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Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand

Museum of the City of New York
Through July 19

In his 1965 essay “Design and the Play Instinct,” graphic designer Paul Rand discussed his approach to teaching design: Give students a clear problem. “A problem with defined limits, implied or stated disciplines which are, in turn, conducive to the instinct of play, will most likely yield an interested student, and very often, a novel solution,” wrote Rand. The creators of Everything Is Design, an exhibition celebrating Rand’s career at the Museum of the City of New York, seem to have taken the designer’s words to heart.

Book jacket for The Dada Painters and Poets by Robert Motherwell

The one-room show appears small and restrained, both in its gridlike layout and minimal commentary. However, those who invest the time to simply stop and look not only will be delighted but also may even laugh out loud. Pithy Rand quotations hover in the visitor’s field of vision, emblazoned at hip height along the bases of the vitrines. Divided into thematic sections that reflect Rand’s professional trajectory, the material on display includes advertising, book design, and ephemera from his years on the faculty at Yale. But what dominates, despite the even hand of curator Donald Albrecht, is the corporate brand work for which Rand is most famous.

Jazzways magazine, Volume 1, 1946, with cover design by Paul Rand; from private collections.

IBM, one of the exhibition’s major sponsors, looms large. In 1956 Rand was recruited by IBM’s lead design consultant, Eliot Noyes, to join Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames on a creative dream team that was given the widest imaginable latitude by then-IBM president Thomas Watson, Jr. Their mandate was a tip-to-toe reimagining of the company’s image. It was during this time that Rand, who shared with the architects a Modernist approach rooted in Bauhaus principles, produced the striped IBM logo still in use today. A sidebar display reveals Rand’s concurrent doodles of a jailbird in a black and white-striped prisoner uniform. In a deceptively regimented exhibition, Rand’s empathy, humor, and childlike sense of play shine through.

More work of Paul Rand, Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York

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