Don Ervin, a graphic designer and sculptor of fanciful streamlined car models, died in an automobile accident on March 10 in Ulster, N.Y. He was 85.
I’ve written many books on the history of graphic design, but until his death, I had never heard Ervin’s name. Yet I have certainly seen and admired his work. This is the paradox of most graphic designers’ legacies: Their work is seen, but they are not heard, or heard of — even by some of the people who write about the work, like me.
The advertisements Ervin created for the furniture company Herman Miller, and his logos for Conoco, Met Life, Transamerica, Cargill, Abbott Laboratories and TRW are every bit as memorable as those by better-known designers like Paul Rand and Lester Beall. His title and poster for the film “The Misfits,” starring Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe, are as graphically striking as any of Saul Bass’s title sequences. He even designed the signage systems for Colonial Williamsburg.
Designers’ personalities sometimes get more attention than their work. But Ervin was old school. He just did the work. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in industrial design in 1950, he began a career that specialized in corporate identity, from packaging to signage. But like many designers of his generation — a time when graphic design was less important to popular culture than other, more tactile, design disciplines — he settled into working for others rather than for himself.
Ervin’s employers included Architectural Record magazine, George Nelson & Company (where he was the director of graphic design from 1954 to 1962), and corporate identity and branding companies like Lippincott & Margulies (now known as Lippincott), Sandgren & Murtha, Tempo Ltd., and Siegel & Gale, where he was the executive vice president and creative director from 1973 until he retired in 1987. In retirement, Ervin devoted himself to making fantasy cars — some of which he actually raced, at age 83, in a Kingston, N.Y., soapbox derby — from brushed and stainless steel machine parts.
What stands out in Ervin’s oeuvre, and should be included in graphic design history books, exhibitions and courses (where there is nary a mention), are the logos and trademarks he created, like the Abbott Laboratories “a,” which Ervin said was derived from the serpent wrapped around the staff of Aesculapius, the traditional medical symbol; the four “Ms” of Metropolitan Life Insurance, designed to give the “gray lady of insurance companies” a contemporary look; and Transamerica’s flowing, bifurcated “T.”
My favorite Ervin design is an ad for Herman Miller furniture. An assemblage of black silhouettes of tables and chairs against a flat red background with the company’s logo in white, it prefigures by decades the recent ads for the iPod. Good ideas are often recycled — and this comparatively unknown graphic designer had many good ideas.