One of Canada’s leading communication designers, Kramer was responsible for a major modernist push in the 1960’s that recast Swiss and International Design ideas into a uniquely Canadian design aesthetic and look. His mark on the Canadian design landscape is legendary, creating some of the most iconic work in living memory, including the original Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Clairtone identities, the Royal Ontario Museum logo, the Eaton Centre wayfinding, and a had a major influence in the look of Expo67 in Montreal. He was made a member of the Order of Ontario, has a Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts Toronto, an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art & Design, and is featured in the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. Kramer is currently active as an artist, untapping his skills into a geometric abstract painting style that has been exhibited around the globe.

Designer Greg Durrell sat down with Burton Kramer at his home in Toronto last year, and filed this interview for his book Burton Kramer Identities.

What were your early design influences and do you feel that your design education influenced the way you worked? My high school Social Studies teacher caught me whittling heads on briar pipe blocks in the last row of the class, asked to see what I was doing, and suggested I see a sculptor in Greenwich Village, who, it turned out, was out of the country. It was the first time anyone had taken that kind of interest in what I was doing artistically, if we can call it that. My earliest influences were a teacher at college in Oswego, through him Moholy-Nagy’s books, the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, paper thin parabolic wood bowls by James Prestini and the wood sculpture of Henry Moore.

Later, at the Institute of Design in Chicago, I thought I would be a furniture designer (working in wood), then an architect, and only after rooming with an older fellow in Graphic Design did I begin to get involved in graphics through print making and printing. I started making wood sculpture, had work accepted in the Chicago and Vicinity Artists Show at the Art Institute, sold one of the sculptures, showed work in Chicago and New Orleans, became involved in “Exhibition Momentum Mid-continental,” had three sculptures in their annual show, judged by Robert Motherwell, James Johnson Sweeney and Betty Parsons.

What were the biggest differences you encountered in the working culture when practicing design in the United States, Europe and Canada? In North America, with its generally anti-intellectual, anti-art, pro-sport and pro-gun culture, design was viewed as a ‘frill.’ It was never part of the mainstream culture, if we must refer to pop culture as culture. In Europe (Switzerland specifically), if I told someone I was a Graphic Designer, they knew immediately that I was a working professional, and that what I did was important. The government supported “The Best Swiss Posters of the Year,” and knew it was good business. It has taken a long time for North America to understand that, and it is still not totally mainstream.

Do you think designers in North America are perceived differently today? I think it has improved, but when I asked a friend, an internationally known designer, why he retired, his answer was, “Because I was sick of the client bullshit and I was sick of students who refused to learn from the experience of their teacher and just wanted to do their own thing’’.

How has living in Canada influenced your work? I have been lucky to have found, or been found by, some wonderful clients, at a time when the style of my work was alien to most here. I have also had some nightmare clients, and others whose interest was to make sure that they paid as little as possible for the work, others who could not distinguish between the work of one designer and another, though their styles might be light years apart. Generally, it has always been a struggle with visual conservatism, stemming from lack of knowledge of other cultures, and this holds true in art, design and many other cultural areas.

Which designers within Canada, past or present, do you most respect? The graphic designers whose work I respected most in Canada include Ernst Roch, Rolf Harder, Fritz Gottschalk, Raymond Bellmare and the early work of Allan Fleming.

Which designers working internationally, past or present, do you most respect? In Japan, Kamekura and many others, in Switzerland, Odermatt & Tissi, Ernst & Ursala Hiestand, Josef Muller-Brockmann, Carlo Vivarelli, Richard Lohse, in the US, Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Will Burtin, Herbert Matter, Saul Bass, Chermayeff & Geismar and my friend Rudolf de Harak, in Mexico, Felix Beltran, in France, Pierre Bernard, in Finland, Kyosti Varis, in Italy, Armando Milani, in Norway, Bruno Oldani, in Sweden, Dan Jonsson. There are so many, in different countries, all over the world. Many are members of AGI [Alliance Graphique Internationale], as am I.

What is your favourite piece of your own design work? I will have to say the original symbol and identity program for the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation], followed closely by the Sculpture for North American Life and then the work for Ontario Educational Communications Authority [OECA]. The CBC program was all-encompassing, from symbol, to on-air identification for TV and radio, vehicle graphics, signage, flags, uniforms, stationery and forms, etc, all for the English and French components as well as for Radio Canada International. The North American Life sculpture is one of the very few public sculptures in Toronto that please me. The piece at King St. and University Ave. by Sorel Etrog is another. The Ontario Educational Communications Authority identity project was personally gratifying as it involved education.

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What are your favourite pieces of design? The Guggenheim Museum in NYC, Le Corbusier’s and Frank Gehry’s work, the Chairs of Charles & Ray Eames, Braun Design, Mies van der Rohe’s buildings, lamps by Joe Columbo, chairs by Eero Saarinen, etc.

Describe the ideal client. They have done their homework, and chosen to work with me because they liked, admired what they saw, and found, through discussion, that we could communicate with each other. They are not looking for familiar answers to their problems and are excited by new solutions, and even by pure functionality, where it makes sense.

Describe the nightmare client. They see the designer as someone who will be their “pencil,” because, as they often said, “I can’t draw a straight line.” They ask their wife or partner to make all their visual decisions for them, or pass the decision making on to a committee totally unprepared for such a crucial role.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you began teaching design? I was trying to teach modern graphics to students who had absolutely no personal experience with anything much that was modern, in architecture, in graphics, in their homes, in their understanding of history since the “Industrial Revolution.”

I was teaching in an environment where there was no definite “party line.” Each teacher did their own thing, some in line with what I did, others as far afield as one can get.

Carnegie Mellon has initiated a lecture series in which professors present their hypothetical “last lecture” to students. If you could return to the Ontario College of Art and Design to give one last lecture, what would it be about? What parting piece of advice would you give to your students? Read everything, listen to every type of music, look at everything, and try to figure out how things got to be the way they are. Do not accept the judgments of anyone without testing them yourself. Do not think that everything must arrive pre-sweetened. Quality and style are not the same. Keep an open mind. Understand that design shapes our world, and that you participate in that responsibility. Do not help sell crap.

How would you define your responsibility as a designer? Did this change over the course of your career? Why do we always talk about the responsibility of the designer? What about the responsibility of the client, to his/her customers and to his designer? It is the designer’s responsibility to help the client solve whatever issue(s) he/she is hired for and to make sure that communication is clear and foremost. It is not to engage in personal ego bolstering.

How has the world of a practicing designer changed from when you began working to when you retired? I needed only a drawing board, a t-square, some triangles, pencils, a sharpener, a desk lamp and a chair. Now one needs a computer, the largest monitor possible, a scanner, a printer, software, a copier, a fax machine, etc, and it all costs. Clients believe everything can be done overnight, and want to see “options.” It’s a bit like baking three or a half dozen excellent cakes, choosing one and throwing the rest in the waste container. The criteria for making the choice is often in the hands (and eyes) of people with no training that makes them literate enough to make wise decisions.

How would you define modernism? An approach to creation based on today and tomorrow, not on the distant past. An approach often based, to a greater or lesser extent on “new” technologies. An approach that says there are new things to discover without simply re-hashing the past.

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During the modernist period, you and your colleagues had a very optimistic belief that design could be a tool to change the world. Did you succeed? Modernism did and does change the world. Certainly the physical world. Just look around. We’d not have high rises, curtain wall, glass-clad buildings were it not for modernism. We’d not have Guernica. We’d not have flat screen TV, Eames, Bertoia and Saarinen chairs, etc. I do not suggest that modernism has changed the basic nature of humans, but it’s out there trying. Modernism is an expression of human positivism in the best sense.

Are you still optimistic? Do you mean do I think the world is going to hell in a hand basket? Do you mean do I think that religion-based wars and hatreds, combined with aggressive stupidity, will destroy the world? Maybe. I see painting (creation) as a blow against the pervasive destruction, the using up and waste of everything natural. Most people only consume things. The artist puts something back. So I think that in the sense that I “make” things I’m certainly optimistic.

Buy Burton Kramer Identities book here.

Greg Durrell is a creative director / designer currently living and working in Vancouver, BC.
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