Lester Beall

Creativity speaks to the heart of the process of graphic design. What were the creative forces that allowed Lester Beall to produce consistently great art and design over the span of a 44-year career? Over this span of time, Beall produced solutions to design problems that were fresh and innovative. He studied the dynamic visual form of the European avant-garde, synthesized parts into his own aesthetic and formed graphic design applications for business and industry that were appropriate, bold, and imaginative. In his mature years he led the way with creative and comprehensive packaging and corporate identity programs that met the needs of his clients. Along the way in his work manner and style, Beall proved to American business that the graphic designer was a professional that could creatively solve problems and at the same time deal with pragmatic issues of marketing and budget. The qualities and values that led to Beall’s effectiveness are timeless and provide contemporary practitioners with an historical reference base upon which to evaluate present standards.

Beall in Chicago. 1927

Beall felt that the designer “must work with one goal in mind—to integrate the elements in such a manner that they will combine to produce a result that will convey not merely a static commercial message, but an emotional reaction as well. If we can produce the kind of art which harnesses the power of the human instinct for that harmony of form, beauty and cleanness that seems inevitable when you see it? then I think we may be doing a job for our clients.” For Beall that creativity was present at every stage of the design process. He said, “the designer’s role in the development, application and protection of the trademark may be described as pre-creative, creative and post-creative.”

Cover for What's New, 9 ¾"x 12 ½",1939.

Born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1903, Beall’s early childhood years were spent in St. Louis and Chicago. He was educated at Chicago’s Lane Technical School and graduated from the University of Chicago. He began his design career in 1927. By 1935 Beall had decided to move to New York and in late September of that year had opened a studio/office in his apartment in Tudor City on Manhattan’s east side. In 1936, while maintaining the office in New York, he moved to Wilton, Connecticut where he established his home and studio in a rural setting. He was to remain in Wilton until 1950.

Poster Prototype, Freedom Pavilion, New York, Worlds fair, 7"x 10", 1939

Beall had moved his office to 580 Fifth Avenue around 1940. He worked there as well as from his home in Wilton, Connecticut. In 1949 he purchased Dumbarton Farm in Brookfield and, in 1950, he moved to consolidate all his operation there. He had developed some of the farm’s out buildings into a professionally-praised office and studio space. During the 1950s and ‘60s Beall’s design office expanded both in its staff and scope, adding associate designers and mounting full-scale corporate identification campaigns for large companies such as a Caterpillar Tractor, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, The New York Hilton and Merrill Lynch, Fenner Pierce and Smith, Inc. His identity program for International Paper Company from 1960 was his most extensive identity program and is noteworthy for the graphics standards manual, one of the first to be so fully articulated.

Logo and Stationary set for International Paper Company. 1960

Beall maintained, throughout his life, a core of sources which stimulated his perception, creativity and methods of making art and design. He was a highly visual person with a great need to express himself. Always first and at the center of his ways of working were his form experimentation in the drawing and painting of the human figure. He was always at work in his studio, whether it was creating design, art or photography. His wife, Dorothy Miller Beall, characterized her husband as “first of all an artist, not only because of a vital and important talent, but because of an emotional spiritual quality, a very special attitude.” His daughter Joanna remembers this fine art expression as “a major part of his thinking.” Beall, in his memoirs, confirms this by recalling that “all through my life as a designer, I have spent considerable time developing myself as an artist. I am constantly drawing, with particular emphasis on the figure, which I find fascinating though difficult in term of evolving something that is not completely abstract but certainly not literal or realistic.”


Various sketches of the female figure from Beall's sketchbooks, 1946-1952

Photography also was a lifelong interest to Beall and an important part of his creative process. He experimented with photography and photographic processes almost from the beginning of his career in design in Chicago. Cameras, a photographic studio and a darkroom were always necessary for his visual experiments. In the ‘30s he had seen the experimental photographic work of the European avant-garde designers such as Herbert Bayer, El Lissitzky, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Beall would experiment regularly with photograms, and with straight photography both in and out of the studio. Even today, many of Beall’s photographic images remain unusual and innovative visual experiments. Beall carried his camera with him on all his travels. These images formed an image bank from which he drew inspiration for his lectures. Others found their way into direct graphic design application for his clients such as in the cover for ORS, a journal for health services professionals. A more complex photographic technique is used on the cover of What’s New, a house organ of Abbott Laboratories. This image from 1938 shows a complex integration of photographic and graphic elements, set in a scale which juxtaposes the size relationships of foreground and background.


Experimental photography with model, 1938.

Also of interest in this period are the remarkable poster series for the United States Government’s Rural Electrification Administration. In all Beall designed three series of posters between 1937 and 1941 with the simple goals of increasing the number of rural Americans who would electrify their homes and increasing public awareness of the benefits of electricity. His poster for the ill-fated “Freedom Pavilion” at the 1939 World’s Fair was another dynamic example of this time in which he used what he called “thrust and counter-thrust” of design elements.


Experimental photography with model, 1938.

In 1968 he wrote: “By living and working in the country I felt I could enjoy a more integrated life, and although I still need the periodic stimulation of New York City, the opportunity and creative activity in an area of both beauty and tranquility seemed to me to far exceed anything that a studio and residence in New York might offer—the way a man lives is essential to the work he produces. The two cannot be separated. If I could condense into a single idea the thinking we are trying to do here at Dumbarton Farm, it would be to achieve, through organic and integrated design, that power of inevitability. This has for a long time been an effort to work out a way of living for me and my family—and for the people who work with me. It gives me more time at home. It surrounds me with atmosphere I feel is pretty essential to good creativity.”

Lester sketching sheep at his Dumbarton Farm studio office, 1960.

Beall earned great respect form his clients and staff. Bob Pliskin recalled that Beall “was a good man to work for. He had the gift of enthusiasm and he knew how to communicate it. He gave us freedom and guidance too. His studio was a happy, stimulating place where work was fun and clocks did not exist. And Beall could teach. He taught us to spurn symmetry, which he called an easy out? a static response to a dynamic world. He taught us that the solution to a design problem must come from the problem. That form must follow function.” About Beall’s graphic design imagery of the 1940s Plisken wrote, “You couldn’t miss Beall’s work. It riveted you? held your attention? and planted an idea in you head. He was a skillful typographic designer and he liked working with type and typographic symbols. He loved arrows. Loved them and used them in nearly everything he did. It was a natural symbolism for him because the arrow was and is the simplest, most direct way to move the eye from one spot to another.”


Page for U.S. Army publication, 1942

It took the New York Art Directors Club until 4 years after Beall’s death in 1969, to vote him into their prestigious Hall of fame in 1973. At that time Bob Plisken, who worked for Beall in the early 1940s, spoke on his behalf, “In my opinion, Beall did more than anyone to make graphic design in America a distinct and respected profession.” Lorraine Wild, in her writing on American design history, has characterized Beall as a leader of those designers form the Thirties to the Fifties whose work has a “quality of openness and accessibility. It is evidence of all the energy spent trying to make a real contribution to the common good and the environment. The stakes were clear—a new profession was formed.”

Cover of Modern Packaging Magazine, 1956.

“The quality of any man’s life has got to be a full measure of that man’s personal commitment to excellence?” Beall would have felt good about these words spoken by Vince Lombardi, because competition and commitment were the ways in which he was able to achieve brilliance in his professional career in design. Beall said, “When a designer designs a beautiful product he has unveiled a simple truth. In short, this product of his creativeness communicates a simple message—a message that will outlast the product’s function or salability. The designer, furthermore, can then be said to have contributed something of value to his culture.” So it is entirely appropriate that Lester Beall’s legacy to the profession is now honored; his was surely a “lifetime achievement.”


"Will There Be War"  promotion for Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, 1939

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