Design Company of The Year: Pentagram

By Tk Published on .

In the design world, and frequently well beyond the design world, Pentagram, needless to say, is a known quantity. It launched in London way back in 1972 and opened in New York in 1978-eons ago in design time. But that doesn't make the company any less remarkable today. Owned by its 19 designing partners, Pentagram has no account execs, no private offices and plenty of work to show across virtually the entire design spectrum, including graphics, exhibition design, interiors, product design, multimedia and architecture. "Pentagram's unique structure generates an amazingly varied output over the course of 12 months," notes New York partner Michael Bierut, and he's not exaggerating. With five offices operating these days (San Francisco opened in 1986, Austin in '94 and Berlin just two years ago), the 2004 project lineup runs the gamut, including: the rollout of United Airlines' low-cost carrier Ted; a new identity for Madrid's Prado Museum; the design of Jon Stewart's hit America: (The Book}; the lettering on the cornerstone of Freedom Tower at Ground Zero; a new image for British retailer John Lewis; the redesign of catalogs for Restoration Hardware; a website for Mohawk Paper; and watches for Nike. On the boards right now, according to Bierut, are projects like a museum for Harley-Davidson, an identity and signage for the National Cryptologic Museum and a new fountain pen design for Acme. Some of the year's highlights are presented here, with notes by Pentagram; see www.pentagram.com for more.

For The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Warner Books, New York partner/designer Paula Scher collaborated with the writers on the presentation of the material in America: (The Book), which is designed to resemble a civics textbook, packed with charts, graphs and wryly informative sidebars. The title is a bestseller, likely making it Scher's most widely seen pop cultural graphic phenomenon since she created the Boston album cover in 1976.

Pentagram's design of the identity and environmental graphics for Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home in the Time Warner Center on New York's Columbus Circle has been getting raves all around town. The installation comprises three performance spaces, and "is an odd fit within the mixed-use development of the Time Warner Center," according to Pentagram. But "project architect Rafael Vi -- oly successfully carved out a separate experience for jazz that feels nothing like the corporate and retail spaces surrounding it." At the same time, Paula Scher, who designed hundreds of jazz album covers at CBS Records and Blue Note in the '70s and '80s, created an identity that manages to say "jazz" and "major cultural institution" at the same time. According to Pentagram, "The logo itself is a riff on the square peg in a round hole; the disc-like 'a' in 'jazz' has a square at its center. Designing the exterior marquee, Scher programmed the colors of the logo to go through a cycle of 'imperceptible' change that is almost musical in its shifts of color. Interior murals are bright and colorful and use the graphic forms of the printing process to connect the form to its popular roots."

The Noguchi Museum, dedicated to the life and work of the Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, reopened in June following a three-year renovation of its space in Long Island City, Queens. New York partner Abbott Miller designed a new identity whose simple elegance echoes the work of the artist. The use of "distinctive typography in stark black and white" complements Noguchi's sculpture, which is known for its "formal tension, the push-pull contrast of rough materials like wood, stone or metal that have been cast or carved in simple, sensuous forms."

The new identity for the Prado in Madrid, designed by London partner Fernando Gutierrez, was launched in advance of a museum expansion, completed last month, which doubled the size of the Prado, "moving it into the top ranks of the world's cultural institutions. With this in mind, it was especially important for the identity to promote the Prado as a museum for the 21st century." Hence, Gotham was used for the logotype, "as it embodies a sense of both tradition and progress." The design program included promotional campaigns and graphics for various exhibitions, which feature banners strategically positioned around Madrid, incorporating a selection of the more immediately striking images from the shows they promote. The most recent campaign, seen here, is for "El Retrato Espa -- ol: Del Greco a Picasso" ("The Spanish Portrait: From El Greco to Picasso").

New York's Michael Bierut and London partner Daniel Weil developed the name and brand identity of Ted, United's new low-fare service, launched in February with round-trip flights from Denver to Fort Lauderdale. "The brand is designed to be laid-back and fun in comparison to the main United brand. In developing the brand identity for Ted, the idea of using a proper name, even a nickname, was intriguing when placed in the context of traditional airline names. By allowing Ted to speak as if it were a person or a friend, a certain personality emerged that proved casual, engaging, and comfortable-all hallmarks of the Ted service. Since Ted's defining factors were low fares and leisure-market service, it made sense to loosen the identity's collar a bit and relax. Ted's visual language is driven in large part by simple phrases and headlines to suggest a 'conversation' between friends. A point-and-shoot style of photography is utilized, some of which is actually shot by customers, representing the type of photography that might be shot on a journey with Ted. The brand colors are bright blue and orange. Onboard entertainment includes Tedevision and Tedtunes."

Berlin partner Justus Oehler created the new identity for Tiscali, the leading independent ISP in Europe. Tiscali was founded in 1998 in Cagliari, Italy, following the deregulation of the Italian telecommunications market. Initially established as a regional telephone operator and ISP, the company has rapidly expanded its operations throughout Italy and Europe. As Tiscali has grown, its original logo-with typography and imagery inspired by the heritage of its home region-seemed less appropriate to the pan-European market. The new identity employs a modern visual language that reflects the innovative, technology-driven ethos of the brand."

New York partner Michael Gericke, working with the architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, designed the cornerstone for the new Freedom Tower at the former site of the World Trade Center. The block is a 20-ton slab of black granite from the Adirondacks, inscribed with the text: "To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom. July Fourth 2004." Gotham, designed by Hoefler & Frere-Jones, was the font chosen for this inscription, "for the way it evoked the city and the classic streetscape graphics of the postwar years. (The typeface was originally inspired by the signage at the Port Authority Bus Terminal.) The letterforms are covered in silver-leaf, which stands out from the darkness of the stone. Formally, the stone has been designed as a symbol of strength, a visual anchor for the massive rebuilding project to come."

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