Diana ben-Aaron / PORTFOLIO / Columbia RW I / Nov 11 1992


Few people have heard of George Tscherny, but anyone who has walked down W. 42nd Street or thumbed through a pile of annual reports has seen his work.

Tscherny designs logos and images for corporate clients including W.R. Grace, Millipore, the San Francisco Clothing Company, and Herman Miller.  During the 1960s and 1970s, he helped raise the annual report from a dull booklet of statistics to an aesthetic enterprise.

For innovations like this, the School of Visual Arts (S.V.A.) honored Tscherny, 68, with its annual Master Contributor to the Visual Arts award on Tuesday night.  A gallery show of his work - ranging from a poster for a charity auction to a booklet on toilet pull chains - is open to the public at S.V.A. (209 E. 23rd Street) through Oct. 23.

"While Tscherny ... is primarily concerned with solutions to commercial problems, such exacting economy of means is employed that the work contributes also in its clarity, precision, and taste to the enhancement of our visual landscape," wrote S.V.A. founder Silas Rhodes in the exhibition catalog.

Tscherny, who taught at the school from 1965 to 1995, designed the gallery show to explain how he makes business communications appear more human.  Most often, he brings people to the forefront, supplementing staring, "in-your-face" portraits with images of human possessions and handwriting.  The exhibit has been popular with students as well as the public, said Anne Marie Gong, a Visual Arts student who helped install the works.

The charity auction poster used another favorite Tscherny trick: the visual pun.  Since the auction was an art sale to be held over breakfast, he photographed an ornate picture frame with an oval opening, then drew a yellow dot in the opening - framing an egg.

The "Pull and Let Go" booklet used another gimmick: the collection.  Champion Papers assigned Tscherny to design a brochure that would show off its printing papers to other designers.  He photographed 19 pull chains in old-fashioned bathrooms, then arranged the prints like places in an art book opposite a running text asking why the handles are so often adorned with the obvious command "Pull."  Only one handle, in Italy, bears more useful information: a plumber's advertisement.

An upcoming brochure for Champion will showcase house numbers.  In France, Tscherny said, numbers are printed on standard navy blue plaques.  In Germany, the plaques are white, and in Berlin an arrow is added to indicate which way the numbers run.  Japanese houses have no numbers.

In the United States, there is no legal standard for house numbers, although a few popular styles lead hardware store sales.  "Who designed these numbers anyway?" asked Tscherny, flashing a slide of a wrought-iron script "8."  For his own work, he prefers industrial-looking sans serif typefaces.

Tscherny first began photographing house numbers when he returned to visit the Berlin house his family fled shortly before World War II.  He finished high school in New York, served in the U.S. Army, then went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn on the G.I. Bill.  "The first year was like walking through a swamp," he said, but the second year he got one inspired teacher - Herschel Levit - and never seriously questioned his vocation again.

A young designer in the audience asked what advice Tscherny had for novices.  "I don't collect duck decoys, and that should tell you something," the designer replied, peering over his half-glasses.  "How many people collect house numbers?  Always zig when everyone else is zagging."

Currently Tscherny is zagging by rejecting automation.  He decried the current fad of "hype with type" - relying on the now-large menu of canned typefaces to achieve effects.  Throughout his career, he has stuck to a small family of simple, even bland fonts.  "It's a challenge to express a variety of things with one typeface."  When redesigning the logo of Texas Gulf, a mining company, he convinced management to change the name to Texasgulf so he could use "Tg" which looks like a chemical element symbol, suggesting the company's technical roots.

Modifying type to create logos used to be "a tedious and time-consuming drafting effort," he added, citing a 1970 poster in which he made the figures "70" gradually emerge from the background over a series of frames.  "But now programmatic rendering has been extremely simplified with the use of the computer, I have lost interest in it."

Today he uses more handmade, serendipitous graphics like brush drawings and Rorschach-like blots.  His logo for the San Francisco Clothing Company, a New York store, is a pink spraypainted "SF" that pops off the textured black-and-white photos used in advertisements.

Good design varies with the times, Tscherny points out: One year's fresh symbol is the next year's cliche.  Ideas of humor change as well.  In 1970 he drew a hand with two fingers crossed for the cover of a book about contraception for college women.  He doesn't think he could get away with that today.

Like all designers, Tscherny has had his share of disagreements with clients.  One of the most memorable involved a commission to design a U.S. stamp honoring the centennial of the telephone.  Tscherny favored an all-text design with the word "hello," which recalled the first telephone conversation and also "would have allowed the sender of the letter to greet the recipient before even opening the envelope."

"I was very persistent in trying to argue the point, but apparently the Postmaster General can't be argued with," Tscherny recalled.  The Post Office chose another of his designs, which spread a double-belled telephone receiver across two adjacent stamps.  Later he learned Alexander Graham Bell believed telephones should be answered "Hoy, hoy" instead of "hello," so the all-text design was historically inaccurate.