Graphic design legend George Tscherny passed away in November at the age of 99. He emigrated with his family to the United States prior to World War II to escape the looming threat of Nazism and, after a stint in the Army, studied at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Tscherny emerged as a leading figure in mid-century graphic design, and his client roster grew to read like a “who’s who” of postwar corporate America including Pan American Airways, Colgate Palmolive, RCA, Herman Miller, and American Can.
A thought leader who helped shaped modern graphic design, Tscherny described himself as “a bridge between commerce and art” whose approach was “seeking maximum meaning with minimum means.” In this spirit, he once summarized in nine words to GDUSA editor Gordon Kaye, his fear of digital clutter: “Too many buttons. Too many apps. Too much twitter.” Among his many honors: the AIGA Medal in 1988 and induction into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1997.
There are many comprehensive obituaries that trace George Tscherny’s rise and influence, including a very thorough overview by the School of Visual Arts, where he taught for several years and designed their iconic flower logo. What follows is a brief but poignant personal remembrance of the man from award-winning graphic designer, turned accomplished fine artist, Linda Stillman. Her professional relationship with “Mr. Tscherny” began in 1972 and continued until quite recently. Additional remembrances from friends, colleagues, or mentees are welcome.
Remembrances of George Tscherny (1924-2003)
I worked for Mr. Tscherny from 1972-1974. He was always called “Mr. Tscherny” by us employees. I never got permission … or the nerve to call him anything else. He had asked my type teacher at SVA to recommend students and I got the interview and the job. The school let me leave a month or two shy of the end of the semester and still gave me my graduation certificate. After all, the point of the school was to launch our careers.
I joined two other assistants. My job was doing “paste-ups and mechanicals.” The first day at work, Mr. Tscherny taught me the proper way to hold a pencil and rotate it as I drew a line in order to keep a sharp point. We weren’t allowed to use x-acto knives only single-edged razor blades, more economical, another learning curve.
As time went on, Mr. Tscherny gave me more responsibilities. We were designing the annual report for Colonial Penn life Insurance company and he let me research and find appropriate photographs for the mock up. I used a photo I had taken of my brother’s college graduation. The client liked it so much they bought it and paid me $500!
The office was on the ground floor of a stately brownstone on East 72nd Street. The Tscherny family, his beloved wife Sonia and two charming daughters, Nadia and Carla, lived upstairs. Everything in the office and home was beautifully designed, always neat and ordered. Everything in the place seemed what we now call “curated.” In the office, the radio, tuned to the classical music on WQXR was a constant. I still am unable to work without classical music in the background.
Mr. Tscherny seemed to work constantly. Sonia helped him with the business side of things a well as tending to the household. But on weekends they seemed to relax with visits to art exhibits and walks to Central Park where Mr. Tscherny took photographs, always looking carefully at the world around him. Once in a while they would invite us upstairs for a lovely gourmet meal. Their eclectic art collection included folk art and fine art and reflected Mr. Tscherny’s keen eye. I was inspired by the way the Tschernys integrated work and home, making their life a work of art.
After two years working there I moved on. Eventually I abandoned graphic design to pursue my own art. The Tschernys came to my shows in the city and encouraged me. As recently as September 2021 Mr. Tscherny responded to an email newsletter of mine to say he was proud of me. He signed the email “George.”