A Look Into the Life of Seymour Chwast: A Biography

     Known for his unique variety of illustration and graphics, it had been no wonder that, American, left-handed, designer, Seymour Chwast, was able to make his mark within the world of design. Chwast began to make a reputation for himself around the late 1950s. His works exuded various senses of playfulness and expressiveness that brought in a new wave of design at the time. Throughout his career, Chwast has achieved many things including winning awards, working with leading corporations, having his work be displayed in multiple exhibitions, and becoming one among the founding partners of Push Pin Studios.

     Seymour Chwast was born in the Bronx, New York City in 1931. According to the Seymour Chwast Archive (Source A), At the age of seven, Chwast developed a fascination with painting, drawing, and animation. Such fascination was influenced by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and other media such as the Sunday funnies, serial movies. Because of these interests, he started attending Works Progress Administration (WPA)-sponsored art classes in 1938. Later on, Chwast will move from the Bronx to Coney Island. Although he may have not realized it at the time, this move was one of the stepping stones that lead to his successful career. 

     Once in Coney Island, Chwast was enrolled in Abraham Lincoln High School as an elite “Art Squad”. Abraham Lincoln High wasn’t your run-of-the-mill high school. While the school did serve general academics, this school had also provided vast knowledge of the arts that geared young minds into the world of graphic design. It was at this school where Chwast met Leon Friend, one of the high school’s art teachers, and was introduced to graphic design. As an elite “Art Squad” member, Chwast, along with other members, put their skills to the test and created various banners, posters, and other materials, on-demand, for school events and social causes. Friend believed there was no satisfaction better than to have an artist’s work published, so under Friend’s guidance, Chwast was encouraged to enter any contest open to him. Chwast did eventually win one and had his first illustration, a drawing of himself dancing at a party, be published in of the issues of Seventeen (whose art director was Cipe Pineles at the time).

     During his studies at this school, Chwast also gained an appreciation for expressionism. On Saturdays, Chwast would take the bus from Coney Island to Manhattan and often ate his lunch while admiring the paintings put on display in front of the Museum of Modern Art. He was presented to numerous works by Frans Masereel, Georges Rouault, and Ben Shaun who impacted the young designer.

      In 1948, Chwast graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School and later enrolled in New York’s Cooper Union. During his time at Cooper as an illustration and graphic design major, Chwast learned he excelled as a nonconformist. He became influenced by the graphic works of Ben Shahn, Georges Rouault, Georg Groszand, Honoré Daumier whose styles intertwined with Chwast’s surreal comedy and illustrations. It was also during his studies at the Cooper Union, where he met Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser (Reynold Ruffins joined shortly later), with whom he would found Push Pin Studios, a progressive force in the field graphic design which specializes in its uniqueness in collaboration. But Push Pin Studios wasn’t his first freelance business he developed while attending Cooper Union. Because Cooper Union was more interested in abstract concepts at the time, Chwast realized he wouldn’t be able to create his illustrations in the way he wanted. So in his second year, he, Glaser, and Ruffins established a studio called Design Plus. However, this business long opportunities came between the trio. Although the initial business was short-lived it went on to become greater (turning into Push Pins) down the line. 

     After Chwast graduated from Cooper Union in 1951, and before Push Pin Studios took off, in 1953, the group (minus Glaser) published the first issue of the Push Pin Almanack. This self-promotional piece was designed to show prospective clients what they’re capable of. Because of this publication, they were able to do great things going forward with Push Pin Studios.

     In 1954, Push Pin Studios was officially established. It was fairly easy to make a start-up at the time, with low costs as well, so it was easy to create the business. On the other hand, it took Push Pin a while to progress, but in the end, it was a success. When the studio adopted the pushpin methodology, it caused an uproar in the design community. Many saw this movement as an excerpt from the American Institute of Graphic Arts written on Seymour Chwast (Source B) would put it, it was an “effective means of showing off the studio’s talents, but proved to be a major influence on the design and art direction of the late Fifties and early Sixties, specifically in the convergence of illustration and design.”

     The 1960s could best be described as Chwast’s experimental phase. As stated in Source A, Chwast experimented in many genres including “primitive folk art, surrealism, expressionist woodcuts, and photomontage” he even went back to past and borrowed inspirations from the “Victoriana, art nouveau, and art deco” periods. 

     In the 1970s, “The Push Pin Style” made itself known overseas. The style makes its appearance in the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which was a huge accomplishment seeing as this was the first time that graphic design had been shown at the museum. It wasn’t long before the exhibit went from to Paris, and toured all the way through Europe and Japan. As stated in the Archives, around this time was when Chwast took to direct Push Pin, as his partners were developing their own studios, and leading the studio for the next 40 years.

     As we make our way in the 1980s, Chwast (Now in his early fifties) continues to make strides in graphic design. In 1984, Chwast was Inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame and a year later he became the Director of the Pushpin Group. Around this time, Chwast also published his first monograph: The Left-Handed Designer (Harry N. Abrams, New York). 

     Today, Chwast’s pieces are still nothing more than extraordinary as he continues to not stray from his expressive nature. Chwast brought a lot to his name. As stated in the Push Pin Inc Website (Source C) Chwast “ [became] a member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame, … a recipient of the AIGA Medal,… holds honorary PhDs from Parsons School of Design, and the Rhode Island School of Design.” Now Chwast lives in New York with his wife Paula Scher, also an american graphic designer. Needless to say, Chwast is one of the greatest graphic designers in history. 



Works Cited: 

Source A: http://seymourchwastarchive.com/chronology/

Source B: https://www.aiga.org/medalist-seymourchwast

Source C: http://www.pushpininc.com/about/seymour/