Jessica Helfand | Essays

Greer Allen: In Memoriam

Designer, critic, pundit and historian, Greer Allen was Senior Critic in Graphic Design at Yale School of Art. He designed publications for The Houghton Library at Harvard, the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a number of other distinguished cultural institutions around the country. From 1972 to 1983, Allen was University Printer at Yale. He later served as Honorary Printer to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Greer Allen died last week after a short illness. He was 83.

Many years ago when I was a graduate student, I spent four days touring presses and paper mills in Vermont with my 17 classmates and with Greer Allen. It was the end of September, the temperature was already in the low 20s — and those four days changed my life.

As the younger of two daughters raised in cities both here and abroad, I viewed this field trip as little more than an imposed sentence of doom. Long windy roads and cramped motel rooms did little to appease my negativity: I was crabby, I was unimpressed and I was impatient for this ordeal to end.

But after we toured Stinehour, something happened.

We drove, caravan style, to the home of Claire Van Vliet. Book artist, letterpress printer, MacArthur recipient and Philadelphian-turned-Vermonter, Van Vliet lived in a house filled with art and books, surrounded by a big garden filled with organic produce. She welcomed and fed us — all 19 of us — and showed us where she made her work. Here, in the middle of nowhere.

I went to sleep that night warm and, drowsy from the food and the wine, happy in a way I hadn't been in ages.

The following day, we travelled to an even more remote part of Vermont, where Greer introduced us to a paper restorer who lived on a water-powered saw mill that had been in her husband's family for generations. Here, the desolate, monochromatic landscape framed yet another life filled with art and books. Our host, also a cellist, had propped her cello in the corner, flanked by two large black labradors sleeping peacefully on the oriental rug. In her studio she showed us rich, Italian kid leathers, Florentine papers, artisinal glues and brushes. While she worked on restotarive bindings for the Folger Library, she listened to National Public Radio, taking breaks to feed the dogs, to play her cello, to fetch her children from school. She was happy and she was busy and she was leading a cultivated life. Here, in the middle of nowhere.

I was twenty-six years old, and I thought: this is how I want to live.

Today, I live in the middle of nowhere. The winters are long and the landscape can be desolate, but here I can have a both studio and a garden. I am a designer with a much richer life than I ever would have had I not taken that trip with Greer Allen. And it is because of Greer that I do.

Posted in: Education , Graphic Design, History, Obituaries, Science

Comments [13]

Part of what makes these images is the purity of light in space; at that distance from the sun, the sun is nearly a point-source, no blue sky to fill in the shadows, no ground for the shadows to fall on, no diffraction and diffusion to soften the edges. And this is also what makes so many simulation images attractive and unrealistic. Another part of the story is the clarity of the forms, which are largely defined by very simple astrophysical processes. This simplicity, usually seen only in a fragmentary way from the surface of the earth, within its atmosphere, is deeply moving when seen entire. Claims of originality fail before the natural world--"The tree is my master," still.
Randolph Fritz

I agree with all of that and the fact that seeing Saturn really isn't an every day occurrence. I think if we were more used to seeing it, or had even seen it in person it would be more familiar.
Stefan Hayden

Nature really has a way of putting man in its place from time to time, be it thought its might or beauty.

It will be very exciting to see what else Cassini reveals to us in the next year. Hopefully it will both answer some questions and raise new ones.

I read with geniune interest this entry and enjoyed some of the extra info on this remarkable project and its amazing achievements. However, despite being 'in an era of beautifully designed simulations, 'I think reality quite often 'surpasses artifice' - you don't have to visit Saturn to discover that. Whilst I agree that bringing these images to our screens is certainly a major design achievement, both in terms of process and product, I have to admit that when I look at these beautiful pictures the furthest thing from my mind is anything as mundane as, with respect, a well-designed record sleeve or laptop.
Sure it's a beautiful 'design' but 'as inviting and sleek as' the aforementioned work I found a little disheartening. Can't we just stand back and admire/celebrate/value Saturn for the incredible wonder that it is without having to categorise it as just another design product.
OK, it makes for one groovy logo or two and the images are tempting enough for Mr. Saville snap them up for the next New Order LP but that's not the point. Sorry

Well I always thought that the beauty of things found in nature is precisely the fact that they aren't designed. They seem to have arrived at their shapes forms by a complex system of rules defining what is possible and what isn't, not by some outside party arbitrarily 'shaping' on the basis of largely subjective values-this is coming from an atheist perspective.

The application of Genetic algorithms in architecture seems to be an interesting parallel. The designer is now the person who defines parameters and rules and lets form emerge from these, endowing the designer with a much more God-like aura.
Achilles Y

man, it's unbelievable - http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Cassini-Huygens/ - fresh shots and sounds (!!!) from Titan!
David Calloway

I am sad to hear this news. I met Greer Allen only a few times during my recent years as an undergraduate printer at Yale, but I remember those meetings fondly.

Upon meeting me at a printers' dinner, he treated me to a story about how he came to print a book while at sea. Assigned to a US Navy voyage across the Atlantic by ship, he packed several cases of type and hundreds of sheets of paper on board the ship. Each evening, he would set one page of type, ink it up, and print it by a unique seafaring method: he would place a sheet of paper and a board across the type and a heavyset sailor friend would lean on the board, rock back and forth once with the pitch of the seas, and the page would be printed.

Upon landing in Europe, Greer said, he found a binder to assemble the book. He shipped one copy to a friend at the University of Chicago, which led to a job offer there when he returned from his Navy service. His position as University Printer at Yale followed.

I tell this story often. It inspires me that someone loved printing enough that he found a way to print a page every night, even under the most challenging circumstances. And that this love for printing would be noted and rewarded.
Leslie Kuo

Oh, I am so sad to hear of Greer Allen's passing. I went on that same trip (only a few years earlier) with the same low expectations, and the same awful dank weather, and also emerged from it a changed designer. Our trip didn't include any individual craftspersons, but as he took us to a raft of different factories Greer really taught us how to engage in an informed conversation with papermakers, printers, binders (and even envelope fabricators!). In doing this, Greer taught us to approach the people and the process by which our work was manufactured with respect, and to think about the entire process as pragmatic and holistic: an ethics of design, even if it was never labelled as such.
Lorraine Wild

I was so sorry to hear of Greer's passing. Like Leslie, I only ran into Greer a few times in recent years. Every time, though, he left me feeling joyful about the work that I was doing. To judge from the comments above, Greer had that effect on a lot of people. He was a very generous man; generous with his enthusiasm, his encouragement, and his affection.

On a side note, I got a kick out of his comments about the hunt for Yale blue. He declared that if that color was ever really pinned down, it “would leave Yale a bland, boring and uninteresting University. So my morning prayers regularly include the fervent hope, ‘Dear Lord, please have the answers to the questions surrounding Yale Blue and the Vinland Map forever elude us!’&rdquo
Tim Gambell

I worked closely with Greer for the last 11 years--until the end. His death came all too suddenly for me to make any sense of it, and I miss him very much. He was extremely generous of spirit, and I found his knowledge of type (as it was set before computers) refreshing and inspiring. I found his respectful approach to each and every project equally inspiring, and instructive. These qualities are what I will always remember about Greer...these qualities and how much he really liked chocolate.

Rest in peace.
Jo Ellen

i had him as a teacher as well, and he took us to a wide variety of places, including a huge web press, mohawk papers, small printing presses around new haven, letter presses, the british art center. he really exposed us to all aspects of printing, from very small and craft based to industrial mass produced printing. i feel very lucky to have had the experience and to have seen so much with him over just 4 months. i remember telling greer that my father is an engineer, and he commented that printing and design are in the same kind of work, industrial processes that involve a lot of planning. i remember him conveying to us his fascination for this machine that made beer labels, and i felt lucky to be around someone so closely connected and fascinated by the engineering aspects of printing.

I knew Greer well during the year after I graduated from Yale with a graphic design degree. I worked at the late lamented YUPS (Yale University Printing Service) as the typesetting supervisor. (I, uh, supervised myself.) Greer was in and out of YUPS all the time visiting with Roland Hoover, working on projects, dispensing his good humor.

I set one book for him, the full catalog of the Yale art gallery's holdings, and I recall his reaction to the first test: not so hot. How horrible to disappoint Greer. I tweaked, I kerned, I cleaned it up, and finally reached a result that met his level of perfection.

What a lovely man he was. I found this item about his passing because I was thinking of Berthold Wolpe, a good friend of his who passed away in 1989. When I was hunting around for a senior project that year, I believe it was either Roland or Greer that said, please put Albertus (Wolpe's perhaps best-known popular typeface) into digital form. There was a degenerate version available, but no pure Albertus.

It's sad to see someone as wonderful as Greer pass, but he touched many tens of thousands of lives in an uplifting and aesthetic way, and it's very hard to ask for more than that.
Glenn Fleishman

Great article by Phil Patton on NASA photography and the long tradition of celestial visualization at AIGA Voice.
Michael Bierut

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