In 1954, Seymour Chwast, along with a handful of friends he’d made while studying art and design at Cooper Union, founded the New York design shop Push Pin Studios. With the Beatles and the San Francisco rock concert poster designers, they were at the forefront of creating the psychedelic style of the 1960s.
But over the years he’s also published more than 40 kids books. “Kid in a Candy Store: The Picture Book Art of Seymour Chwast” at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst from Nov. 18, 2023, to April 14, 2024, is billed as “the first museum exhibition to focus on Chwast’s books for children.” Curated by the prominent children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus, the exhibition features more than 30 illustrations by the New York and Connecticut artist.
“Children respond to the kind of artwork I do,” Chwast said in his 1985 monograph “The Left-Handed Designer.” “What’s odd is that my children’s illustrations are sometimes considered too sophisticated. I don’t understand that at all unless my work is not cute enough for children. Ironically, those reactions go against my innocent, head-on style. You see, there’s nothing beyond what I’m doing. It’s all laid out. There’s no symbolism, no mystery.”
With Push Pin, Chwast helped create a signature style drawing on vintage Victorian and art deco design plus hand-drawn illustration and bright, flat colors. In 1976, Chwast’s Push Pin partner Milton Glaser designed the “I (heart) NY” graphic to help New York City tourism recover from the city’s financial struggles of the 1970s. Chwast’s early partner Edward Sorel became known for fine-lined caricatures he penned of celebrities.
Chawst’s art could feel ubiquitous, with his ads, illustrations and comics for The New York Times, Forbes, Time, Atlantic, album covers, television, McDonald’s Happy Meals, but he’s less identified for a singular project. Museum collections and books of poster art include his 1967 anti-Vietnam War woodcut and offset printed poster of a rough-hewn Uncle Sam with his mouth open to reveal military warplanes bombing houses. Underneath it reads:“End Bad Breath.”
“It’s odd that Seymour Chwast is not readily considered on the top tier of children’s book artists despite having publishing over 40 of them, and creating many more,” Chwast’s frequent collaborator, the designer, author and educator Steven Heller wrote in his online column for Print magazine in 2021.
Perhaps the answer is that children’s book artists tend to find recognition via iconic characters—Alice, Pippi Longstocking, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Rabbit, the Cat in the Hat, Eloise, Max in “Where the Wild Things Are,” Lowly Worm, Frog and Toad, Clifford, Shrek, Olivia, Arthur, Maisy, the Pigeon who shouldn’t drive the bus. But Chwast hasn’t birthed an iconic character, and doesn’t fancy himself as much of a writer. Instead his books are often playful explorations of design—with his signature bold colors, flat cartoony art, and dash of humor.
For example, his 1969 “Still Another Alphabet Book” with Martin Moskof, is “also a puzzle and a game” with an alphabet at the bottom of each page with letters highlighted that spell out a word in the illustration. “Tall City, Wide Country” is a vertical book for the city then requires to be turned horizontal halfway through for the country scenes. “Mr. Chwast’s style is calculatedly naive, mixing childlike perspective and proportion with a sophisticated line and sense of design,” Karla Kusin wrote in The New York Times when it was published in 1983.
Chwast is fond of puns and a sort of absurdist literalism, like “End Bad Breath.” Or his 2021 book “Where’s My Cat,” in which he playfully imagines ordinary things transformed—a saw and a pickle become a crocodile, a comb suggests a tiger, a table becomes a cow.
Heller told Forbes magazine in 2016: “Chwast’s legacy is his wit, humor and compassion expressed through public art and graphic design. He lifted the weight of seriousness off the things that make us think and, sometimes fear. He is a commentator whose work both cautions, teaches and entertains.”
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