Design New England

Around New England: Alvin Eisenman, Graphic Designer and Teaching Legend

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Alvin Eisenman (1921-2013). Courtesy of Yale School of Art.

Alvin Eisenman may not be a household name beyond the field of graphic design, but he was a mentor to the more than 200 former students and design luminaries who gathered at a memorial service at Yale University in New Haven in late October. An important New England artist, the teacher and book designer died September 3 at the simple modern house he designed and built on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was 92. As Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art noted, “In 1950, when former Bauhaus master, Josef Albers asked typographer Alvin Eisenman to establish a program in graphic design at the school, it was impossible to predict the profound and lasting impact of the appointment on the field and beyond.”

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Eisenman discovered typography under the tutelage of master printer Ray Nash at Dartmouth College (where he also studied with Robert Frost). During World War II, he designed field manuals for the Army Signal Corps. After the war he worked as a book designer, creating the package for the James Boswell papers, and the first edition of Paul Samuelson’s classic textbook Economics.

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Catalogue Raisonné of the works of Jackson Pollock, designed by Alvin Eisenman, 1978.

But it was at Yale, where he taught for more than four decades, that Eisenman put his stamp on design education, setting up the first graphic design program at a major university. He hired teachers such as Paul Rand, creator of iconic corporate logos for UPS (United Parcel Service), ABC (American Broadcasting Corp.), IBM (International Business Machines), Westinghouse, and documentary photographer Walker Evans. As a teacher, Eisenman insisted students learn everything about their craft, including the making of paper. Yet, he embraced technology, bringing computers to Yale before other schools had them and forging working relationships with companies such as GE, IBM, and Apple.

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Copernicus, United States Postage Stamp designed by Alvin Eisenman, 1973.

Known for asking his students to learn all sorts of esoterica, he believed that education should teach young minds how to ask the right questions. As Matthew Carter, the British font designer (he created both Verdana and Georgia) and MacArthur Fellow, remembered, “the best part of my education was lunch with Alvin Eisenman.” Discipline was detrimental if it was not balanced with playfulness: “Work hard but live it up,” was one of his life lessons, said Carter. Eisenman and his wife of 78 years, Hope, loved to give parties at their 1777 farmhouse in Bethany, Connecticut.
In the auditorium of the Yale University Art Gallery (which Eisenman helped architect Louis Kahn set up half a century ago) his students recalled the teacher’s network that helped so many of them find meaningful jobs. Christopher Pullman, a typographer who became WGBH’s first vice president for design, said, “Before the internet was Alvin.”
Eisenman’s very first student was Gillett Griffin, a war veteran who wrote, designed, illustrated, and printed a children’s book, A Mouse’s Tail. Griffin went on to become a renowned pre-Columbian scholar at Princeton University. “. . . I especially admired Alvin Eisenman … He brought extraordinary people to our classes, and also took every student to heart, trying to make sure that everyone did the right thing for their life.”
His love of life also included dancing, and he and Hope often would cut the rug at a roadhouse outside of town to the music of the Galvanized Jazz band, members of which came to play at the memorial, closing the service with “Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” Then the band lead the Eisenman rejoicers (you could not call them mourners) up Chapel Street to the reception, playing “Cake Walkin’ Babies.”

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Copernicus,Galvanized Jazz Band playing at Yale memorial for Alvin Eisenman. Photo by William Morgan.

Great design is always at your fingertips — read the November/December 2013 issue online!

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