Paula Scher is a graphic designer whose work you have probably seen on a regular basis all over New York, logos (Citi), posters for big shows (Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk) as well as hundreds of other designs that make up the visual static of our city. She is also an artist, painting huge, colorful maps that are thick with splodged words, misspelling and larded with information like voting statistics and zip codes that may or may not be correct. A new exhibition of her work is at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in the Meatpacking until March 26.
For someone whose life is based on visual expression, she is extremely good at expressing herself in conversation, a natural communicator. She’s candid and doesn’t mind revealing some of her own doubts, confessing to sudden, if passing, fears of exposure, what she described as ‘a moment of horror’ when the first set of people walked in to her first exhibition. Nevertheless she is directed and obviously knows her stuff but she confesses that she is not particularly organized, and is in fact quite messy. Although her Flatiron apartment looks sleek, the country house that she owns together with her husband, illustrator Seymour Chwast, is apparently ‘full of junk’. She’s fun. We thought she had the potential to be quite gossipy with her girlfriends and the day we interviewed her looked very chic – clearly not ready to give in to Eileen Fisher safety-blanket clothes just yet.
I read quite a bit about your paintings, as well as your design work … it’s a lot …
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these paintings – they’re very big, they’re really labor-intensive. In the first show I think I showed nine paintings that I had done over eight years. But this show is eight paintings over two years – it really killed me. I was amazed I could do it, to be honest with you, because I’m still a partner at Pentagram and I have a pretty serious graphic design career … it was like doing two full-time jobs.
Why do you do it?
Why do I do it? I don’t know. Doing the paintings this year made my design work much more minimalistic, so they fed off each other. I was doing some mind-numbing corporate thing for two-and-a-half years, and then, you know, began doing these obsessive paintings.
Are you an obsessive person?
I don’t know … I don’t know. My husband’s an artist and he paints and works all the time. He’s like a natural artist in that way and I never was. You know, we have this house in Connecticut where we were going for three-day weekends and I don’t have any children. I really was lonely up there. I didn’t have anything to do in the winter. I was very disconnected. I began doing it out of loneliness. As a matter of fact, when I had the first show, I felt almost embarrassed for people to see what I did with my time.
The one thing that really interested me about your map paintings was the deliberate misspellings in them. Spelling is in some ways political, a sign as to whether you’re educated or not, but the idea of correct spelling is a relatively new thing. In the 16th century you could spell almost any way you liked, and it’s changing nowadays with texting and so on.
Part of the misspelling in the paintings I really feel is ‘mistake-ism’, where you make a mistake and allow that to be part of the painting and [it] becomes part of the register, the inaccuracies … for me as a designer, because you’re working on other people’s material, you’re proofreading corrections, spelling mistakes, and all those things have to be taken care of every day on the job … so the idea of not having to do it was fantastic. Totally liberating!
Do you think as human beings that we’re attracted to codes? A lot of your [graphic design] work seems to be close to something like making code.
Oh totally. I’ve seen in my profession how we’ve moved from a language that was about slogan-ing to a purely visual landscape where people recognize messages by seeing a piece of a mark, or recognizing a style of a designer without actually reading.
It’s very tribal, isn’t it?
I guess it’s both primitive and advanced at the same time.
I also read that many times you do things very instinctively, that you know right away what you want to do but something like Citibank, – wouldn’t they expect you to spend like two years on it? [Paula famously sketched the new logo for the merged Travelers Group and Citicorps, the largest merger in history, on a napkin in just a few seconds].
Well yeah, it was a horrible problem because I didn’t. And it was exposed right away, so I had to prove it over two years. The thing is the companies always want to pay you for the process, not really for the work.
I don’t know that much about graphic design but when I started poking around on the web, I began to get this impression of this intense little club, snobby, prickly, very opinionated, and strange … all obsessed with obscure typefaces and particular fonts and soon? Is that a true impression?
Oh yes, very geeky that way. That’s very true. Because it’s a craft and the craft comes with very specific knowledge about silly little things that don’t matter. There’s a guy that made a film about a typeface called ‘Helvetica’. I’m actually in it.
What is your role in it?
I’m one of the anti-Helvetica people. Helvetica, you know what it is? It’s a very clean typeface. The intention of it was that it would create order and everything would always be orderly … when I went to college in the 60s it was the language of corporations, corporations that supported the Vietnam war. So I viewed it as the typeface of the Vietnam war, the establishment typeface. So I naturally rebelled against it. I still won’t use it if I don’t have to. It’s a perfectly beautiful type font but I have that association with it.
You are extraordinarily good at expressing yourself verbally. Is that something that has pushed your career further than most? Visual people are often not so good with words.
You have to be capable of speaking well if you’re dealing with clients. Illustrators are different. Illustrators are hired by art directors who protect them — they’re the verbal ones. The problem with that is that very often they work in low-paid situations where they can get ripped off, and it’s because they’re not verbal. They haven’t been able to present and protect their work appropriately. But if you meet with the top 20 designers in the country, you will find that they’re all verbal.
What are you like to work for? What are you like as a boss?
Oh you’d have to ask them. I’m really close with my staff. They’re like my family. I stay in touch with them for most of their careers. They’re lovely.
You married and remarried the same man – that’s quite an exclusive club to belong to … how many people do that!?
A surprising amount. He’s 17 years older than me … the first time, we were the right people [for each other] but I was too young. He was too famous and I felt I had to be my own person. I hadn’t even owned my own apartment or worked on my own.
Is being well-known important to you?
[hesitates …] I don’t know … it’s important to me in relationship to getting things done. It’s a blessing and curse. In terms of working with clients, it’s terrific because my reputation precedes me in some way. On the other hand amongst designers, it’s actually a bit of a pain because you get both adulation and criticism, which is not interesting.
It’s a funny thing that designers can be famous now.
Yeah, it is a very funny thing because we were the bottom of the barrel. It really is a bit stupid now that you mention it! And the ‘starchitects’ are the kings. Well, you’re in the design decade – don’t you know that?!
Are you good at relaxing? What do you do at your country house?
I like to cook. I garden. I talk to my girlfriends for a really long time on the telephone.
What do you like to cook?
Northern Italian cooking. I don’t like to bake. I like lots of chopping … I can spend hours in the kitchen doing that … I can sink a whole of bottle of red wine that way …