Ivan Chermayeff, a graphic designer who forged some of the most recognizable corporate logos of the second half of the 20th century — including those of the cable channel Showtime, the publisher HarperCollins, the Smithsonian Institution and Pan Am — died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.
His family confirmed the death.
Esteemed as one of the foremost graphic artists of his era, Mr. Chermayeff was at his death a partner of the New York design concern now known as Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, which he founded in 1957 with Tom Geismar and Robert Brownjohn.
The firm, known for its sleek Modernist designs featuring bold primary colors, was among the first to convey corporate identity by means of abstraction, streamlining the fussier logos that had dominated the commercial landscape in the first half of the century.
Designs by the firm’s other members have included the segmented white octagon of what was then Chase Manhattan Bank; the blue sans serif logo, with its piquant red “o,” for Mobil Oil, as Exxon Mobil was then known; the flaming purple torch of New York University; and the blue-and-white open book of the Library of Congress.
Working in three dimensions, Mr. Chermayeff designed the sidewalk sculpture — an immense number 9 in red steel — that marks the entrance to 9 West 57th Street in Manhattan. The building, by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, is noted for its convex facade that glides down to street level.Continue reading the main story
Installed in 1974, Mr. Chermayeff’s 9 has been beloved of passers-by and pigeons ever since.
Mr. Chermayeff, whose work garnered a string of laurels, also designed posters, created museum and gallery displays and illustrated children’s books.
Away from the office he was known for making collages in which he cheerfully married strange bedfellows (buttons and boot jacks, work gloves and pebbles, airline luggage tags and canceled stamps) as if to counter the cool minimalism of his 9-to-5 life. His art in a variety of mediums has been exhibited around the world.
Mr. Chermayeff’s philosophy of corporate design was as simple as the design itself: A logo, he often said, should be clean, crisp and instantly comprehensible.
“It is usually a two-month process to get to that point,” he explained in a 2015 interview, “but it should look like it took five minutes.”
For Mr. Chermayeff, the results included the Showtime logo, with “Sho” in white on a red circle; HarperCollins’s stylized red flame atop a stylized blue sea; the Smithsonian’s vivid yellow sun, encircled by blue; and the cool blue globe of Pan Am, with its slender lines of latitude and longitude, which replaced an earlier, more rococo globe.
He loved lettering in all its myriad forms, and one of his most arresting graphic works is one in which he tore a letter asunder. For its Sept. 16, 2001, issue, The New York Times commissioned an illustration from Mr. Chermayeff to accompany an Op-Ed article about the Sept. 11 attacks.
The design he created is as simple as an illustration can get: just two letters, “U.S.,” in bold black type. But in the finished image, Mr. Chermayeff has wrenched the “U” from its moorings, leaving two jagged stumps where the letter once was. The result is wrenching to see.
To the end of his career, Mr. Chermayeff worked at the drawing board, shunning the siren call of electronic design.
“I don’t touch computers,” he said in 2015. “I have no buttons at all.”
Designing by hand was in his blood. The son of Serge Chermayeff, a distinguished Russian-born architect, and the former Barbara Maitland May, he was born in London on June 6, 1932. The elder Mr. Chermayeff’s deep affinity for Russian history, combined with a constitutional waggishness, led him to name his children Ivan (for Ivan the Terrible) and Peter (for Peter the Great).
The family moved to the United States when Ivan was about 8 and lived wherever his father’s work took them: By the time he graduated from high school — Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. — Ivan had attended some two dozen educational institutions in the United States and Canada.
He knew from an early age that he wanted to make art. He also knew, just as early, that he did not want to be an architect.
“Architects work on things that take a long time and often fail because of lack of funding or whatever reason,” Mr. Chermayeff said in a 2007 interview. “With graphic design there is the advantage that 99 percent of what we do is produced.”
After studying at Harvard and what is now the IIT Institute of Design in Chicago, he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Yale. By then he had gravitated toward graphics, which scarcely existed as a profession distinct from advertising.
“When Tom and I started, there was no such expression as ‘graphic design,’” Mr. Chermayeff said in 2014. “When a cabdriver asked what you did, if you said graphic design, you’d have to explain it for an hour. Instead, we’d just say, ‘I’m a commercial artist.’”
Mr. Chermayeff worked as an assistant to Alvin Lustig, a noted designer of book jackets, and as a designer of album covers for Columbia Records before starting his firm. Originally named Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar, it was later known as Chermayeff & Geismar.
For Mr. Chermayeff and his colleagues, modernizing timeworn logos was as vital a job as creating new ones. In 1986, he took NBC’s venerable peacock — first deployed in 1956 to highlight the wonders of color television — and smartened it up. First he plucked five feathers, reducing the total to six. Then he flipped the image, reorienting its profile from left to right.
A past president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Mr. Chermayeff was the recipient of gold medals from the institute and from the Society of Illustrators. He was named to the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1981.
His children’s books include “Sun, Moon, Star,” a Nativity story, with text by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1980. A review of that book in The Boston Globe called it “a smasheroo for the nursery.”
Mr. Chermayeff’s first marriage, to Sara Anne Duffy, ended in divorce. His second wife, the former Jane Clark, died in 2014. A resident of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he is survived by his brother, Peter, a prominent architect; three daughters from his first marriage, Catherine Chermayeff, a photo curator; Sasha Chermayeff, a painter; and Maro Chermayeff, a filmmaker; a son from his second marriage, Sam, an architect; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
A longtime faculty member of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Mr. Chermayeff also taught over the years at Brooklyn College, Cooper Union, the Parsons School of Design and elsewhere.
Two weighty endorsements of Mr. Chermayeff’s work resulted from his designs for the Big Apple Circus, the one-ring company founded in 1977 by Paul Binder and Michael Christensen.
Creating its logo, Mr. Chermayeff made a paper collage featuring a sweet gray elephant, balanced atop a ball, juggling letters spelling out the circus’s name. Mr. Binder was so captivated by his design, The Times reported in 2003, that he went out and bought an elephant.
For a later season, the circus adopted the theme of a Wild West show. Designing an advertising poster, Mr. Chermayeff put his elephant, lariat in hand, atop a barreling buffalo.
Mr. Binder was so captivated that he went out and bought a buffalo.
An earlier version of this obituary and a caption accompanying it misstated the date on which Mr. Chermayeff’s image commemorating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, appeared in The New York Times. It was Sept. 16 of that year, not Sept. 13.