts alone. I am indebted to many people—painters, architects, designers of the past and present—for many theories and concepts."

Thoughts on Design was evidence that Rand, the street-smart kid from Brooklyn, who altered the way advertising was created, was also a vigorous design thinker with lots to say.

– Steven Heller

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