Lester Beall, USA (1954)
A self-taught graphic designer who grew up in Chicago and freelanced there (1927–35), before moving to New York. He has been called a ‘trailblazer of American design’. Was the first to receive a one-man exhibit at NY MoMA (1937) and post humously a Lifetime Award by the AIGI in 1993. He did it all: identities, advertising, packaging, product styling, posters, books, reports, magazines, murals and interiors for clients like the Rural Electrification Administration, Container Corporation of America (CCA), Chicago Tribune, Collier’s and Time magazine. In 1955 he moved his studio to Dumbarton Farm in Brookfield, CT. Lester read a lot, and blended Jan Tschichold’s New Typography with Dada’s intuitive placement of elements and also made playful use of 19th-century American wood type. He was an early innovator in the development of the design manual as a major tool in corporate identity programmes. On top of all this, he was the chief proponent of the American modernist design movement.
Lester Beall was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and studied at Lane Technical School and Chicago University. In 1927, he set up his office in Chicago. Two aspects of his early work created an interesting interaction that Beall retained throughout his professional life. One side was Beall the artist, infatuated with the freedom of the artist’s language; the other side was the designer, captivated by the Bauhaus ideology – absorbed by the discipline of visual engineering. Chicago was the crucible of Beall’s early development. In 1935, he moved to New York, which offered a stimulating climate of ideas and sophisticated exchange. In 1937, he designed a complete series of educational and informational posters for the Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal agency. These posters incorporated new visual ideas by Paul Klee, Herbert Bayer, Kurt Schwitters, Jan Tschichold and others of the vanguard European schools. By then, Beall had thoroughly assimilated these ideas so that they provided only the remote background to his own personal American idiom. Public and professional reaction to his work was immediate and completely enthusiastic. The spectator was instantly gripped by his excitingly different graphic composition.
He was an unconventional design rhetoric employing contrast and incongruity, scale, bold abstract shapes, thrusting perspective, and a shocking introduction of punctuation marks and typographic devices, like his cover design for photo engravers, an illustration for McCall’s magazine or Modern Art 500 Years Ago. Beall did not try to impose a fixed style on each problem. If there was a Beall imprint, it was the mark of his personality and aesthetic philosophy. He worked in New York until 1951, designing a prodigious range of material for all forms of graphic communication – packages, ads, booklets, corporate identities and exhibitions. After 1951, he sought the tranquillity of his home and farm in Connecticut. This was neither retirement nor isolation, for Beall established his complete design studio in this new farm environment. He did as he said at the time, ‘learn to see rather than just look at things.’ In the galaxy of American graphic design, Lester Beall holds a special position. He remains to us a pioneer, one of the experimental visionaries who joined the links of our chain of knowledge. He saw farther and more daringly at a time when his contemporaries looked and saw not.
Biography text taken from AGI by FHK Henrion