Richard Poulin will talk about his former mentor for Modernism Week.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRANDON HARMAN.
Designers and modernism enthusiasts might recall the distinctive Columbia Masterworks record covers from the 1950s, McGraw-Hill Paperbacks from the ’60s, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art shopping bags from the ’70s, but few could associate these designs with Rudolph de Harak.
Until now. The pioneering designer, who boldly propelled typography and graphics from the two-dimensional realm into dynamic public spaces, has finally been immortalized in a monograph: Rudolph de Harak Graphic Designer: Rational Simplicity (Thames & Hudson).
The author is Palm Springs resident Richard Poulin, who joined de Harak’s New York City firm as a staff designer in the ’70s and eventually became partner.
“He changed everything in my life,” Poulin says of his late mentor. “One of the things I learned from him was that [design] is not a practice. It’s a way of seeing, a way of living. I’m still going through that learning process.”
Loaded with familiar designs as well as environmental concepts that include wayfinding, furniture, sculpture, and typography, Poulin’s 408-page volume is a visual spectacle — and the foundation of his Modernism Week presentation Feb. 20 at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater.
Ahead of the event, the designer and educator talked to Palm Springs Life about working with de Harak as well as the designer’s life, philosophy, and legacy.
de Harak's cover designs for Columbia.
EXAMPLES COURTESY RICHARD POULIN
What led you to work for Rudolph de Harak?
I grew up in New York and studied design at Pratt Institute. Getting out of college in the late ’70s, I was going from one dead-end job to another. So, I made a list of 10 designers who I admired, and Rudolph de Harak was at the top. I came up with a portfolio and went in for an interview, which I was surprised I got. The next day, he hired me.
Were you aware of his reputation at the time?
I didn’t know of his reputation, but there were two or three projects in New York City that he did in the ’60s that I knew of — including 127 John Street, which was groundbreaking. It was a galvanized-steel tunnel, 280 feet long, wrapped in neon. It was wild.
One of the things that I learned from him is that there are no lines that you can’t cross as a designer. He would do that tunnel, but then he designed everything in that plaza — the furniture, the sculpture, the murals. In 1968, there were maybe five people in the profession who did that comprehensive, multidisciplinary work.
What was it like to work with de Harak?
It was intense. I wanted to learn from him, so I overlooked a lot. We worked together for 10 years. By 1986, I was a partner, and I managed the office the last three years before he retired. The office was 22 people, which was large for a design firm in New York City.
De Harak was an influential teacher. You followed in those footsteps, too.
Rudy taught at Cooper Union for close to 30 years. He influenced a whole slew of designers. I interviewed a lot of them and put their remembrances and reminiscence in the book. When Rudy took a sabbatical, I took over his class. It went well, and they invited me back. I started teaching in 1983. I always taught visual communications and publication design.
But de Harak had no degree of his own?
He was self-taught. He was introduced to modernism in 1947 in Culver City when he went to two lectures at Art Center. One was with Will Burtin and the other was with György Kepes; they were students of the Bauhaus. When Rudy came out of those lectures, he knew that he had to pursue this. Rather than go to school, he wanted to work.
Why did you eventually launch a new firm?
I wasn’t a designer anymore. I was writing proposals and giving presentations and getting on planes. So, I closed the firm and started from scratch. Nine months later, when I was speaking at a design conference, I met [my husband,] Doug [Morris], who was in a similar situation. We started a firm and were fortunate to have a great roster of clients all over the world. We sold it to our senior staff.
How did you assemble all the material for the book?
The majority of Rudy’s work is at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Cary Graphic Design Archive. I used 400 images from them. Fortunately, other people had collected his McGraw-Hill book covers. A guy in Buffalo, Julian Montague, who was an avid collector, actually gave me the scans. I had the archive from the ’80s, and Rudy’s wife, Carol, put me in touch with a lot of people. It was a great process.
I was surprised to read about de Harak’s friendship with Tony Bennett.
They were lifelong friends. Rudy introduced Tony to the visual world of sketching and painting and art. They both went to the High School of Industrial Art, which became the High School of Art and Design. Tony wanted to go into performing arts but wasn’t accepted. Rudy convinced him to go to industrial art to learn silk screening and technical drawing. Years, later, Tony admitted that was the best thing he ever did, and he was in gratitude to Rudy for that.
De Harak’s environmental graphics, wayfinding, furniture, sculpture, and typography for 127 John Street in New York City.
PHOTO COURTESY RICHARD POULIN.
This is your ninth book and deepest dive into any designer. Will you do this again with another designer?
I am talking with with Thames & Hudson about Deborah Sussman, the Los Angeles–based designer who changed the visual fabric of L.A. for the Olympics in 1984. She was a protégé of Charles and Ray Eames and has a wonderful history. I knew her for many years. Rudy introduced me to her. Deborah died of cancer about eight years ago.
What do you hope resonates with attendees of your Modernism Week presentation?
I hope to enlighten people that modernism is broad and includes many disciplines, including visual communications. The second thing is that there are no lines that can’t be crossed when you want to creatively express yourself. That is something I like to celebrate with Rudy and his story.
Richard Poulin speaks about de Harak Feb. 20. Visit modernismweek.com for info and tickets.