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From Ulm to Minneapolis: Tracing Peter Seitz’s Modernist Traditions

Purchase Peter Seitz: Designing a Life at the Walker Shop. fig. 1 Have you ever questioned how you would create an entire book about the work of another graphic designer? It seems, more often than not, that monographs do not concern designers. Rather, they encompass the works of a visual artist, photographer, filmmaker, etc. Perhaps […]

Purchase Peter Seitz: Designing a Life at the Walker Shop.

Seitz_WAC.jpgfig. 1

Have you ever questioned how you would create an entire book about the work of another graphic designer? It seems, more often than not, that monographs do not concern designers. Rather, they encompass the works of a visual artist, photographer, filmmaker, etc. Perhaps the disproportionate number of designer monographs is due to the fact that few designers create a consistent style for themselves. Or is it, simply, that most designers do not yield the quality of work that is suitable for something as “artful” as a monograph? For me, the thought of composing a book that appropriately reflected the work of a highly experienced graphic designer, without allowing my own design or typographic treatments to infringe upon, misrepresent or overshadow their work, was a challenging, but thought provoking notion. Surely, I would have never guessed that my first contribution for a large book (or a monograph for that matter) would be in honor of Peter Seitz[1], one of the most influential graphic designers to ever work in Minneapolis—a designer and a teacher who I and many others in the profession owe a debt of gratitude toward.

Peter Seitz: Designing a Life is a soon to be released monograph, published by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of AIGA Minnesota. The book tells the story of Seitz’s esteemed training at both the Hochschule fr Gestaltung Ulm (HfG Ulm) and Yale University, his pioneering work for the Walker Art Center, his establishment of several visionary design studios in Minneapolis, as well as his commitment to design teaching at MCAD. Accompanying the book’s essays and an interview with Seitz are eighty-plus pages of full-color project images, defining each period of Seitz’s career as a visual communicator.

The opportunity to become the designer of Peter Seitz: Designing a Life arose while I was working as a senior designer at DesignWorks, a student-employed studio hosted by MCAD, which produces professional design projects from beginning to end. The studios director, Pam Arnold, who was once a student under Peter Seitz, was able to secure Kolean Pitner (design historian and faculty member at the College of Visual Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota) and Bruce N. Wright (a former colleague with Seitz and editor of Fabric Architecture magazine) as the writers for the book. Also asked to join the team was Andrew Blauvelt (Design Director and Curator, Walker Art Center) who served as the design director and as an essayist for the book. Aside from our primary group of contributors, we were all very fortunate to receive assistance from many talented people from MCAD, the Walker Art Center and AIGA Minnesota.[2] Contributions from the staffs of each of these institutions was most fitting considering that all were the grounds for some of Seitz’s most renowned accomplishments.

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Throughout the duration of this project, we met with Peter on multiple occasions. Each visit brought new and intriguing stories: from his time as a student at HfG Ulm)[fig. 2], to assisting Max Bill in the printing of one of his posters[fig. 3], in receiving harsh critiques from Paul Rand at Yale University, as well as his initial interests in computer aided graphic design.

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But perhaps the most compelling of them all were the stories that Peter told describing some specific moments during his time as Curator of Design and Editor of Design Quarterly at the Walker Art Center (a position he held from 1964 to 1968)[fig. 1]. During one of our visits, we had some actual samples of his work on hand and when he came across the piece he had designed for the 1966 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture (a call for entries)[fig. 4], he described to us the challenge of seeking approval for his then, unconventional design. Seitz contested that he was the singular member of the Walker Art Center’s design studio in the mid-1960s and he explained how he often had no one to show his design sketches or ideas to. Instead, Seitz had made a habit of reporting to Martin Friedman, the Walker’s director (Friedman was director from 1961 to 1990). In the particular instance of this piece for the 1966 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture, Friedman had attempted to persuade Seitz to eliminate the skewed and overprinting grey type, suggesting that it was redundant and too progressive for a Midwest audience. Seitz then explained to us that he had insisted on standing by his design solution, arguing that its ability to communicate was not compromised.

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As I have become more and more familiar with Seitz’s body of work, it was this very project (and the story of) that I came to appreciate the most. Created in a bold European modernist aesthetic, the simple elements (sans serif type and graphic colors) allow for the overprinting typographic composition to function as an unforgettable graphic style. Interestingly enough, this expression of overprinting and abstracted typography can be traced back to Seitz’s work as an undergraduate student at HfG Ulm. It was here that Seitz had hand-rendered a similar, skewed and overprinting, composition titled Exactness through Inexactness, 1956.[fig. 5] This compositional exercise was one that was conceived by HfG Ulm instructor Toms Maldonado and is at times referred to as “imprecision with precise means.” The concept being that a precise or an exact method–for example, something as precise as an arrangement of halftone dots or a typographic composition–can be repeated and rotated very slightly to, in effect, create an imprecise or inexact formation.

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During his tenure at the Walker Art Center, Seitz went on to produce many stylistically similar and equally as distinctive pieces to his design for the 1966 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture: In a poster for an exhibition titled Prints from London[fig. 6], Seitz intentionally decreased the leading in between the words of the exhibitions title to create an overprinting and repeating pattern of type; While in another poster for the 1968 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture[fig. 7], Seitz again utilized overprinting and repeating typography to bring emphasis and abstraction upon the word “biennial”.

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These examples are just some of the many nuances found throughout Seitzs work that can be admired. And as the designer of the book, it was my intention to showcase these projects in an engaging fashion. One way in which I could explicitly achieve this was with the cover wrap for the book. On the poster side of this wrap, Seitz’s most graphic and memorable works (many of them posters) from throughout his career are arranged as an amalgamation of modernist designs. While as a means of referencing the inexact process of gathering Seitz’s original works for documentation, these posters are composed in a more human, insouciant way that offsets Seitz’s strong dedication to the grid. Additionally, the wrap for the book’s cover has the ability to be folded in two different ways[fig. 8--11], thus creating two different “framings” of Seitz’s work when folded around the cover.

To learn more about Seitz, his instrumental design studios, his many accomplishments and his substantial influence on a large generation of designers, see Peter Seitz: Designing a Life, available in early November at the Walker Art Center bookshop and through the AIGA Minnesota website.

Notes:

1. The following is an abbreviated biography of Peter Seitz’s educational and professional accomplishments:

Peter Seitz was born in Schwabmnchen, Germany in 1931. After attending the Augsburg Academy of Arts in Augsburg, Germany, Seitz went on to study visual communication at the Hochschule fr Gestaltung Ulm (HfG Ulm) from 1955 to 1959. At HfG Ulm, Seitz studied under such influential designers as Max Bill, Otl Aicher, Toms Maldonado and Walter Zeischegg.

Following his time at HfG Ulm, Seitz arrived in the United States to study graphic design and photography at Yale University with Paul Rand, Norman Ives, Bradbury Thompson and Herbert Matter. In 1961, Seitz graduated from Yale with a MFA degree in graphic design and photography.

Seitz’s early professional career is defined by his time as a designer with the architectural firm I.M. Pei and Associates, as a faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore and as Curator of Design and Editor of Design Quarterly at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

After leaving the Walker Art Center in 1968, Seitz established his first studio, Visual Communications, Inc., in Minneapolis. Then, joining with various partners specializing in architecture and design, Seitz helped to establish one of his most momentous studios, InterDesign Inc., which focused on multidisciplinary projects.

While continuing on with his professional endeavors (within studios such as Seitz Yamamoto Moss and Peter Setiz and Associates), Seitz also became an involved and successful design instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 1996, MCAD honored Seitz with the title professor emeritus. Seitz, now retired, lives in rural Pepin, Wisconsin.

2. Contributors affiliated with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design include: Pam Arnold, Director of DesignWorks; Vince Leo, President of Academic Affairs; Mike O’Keefe, President of MCAD; Rik Sferra, Photographer; and Patrick Kelley, Alumni Photographer. At the Walker Art Center: Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator; Pamela Johnson, Editor; Greg Beckel, Image Production Specialist; Cameron Wittig, Photographer; Gene Pittman, Photographer; and Barb Economan, Archivist. At AIGA Minnesota: Jim Madson, President.

  • Keith Christensen says:

    Hello Ryan,

    Thanks for posting this experience of yours with Peter Seitz. It is great to see a reflection on his ideas, influence and career. I like the style of your writing too.

    I was a student of Peter’s in the mid 90′s. I was helped by him in weekly conversations as a grad student and later. I was lucky to have known him. Now I teach graphic design at SCSU.

    Best regards,

    Keith

  • Ryan Nelson says:

    Keith,

    Thank you for your comments! I’m glad that you enjoyed the blog post. As you can imagine, there are many interesting (and blog-worthy) stories about Peter and his work–I may post more soon.

    It must have been an honor to be one of Peter’s students. There is actually a section of the book filled with excerpts and insights from many of Peter’s students and which describes the influence he had upon them.

    Thanks again Keith. Best of luck this semester at SCSU!

  • Jeff Ivarson says:

    I worked for Peter in the early 70′s and would like his email address. Thank you.

  • Jamie Pulley says:

    I had the tremendous privilege of studying under Peter Seitz while an undergrad at MCAD in the late ’90s. I found him to be a very warm person despite that gruff German exterior. I learned a lot from him too, and mostly gained more confidence in myself as a graphic designer as a result. I can’t wait to get a copy of his book!