Gilbert Lesser: the poster man of graphic design


Gilbert Lesser's "Frankenstein" poster could stand as his signature because it's typical of his technique and his brand of creativity. Its image is simply a hand in red that looks as if it is made of several pieces of torn paper.

It suggests Frankenstein's creation of a human being from parts of other human beings. It uses a two-dimensional, silhouette style and bold color, both of which Lesser was known for (and red was his color). And it reflects the way he worked, using cut or torn paper because, according to Ed Gold, his longtime friend, fellow graphic designer and former schoolmate at the Maryland Institute, "He couldn't draw worth a damn."

Lesser managed to make a stunningly successful career out of that failing, becoming the creator of posters for about 50 theater productions. His others include "Equus," "Amadeus," "The Elephant Man" and Arthur Miller's "The Price" and "The American Clock." All of those and lots more are on view in the institute's show "All About Me," a retrospective tribute to an alumnus and native Baltimorean who went on to a major but too brief New York career as a graphic designer (Lesser died in 1990 at the age of 55).

He graduated first in his class at the institute in 1956 and was also a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University. Posters were actually a relatively late interest; his career, primarily in New York, included promotional work for a number of publications including Fortune, People and Life. In 1978 he became promotion director for Life. He did stage and costume design, interior design, created company logos and also designed events, such as corporate celebrations.

He was almost 40 when he designed his first theater poster, for Peter Schaffer's "Equus," a horse made of geometric units (squares, triangles) but reminiscent of Picasso's "Guernica." It remains Lesser's most famous poster, but there are other memorable works here that combine the almost stark Lesser style with an image that picks up an idea from the play and makes it visual. The poster for "The Elephant Man," about a deformed man, shows essentially a stick man with an enormous circle for a head, inside of which is a quote from the character: "Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams." "Morning's at Seven," about four sisters who live close together and whose lives interact, has the image of a house made of four interlocking sections.

The show, curated by Mr. Gold, contains more than posters. There's a lot of Lesser's other work, from promotional publications to party invitations. But the posters are the most interesting, along with a wall of "comprehensives" for posters -- the designer's fully-worked-out ideas for the client. These include several different presentations for each of a number of shows, so one can see Lesser developing his ideas.

This material is all part of the collection of personal work left to the institute by Lesser, which will no doubt be of much use to the design department. Design and fine art are not the same, since the graphic designer is working to a degree with givens rather than creating out of whole cloth. But Lesser's work shows graphic design's creative side. According to the institute, this is the first solo show it has ever given a graphic designer.


What: "All About Me: A Retrospective of Work by Gilbert Lesser"

Where: The Maryland Institute, College of Art

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (until 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays), Noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, through June 27.

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