Formerly – Kramer Design Associates. Now – Painter
Burton is perhaps one of Canada’s most important designers. He paved the way for the ‘International Style’ to reach Canadian shores when he moved to Toronto in 1965. His work for Expo ’67 and identity work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation are celebrated icons of Canadian design. He’s won numerous awards for his design work including receiving The Order of Ontario and also being one of the first Canadians to become a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).
In 2001 Burton decided to shift his attention to painting, which still retain the hallmarks of his fascination with geometric forms.
How did you become a designer … before design was even considered career choice? What was it like being a student of an entirely new discipline? And when did you truly consider yourself a designer in the modern sense?
I was a student (age 18) at New York State University in Oswego, A teacher came from California to teach art and (very) basic design. I took his courses, became fascinated. That year I read much of the library, saw early French, Italian, Swedish and German (now classic) films. My teacher suggested I apply to The Institute of Design (The New Bauhaus) in Chicago and helped me prepare my application. I thought furniture design was for me because of my love of wood.
The I.D. (institute of Design) was exciting. With teachers from Finland, Switzerland, Italy and the U.S. I had a part time job, from 5 to 10pm, took the streetcar home to my room, made dinner, did school work until 2a.m., then got up and did it again, for the entire year. My marks were 5 A’s and a B. I became a “scholarship student” for the next year. I was poor, and often hungry.
To help keep food on the table I worked as a model maker, a hand type setter, a printer (running a platen press), a cabinet maker, etc. I devoured every book I could find on art and design, though not much was available on design.
As I reached graduation. I realized how little I knew, and applied to the graduate program (one of the very few) at Yale. My teachers were Bradbury Thompson, Alexey Brodovitch, Herbert Matter and Paul Rand. I worked part time as a chauffeur, gardener and bar tender. After one semester my application (from Chicago) for a Fulbright Scholarship was approved. I was off to The Royal College of Art in London for a year. A bought a very small motorcycle and traveled to Spain and Later to Copenhagen. I stayed briefly in Paris.
Yale gave me a tuition scholarship that enabled me to return and finish my last year. After all this, I still did not really know much about preparing “art” for reproduction. There were almost no books on up to date design, and the discovery of the “international style’ was yet to come. Finishing my degree at Yale, I applied for a job in New York, and was hired by Will Burtin, a German refugee (his wife was Jewish), The office was in midtown Manhattan, and had been the office of Alvin Lustig, another designer whose work I admired.
After one year, a former classmate at Yale asked me to join her. I became assistant Art Director at The Architectural Record magazine. I started to think I was a designer.
I became assistant Art Director at New York Life Insurance and designed and produced many brochures, and other corporate documents.
A young woman with whom I’d worked at Will Burtin’s office told me there was a job where she was now working, at Geigy Chemical and Pharmaceutical Corp., a Swiss owned company in Ardsley, New York. I was hired to design all the dyestuffs advertising, the company magazine, advertising and promotion for industrial chemicals, traveling exhibitions, and more. I had become a designer!
I was working alongside of Swiss designers and the Swiss design consultant, Gottfried Honegger and work of mine was accepted in the New York Art Directors Show.
The late 50’s & early 60’s saw an explosion in the theory of design – with the likes of Josef Müller – Brockmann (Grid Systems in Graphic Design) and the emergence of the ‘Swiss Style’. You were smack bang in the middle of it. Were you aware of what was happening around you culturally and that you were helping shape design for decades to come?
After several years at Geigy, where I met my wife to be, we were married in Basel, Switzerland, her home town. After a year back in New York, living in a brownstone floor through in Brooklyn heights, we decided to try to move to Switzerland. We packed, took a boat to Germany, picked up a white VW Beatle at the factory, filled it with our belongings and drove to Basel. I looked for a job.
The Erwin Halpern agency in Zurich offered me immediate work. We moved to Zurich, I started work and trying to learn Swiss dialect (not taught at Berlitz). The chief designer left; I became the “atelier chef”, art director of the Agency.
My work won awards, was exhibited in Switzerland and was published in Graphis and other design annuals. I had no idea about the emergence of “The Swiss” or “International Style’.
A lot of your iconic work utilizes patterns, repetition and simple geometric forms. It seems to be a reoccurring theme – even continuing into your paintings today. What attracts you to pattern & geometry?
When I was just out of school, working in New York, I came across a book by a man named Baravalle, who taught geometry at the Rudolf Steiner Schools. I was fascinated, and remain so. I equate geometry based graphics and art, combined with interesting and appropriate colour, with the rhythms and percussion of music, another of my great loves.
Do you feel as though Graphic Design today has become somewhat formulaic compared to the freedom afforded in the 60’s and 70’s? What is missing from design today if anything?
Applied intelligence…. Based on a rigorous educational background. Too many don’t read, can’t spell, or put a sentence together properly. And no one seems to care.
Typography and mastering it is the difference between a good designer and a great designer. How did you learn to work with type and who was most influential to you in this area?
I learned to set type at The Institute of Design, where I designed, set type for and printed posters, invitations, and a limited edition book of Lorca’s Lament for The Death of a Bullfighter. At Yale I set type for and printed 400 copies of a French play, “Le Signe”, by a member of the Yale faculty. At Geigy, I watched, as Swiss trained designers worked with grids, and strained their visual acuity placing typographic elements. I learned, and trained my eye through practice.
You taught for 21 years in OCAD. What did you learn from the students during your time there?
I leaned how few related to the creation of design and typography as a discipline, and were prepared to sweat a bit to achieve quality. Those that did, eventually worked in my office.
When you practiced as a designer it was seen almost like a vocation rather than a job, perhaps leading to you becoming an advocate of design through your work with the GDC. What does it take to become a ‘true’ designer?
Determination, stubbornness, an openness to literature, art, design, music, dance, poetry. And some great teachers.
You’ve said before that your favourite piece you worked on was the CBC identity. What is it about that piece that makes it special for you?
It was the scope of the project, the travel, the research, and the multiplicity of applications to be resolved.
Canada’s 150th anniversary is approaching and a lot has been made of the Governments failings in regards the design procurement process – using spec work to generate a logo etc. In your knowledge how is this different to your experience working on the Expo ’67 branding? How should it have been handled?
This same issue has come up many times over the years. The problem is that no one learns from good or bad past experience, and that the people charged with choosing a designer and saying yea or nay most often have had no visual education or experience. “They know not what they do!” But that does not stop them from doing it. They tend to trust their own ill informed instincts more than the advice of an experienced designer.
A recurring theme in graphic design is about ‘Educating your Clients’ – do you see this as the role of the designer, or are bad clients always going to be bad clients? Are they focused on other values that simply conflict with good communication design? Have you ever turned a client around?
For anyone to become educated, they have to have that desire. Great clients see their relationship with a designer as an exciting learning experience, Of course they are focused on other values, the values their education has instilled in them. If you mean “can the designer change someone’s mind set?” I doubt it.
In your career it seems as though design and art often went hand-in-hand. You also received a Masters of Fine Art from Yale. How did fine art go on to inform design throughout your career?
My MFA degree was in Graphic Design, not in fine art. But I have always, for good or for ill, been an artist. At school, I made wood cuts, lithos, etching, engravings, photographs and sculpture, and informed myself in those areas. I was entranced by architecture, and always music.
As a relatively young designer I could never imagine retiring… what led you to finally decide to move from graphic design into fine art and painting – and is the personal satisfaction/reward any different from your time working in design?
I just got very tired of knowing more and more, and the client always starting from ground zero. And horrified by hearing that the colour I’d proposed for a corporate identity reminded them of “pimps and prostitutes”. People tend to relate to what they know. The CBC symbol is “an exploding pizza”. Of course.
You are in your 80’s now – do you feel neglected by design today as a senior? And as someone with a very strong design sensibility are you extra sensitive to poor design solutions offered to older people? What areas could be improved?
Kipling wrote a wonderful short story called “In The Country of The Blind”. A man, lost in a storm in the mountains, stumbles into a community where everyone is blind. In fact, they have been blind for 10 generations, and have no idea what seeing is. He tells them what he sees, and they think he is sick and needs healing. Before they can blind him, he flees.
In 1965, my boss in Toronto, told me that an issue I had with the look of some typography would not bother me in a year. He was dead wrong.
Costenada wrote “How does she dance? She dances with everything she’s got. That’s how she sees.”
I don’t design any longer, but I do make paintings based on the same principals. Over 100 of them can be seen on the web at www.ccca.concordia.ca or at www.burtonkramer.ca.