Directly after class last Wednesday I headed to the airport for a few days in New York. Thursday night was the Design Legends Gala — a somewhat stuffy and decidedly boring black tie affair, but a nonetheless important one as the AIGA honored three legendary contributors to the profession with the AIGA Medal: Pablo Ferro (reel above), Carin Goldberg and Doyald Young.
The AIGA Medal is the highest honor the profession bestows on its own — kind of like an Academy Award for graphic design.
In addition, several AIGA fellows were honored. Each chapter can award one Fellow award per year. The San Francisco chapter can award up to three, since we’re so much bigger than other chapters. This year all three were from CCA: Leslie Becker, Michael Cronan and my former teacher, boss and longtime mentor Doug Akagi.
The Gala is a kind of who’s who of graphic designers — so much so that last names are sufficient to give you an idea of who was there: Heller, Vanderbyl, Sagmeister, Sandhaus, Lupton, Hainsworth, Millman, Arnett, Bantjes, Vit, Bielenberg, Bierut, Chermayeff, Hodgson, Fong, Glaser, Kidd, Morla, Pirtle, Pullman, Sahre, Scher… you get the idea.
For me though, the highlight of the trip (besides connecting with old friends and making a few new ones) was the opportunity to visit one of my favorite paintings.
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is one of only a few abstract paintings by Charles Demuth. I’m not particularly fond of most of his work, but this particular painting is a miraculous and captivating instance of Precisionism/Cubist Realism. It is at once extremely technical and analytical and yet very personal, emotional and evocative. The painting is based on a poem by William Carlos Williams called The Great Figure. In it Williams captures with exquisite cadence and visual eloquence the sound of a fire truck passing by on the street:
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
Williams’ ability to observe, capture and celebrate meaning in the most mundane events has long been a source of inspiration to me. I think I mentioned that my firm’s identity is based on another of his poems.
What Williams accomplishes with words, Demuth does with oils. Both are master technicians whose precise constructions transcend their own technicality and become deeply, emotionally resonant. It’s a little like seeing images from the Hubble Telescope — those amazing, gestural arrangements of gasses that simultaneously suggest the great science and great mystery of the universe.
This is what we strive for in design.