It’s hard to miss Chermayeff’s genius today. For six decades, Chermayeff and his partners Tom Geismar, Sagi Haviv (and former associate Steff Geissbuhler) created hundreds of logos for top corporations and institutions. They designed the branding for the Smithsonian Institution, the Pan Am airlines logo, the pre-Comcast, 1986 version of the NBC peacock, the Chase Bank octagonal logo, and the Museum of Modern Art’s blocky wordmark, to name a few. The branding manual for the US Environmental Protection Agency the firm developed in 1977 was recently re-issued as a coffee-table book.

Spread from “‘Identity: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv”
Spread from “‘Identity: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv”
Image: Standards Manual

Chermayeff was the master of free association. He was known to come up with a graphic solution almost immediately after a client briefing. “I think a good place to design is in the cab returning from a meeting,” he said in a 2011 interview in 032c magazine. “You’re infused with the problem and there’s no interference or telephones ringing, and you don’t have to talk to the driver. You can just think. It’s a very intense 15 or 20 minutes.”

His ability to come up with spot-on graphic solutions instantly drew upon an innate attentiveness to the relationship of things. As a student at Harvard, he eschewed the standard curriculum, and cobbled together a “crazy-quilt of courses, semantics and anthropology and history,” as the Art Director’s Club said in a tribute during his induction to its hall of fame in 1981.

Chermayeff embraced a “pack rat” approach to life—collecting and stashing ideas, images and sound bites for later use—seeing possibilities in the banal. He once collected abandoned gloves picked up on the street and in taxi cabs. “They’re interesting because they’re never the same. They become hair or noses or hand,” he said to introduce a series of collages.

His study of visual connections and graphic chance encounters eventually surfaced in wonderful paper collages and inevitably in the posters, books, sculpture, and enduring corporate trademarks he designed. “Design,” as Chermayeff said—and his life’s work proved—”is a long series of connections.” (The  New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) is planning a celebration of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv’s 60th anniversary on Dec. 12 and a new book about the firm’s identity work is to be published in March.)

The 85-year-old Chermayeff appeared very frail at the AIGA Design conference in Minneapolis last month. It would turn out to be his last public appearance.

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