I was lucky enough recently that a holiday to the South Sussex coast coincided with the opening day of the Ivan Chermayeff: Cut & Paste exhibition at Bexhill-On-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion, and it was truly inspirational.
I knew some of his work previously from seeing it in design history books, but I didn’t realise how prolific he was/is. The walls of the large gallery were packed with work, and as the title suggests, the focus was on assemblage. There were some posters for specific corporate and cultural clients, but the vast majority was of work he has done in his own time. Throughout, regardless of whether for a client or personal work, whether tackling something frivolous in nature or weighty in tone, there was a real sense of play and wit throughout the exhibition. So much so that I came away feeling like I had just seen one of the best graphic design exhibitions I had seen since Alan Fletcher’s retrospective at the Design Museum in 2007. Ideas, puns and visual play runs through all Chermayeff’s output.
Chermayeff once worked alongside Fletcher, so it is no surprise that there should be some commonalities. There are also obvious comparisons to the art world’s Matisse, Picasso, Ernst and Schwitters in his collages and paper-cut montages. I’d come away from the Matisse show at Tate Modern recently not feeling overly impressed and that somehow the work on display was largely vacuous (1). Chermayeff’s creative approach was refreshingly opposite to this as it either had communication at its core, or it challenged the viewer to think differently about found objects and how one connects different visual elements to create a new narrative. In Cut & Paste’s catalogue, Milton Glaser writes in the introduction, “In a catalogue of Ivan’s collages 1987–2011, Louis Newman states, ‘Chermayeff is among the few who can transpose design into high art,’ referring to his big, red unforgettable sculpture ‘9’ on 57th Street. I always find the phrase ‘high art’ to be problematical, more like the relationship between haute cuisine and ‘home cooking’, where the differences are contextual, rather than the nature of the ingredients. I prefer to think of design and art as separate characteristics like sex and love—each can be significant and pleasurable by itself and every once in a while you get both at the same time—solving a problem is one thing, changing consciousness is another.”
Ultimately, as the quote above and an excellent 12 minute film in the show suggests, Chermayeff places a heavy importance on the art of seeing and finding connections, and this shone through in the collection displayed at the De La Warr Pavillion. As Alan Powers says later in the catalogue: “We see them [Chermayeff’s collages] and think, ‘I could have done that,’ and so go out with our eyes sharpened to see the second reality behind the first. This sharing of pleasure is hardly a didactic form of art, but it relates to Ivan’s mission as a designer, which, along with serving his clients to his best ability, includes a wider desire to teach the world how to see by exercising what John Milton in Paradise Lost called ‘the visual nerve’.”
Ivan Chermayeff: Cut and Paste is on at the De La Warr Pavilion until 14 September 2014. Entry is free.
(1) I know Matisse was important in terms of breaking concepts of painting, and his use of colour and form are visually amazing, but much of it looked like pointless non-applied surface pattern to my eyes. I felt his output worked much better when applied to a context, such as a book jacket, magazine cover or stain glass window. Hanging on a wall, it did nothing for me.