Page 9 - Shared Vision

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By spring quarter, I moved my RCA Victor 45-rpm record
player into Doyle Hall, where I shared a room with three
other Baptist boys. We could look out our third-story
window and see right into President Morris’s backyard.
For pocket money, I got a weekend job decorating the
windows at a Carbondale clothing store. I brought a
cast-off mannequin and some fixtures discarded by my
former employer.
I took painting, art history, and with Charles Platt,
advertising art, where I learned to render with squared-off
graphite and layout paper. We copied typefaces, toasters,
and irons; chrome was a challenge. The second year I had
Harold Schwarm, who assigned posters and brochures. I
brought my home-built kayak,
Old Ironsides
, to campus
on top of my 1941 Plymouth. I was one cool cat, headed
toward a career in advertising in St. Louis. Advertising art
included layout and illustration, and my work was purely
two dimensional.
In my first two years at SIU, I never heard the word “design.”
Then, in the beginning of my junior year in the fall of
1955, having worked another summer in the shipyard, I
found myself in a basement room of the Allyn Building
in Design 205. I didn’t recognize a single classmate, and
I wondered why I was taking another sophomore class.
This class was being taught by the new guy in a room
without drafting tables. Then Harold Cohen stepped in and
introduced himself. He had dark eyes and spoke with a
New York accent. He wore a shiny black suit. He removed
his jacket and explained how he had washed it by hand the
night before. No dry cleaning or pressing was needed, he
explained. You just hung it up to dry. I was not impressed.
I preferred my tailor-made gray sport coat and pressed
flannels, with one sharp break over my white bucks.
Mr. Cohen handed each of us a brick and a handful of
soda straws and told us we had a limited time to build
something with the straws to support the brick. He showed
us that if the straw was bent, it could not withstand
compression. What did a soda straw
to do? And by
the way, the student who used the fewest straws won.
Then he stepped back. I knew from the shipyards that
triangles were stronger than rectangles, so my design
was one of the winners. Still, although I greatly enjoyed
Cohen’s teaching methods and enthusiasm, I was doubtful
this class had any relevance to the career I imagined in the
world of advertising.
As he did with all of his students, Cohen called me in for
a chat. It was the first one-on-one I had ever had with a
teacher. He asked me about my career plans and about
my background. As we talked, he spoke about his plans
for the department and how generalists who could work
with structures as well as the printed page were needed
in society. I knew he was right, but I was about to get
married, and I had to make a living.
At the end of that quarter, I left Carbondale. By December,
despite my eclectic portfolio, I got a job as a paste-up man
in a St. Louis advertising agency. I did well at paste-up and
illustration, but I soon recognized that I did not want to
waste my life promoting one brand of potato chips over
another. Advertising seemed pretty shallow. So I took a job
in America’s largest religious publishing house in Nashville,
Tennessee. I was there for three years; I honed my skills,
won five awards in the local Art Directors Club, and got
lots of freelance cartooning work from ad agencies. But I
became disillusioned with religious merchandising and the
bigotry I encountered. What I’d really wanted was what I’d
sensed in Harold Cohen: to work from a sense of mission.
I wanted to do work that I believed in, and I knew I would
have to finish my degree first.
In the spring of 1959, I visited the SIU campus; I saw
the design department in the barren second floor of the