Memorable, Clear and Direct—Remembering Ivan Chermayeff, FSEGD

Ivan Chermayeff

"The goal is always to make something simple and memorable," Ivan Chermayeff told The Guardian in 2014. "You must be as clear and direct as possible."

Ivan Chermayeff, legendary graphic designer, artist, illustrator and mentor to generations of designers, died over the weekend at age 85. His career was prolific and wide-ranging, but he is best-known for his corporate identity and branding work for high profile clients such as National Geographic, the Museum of Modern Art, PBS, Chase Bank, Xerox, Pan Am and the Smithsonian Institution. Four children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild survive Chermayeff.

Chermayeff was born in London and immigrated with his family to the United States at age eight. His father Serge and brother Peter were renowned designers as well. He studied at Harvard and the Institute of Design in Chicago before graduating from Yale University School of Art and Architecture. In 1957, he founded design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv (New York), with longtime collaborator and Yale classmate, Tom Geismar, FSEGD. In 1962, alongside Geismar and his brother Peter, Chermayeff was one of the seven founders of Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc., another highly successful design practice.

Over a career spanning six decades and from logos and book covers to collages and sculptural art installations, Chermayeff’s work has been widely appreciated and awarded. Chermayeff has received medals from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Society of Illustrators, Yale University and the Industrial Art Medal from the American Institute of Architects in addition to the President’s Fellow Award from the Rhode Island School of Design and admission into the Art Director’s Hall of Fame. Chermayeff and Geismar were named SEGD Fellows in 2002.

Over the years, Chermayeff served on the board of trustees for the Museum of Modern Art and as president of the AIGA. In 2011, Chermayeff, Geismar and Sagi Haviv co-authored the book “Identify: Basic Principles of Identity Design in the Iconic Trademarks of Chermayeff & Geismar” and three years later, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum awarded Chermayeff and Geismar the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Of all his achievements, however, perhaps the most important is the lasting impact he’s made in the field of graphic design and generations of designers. In a statement, Geismar remembered Chermayeff, saying "He loved surprise, large-scale objects, and the color red. For over 60 years, Ivan and I have enjoyed a partnership, to which we each brought complementary talents, in an alliance cemented by shared values and mutual respect. Ivan's contribution to the field of design will remain unsurpassed."

The multi-specialty design studio C&G Partners, a completely independent, descendant firm with 50 staff founded in 2005, has a special connection to Chermayeff. C&G Partners originally took its name from the initials of the firm where its four original co-founders met and worked together for years: Chermayeff & Geismar Inc.

“I was honored to have had Ivan as a mentor and enjoyed the creative process that resulted in so many iconic projects as well as being part of the Chermayeff family while collaborating on those commissions. Those 27 years were never work and always shared with talent that shined brightly in Ivan’s presence,” writes Keith Helmetag, a former partner at Chermayeff & Geismar and founding principal at C&G Partners.

Another colleague of Chermayeff’s, Jonathan Alger, Managing Partner, C&G Partners, says of his legacy and their relationship, “The design galaxy has lost one of its brightest suns. Working for years with Ivan Chermayeff was irreplaceably influential in my life. The smart, brave, beautiful lessons of his work—and his legendarily unstoppable creative partnership with Tom Geismar—simply cannot be celebrated enough.”

More about the work of Chermayeff & Geismar

Members of the SEGD community remember Ivan Chermayoff:

What I associate with Ivan first and foremost are his illustrations and the incredible power of their simplicity. The combination of his childlike exuberance, uncompromising design aesthetic and rebellious, self confidence made them magical and unforgettable. I am deeply honored to have worked with him and Tom and the other many talented people that were drawn to the Chermayeff and Geismar universe. I have no doubt that Ivan will live on through his work which will be studied and revered for centuries to come.

—Amy Siegel | C&G Partners LLC

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The name Chermayeff belongs in that pantheon of designers and architects who gave form, life and power to design in post-WWII America. 

Coming into an awareness of design in the mid-sixties, this young designer couldn't get enough of the beautiful graphics, exhibition work and intellectually grounded wayfinding and signage programs his firm produced. Ivan was a Modernist certainly, but like the Eames and a few others, there was a deep humanism that served to counterpoint the crisp Swiss clarity of his work. His marvelous calligraphic excursions became a kind of coda for how craft and the hand had an indispensable role to play in modern graphic and environmental graphic design. 

Design educators must do a better job of acknowledging the history of and the groundbreaking contributions made by design giants like Ivan. More frequently than I'd like to admit, I would look at a portfolio and see the influence of a Chermayeff only to close the interview a bit crestfallen, as the student had no idea who I was referencing.

Ivan lives on through his work, the countless millions of lives he touched and his enduring impact on the design profession. He will be missed.

—Henry Beer, FSEGD | HENRY BEER CONSULTING + DESIGN

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Ivan was one of the reasons I got into this business—back in the 70s a lot of us wanted to be Ivan Chemmayeff, I know I did.

We always say it’s the ‘end of an era.’ This time we mean it.

—Wayne Hunt, FSEGD | Hunt Design

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Chris Calori & I met Ivan in the early 80s when we had the privilege of working in the Chermayeff & Geismar office. We often thought of Ivan and Tom as the heart and mind of their office. Ivan as the exuberant, impulsive heart, Tom as the creative, disciplined mind—perfect complements to each other. And it was obvious they were also the very best of friends. I recall, correctly or not, one of Ivan’s most memorable bits of advice about design: When in doubt make it red; if you’re still in doubt make it big and red. I’m not sure Ivan actually said that but it sounds good. And his collages are amazing!

So very sad to learn of Ivan’s passing. We’ve known Ivan and Tom for so many years. 

—David Vanden-Eynden, FSEGD | cvedesign

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It was a very sad day for us yesterday. Dave Vanden-Eynden and I had the huge honor of working at Chermayeff & Geismar in our early years in NYC. Ivan Chermayeff was an immense talent who was a great inspiration to all of us at the studio and to designers worldwide. We have stayed in touch with Ivan and Tom over the years and Ivan generously wrote the preface to the first edition of my book, Signage and Wayfinding Design, while Tom Geimar graciously wrote the preface to the 2nd edition. We and the entire design world mourn the loss of Ivan Chermayeff's brilliant talent and keen insights.

—Chris Calori, FSEGD | cvedesign

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Where would our profession be without the imagination, wit and quality of Ivan’s work?

Unique and unexpected solutions. Joyful. Approachable.

Two of Ivan’s projects are my favorites: the Big Red 9-so audacious, so right for the setting. And the Churchill poster-you knew instantly who he was referencing. And like many of his project elements, you could see the smoke was drawn. By hand.

Thanks, Ivan.

—Michael Courtney | Michael Courtney Design, Inc.

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