Richard Poulin Speaks about Rudolph de Harak

Read Time: 8 minutes

SEGD Fellow, Richard Poulin, is a designer, professor, author and artist. His latest project, Rational Simplicity: Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer, is a monograph about the life and work of designer Rudolph de Harak (1924–2002). The upcoming book celebrates and showcases Poulin’s one-time mentor -- and unsung hero of mid-century modern design -- and de Harak's many projects, including the design of “record sleeves, magazine covers, exhibitions, building facades, posters, furniture, corporate identities, pictograms, and even the famous shopping bags for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”


SEGD contributor Franck Mercurio sat down with Poulin to learn more about de Harak and the book.

SEGD
Tell me more about Rudolph de Harak. How did you know him? And why is he important as a designer?

RP
Rudy was a graphic designer who I've had a lot of great respect for, because I had the fortunate experience to work with him—back in the 80s— for approximately 9 years. I was a couple years out of school, and it was my introduction to the design world and really my education. He was really an incredible designer and individual who was a very influential teacher at Cooper Union for almost 40 years. He also held the first permanently endowed chair in graphic design in the United States, so he was certainly a force to be reckoned with.

SEGD
And why did you decide to write a monograph about de Harak?

RP
The reason I wanted to do the book—in addition to working with Rudy so closely and ending up being his business partner prior to his retirement—was that I feel he's one of the unsung heroes of mid-century modern graphic design. No one has ever done a book on him before, and my intent was to tell his full story. This is a very comprehensive monograph—over 400 pages—and takes you through his entire life, so that the reader gets a sense of his early beginnings and how he was introduced to the world of visual communications.

SEGD
When did de Harak’s design career really take off?

RP
He started practicing design in the late 40s after World War II, which he served in. It was a very rich time, especially in the early 50s with mid-century modern  graphic design and architecture, influences that established a definitive path for him in his career.

SEGD
And from what I understand, de Harak is remembered mainly as a graphic designer, but he practiced other types of design, right?

RP
He ended up over his 50-year career designing many things, not just traditional graphic design, but also three-dimensional work in the world of environmental graphics, exhibition design, furniture design and product design.

It was also the reason why SEGD is so interested and connected to him. Rudy was one of the first people to approach design in a very generalist way. So, back in the 50s and the early 60s, he was one of maybe three designers in the United States to do three-dimensional work especially in the world of architectural graphics, environmental graphics, and experiential design. These terms weren't really around when he started, but he didn't see any lines; he didn't see any divisions that he couldn't cross.

SEGD
So, how would you characterize de Harak’s philosophy of design? Why was he so influential early on?

RP
Well, I think the first thing that's important in terms of his story is that he was self-taught. He did not attend a design program. He did not study at Yale as a lot of his contemporaries did. He was influenced by the world around him, especially in the late 1940s, early 1950s. So Abstract Expressionism, Dada, De Stijl—things of that nature were really influential. He was intuitively connected to the visual world, and he really wanted to understand it.

SEGD
So, what actually started de Harak down the path of practicing design? What was the catalyst?

RP
His introduction to the world of visual communications and design first started in LA, his hometown. A friend of his, who was also a designer at the time, took him to two lectures at the Art Center. One lecture was by Will Burtin and the other György Kepes. These were two European émigrés, Modernists out of the Bauhaus School. This was a mind-blowing experience for Rudy in many ways, and it started to set him on his career path.

SEGD
So, the monograph begins with de Harak’s early career and then moves forward?

RP
The book covers his entire career from the early years of his life growing up to his experience in the War and then through his 50-year career starting in the late 1940s through to his retirement in the 1990s.

SEGD
So, tell me more about the book itself and who is publishing it.

RP
It's a project I've been working on for the last three years. It's been a challenge primarily because publishing has changed so much. I've gone through a couple of interested publishers, but I was fortunate to get Thames and Hudson interested and their new imprint, Volume. It's a funding campaign that's active for the next two months, and I'm very excited about it.

SEGD
And how does the funding campaign work?

RP
It's basically crowdsourcing, similar to a Kickstarter campaign. The campaign runs until April 17th, so I'm hoping people will be very interested and enthusiastic about this and support the campaign [by visiting the Volume website at vol.co]

SEGD
And will there be several editions?

RP
There are basically four editions. The early bird edition is already sold out, but there are three remaining editions, which is the base edition, the standard hardcover 408-page book, full color, printed in two different types of paper with six colors. Then there is a step up from that, which is a first collector’s edition, which is with a different cover, and it's in a custom slipcase. And then the final collectors’ edition is the book with the slipcase, as well as a portfolio of four serigraphs based on the optical illusions he did in the 50s and 60s.

SEGD
Sounds great! And when is the trade book scheduled to be released?

RP
The trade book is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2022.

SEGD
So, in addition to writing books, I hear you are also making art, specifically collages.

RP
This is something I've been wanting to do for the majority of my career, starting as a designer, and especially when I started to work with Rudy. I think collage has a very direct connection to visual communications and graphic design. There were a great many 20th-century artists who were collage artists. I was really drawn to several that were also graphic designers: Kurt Schwitters, John Heartfield and even someone who was more of an assemblage artist, such as Joseph Cornell. They were very influential. And now I have the time, in between writing books, to do this!

SEGD
Looking at your collages, they are not simply flattened assemblages of materials; there is a real three-dimensional quality to them.

RP
Because of my training, and because of Rudy's influence, I never think of a two-dimensional plane as a two-dimensional plane. I always try to add a third dimension to it, whether it's through optical effect or a specific or obvious three-dimensional element. And I certainly wanted to bring that to my collage work.

For me, one of the great things I learned from Rudy, when I started doing exhibition design, is that an exhibition can be much more than a three-dimensional book; the experience can envelope you and take you to worlds that a book can only do based upon the reader's imagination.

SEGD
And please remind readers, what were some of the exhibitions that you and de Harak designed together?

RP
When I first started working with Rudy, he was just finishing the Egyptian Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Working with him during the time period in the 80s, the office was designing major corporate exhibitions for Kraft General Foods and Conoco Oil and also for fine art institutions, such as the Hudson River Museum and the Cooper Union School of Architecture.

One of the most well-known, would be the corporate museum for Cummins Engine in Columbus, Indiana. The centerpiece of that exhibition is what has been called—what Rudy called—the “exploded engine” where he took Cummins’ largest diesel engine and its approximately 440 parts, and suspended the parts in a two-story space with individual standing cables.

SEGD
So, he deconstructed the engine and made it into an art installation; and it became a visual focus for the museum?

RP
So, if we go back to my point about being immersed and enveloped by an experience that is visual—but also three-dimensional—the Cummins museum is much more than just that centerpiece. But the centerpiece is really so much of what Rudy represented in terms of solving a design problem and coming up with a memorable, dynamic and unique solution. It’s a great solution.

SEGD
Sounds like de Harak was, indeed, a designer who wasn’t afraid to venture outside convention.

RP
He was a force in design. And I know I wouldn't be here today in terms of my philosophy, and my approach, and my connection to design if it wasn't for my spending that intense time period with Rudy and learning so much from him.

Want to learn more about Rudolph de Harak? Don’t miss Richard Poulin’s talk on Thursday, March 18, at 2pm Eastern as part of SEGD’s Voices Series. And don’t forget to visit Volume imprint’s campaign page for Rational Simplicity: Rudolph de Harak, Graphic Designer at:

https://vol.co/product/rudolph-de-harak/

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