Designer by day, fine artist by nature, Paula Scher's mastery of typography is all self-taught. Vicki Atkinson talks to her about her extensive portfolio of work.
With a career spanning 35 years so far, Paula Scher continues to set standards in graphic design with bold imagery and a highly illustrative approach to typography. She holds the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design 2000, and American Institute of Graphic Arts Medal 2001. If the name doesn't ring a bell, the body of work will. Scher's massively influential designs have appeared on album covers, advertisements, gallery walls and on the outside of huge buildings - even the side of a public toilet in Madison Square Park.
Scher is well known for her exceptional talent as a fine artist and her work can be seen in permanent collections of, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Library of Congress, Washington DC; the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Recently her series of large, colourful and intricate painted maps filled with densely packed names and figures have received critical acclaim.
This lifelong passion for art successfully complements and fuels her proverbial 'day job' of designer. Scher is a partner at the New York office of internationally renowned design agency, Pentagram. During her 17 years at the company, she's conceived identities, packaging and editorial design for HP, Bloomberg, Citi, GQ, The New York Times and numerous cultural institutions including The New York City Ballet.
Scher's career began in the 1970s, before computers became the bedrock of design. She worked at CBS and Atlantic records, designing and outputting hundreds of album covers in a year. "I started out by having to teach myself typography," remembers Scher. "At that time it was really just Helvetica and the grid, and I rebelled against that." She began to look for alternative, more expressive typefaces. "I became very interested in historical faces, because they were so outrageous - incredibly bold, or with lascivious curves - and I started to recognise characters and type in relation to a period."
Because of this understanding, Scher began, and continues, to use typography as a highly expressive form. "It was a slow period of learning; at first I was imitating, then expressing myself."
A hands-on approach is in her nature and is reflected in her personal artwork. The Maps series - the latest additions to which were recently on show at the Maya Stendhal Gallery in New York - has developed over the last decade and reveals her love of letterforms as well as a passion for geography. Each of the 12 maps represents the world, a country, area or continent as she herself sees it. The huge paintings include a map of the world, twelve feet wide and eight feet high, a map of America with every single city name, and one depicting the area affected by the 2005 tsunami with letterforms radiating from the epicentre. The landmasses are painted by eye and the hundreds and thousands of words painstakingly painted in. The shapes, colours, angles and size of the letters are expertly used to reflect Scher's own view of the mapped area, making each work of art a statement. The bold Bollywood colours in Scher's map of India contrast with the greys of her depiction of Africa.
While not part of her work at Pentagram, this freedom to paint and play with handwritten typography without a client brief clearly feeds the designer's day job. So with such a passion for the hands-on approach, did the advent of using computers for graphic and typographic design seem like cheating? Not at all. "It's like using a washing machine: are you a bad person because you don't wash all your clothes by hand on a rock? I think that the current climate of technology is the best there's ever been for typography. It's so easy to work with: things are drawn and can be realised very beautifully."
Scher is well-known in New York for her inspiring creations for the wealth of cultural institutions in the city: The Metropolitan Opera, The Public Theater and Symphony Space are just a few who have had the Scher treatment. Earlier this year, Scher's new identity and promotional campaign for the New York City Ballet was launched in line with the dance company's new winter programme. The stunning range of posters, magazine ads and environmental graphics for the entrance and lobby features striking black-and-white photography of the performers by Nick Heavican. Scher has cropped in closer to the performers for a dramatic look, and their close positions echo the stacked and layered nature of the new logo. The words are set in DIN in greys and black with a slight transparency to create a look that reflects the city's skyline. "The identity is designed to be powerful and graceful at the same time, like the company," says Scher on her Pentagram blog. "It looks like the city's ballet."
Stroll past the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and you'll be struck by the incredible array of graphics designed by Scher. What began as a brown brick building was completely transformed in 2004 with an impressive lick of paint. Bright and colourful, the giant words relate to the nature of performing arts, aiding the centre to stand out as an influential cultural institution.
Environmental graphics form an ever-increasing part of Scher's portfolio. She loves her typefaces as big and bright as they come. "It is good fun!" she says. "The main problem with the work is that it takes so long." Many environmental graphics projects have been collaborations with architects, including the 42nd Street Studios, Bloomberg and the Children's Museum in Pittsburgh and it can be an incredibly detailed process. "If you're doing environmental graphics that have lighting inside, you need to figure out your designs at a very early stage, because they've got to get the wiring in - you have to look at the plans and anticipate what the finished building will be like."
The attraction of the longevity of an environmental design is undeniable, but there's something to be said for the throwaway world of the newspaper or magazine. "It's satisfying to do an illustration for The New York Times and have it appear the next day. But on the other hand, it's in the trash the day after and the building's up forever..." muses Scher.
2008 is Scher's 60th year and her success shows no signs of slowing - her contributions to popular and commercial culture go on. The wealth of dynamic, trendsetting work demonstrates her inspiring and innovative approach to typography. But, surprisingly, this comes without sitting in front of a screen all day. As partner at Pentagram, Scher works with a dedicated team of designers, developing concepts and fulfilling briefs together. "Everything is done by computer in my team, but I don't operate them. I don't type. I look at typography, I point, I make sketches. Sometimes I sit with them and I think it should be bigger, moved over, should do that - it's a collaborative thing. Sometimes I say one thing and they don't understand quite what I mean and they do something else, and I look at it and say, 'Wow! That's good!' Those accidents only happen when you're working with someone else."
Seventeen years at one company is testament to Pentagram's unique structure and approach to design in many of its forms. "The thing that is attractive about Pentagram is that it's a broad practice: we don't just make magazines, we don't just make book jackets, we don't just do identities, we don't just anything - we do a little bit of everything. You can go from working on a building to working on a cover for the book review to working on a packaging project." The perfect fit for an artist, designer and typographer with Scher's eclectic talents.