From the Bookcase no. 4—Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni

Between Worlds, jacket design by Abby Weintraub

Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997

Strictly speaking, this book is not from my bookcase. I was unaware of its existence until Steve Heller mentioned it in one of his blogs. Yet, I never saw a copy until I visited Annie Lionni, Leo’s granddaughter and a classmate of mine at Reed College, for a college reunion meeting a few months ago. When I told her this, she insisted I take a copy to read. Having finally read Between Worlds, it seems only right that I should talk about it on Blue Pencil before returning it to Annie.

I met Leo Lionni only once and then only briefly. One morning at the First Symposium on the History of Graphic Design at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1983, I was invited to have breakfast with Nathan Gluck of AIGA and his friends. It turned out that his friends were Arthur Cohen (the second husband of Elaine Lustig Cohen and the author of Herbert Bayer: The Complete Work), Leo Lionni, Herbert Bayer and Leo Lionni. I was awestruck and don’t remember saying a word.

Though Lionni’s name always seemed to crop up in discussions of American Modernist designers, I had seen little of his work. He is not included in Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design by R. Roger Remington and Barbara J. Hodik (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1989). And it took a long time for him to be included, albeit stintingly, in A History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs. The first edition of his survey—debuted at that RIT symposium in 1983—did not mention him at all; the second edition (1992) included one reference (p. 359) but no images of his work; while the third (1998) had more mentions (pp. 310–311 and 346) and, finally, two examples of his art direction for Container Corporation of America advertising campaigns (19-30 illustrated by Willem de Kooning and 19–31 illustrated by Nevada artist Ben Cunningham). The fourth edition (2006), edited by Alston Purvis, increased the references to Lionni (pp. 347, 383–385), and substituted a 1960 Fortune magazine cover (19–32)—incorrectly dated as 1943—for the de Kooning advertisement. Lionni has fared little better in the other graphic design survey books. He is entirely absent from Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide by Johanna Drucker and Emily McVarish (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice-Hall, 2009). Graphic Design: A New History by Stephen Eskilson (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007) includes him (pp. 325–326), but not his work. Surprisingly, he gets the most attention (pp. 246, 257, 265, 271, 273–274, 296–297, 314)—including a reference to his work in the mid-1930s for Motta, the famous panettone manufacturer—in Typography and Graphic Design: From Antiquity to the Present by Roxane Jubert (Paris: Flammarion, 2006), though only one credited image (image 550, “Keep ’em Rolling!”, a 1941 Office for Emergency Management poster). (An advertisement by Man Ray for Container Corporation of America in 1942 [image 507] was probably art-directed by Lionni.)

Lionni did several “Keep ’em Rolling!” posters for OEM. Jubert showed the best one, in which PT boats raced across the stripes of the American flag while a group of welders occupied the stars field. Another poster, with tanks rumbling across the stripes while a lone welder works in the star field, can be found as image 196 in The Modern Poster by Stuart Wrede (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988). (This second one and a third can be found MoMA’s online poster collection; a fourth is online at the University of North Texas digital library.) Given this scanty visual record, I was eager to read Lionni’s autobiography.

For a design historian, Between Worlds is both fascinating and frustrating. It is a true autobiography, a rarity in the world of graphic design. Unlike most of the books about individual graphic designers published in the last thirty years, this is not a monograph nor is it a self-promotional effort—though Lionni is not shy about asserting his design triumphs. “I had now,” he says about himself in the watershed year of 1959, “reached a point where my name looked natural and comfortable next to those of the older design gurus like Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, Herbert Bayer, Buckminster Fuller, George Nelson, Charles Eames, and a few others, by now all personal friends.” (p. 209) The highlights of his career, in his opinion, were his advertising campaigns for Container Corporation of America in the 1940s, his art direction of Fortune magazine from 1948 to 1959, his design of the prototype for Sports Illustrated in 1955, his work as co-editor of the revived Print magazine in the early 1950s, his design of The Family of Man catalogue for the famous 1955 Museum of Modern Art photography exhibition, the stores he designed for Olivetti, and the “Unfinished Business” pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair.

Despite his pride in these achievements, Lionni devotes only eight pages of Between Worlds to his advertising and design work: two covers for Fortune, one for Print, two advertisements for Container Corporation of America, the cover of The Family of Man, three posters, two bookjackets, a record album cover, and a promotion piece for Olivetti. There is a single photo of the Olivetti showroom in Chicago and one of the United States pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair. With the exception of a 1935 poster for Lanificio Rossi—and an advertisement for Motta in an earlier part of the book (p. 124)—the work is all from the period 1939 to 1959. This is very little for someone who was awarded the AIGA Medal in 1984.

This comment is not meant to question whether or not Lionni deserved the medal, but to indicate that in his autobiography design takes a backseat to art. The title of the book refers not only to his sense of being caught between Europe and America, shuttling back and forth several times, but also to his constant dilemma of whether to pursue his career in advertising and design or to follow his dream of being an artist. Lionni desired to be an artist from an early age and he got a large ego boost in his mid-twenties when F.T. Marinetti looked at his paintings and exclaimed, “But this young man is a great futurist [sic].” (p. 108) Yet, instead of having a career as an artist, he found himself working for Motta on window displays and fair pavilions. Of this work, Lionni asked himself, “…but if it isn’t graphic design and it isn’t architecture, and it surely isn’t Art with a capital A, what is it?” (p. 122)

Lionni’s work for Motta in the mid-1930s was his entry into the worlds of advertising and graphic design. And after he moved to the United States, for the second time, in 1939, his career in these fields took off. At the invitation of Charles Coiner (1896–1989) he joined N.W. Ayer in Philadelphia as an assistant art director. He soon became a full-fledged art director, working primarily on the important Container Corporation of America (CCA) account. “At work I was free from these nightmarish hallucinations [about his wife Nora, who was still in Europe while he was in Philadelphia],” he writes. “The continuous presence of friends, the discipline of office hours, and above all the never-ending, all-absorbing challenge of problem solving, which, after all, is what makes art and design such obsessive occupations, conspired to keep my days relatively free from major anguish.” (p. 148) But problem-solving, while pleasurable, was not enough to keep Lionni happy.

When Ayer lost the Ford account he was relieved rather than upset. It meant that he had had more time for his family—and his art. He writes, “…I dared open the door of my attic studio to find on my easel the half-finished cubist painting of a string quartet abandoned for almost a year. I was now ready to rethink painting, if for no other reason that once more I felt the compelling need to reinvent myself.” p. 162 But painting still took a back seat to art direction in the 1940s. The latter carried prestige and allowed him, in his words, to have “access to whomever I was interested in meeting.” (p. 163) Just as he had worked with A.M. Cassandre during his time at Motta, his stint at Ayer led to collaborations with Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Willem da Kooning, Man Ray, Naum Gabo, Herbert Bayer, Josef Albers, and Saul Steinberg (Lionni was the first to hire him in the United States). The major impetus behind these collaborations was his work for CCA. “The objective of the campaign,” Lionni writes about one undertaken during the war, “was simply to develop a sophisticated style that was visible, inimitable, and powerful enough to establish the name Container as the exclusive synonym for shipping cartons. The ‘International’ series we developed, and for which I engaged the best-known artists from the countries that were part of the democratic alliance, soon became what was possibly the most advanced outpost of modern institutional advertising.” (p. 160) Other notable individuals he met in the 1940s and 1950s through his work as an art director and at Aspen included Henry and Clare Boothe Luce, Walter Gropius, Louis Kahn, Wallace Harrison, Buckminster Fuller, Nikolaus Pevsner, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, William Styron, Alberto Moravia, Max Bill, Gyorgy Kepes, Charles and Ray Eames, and Zero Mostel. What a life! And yet, “the smell of the turps,” as he phrased it, kept calling Lionni.

Marzo (1962), painting by Leo Lionni

Here are some more passages reflecting his anguish at trying to choose between design and art:

“For the present, I no longer dreaded my return as an art director. I didn’t even mind the words ‘commercial artist.’ which yesterday would have plunged me deep into gloom. I accepted the stereotypes. Looking at the advertising world from the European vantage point, I could view American graphics with a certain nostalgia, glorifying the status of graphic artists, exalting their professional attitude, and praising their sensitivity and originality.” (p. 184)—this was after he spent 1947 in Italy painting, sculpting and making mosaics

“I began to hate myself for being an advertising man; I felt ashamed to have designed so many successful campaigns. I was in full rebellion. I didn’t want another job, I wanted my own studio, in New York.” (p. 184)—a few months after his return to the United States and to art direction in 1948

“I was now more certain than ever that the functions and responsibilities of the graphic designer lay in an area much closer to that of the architect than to the hard, pragmatic world of advertising.… what was at stake was less the power of design to influence sales than our mission to help shape a reasonable and civilized environment for all human beings.” (p. 194)—prompted by his role in founding the Aspen International Design Conference in 1951

“The truth was that secretly I still yearned for the lifestyle which ever since the romantic years of my youth had been my most seductive and obsessive dream. But then the war had come, and responsibilities, and also unexpected opportunities. And they had led me into a career which under different circumstances I probably would have rejected. Now a successful art director (I hated the expression!), not only was I enjoying a standard of living way beyond my expectations but I had discovered that as a designer I could enjoy pleasures of craftsmanship and creativity that were not as dissimilar to those of Art with a capital A as I had feared.” (p. 200)—during his stint as art director of Fortune in the 1950s

“I hated my gray-flannel suit, my black Madison Avenue tie, my careful haircut. Once more [I was] torn between the two self-images, the romantic Bohemian and the successful designer….” (p. 201)

“This decision to put an end to a period of our lives that had been blessed with everything a man or a woman could desire—success, money, love, excitement, reputation, health, and happiness—had not been a sudden romantic capriccio, as some of my friends suggested. I had always had the capacity to walk away from situations without the slightest trace of the fear or regret that one would normally associate with such an act.” (p. 208)—explaining his decision in 1959 to quit his job at Fortune, sell his house and move back to Italy to “give myself totally to the arts”

“I have always considered myself an artist—first, with all the turbulent, romantic overtones of the word; later, with the smooth serenity that comes with having mastered a craft. I am a painter who also does graphics and sculpture.” (p. 278)—summing up his life

Dorodeme (1970), painting by Leo Lionni

Lionni, like many graphic designers then and now, questioned the larger role of graphic design within society. While he relished the personal success it gave him, he was uncomfortable with the narrow focus it seemed to have in the United States. Lionni, who considered himself a Marxist (p. 230)—his father-in-law, Bruno Maffi, was a leading figure in the Italian Communist Party, though not its founder as claimed—believed that the artist had a social responsibility: “In practical and moral terms, you must feel responsible for every line you draw, for every decision you make.” (p. 213)—and he continually searched for the designer’s social responsibility. It was one reason that he was proud of having helped establish Aspen. “Dealing with design as a function of management represented only a small part of our responsibilities,” he writes, “The real, much broader, issue was how to deal with the needs of human beings and with the things they and make to satisfy those needs.” (p. 194)

To the design historian, Lionni’s focus on his art at the expense of his design is a disappointment. In this Lionni is not alone. Herbert Bayer: The Complete Works (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, 1984), Cohen’s massive book on the Bauhausler did much the same thing; as have monographs on other Modernist designers such as Max Bill, Anton Stankowski, Richard Paul Lohse, Carlo Vivarelli and Cesar Domela who considered themselves to be Concrete artists first and foremost. What sets Between Worlds apart from these monographs is that it is an autobiography, full of the rich context so sorely lacking in many books on graphic designers.

Lionni had one of the most complicated lives of any 20th century graphic designer. What follows is a quick summary of the many twists and turns in his life.

Lionni was born in 1910 in Amsterdam into a Sephardic Jewish family. His father, a worker in the diamond trade, had been a soldier in World War I, but had been honorably discharged due to deafness. In 1922 his parents immigrated to the United States in the hopes of a better life. They left young Leo behind in Brussels with his grandparents. There he learned French and English. Two years later he joined his parents in Philadelphia but the following year his father got a job in Genoa and the family moved to Italy. Italian became his fourth language. There, at the age of 21, he married Nora Maffi. His son Mannie was born later that year. A few months after that his father lost his job in Genoa and his parents moved back to Amsterdam. In 1933 Lionni and his new family followed them. But his stay in Amsterdam was short-lived. To avoid being conscripted into the Dutch army he returned to Milano in 1934. He writes, “…it was exciting to be in Milan, which despite the rhetoric of Fascism was one of the most energetic outposts of the European avant-garde.” There he worked for Motta and Casabella and in 1936 designed his own studio.

But Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 alarmed Lionni and, with his wife pregnant, he moved his family to Switzerland. (Where he learned his fifth language.) He reasoned that it was easier to move to the United States, due to quotas, from there than from Italy. He moved back to Philadelphia in 1939, leaving his family behind while he secured work. A few days after World War II broke out, they were fortunate to follow him. In Philadelphia Lionni went to work for N.W. Ayer. By 1941 he was art director for CCA’s and Fortune’s advertising campaigns. At Josef Albers’ invitation, he taught at Black Mountain College in 1945. Then, with the ending of the war, the family returned to Italy in 1947. A year later, they were back in the United States where Lionni became art director of Fortune. The family moved to Connecticut. In 1951 Lionni became co-editor of Print as well as the chair of the First International Design Conference in Aspen. He designed the cover of The Family of Man exhibition catalogue in 1955. He visited India in 1957, a trip which became his first foray into documentary photography. Two years later he quit Fortune and the family moved to Tuscany. 1959 was Lionni’s watershed year.

“Turning my back on the Brooks Brothers suit”, Leo Lionni c.1959

That same year Lionni had written Little Blue and Little Yellow, his first children’s book, accidentally begun as a way to entertain his grandchildren Annie and Pippo. The book was a huge success and inaugurated a new phase in his professional life, that of children’s book author. Swimmy, his fourth children’s book followed in 1963. It is a fable and as such became the role model for his subsequent books. “Swimmy was the book that for the first time led me to consider the making of books as, if not my main activity, one that was no less important than my painting and my newly discovered sculpture…,” Lionni writes. “The ethics of art not only as a pleasurable but as a useful activity was clearly the moving force in the book.… Anyone who knew of my search for the social justification for making Art, for becoming or being an artist, would immediately have grasped what motivated Swimmy, the first embodiment of my alter ego, to tell his scared little friends to swim together like one big fish.” (p. 232) Lionni went on to write over 30 other fables for children**. This is probably Lionni’s greatest legacy, more lasting than his advertising and graphic design work or his paintings and sculpture. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art credits him with changing the aesthetic nature of children’s books via his emphasis on white space and collage as an illustrative technique.

In Between Worlds, Lionni talks only about Little Blue and Little Yellow and Swimmy, and shows pages from just three other books. After 1963 the autobiography focuses instead on his work as an artist, his attempt to learn the flamenco guitar, his longtime friendship with the illustrator Robert Osborn (1904–1994), and, of course, the process of aging. It ends a bit oddly with a series of letters to Osborn that serve as vehicles for Lionni to philosophize about art and life.

What I most enjoyed about Between Worlds, besides the topsy-turvy story of Lionni’s life, were his pithy comments and insights. Here are a few of them, in the order in which they appear in the book:

“There was no talk of self-expression then, nor of ‘creativity.’ We simply learned the craft of drawing and we tried to draw well. For the first time we experienced the pleasure of performance.” (p. 18)

“Not so long ago I suddenly realized that the dimensions of my children’s books are exactly the same as those of my terrariums. I also discovered that the protagonists of my fables are the same frogs, mice, sticklebacks, turtles, snails, and butterflies that more than three-quarters of a century ago lived in my room. And that even the paper landscapes they now inhabit are identical to the ones I used to build with real sand, pebbles, moss, and water. The books I have made, like the terrariums of years ago, contain little continents complete with hills, lakes, islands, beaches, and forests of weeds. My miniature worlds, whether enclosed in yesterday’s walls of glass or in today’s cardboard covers, are surprisingly alike. Both are the orderly, predictable alternatives to a chaotic, unimaginable, terrifying universe.” (p. 20)

“I felt humiliated at the thought that I, like all the others, had lived nine months in the dark, slimy interior of an extraneous body. No matter how poetic Mother made it sound when she explained it, the idea filled me with disgust and anxiety.” (p. 32)

“In my memory people don’t age, they live like mummies suspended in time.” (p. 47)

“…my many hours alone with his [Uncle René’s painting] masterpieces, gave me the unique opportunity to get acquainted intimately and directly with that mysterious world, bypassing the lectures, the books, and the criticism that never once point out that the only possible explanation for so many things is their simply being there.” (p. 50)

“Aware of the risks of dogma and belief, the [six Beffie] brothers had the wisdom and self-irony of those who reach maturity with more doubts than certainties, more questions than answers. Early in life they had rejected the Jewish religion, but while they were outspoken agnostics, they recognized in their Jewishness a prodigal source of wisdom and humor.” (p. 51)

“The discovery of this exotic arena, where intellectual confrontations were every bit as spectacular as the rowing races on the Amstel River, must have been a dramatic experience for a sensitive ten-year-old at the shaky threshold of self-awareness. Not to speak of the discovery of thought as an instrument of pleasure.” (p. 51)

“Without much effort I had managed to perfect my fourth language. This meant that I now possessed a true multilingual vocabulary that allowed me to make linguistic comparisons and cross-references, weighing shades of meaning and formulating useful generalizations. The groundwork had been laid for the kind of literacy I would need to develop the analytical internal monologue that was to accompany and guide my creative work throughout the rest of my life.” (p. 66)

“I felt strongly that since you can only test what exists, testing must by nature be conservative and manipulative—conditions that surely do not encourage experimentation.” (p. 161)

“Although he had a desperate need to be loved and admired, Albers was a difficult man to like. His voice and German accent did not help—neither did the angularity of his features and the stiffness of his movements and bearing. His many-sided personality was confusing. Yet he was as strict and hard edged with himself as he was with others, and though he was outrageously pedantic, he could be gentle, funny, and forgiving. All this was very German. Equally German was his dedication to art and teaching. I believe that he lived his life weighing colors and making squares because he was afraid of painting.” (p. 165)

“In many ways Amsterdam is really a more interesting and moodier city than Venice, with which it has always been compared. Although Amsterdam was planned and Venice had a natural base, Venice is the more contrived and Amsterdam the more natural of the two.” (p. 286)

“New York is gritty—grit is the secret kernel of its soul. A tough, chutzpah-ruled, gritty city. I like that quality. Amsterdam could be the grittiest city if its inhabitants weren’t so obsessed with cleanliness. Perhaps one could say that Amsterdam has the cleanliest grit in the world. A grit that smells of soap and cologne—soap for the sidewalks, cologne for the bedrooms.” (p. 286)

Between Worlds was not designed by Lionni, which is unfortunate. The jacket by Abby Weintraub is dull and the interior by Iris Weinstein is equally uninspired, though the text is set in Century Schoolbook, the typeface Lionni favored for his children’s books. Nevertheless, despite this and my disappointment at not seeing and learning more about Lionni’s work as an art director and graphic designer, this is an essential book for understanding Modernist design.

“Keep ’em Rolling!” posters, Office for Emergency Management (1941); Leo Lionni, designer

*At least twice in his life Lionni’s leftist politics affected his career. During World War II he volunteered to help the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, but was turned down due to his association with so-called left-wing organizations and his connections with important members of the Italian Communist Party. He wryly noted that, “Had my past been apolitical or even Fascist, I would not have been turned down.” (p. 158) The other incident occurred over two decades later in 1962 when Lionni was offered an opportunity to travel to Russia as one of several designers—the others were Ivan Chermayeff, Robert Osborn and Norman Rockwell—accompanying a United States Information Service exhibition of American graphic design. Although he was cleared by the FBI to go, after much detailed questioning about his past political activities, his visa was turned down by the Russians. (pp. 238–243)
**The other titles that I have been able to find online, with their first dates of publication, are: Inch by Inch (1960); It’s Mine (1960); Tico and the Golden Wings (1964); Frederick (1967); The Biggest House in the World (1968); The Alphabet Tree (1968); Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (1969); Fish Is Fish (1970); Theodore and the Talking Mushroom (1971); The Greentail Mouse (1973); In the Rabbitgarden (1975); Pezzetino (1975); A Color of His Own (1976); A Flea Story (1977); Geraldine, the Music Mouse (1979); Mouse Days, A Book of Seasons (1981); Let’s Make Rabbits (1982); Cornelius (1983); Frederick’s Fables (1985); Colors to Talk About (1986); Nicolas, Where Have You Been? (1987); Six Crows (1988); Tillie and the Wall (1989); Matthew’s Dream (1991); A Busy Year (1992); Mr. McMouse (1992); An Extraordinary Egg (1994); On My Beach There Are Many Pebbles (1995); Let’s Play (2003); and Colors, Numbers, Letters (2010).