08 November 2006

How does one become a consumate European design advocate while being born in Johannesburg, South Africa? Ask Mervyn Kurlansky. Co-founder of Pentagram London in 1972 with Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes and Kenneth Grange, he resigned in 1993 and now lives and works in Denmark.

Like his fellow founders, Kurlansky has had a long and distinguished career that transcends the conventional boundaries of his craft. He has worked with the most progressive patrons of modern design in the '60s-notably as graphics director of Planning Unit, the design consultancy service of Knoll International. His involvement in international organisations and associations has given him a unique place in the design community. As a prolific author, lecturer and educator, he has helped foster awareness about the designer's global responsibility. His projects have often supported creative endeavors for social good toward a sustainable society. He is currently consultant to Sculpture at Goodwood (Britain's leading Sculpture Park) and Sappi fine papers Europe. Practicing what he preaches, he lives on an organic farm in Hornbaek, Denmark.

Mervyn Kurlansky is president elect of Icograda (The International Council of Graphic Design Associations). His latest book Masters of the 20th Century-The Icograda Design Hall of Fame, was published by Graphis in October 2001. It celebrates the work of the 110 speakers of the Icograda London Design Seminars from 1974 to 1999, of which Kurlansky was chairman for the final three years.

Graphis sat with Kurlansky to discuss this massive project of design celebration while addressing his work philosophy.

Graphis: You were chairman of the Icograda London Design Seminar from 1996 to 1999. What is the mission of Icograda?

Kurlansky: Icograda is the world's non-governmental and non-political representative and advisory body for graphic design and visual communication. It serves the worldwide graphic design community and in doing so it aims to:
- Raise the standards of design, professional practice, and ethics
- Raise the professional status of the graphic designer
- Further the appreciation of designers professional achievements
- Extend design s contribution to understanding among people
- Promote the exchange of information, views, and research
- Contribute to design education, theory, practice, and research
- Coordinate matters of professional practice, and conduct
- Establish international standards and procedures
- Hold congresses, conferences, seminars, and symposiums
- Publish and distribute information concerned with graphic design.

Graphis: How is it funded, how were the lecture series funded? Where in London did they take place?

Kurlansky: Icograda is funded through membership fees and corporate sponsorship (Sappi in particular). The lecture series was funded through attendance charges.They took place at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square. The first London Design Student Seminar took place in 1974, and then a year later officially under the umbrella of Icograda. At first seminars were thematic, then became a direct platform for designers to show their work - and they generated memorable posters. Alan Fletcher was the chairman just before I joined Icograda.

Graphis: What prompted the book project?

Kurlansky: The idea for this book grew out of the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Icograda London Design Seminars. We wanted to pay salute to the unique bunch of designers who had made presentations over the years. The book is the tip of the iceberg since there was also a multi-media presentation made in February 1999 and an anniversary seminar with more than a hundred designer-participants attending.

Graphis: How did you gather the work presented in the book?

Kurlansky: Gathering the work of those hundred or so designers turned out to be a huge task. Fortunately half of them were AGI members, and through David Hillman of Pentagram I had access to some of the work that had been featured in FHK Henrion's 1987 book on AGI (you know, Henrion is really the father of theses seminars). With the help of my two daughters, Karen and Dana, I was able to pull this project together, gathering reproduction-quality images from museum archives, studios, family members of past participants, from around the world.

Graphis: This project looks like your project. How much of an editorial process did you go through? Are you comfortable wearing more than one hat (the designer as editor)?

Kurlansky: For me the design process has always included an element of editing so it came quite naturally to me to take on that role with this book. However, I made some fundamental blunders.

I had set no limit on the amount of work (both visual and written) each participant was to provide.

I had always intended to include a CD-Rom with the book and wanted the combination of book and CD to be as comprehensive an archive of the speakers work as possible, within the limitations of commercial publishing. I wanted the publication to be a useful source of information and inspiration for designers and educators.

However, both the physical limitation of space in the book and CD as well as the limitation of time and finances for photographing, scanning, retouching, typing, setting, proofreading, and digital programming of all the material, led to a monumental editing task both for me and Philip Giggle. I had commissioned Phil to design and produce the multimedia presentation of past speakers work for the 25th anniversary seminar in 1999, and he had subsequently volunteered to help me with the preparation of material for the book and the design and production of the CD-Rom.

Graphis: What was the format of these conferences typically?

Kurlansky: The seminars ran over two days on Monday and Tuesday mornings as the cinema where it was hosted needed to be cleared by noon for the matinee film showing. There were two to three speakers per morning, presentations were of the "show-and-tell" type with question time following. Student awards were given out and in the afternoon there were optional workshops, visits to design studios, and so on. Monday evening featured a social gathering at one of the design studios where students could talk to the professionals and meet each other in a friendly atmosphere.

When I took over the chairmanship of seminars in 1997, I had at that time become concerned with a number of issues that the design profession and education were facing. Issues such as consumerism, technology, globalisation, equality, and the environment. The seminars became a platform to raise awareness among designers, teachers, and students of these.

Graphis: Why have the conference series stopped?

Kurlansky: The Icograda board decided to create a new series of international seminars four times per year in different cities around the world to coincide with Icograda board meetings and regional members meetings.

Graphis: If you were to continue, who would be the next designers you'd invite?

Kurlansky: If the London Seminars had continued I would have chosen speakers exclusively from AGI members and made it a collaboration between Icograda and AGI. It would have given the new series a unique quality.

Graphis: Do you have any regret in not having invited certain designers?

Kurlansky: There could only be four to six speakers per seminar, and remember, I was responsible for the speakers over a period of just three years before the seminars came to a halt. In that time I could only get around to inviting fourteen out of the hundreds of designers I know and would have liked to have invited to speak at these seminars.

Graphis: Half of the members were AGI members, and you use the term Hall of Fame: How is Icograda positioning itself in regards to ADC, AGI- sister and competitive institutions?

Kurlansky: For a seminar of this nature, the chairmen had to rely on their network of friends to give up their professional time for free to come and speak in front of students and being AGI members themselves, it seemed only natural that they would seek the support of fellow members. Besides, one could rely on the quality of work being presented. It is my hope and intention that there will be much closer co-operation between Icograda, IFI, ICSID, AGI, AIGA, etc. We need to create a single powerful voice for design in the world as well as take care of the many specific voices.

Graphis: Steven Heller in his Foreword defines the "Master" as someone transcending the trends and fashion of his time. How would you define it?

Kurlansky: Steven's definition is so eloquent that anything I might add would pale beside it, so everyone reading this, please read his overview- it is a brilliant piece of writing.

Graphis: Do you feel that your responsibility toward design is greater through your involvement in Icograda, or, rather, as a design practitioner?

Kurlansky: During my Pentagram years I felt that my contribution to design lay in the practice of design and also in talking about it (sharing the knowledge, so to speak) although I was not particularly active within the various design associations that had bestowed a fellowship or a membership on me. Through my involvement in Icograda now, I see an opportunity to further my contribution to design by helping Icograda achieve its purpose and being a party to the creation of the single voice for design that I mentioned earlier.

I believe that Icograda, as the body representing its member graphic design associations, which in turn represent the world community of graphic designers, has a vital and influential role to play in world business, in government and non-government organizations, and in education. In the business world today, there is a perceptible shift in consciousness toward a more responsible attitude to society and the environment. I feel it is my commitment to work with clients in ways that help them forge a new relationship with designers to achieve the changes that are now expected in society.

Graphis: Does Icograda have a social/political agenda?

Kurlansky: It has a social agenda and has recently collaborated with IFI (The International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers) and ICSID (The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) to create an initiative entitled Design for the World (DW). This is a volunteer organisation, representing world design, whose mission is to serve all of humanity, particularly people in critical need, by applying creativity, expertise, and experience to the betterment of quality of life for all. DW is committed to providing solutions to lessen the plight of the disadvantaged, the victims of war, disasters, and extreme poverty, people living in heavily polluted areas, the elderly, and the disabled. However, Icograda is constitutionally a non-political organization and as it represents members from more than fifty different countries each with their own conflicting political agendas, it has to be neutral and actively seek to promote peace and greater understanding between all people.

Graphis: Is the organization promoting anything special about sustainable design, etc.?

Kurlansky: At present we are doing this through our seminar program and it will be on the agenda for our educational network which is currently being developed. Karen Blincoe (Icograda board vice-president responsible for the educational program) has established, in her private/professional capacity, an International Center for Creativity, Innovation, and Sustainability (known as ICIS), which approaches the issue of sustainability from the economical and social aspect as well as the environmental one. ICIS will begin its program of master classes, commencing this autumn in Denmark, which will explore aspects of sustainability and new ways of applying our technology, creativity, imagination, and understanding in this regard. Anyone interested? Go to

Graphis: With so much on your plate, where do you generally seek inspiration?

Kurlansky: I am not conscious of actively seeking inspiration but I seem to get it from a variety of sources: nature, cities, books, movies, music, art, walking, running, swimming, skiing, climbing/hugging trees, cutting grass, (smoking it occasionally), travel, workshops, listening, meditation, day-dreaming, sun-bathing, drinking whiskey, driving fast cars, and from other people (especially my wife).

Graphis: Professionally, who has influenced you the most?

Kurlansky: The very first time I became inspired to pursue a career in graphic design was on seeing the work of Joseph Muller Brockman featured in a 1956 Graphis Annual. The next occasion was on my arrival in London and seeing the poster by Saul Bass for the film The Man With The Golden Arm. I was hooked! When I attended art school a teacher and fine artist, Peter Coviello, taught me that drawing wasn't about drawing but about seeing. Then there was Louis Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin, Robert Brownjohn, Bob Gill, and my partners at Pentagram, especially Alan Fletcher who, for me, epitomizes the pure spirit of genius!

Graphis: Who is/was your greatest mentor in life?

Kurlansky: In addition to my parents, the first mentor I can recall was one of my high school teachers. He first introduced me to the difference between acquiescence and acceptance and the notion that when you acquiesce to your circumstances you become the victim of them and when you accept things exactly the way they are, you become the master of your circumstances. The other idea he touched on was that whatever you resist manifests. The second was the vice principle of the same school who taught me that to accomplish anything, no matter how daunting, simply requires you to take a first small step and then another and another and another. Now I didn't quite grasp all this as a teenager but when in later life I came into contact with Eastern philosophy and subsequently the work of Werner Erhard and Deepak Chopra, the earlier seed bore fruit and I really got the message and it transformed my life. From Erhard's work I also learned the art of setting goals and simply functioning intelligently toward them and from Chopra- not to be attached to the outcome! In addition to Werner Erhard and Deepak Chopra there has been, through their work, people like Tolkien, Hermann Hesse, Kahlil Gibran, Sartre, Kirkegaard, Carlos Costenada, RD Laing, Thomas Moore, Edward De Bono, and many others. On a more personal note, my friends Mary Aver (spiritual teacher), Richard Olivier (theater director), and Tad Mann (astrologer). They have all made a profound contribution to my life.

Graphis: What is your greatest professional achievement?

Kurlansky: So far, co-founding Pentagram- and during the 25 years I served the partnership - there is the work, the awards, prizes, honors, accolades, and fellowships and so on ....

Graphis: What is your greatest personal achievement?

Kurlansky: Design has been the focus of my life since the age of twenty-two and my professional and personal life are so intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate the two. So on a personal note I can't conceive of anything outside of design that I have done that could be considered of special merit. Sure I can recall a few achievements, if you can call them so, prior to my design career, like setting a high school track record at the age of fifteen for the 100 meters at 10.6 seconds which remained unbroken for about 10 years, never losing a boxing match from the tender age of six untiI I hung up my gloves forever at sixteen, completely disgusted by the physical damage I caused my opponents.

Graphis: What is your work philosophy?

Kurlansky: Several years ago when asked this question, I wrote the following: Design serves for me a personal need to communicate. Earlier in my life, I tried to meet this need by making music and by painting. In music, I was quickly drawn to jazz, because of its immediate, expressive possibilities unfettered by the written score. In painting, my allegiances were futurist and abstract, with a strong attention to the industrial environment.

But neither of these avenues satisfied a second and equally powerful drive: to relate my creative work to the immediacy of everyday life. Design is inextricably bound up with the ordinary, living world- its commercial basis, "art" and "life".

The teacher who influenced me most was a painter with an acute appreciation for visual language. I remember he compared looking at Malevich for the first time to hearing Japanese for the first time. You might "like" or "dislike" it, but until you had actually learned it, the new language would mean very little.

This sense of language informs my work in the way I use symbols, familiar images, even cliches- speaking to a particular audience in the visual vocabulary they already possess. I tend to prefer found objects to drawings, and like many of my contemporaries, I am completely eclectic in the sources I use for both style and imagery.

I have an aversion to formulae and fixed styles, again like most present-day designers. In borrowing, I always alter the ideas I use -manipulating, recombining, and adding- in order to communicate something new. In fact, I believe that all ideas, including those yet to be seen, already exist: We gain access to them by learning to attend in the right way. So, in a sense, every work of art and design is a "found object."

Ours is the age of information. We have instantly available to us not only the images of our own time but also the wealth of the past, which is constantly growing as more of it is uncovered. Indeed, the past has become a present resource, and I draw on it without any sense of nostalgia. It is my nature to live in the present and to look forward to the future. I welcome the arrival of computer technology, for the richness of communication and new knowledge that it promises.

At the heart of good design is pleasure- the pleasure the designer takes in his work and the pleasure he creates for his audience. Of special importance to me is the "sudden, unexpected intellectual pleasure" of wit. The intellectual component here is essential, for I relish complex problems, which can be expressed in a visual solution of surprising simplicity.

Politically, I believe in being alive to new possibilities rather than allying myself with one system of ideas in opposition to another.

As for my work, I have no "plans" for its future development. With each new job, I start again, holding my mind open to fresh discoveries - prepared to find, to create, and to communicate. I guess that still applies but now I would add the following:

We are all aware of the important contribution that graphic design made in the 20th century to our culture in general and to the growth, success and influence of business and commerce in particular. We should by now have a sense of the power of what we do. In service to business, we have played a significant role in the creation of wealth and material well-being. In embracing green, social, and ethical principles, they will increasingly demand knowledge and communicative skills to meet their needs. This will create a huge potential and opportunity for graphic design as well as for other design disciplines. We will be called upon to apply our imagination, our strategic approach to problem solving and our "story-telling" skills in new ways. There will be a greater need for inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural collaboration, for teamwork and most importantly for networking. And following the ICIS initiative, we will need to learn how to work sustainably.

Graphis: What is your freetime philosophy?

Kurlansky: To learn to live sustainably, to be authentic, to respect the differences of others, to respect the natural environment. My wife and I started an organic farm seven years ago and we have assumed the guardianship of that modest piece of land. We created a lake, put in fish, planted trees, and sewed wild flowers as well as harvesting crops. We have created a small permaculture, attracting deer, foxes, wild ducks, wild cats, a variety of birds, including heron and buzzards. It's like being on safari watching them all come down to the water hole on a summer's evening, to keep fit, to expand my awareness, to practice acceptance, to be in service to humanity and the planet. And as I am a very private person, to live as far away from people as I possibly can!

Graphis: What would be your dream assignment?

Kurlansky: The branding of an airline - with all the challenges of sustainability.

Graphis: Do you have a favorite cause you like to work on?

Kurlansky: I have been assisting Sappi (the world's leading producer of coated fine paper) with a unique initiative called "Ideas That Matter" which supports creative design for social good. They award financial grants of up to 50,000 Euros to designers to pay for out-of-pocket expenses and the full implementation cost of a print campaign.

Graphis: If you were to invite 1 to 5 personalities for a dinner conversation? Who would they be?

Kurlansky: Tim Sebastian (TV interviewer BBC World Hard Talk), the Dali Lama, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, George Bush, Tony Blair, and I need a sixth guest, Edward De Bono (regarded as the leading international authority in conceptual and creative thinking, he originated the term "lateral thinking") to act as facilitator.

The rule of the evening would be that we apply Edward De Bono's six hat technique and for those who are not familiar with this, the six hats represent: information, feelings, negative views, positive views, new ideas, and an overview. It requires that everyone wear the same hat at the same time - opposition is not permitted. Who knows? We might achieve world peace over dinner.

Graphis: What do you collect?

Kurlansky: Ten years ago I contributed the following piece for the Pentagram Compendium and as you may have noticed, I am into recycling. I am an indiscriminate collector of ephemera and junk. I have boxes and drawers full of old maps, matches, hotel soaps, travel tickets, playing cards, cigar boxes, carrier bags, badges. My collection is totally random, it goes back years and is drawn from all over the world. There is no rationale; just hundreds of arbitrary fragments stored with no real purpose in mind. Yet the drawers and boxes which house this chaotic image-bank are all carefully numbered and indexed.

When I am working on a design job, I collect seemingly random pieces of information but there is a point when I suddenly make order out of chaos, when I restrain and control diverse elements to create the design. My indiscriminate collection works like that too. I will pull out a found object randomly from a drawer and it will trigger the solution to a complex design problem. Sometimes it is precisely the object I am looking for, its image recorded indelibly in my mind by the long-forgotten act of adding it to my collection. Sometimes it is an object I simply stray across while searching for something else, yet it becomes the catalyst for a creative response. So is there a hidden mental logic in my relentless collecting? Or am I just a magpie who can t bear to chuck anything away?

In addition to the junk, I have collected some interesting pieces of art and craft from my travels around the globe: masks, snakes, (wooden and metal) musical instruments, brushes, African sculpture and beadwork, basketwork, posters, decorated eggs, bottles, books, watches, and clocks. And more.

Graphis: What is your most valuable possession?

Kurlansky: I don't really possess anything. I like to think that I'm just taking care of things for the duration of my visit here. However, what I value most of that which is in my care are: my family and friends, our farm, the woods and ocean just behind us, my body (my mental and physical health). Whilst I enjoy having material objects, I am no longer attached to any of them particularly.

Graphis: Do you have any hobbies?

Kurlansky: Running, swimming, walking, skiing, gardening (especially cutting grass), playing the trumpet, horse riding, bicycle riding, sun bathing, photography, chopping wood.

Graphis: What is your greatest insecurity?

Kurlansky: I first had my chart read by an astrologer with the intriguing name of Darby Costello, and she told me that as I was born in the years leading to the outbreak of World War II, when there was a great amount of fear and insecurity in the world, I had inherited what she termed "a free floating anxiety" which might attach itself to anything. Thanks a lot! So I have every kind of insecurity imaginable, which also means I really have no particular insecurity unless I choose to imagine one.

Graphis: If you were to retire tomorrow, what would you be doing with your free time?

Kurlansky: Retirement is a concept I have difficulty relating to. The question would have to be more specific in my case. Retire from what? From the work for Icograda? From the work for Sappi's "Ideas That Matter?" From designing? From consultative work? From lecturing? From giving student workshops? From the board of ICIS? From writing? From the farm? However, if I were to withdraw from all of that tomorrow, I would start working on a book about my life and work. Then I would take up drawing, painting, and sculpting in addition to all the hobbies I mentioned.

About this article
Article was first published in Graphis and is reprinted with permission.