Obsessed with Seymour Chwast

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Joe Marianek, Pentagram.
Joe Marianek, Pentagram.
Seymour Chwast's obsessions are America's obsessions, idiosyncratically rendered with passion and quantity. Each chapter of his new book, Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast from Chronicle Books, is organized according to obsession: used cars, fashion, war, fauna and flora, body parts, unreliable diagrams & charts, Mexican wrestlers, and fine food, to name a few. As Paula Scher says in her opening essay, "With each subject his work would follow the same pattern. He would identify the object of obsession.... He would play it out as long as possible then suddenly be done with it, as if he were abandoning a boring lover. Then he'd move on to the next obsession."

Paula goes on to say that "...in Seymour's default mode are these specifics: women will look like his mother, telephones will be rotary, electrical appliances will have rounded corners, laughing businessmen will look like Milton Glaser, and younger women sometimes look like me. Somehow everyone, including cats, dogs, and other animals will look... vaguely Jewish and from the '40s."

Some obsessions from the book:

For the un-indoctrinated, the book serves as a tour de force of Seymour's style and wit. It proves the potential of Seymour's illustration to stand alone as art. For the hard-core Seymour and Push Pin fans, this is like a reality show, uncovering his process and breadth of new work. The book opens with essays by Steven Heller and Paula Scher and a brief self-interview by Seymour. Here are Seymour's answers to a few more questions from me.

What might a typical 7am to 6:30 day in the studio consist of—do you fill in the gaps between client work with your non-client work?

S.C.: I have to juggle client work, promotion work and work with non-profits with a cause. Too little client work would make me a non-profit.

How selective are you about the jobs you take on?

S.C.: Visual people, like doctors, should do no harm.

You are a person who designs, illustrates, and paints, and in the book, you refer to yourself an artist. How should someone balancing similar varied activities and interests label their activities?

S.C.: Change what you call yourself depending on the nature of the work of your client.

Is there any advice you could give a young, nervous art director who is looking to hire an illustrator for an assignment?

S.C.: Forget that photograph. Illustration is where it's at.

All said, this review is biased. I am obsessed with Seymour...I don't really know him, but I have always loved his work. I was five years old in 1985 when his first monograph, the The Left Handed Designer was published. My Uncle (also left handed, and a designer), had a brand new copy that I used to rifle through every time we visited his house.

Around this time, I would make my parents get me McDonald's Happy Meals, and the boxes were adorned with Seymour illustrations. In high school I bought his Happy Birthday Bach book at a yard sale, and attempted to emulate his breadth of illustration styles in my own art school application portfolio. Years later, Pushpin was the first place I tried to get an internship, but got a sad rejection call saying that they didn't need any help (my next stop was Milton Glaser Inc, which was an okay consolation prize.) And now, whenever I'm in a book store, I always cruise the shelves for Seymour's illustrated books. Now, we can be glad that there is one more!

If you're in New York on June 16, see Seymour speak c/o AIGA. Tickets are available here.


Joe Marianek is a designer at Pentagram and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
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