Steven Heller Doesn’t Need Your Matisse

There’s a bookcase in the studio apartment that author Steven Heller rents as a kind of storage closet for his overflowing collection of design ephemera. Compared with the rest of the room, which is a cheerful riot of pop-culture design esoterica—1950s mini mannequins, plaster Chairman Mao dolls that salute from military tanks, art deco signage, racially insensitive barware, and precarious piles of hardcovers—the plywood bookcase is tidy. Still, it too is crammed, with books of all shapes, sizes, colors, and languages.

Heller either wrote, compiled, introduced, art-directed, or otherwise contributed to every volume in the case. He has authored or co-written upward of 140 books. This week sees the publication of two new ones bearing his name—Typography Sketchbooks, with Lita Talarico, and Vintage Types and Graphics, with his wife, designer Louise Fili. They number 12 and 13 on the list of Heller’s 2011 offerings.

“What I like to do is come up with ideas and sell them,” he says with a half-smile. “When I was a kid, I used to think, How does somebody come up with ideas? It’s so magical and mystical. . . . For me, it’s not the kill, it’s what leads up to cornering the beast.”

Heller has cornered and killed many beasts, both alone and in collaboration with others. He writes a daily column online for Print, a weekly article for The Atlantic‘s blog, and the “Visuals” column for The New York Times Book Review, and he has authored somewhere around 150 introductions and afterwords. He co-founded five departments at the School of Visual Arts, co-chairs one, and teaches two courses there per semester. Among New York’s community of design professionals, Heller’s shadow has a long reach. But his influence extends even further: He’s also the country’s most prolific chronicler of design and a primary gatekeeper for its new work.

Although Heller teaches and advises graduate students, he himself does not hold an M.A. or even a bachelor’s degree. A short, bespectacled 61-year-old with a manner that can flip quickly from stern to insouciant, he happened into design via New York’s underground comics. He grew up in Stuyvesant Town, where he consistently got into minor trouble for “never doing exactly what people wanted me to do,” he says. In his last year of high school at the progressive Walden School, Heller sent a few cartoons he’d drawn to J.C. Suares, art director at the New York Free Press. Instead of publishing Heller, Suares offered him an assistantship. A few weeks later, when Suares jumped to another magazine, Heller was effectively art-directing the NYFP. He was 17. When the paper folded and a sex paper was launched in its place, he art-directed and illustrated there. He started and quit school at NYU for a job at Screw magazine, and at age 24, Heller was offered a job at the New York Times op-ed page. For 33 years, Heller worked full-time as art director of various sections of the Times.

Over the next three decades, Heller’s byline became ubiquitous, fueled by irreverence, ideas, and a mania for the intersection of design, commerce, and power. “I’d rather have an object of commerce, which I call a sculpture of commerce, than a Matisse,” Heller says, gesturing to the design items around him. Everything in his cluttered storage studio, which is in the same elegant Chelsea townhouse where he lives with his wife and college-aged son, is something he has written about or plans to.

“In my role as cultural histooooorian,” he says, stretching out the word as if afraid to take himself too seriously, “[these things are] sitting here because I like looking at them. But once I’ve stopped just liking the look of them, I’m gonna want to do something that tells me what they’re all about.”

He is, in the words of Veronique Vienne, a Heller collaborator who credits him with helping her get her start, “obsessed, obsessed, obsessed.”

“They come out, and come out, and come out,” says Pentagram design studio’s Paula Scher of Heller’s books. “You can love them, or you can hate them. There are some that are keepers, and others that are throwaways.”

In this way, Heller’s output echoes the paradoxes that reign in the design world today. His body of work looks at the integral role design plays in the functioning of society, but at the same time, he spends considerable energy contemplating what he calls “eye candy.” To Heller, producing minor musings on objects of popular culture and profound meditations on their psychological consequences are not mutually exclusive.

Last April saw the paperback publication of Heller’s best-known work, Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. The hefty, glossy tome reflects Heller’s fixation with the more controversial items among his collection: Nazi artifacts. “I have that thing sitting there,” he says gesturing to a swastika-emblazoned trivet, “because it’s gorgeous, because it’s how power can be aestheticized. . . . I’m attracted to the power of these images because they’re done so damn well. They trigger certain emotions. Hate, love, whatever—it’s complex.”

In Iron Fists, Heller compares modern corporate-branding strategies to those employed by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and Mao’s China. Heller points out that the dictators of three of those countries considered themselves artists and craftily shaped the images of their parties accordingly. He argues convincingly for a connection between history’s most awful example of branding and today’s advertising schemes.

Heller, a Jew, has been both praised and pilloried for his willingness to publish such charged imagery, sometimes alongside short texts on the Internet. Still, he has made significant contributions to the design world—Scher credits Heller with moving American design writing away from what she calls the “starchy journals of the ’50s and ’60s” and into a narrative discussion of design and society. Last week, he received the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design Mind Award, which recognizes a professional who has “effected a paradigm shift in design thinking or practice through writing, research, and scholarship.”

“The worst design writer is one who doesn’t tell a story,” Heller tells his students. “Facts are nice, but it’d be better to have the facts telling you some tale of highs, lows, and woes.”

Heller is not himself a designer, but he has designed the way that Americans think about the genre—through that mountain of books and articles he has produced and by shaping the aspirations and goals of younger writers, too. And he shows no sign of slowing down: He’s got four books already slated for release in 2012.

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