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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Quentin Fiore’s Other Work

In 1988, I conducted a three-hour interview with Quentin Fiore, designer/author with Marshall McLuhan of The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. He also designed Jerry Rubin’s Do It! All three had impact on my own underground newspaper design. The raw interview was edited by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and published as a supplement to The Electric Information Age Book (available as a PDF download here) by Schnapp and Adam Michaels for Inventory Press. I recently found some slides of Fiore’s earlier work, which, while not as iconic, was exemplary of the Modernism of the times. I have taken the opportunity to reprint some of that interview below.

You were born in New York? I was: on February 12, 1920.

And you studied at the Art Students League and were in the same class as Paul Rand? Yes. As a matter of fact, Rand was sitting next to me one evening and he brought in some colored paper and chalks. George Grosz was abrasive with him; he said something to the effect that this was all too chi-chi and would he please leave. He wasn’t serious enough for Grosz!

Where did you study with Hans Hoffman? At the Hoffman School. At the time it was on 8th Street, next to the theater on the south side. The nightclub in the basement was the Village Barn. I started out wanting to study painting. Indeed, I did study painting, but there were pressing economic problems. I thought, I can’t do both. I started freelancing, doing lettering and type design, among others for Lester Beall.

So you were studying painting and you had economic problems. How did doing lettering come up? Was it something you had studied? Not at all. Things were simple at that time: It was either eat or don’t eat. I was looking around for something that I could do to survive. And there was a lettering artist in my painting class; he encouraged me. Within three months, I was so ignorant that I became successful! I did things no one else dared do. I built up a small office but had no previous training in the graphic arts, no business experience or anything like that. I did titles and headlines. Oddly enough, people found them fresh and exciting.

Aside from Beall, of the designers who were active when you entered the lettering business, were there any who influenced the way you thought or the way you saw? I felt mostly European influences. Lester was alone, along with Paul Rand. Alvin Lustig came along a little bit later. You see, back in 1938, I had hitchhiked out to Chicago because I had a letter of recommendation from Georg Grosz to Moholy-Nagy, and I was excited about enrolling in the Bauhaus. My companion was the Minimalist sculptor Tony Smith. We were both unknown kids at the time. But I disliked the Bauhaus and returned to New York.

How come? I didn’t want to design pots and pans! Initially [I worked in] advertising, but I also worked for a big agency. I handled some publications and magazines as well for Condé-Nast, McCall’s and others.

In those days, rather than set metal type, they would call in a letterer? This is what we did. Then the business grew. It grew so much that I became tired of it and moved into general design.

How do you define general design? The design of publications, layout work, and the like.

For whom were you doing interiors and layouts? Mostly the Ford Foundation. I had a long relationship with them as consultant-designer and did all their publications.

Your designs for Ford have a distinctly modern sensibility. Very economical. The croppings of the photographs are in a contemporary vein. Did you draw any lessons from the work you were doing for Ford when you put together The Medium is the Massage? No. The Ford Foundation wasn’t the only work I was doing at the time. I’m not conscious of any big jump. What was needed was a kind of parsimony, a tautness. So that’s the look I sought. I was also a consultant-designer to Life Magazine as well as to Bell Labs and NBC/RCA, and was involved in the development of the early picture-phone, called the Homefax. It was a technology whereby images would be displayed on the screen, and transmitted via circuitry, and then xerographically printed.

In your work for NBC/RCA and Bell Laboratories, why did you stay rooted in print and not branch out into other media like television? I did branch out. I directed a film for Bell Labs as well as some model television commercials for Gulf & Western. But I didn’t like it. I‘m not entirely at ease with the technology and prefer to work alone. Too much time was spent on preparations and I didn’t much like the atmosphere or the people. People in book publishing are more pleasant.

And you have more control over the product. It’s also less competitive, in the negative sense of the word. The films for Bell Labs were difficult. They were educational films that had to fit into four modules. This marked the beginnings of the grid system and they needed to develop training programs. At Gulf & Western, the films were for the bicentennial. They were never used, because they were judged too “creative.” The word “creative” meant “this interview is over, thank you.”

Did it imply too much of a point of view? It implied too much sophistication. When Gulf & Western first moved to New York City in 1970, they asked me what they could do to enhance their public image. Their building at 15 Columbus Circle had just been completed. I suggested that three floors of the building be set aside as a kind of city for single mothers working for the company. These floors could consist of a clinic, a supermarket, a playground and a school. This didn’t go over well. End of story.

What were some formative readings leading up to the Massage period? One book that was important to me was Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. The title makes it sound a bit heavy, but it proved surprisingly apropos. Another was by a writer who isn’t well known in the United States, but I consider him very important: Jacques Ellul. In particular, his book on propaganda.

What about your design point of view, your aesthetic stance: Did it develop along modernist or eclectic lines? It was empirical. That is, I felt like a vaudevillian. My experiences were varied and rich because I’d work on one project and, then, within a day, on another. They would contradict one another’s fundamental design principles.

So there was no ideology that you jumped into and followed? No. I just went in there and did what I was asked to do. You know the joke about the comedian Harry Langdon? A professor was working on a study of humor and wanted to interview Langdon. This proved difficult because, by that time, Langdon was broke and working in a fast food joint in Southern California. The professor came in at a busy time; people were shouting hamburger orders. When asked about how he prepared for his act, Langdon said: “No idea—I just went out there and went into my act.” That sums up my view. You see, the need for an aesthetics of design is a rather recent development—a good one, I might add. But at that time, it was catch-as-catch-can.

So you got into lettering in the late ’30s/early ’40s and then into general design work in the ’40s? Yes. Lettering was dying out and photo-lettering taking over.

Did you find yourself intrigued with or involved in new technologies as they arose? Not particularly, because I was too damn busy. Independent of my work, of course, yes. I was pretty alert. But I became so busy that I was always exhausted. I had to take time off. In the ’50s I drifted increasingly into classical book design.

How were your designs for the university presses distinct from what you did with your later books with Marshall McLuhan and Jerome Agel? I found this work really interesting. The word contradiction comes to mind. Designing is like show business. You have to convey a message. It isn’t a matter of expressing yourself. I don’t know, maybe I am particularly attuned to swings in style or emotions or whatever you want to call them. A designer like Paul Rand did very distinguished work. Each of his projects has a strong Paul Rand stamp. Mine less so. On which topic, the person who really made it possible for me to do lettering was Lester Beall. I did all of his lettering in the early postwar.

I’m surprised because much of the work that I’ve seen of Beall’s looks like it was typography out of the type case. The problem was to import foreign types where you had very extended or condensed faces. They were only available in the United States from jobbers who had wood type. Right after the war’s end a firm started up called Amsterdam Continental, who were importers. I could do it faster and cheaper, however.

So you would take on a sans serif face and render it like a Futura or a Metro? Exactly. That was mostly what I did for Beall. If you [see] an extended, condensed or open face in his layouts from the period, that’s me.

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