200710heller.jpgAuthor, critic and journalist Steven Heller started out as someone who, in the words of Paula Scher, "had been more or less oblivious to design," but went on not only to launch the careers of some of our most well-known illustrators, but also to chronicle graphic design in more than 100 books. Heller also has been a contributing editor to Print, Eye, Baseline and I.D., writes obituaries for The New York Times and a column for the Book Review. A Times art director for 33 years, 30 of which he spent at the Book Review, Heller, a New York City native, is the co-founder and co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts (he has lectured at SVA for 14 years). Today, a retrospective of Mr. Heller’s work opens at the School of Visual Art’s Visual Arts Museum.

I hear you’re an early riser.
This morning I got up at 3 am. Usually it’s four.

Is that how you are able to wear so many different hats?
Maybe I have a few different heads. I get a lot done, but by the end of the day I’m a basket case. It’s really the same amount of time as any other mortal being.

Is there a part of the retrospective that you are most proud of?
No. To be perfectly honest with you, having a retrospective at age 57? I might as well just die. Seriously, it’s a big honor. The school’s been really terrific. I’ve been involved with it since I was 17 and was thrown out at 22.

I thought that you didn’t have any design training.
It was the Vietnam War and I had to get out of the draft, so [after spending some time at NYU] I enrolled in the foundation course. They had to throw me out because I never went to class. They said they would promote me from freshman to sophomore if I went to class, but I didn’t go and I got a pink slip. The person who gave it to me, Marshall Arisman, and I have written three books together and I’ve taught in his program.

And the retrospective?
It’s hard to do a retrospective on someone who’s not an artist. I’m an art director who also writes books. So, how do you show that stuff? It reminds me of Ambrose Vollard, the gallery man who made the impressionists the impressionists, writing letters here and there so when they finally had an exhibition, it was about his papers and things. That’s what’s being done here. Except that Kevin O’Callaghan is designing the exhibition and he’s one amazing fuckin’ dude…All you have to do is walk into a library or bookstore or pick up remainders or you can look at old newspapers and go online and find some of the old magazines I edited. But he’s making an experience of it. Each part of that is the sum of the larger whole. I’m proudest of the large whole. But I also think of it as a large hole that I’m going to drop in and they might as well cover up.

So you had a book released recently?
There was one earlier this month: New Vintage Type: Classic Fonts for the Digital Age. And then there’s another: Becoming a Digital Designer: A Guide to Careers in Web, Video, Broadcast, Game and Animation Design.

When do you write?
I write in the morning.

How are you so prolific?
Aren’t you prolific?

Not like you.
I’m not like Philip Roth. He writes X number of pages per day. There are some days that I don’t do much of anything except watch television.

I find that hard to believe.
I teach one day a week. I go into the Times one day a week. When I can’t think about writing, I do other things.

Your writing is so smooth.
Sometimes it gets cleaned up. I figured out what editors wanted and I’m doing more of it myself. So now it sounds good.

How did you start writing obits?
The reason is that I would get the phone call that someone died and they’d say, ‘Can you get an obit written?’ So I called the desk [at the Times] and it would get written and, invariably, the person writing it would call me and ask questions and it got to the point that when Paul Rand died and I sent that word in, they said, ‘We have nobody around to do it,’ because it was right around Thanksgiving. And they had been trying to get [me to write] obits for a while and finally I did. I kind of liked the process. It’s a finite way of writing. My editor on the desk is really good and always knows how to make it better than it is. Paul Rand’s was a pretty long one and it ran on Thanksgiving Say. A little while later, Tibor Kalman died and he was close to me and I think I got that over Herbert Muschamp who wanted to write it and then a week later someone else died who was only thirty something years old and it became my beat.

Before it was cool. How is it, though, knowing some of the people whose obits you’ve written?
Fifty percent I’ve known and the other fifty I haven’t, so I do the same kind of reporting as anyone else. I still have to talk to families and get stuff.

What do you look for in illustrators?
My job at the Times is as a consultant to the art department. The days of being art director of the book review have been long gone. In a sense, that part of my career is over. I probably will never be an art director again. A part of me says it’s a shame. But I did it for 33 years at the Times.

Then what did you look for?
When I looked for illustrators, I looked for someone who fit the criteria of being extension of myself. I dreamed of being an illustrator but couldn’t because I didn’t have talent to do it, even though I did do it in the early days of my career. I looked for someone who has authorship. A person or persons I would hire had to be able to speak a language on a mass level, but one that wasn’t clichéd and could take the common and make it uncommon. The people I ended up using a lot are those people who had that ability. There are those always those people who can’t do it. People I could would try to groom, but in the end wasn’t able to.

Do you think illustration is dying?
I did a couple of years ago. I think it’s coming back. Marshall Arisman and I are kind of suffering over a book about the new illustration, suffering because Marshall is in his late 60s and he’s set in his very creative ways and doesn’t really see all of what’s going out there that’s new. It’s coming back in a different in way.

How? How are illustrators finding relevance?
More as entrepreneurs and visual essayists. In childrens’ books and graphic novels. In toys, games, T-shirts, hats, street fashion. An awful lot is going on where illustrators’ hands, eyes and minds are being used in way that we would consider are not traditional ways. Go into Giant Robot and take a look around. Go to Paris and see graphic novels galore.

Why do you think it’s taken so long for designers to become central to business strategy?
I think designers have always been part of higher echelon of American business. Paul Rand couldn’t have gotten what he got through if it wasn’t for people in charge. There have always been those people who have been part of the strategy structure. It just wasn’t called strategy.

Do you agree with Milton Glaser that women can’t be rock star designers?
I gave a lecture recently about what went on in ‘20s and ‘30s [during] commercial modernism. I talk about this one particular book, a kind of a promotional book for designers back then that’s like Black Book today. What’s surprising is that 30 to 40 percent of people advertising were women but you just don’t hear about them. There are no women in the history books. If you try to make history you can’t find it because there are no records. What I say to students, male and female, is they were doing this work before they got married or they were spinsters. But they never got recognized the way the men did. You can have rock star women now. There’s no reason you can’t. My wife, Louise Filli, prefers to run a boutique studio. She doesn’t want all the pressure of having to find work for 15 employees. She has a fair share of problems with clients and some of her most difficult clients have turned out to be women. There isn’t any one stereotype that fits across the board.

Where is the most innovative and creative graphic design work occurring right now?
I don’t think there is any. We’re in this interregnum. We’re waiting for things to happen. Following the changes in technology is the integration of old and new media. The Web is a fallow place. They haven’t figured out how to make design on the Web, except wire frames and complicated information structures. So, if you are looking to truly become a digital designer, the most interesting work is in illustration and typography. To answer your question, the most innovative stuff is still coming out in traditional ways in toys and fashion. They have more spark and flair. But I’m 57 years old and I’m not really necessarily looking in right places. Some student came by to see me with this video that I thought it was fantastic. Homemade video for music that he created from sketch books and made into Claymation. Not totally new, but impressive and the music was, too. Innovation is going to happen when people put all this together.

Which New Yorker do you most admire?
It depends on the season. Joe Torre, right now. John Lindsay. Mayor Bloomberg.

What's your favorite “only in New York” story?
To me those happen every day. The office I’m in right now is only five blocks form where I was born. I grew up in Stuyvesant Town, went to private schools and public schools and knew tons and tons of people before they became famous. With my son, it’s the same. He used to play poker every Friday night at Susan Sarandon’s house. These are things that you take for granted. Then again you don’t. You always like to do sightings.

Is there one particular story?
I was ten years old. I worked for the Democratic party because my parents got me involved in politics early. I was running a film projector on 42nd St. in what is now the Philip Morris building. Kennedy’s HQ was a block away. So, because I worked there, I got to meet certain politicians and one was Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman. I had already met John Kennedy. But Adam Clayton Powell gave me these tickets to a huge rally at the Coliseum and we went and I took my parents and somehow I made it to the front stage where all the Kennedy acolytes were, like Sammy Davis Jr. and someone pulled me up on the stage. It sounds silly now, but there was a sense of hope that Camelot brought. After that, everything went to hell. That sense of being next to God was so incredible and that could have only happened in New York.

There’s no place but NY where you can walk around on a regular basis and find new things all the time. I was at a soft opening of a new restaurant on 11th and Avenue C, Matilda’s, and it was on the very same block that when I was 16, 17 years old, I walked around because it was so drug-filled. Friends of mine would live there and wouldn’t keep locks on doors because junkies would come in anyway. It was a frightening place but all the hippies kind of lived with it. Now it’s so gentrified and I had not been on that block since then, not even in that area. On 6th St., between Avenues A and B, they filmed the Godfather II and made it look like the Lower East Side. They made the signs and awnings look the way they did, like, 50 or 60 years before. Being there was like being in heaven.