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Since the 1950s, the School of Visual Arts has commissioned some of the greatest graphic designers and artists—all faculty members of the College—to create posters for New York City subway platforms. In the Subway Series, we peek inside the process of the artists. Here, MFA Design chair, author and art director Steven Heller and illustrator Viktor Koen discuss their collaborations. Credit: Nick Heller
Steven Heller, co-chair of MFA Design, co-founder of four other masters programs at SVA, and prolific design writer with over 100 books to his name, is a man of generally many hats. He didn’t, however, necessarily expect to add Subway Series contributor—in reference to the College’s long-standing poster initiative—to that list of distinctions. “As an art director I didn't really do graphics,” Heller acknowledged. So, when asked by SVA Executive Vice President and series creative director Anthony Rhodes in 2011 to make a poster, “I was shocked,” he said.
Heller immediately turned to MFA Illustration as Visual Essay faculty member Viktor Koen (MFA 1992 Illustration as Visual Essay), a former student with whom he had also worked while senior art director of the New York Times Book Review. For Heller’s headline “The ABCs of SVA”—in step with the College’s “Art, Business, Culture” campaign at the time—Koen created a whole alphabet of letterforms made out of pieced-together art supplies, an abecedarian assemblage of artists’ tools and potential.
As Heller put it, “It just worked perfectly.”
The partnership spawned two other iterations, in 2015 and 2016, and now Heller and Koen are the second collaborative team to enter the SVA Subway Series Hall of Fame together (following Marshall Arisman and Dee Ito), with a new video from the Visual Arts Press celebrating their achievement and working relationship. Heller and Koen also join Milton Glaser, George Tscherny, Ivan Chermayeff, James McMullan, Gail Anderson, Bob Gill, and Paula Scher in the Hall of Fame.
“[Viktor’s] way of working—photo-montage collage—suited me because he could bend himself to whatever my idea was but in a very loose way. What he did was all him,” Heller said of the project. As Koen’s first official attempt at poster-making, the size, visibility, and production values of such a project put the pressure on, but he knows they pushed hard “to take advantage of the poster format, strengths and idiosyncrasies.”
Their second series, three designs using the tagline “Make Art @ SVA,” combines organic, custom typography with the mildly trippy image of a head in profile morphing into a hand at work, imagination and fabrication converging. “Where Art is Made,” a single poster from 2016, reveals a student’s excited expression in the swirling rainbow of colors from a passing paint roller.
Koen’s visual instinct is to collect parts and details, colors and textures, faces and features, “without knowing why,” he says. While traveling he’ll visit flea markets, scooping up old photos that will later be broken down to their essential elements and molded into something new; or science museums, where he obsessively photographs industrial details, engines, weapons and tools from multiple angles until running out of battery, memory space or patience. The raw and found images are organized into categories back at home—with the hope that the right file can be summoned when the time comes to add it to an illustration, often years later.
The collections of physical objects that fill Koen’s studio—from shadowboxes of old type and toy figurines to antique rings—also lend his collages a feeling of reality even when they otherwise look like fantastical concoctions: his steam punky mash-ups use the “grit of materials, the patina of time” to ground a maximalist aesthetic and often conceptual message, as Koen says in the video. “There’s an affinity I have with Viktor’s process because he’s working with real components,” Heller notes in the clip.
Splashy and surreal, Koen’s cut-up, man-meets-machine aesthetic serves him well in his editorial work, too, often accompanying articles and op-eds about new developments in technology and science and our relationship to such agents of change; his illustrations frequently appear in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Nature and myriad other publications. In addition to multiple solo shows next year—including one at the Greek National Opera in Athens in June—Koen will kick off 2020 by curating the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay student exhibition at SVA's Gramercy Gallery, the culmination of his fall semester seminar. Says Koen, “Designing the invites, posters, signs and online promotion for the show is one of my favorite commissions of the year.”
For its ongoing Subway Series, SVA commissions faculty members—all practicing professionals—to showcase their talents, reach new audiences and promote the College with a series of posters designed for display in New York City's subway system. Past contributors include Louise Fili, Mirko Ilic, and Edel Rodriguez, among many others. Anthony Rhodes has served as creative director for the posters since 2007.
Check out the video to hear more from Heller and Koen on their collaboration and the posters, which they describe as “really important propaganda for a cause that we believe in.”