Scher’s work for The Public Theater in New York is given its own section in the Unit book. As projects go, it’s highly unusual – a relationship that has lasted 24 years and evolved over that time, yet remained true to a core set of principles. Does the longevity of such a project enable her to gain real perspective on what works – and what doesn’t?
The Public is a rare body of work, Scher told CR. How many people stay with something for 24 years? The evolution is there. At one point, we talked about not putting it in [the book] at all, because it is this thing – like the paintings, things that are sidebars to this other [work]. But The Public is very different – the other identities are contained, even though they have a lifespan after I leave them. What I do is I hire people for the in-house art departments of these places, so they’re growing it. It’s really like I design ‘systems’ that other people move. I don’t like manuals because I think that they’re useless; if somebody is talented they don’t need the manual. And if they’re not talented, it doesn’t matter what the manual says. Unless it’s very corporate and very dry, why would you do the same thing over and over again? Particularly in the performing arts, these things have to be fluid.
When I first began doing [The Public work] the theatre was actually at its nadir. It was the end of [the era of its] founder Joseph Papp. Everybody in New York bows down to Papp because he started Shakespeare in the Park … it’s legendary…. The American illustrator Paul Davis had done the posters for Shakespeare in the Park for 19 years, but the theatre had no identity – [it] was called The Joseph Papp Public Theater or ‘The Papp’. Davis had a very distinctive style but was also doing Mobil Masterpiece Theater posters – [so] people in New York who saw both thought that The Public Theater was public television. It was an educational programme.
When George Wolfe became the director, he absolutely had a go at a direction b where he confounded people. He wanted something urban, loud and that wasn’t illustrative as it would look like another version of [Davis’ work], which is why they went so strongly typographic. It was a deliberate move. And our goal was to get it known as The Public or The Public Theater and it really took five years of repeating it. The press were still calling it The Papp even though they’d be showing a picture of something that said The Public. In New York there are people who still call MoMA ‘The Modern’, because they were around in the 50s when it was established.
There are things I know I have done that really allowed me to grow and to make discoveries, Scher said at her talk, focusing on The Public work. I did the first season [with The Public] in 1994 and began working with a form of wood typography – it was drawn by hand – and put together to create an identity for the theatre…. I worked on it in all my spare time because it never really paid much money, but I enjoyed them and believed in the theatre. There was this honeymoon period … but then this strange thing happened with a musical called Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk where I did a series of graphic designs for the show that went beyond being recognisable and started to become sort of ‘New York thematic’ – other theatre companies began designing their posters like this. [And] it began to compete with things that looked just like it – so a popular identity design actually was bad for the theatre.
Gradually I realised I had to change it and I started changing the typography, but I did a bad thing to The Public because [then] people couldn’t find it – it looked like the play could be anywhere. So I had a struggle with being a responsible professional for a place I love, and at the same time trying to evolve this thing. I started changing the typeface and I switched everything to Akzidenz Grotesk – and that lost the identity as well. Then, in 2008, I switched back to a wood-based font, Knockout, and tried to do an identity for them, [but] that became boring.
So the discoveries of going up and down never would have happened if I hadn’t spent that amount of time with it…. [And I realised] that what I had to do was create some kind of language that only existed for a season … so nobody could copy it.
For me, this was great because I would not have gotten the body of knowledge if I hadn’t stayed with something for 24 years. [And] that’s actually how you learn what you’re doing, otherwise you’re mostly having accidents. It’s a funny thing about the balance of trying to be creative and trying to be a professional because, being a professional, you sort of have to understand what you’re doing for someone else and that’s what’s fair – and to do [this] it really takes time.
Paula Scher: Works is published by Unit Editions (£65) and features a series of extensive interviews with Scher, conducted by Adrian Shaughnessy.
Learn more from Paula Scher here.
The post How Paula Scher works #2: On designing for The Public Theater in New York appeared first on Creative Review.