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Neshan 42


The Times of a Modernist: A Review on Burton Kramer’s Works

Majid Abbasi

“For the bronx - born kramer modernism was a design fusion inspired by american boldness and swiss style restraint1.”

During Canada 150, Canadians celebrated the 150th anniversary of their Confederation: a country that was formed by immigrants of various cultures. The second largest country of the world, with the area of nearly ten million square kilometers and the population of more than 36 million, consists of indigenous people and immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Canada’s multiculturalism has become the fundamental identity of their society. The first national visual arts movement dates back to the early twentieth century and to the ‘Group of Seven’ (1920–1933), a group of Canadian painters who created remarkable images of Canada’s vast landscapes and perspectives of nature. What about graphic design?

The development and rise of graphic design in Canada are entangled with the country’s policies and its continuous welcoming attitude towards immigrants. Ernst Roch (Germany), Burton Kramer (United States), and Fritz Gottschalk (Switzerland) are familiar names in the field. They are considered the first representatives of Canada’s design culture and they are the ones who influenced later generations of budding designers. Historically, it’s clearly understandable that the golden age of graphic design, and the other creative fields like architecture and interior design, had commenced with the country’s 100th anniversary by organizing Expo 67, a International and Universal Exposition held in Montreal. The memorable examples of designs like the Canadian National Railroad Sign by Allan Fleming (1960), Expo visual identity system by Julien Hébert (1976), the visual identity of the Centennial Canada by Stuart Ash (1967), the corporate identity program of CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation by Burton Kramer (1974), the logo and visual identity of the Montreal Winter Olympic by Raymond Bellemare (1976), the logo of Montreal Summer Olympic by Georges Huel (1976), and many more are the outcomes of this great era. A key feature of these outstanding and superb works is the clear influence Modernism had to play.

Burton Kramer is one of the most influential designers from Canada. He spent his teenage years in the Bronx in New York City. At first, he had a taste for music and was a clarinet and saxophone player, but he didn’t hold on to those. He was also interested in manual work skills and industrial design, so he pursued a career in carpentry while also spending his leisure time carving wooden sculptures. He graduated from prestigious academic centers in the United States and the United Kingdom, and he has worked as a graphic designer in New York, Zurich. He immigrated to Canada in 1965 and in 1974, he became the first Canadian member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). After years of graphic design experience, he decided to turn his attention to painting and currently lives in Toronto.
Kramer has taught typography and the basics of visual design for twenty one years at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD). In 1999, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Toronto Arts Foundation and won the Order of Province of Ontario in 2002. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) in Toronto in 2003. 

Yale and Chicago
Burton Kramer spent part of his education at Yale University and then at The Institute of Design, Chicago. At Yale, he built his educational background by learning from some of the greatest professors of Modernism and he found the opportunity to take part in Paul Rand’s courses. Kramer said, “I learned a particular attitude from him. How do you make decisions? How do you approach doing things? What would you do? How would you characterize that? What would you say? Well, he was the first teacher I’d ever had.” He continued, “You have to have a reason for everything you do. If you showed him something good he would say, ‘why did you do that?’”
Bradbury Thompson, Herbert Matter, and Alexey Brodovitch were also among his professors there. He said about Brodovitch: “He gave us a corporate identity project to do. We didn’t know anything. He didn’t discuss the brief or teach us how to approach it. We were just doing it blindly. When I look back on it, it really makes me angry. It was, in many ways, a terrible waste of time.” Perhaps this experience is what lead him to drop out of Yale and enroll in the Royal College of Art in London. However, this transition only lasted for one year as he ended up back at Yale and graduated in 1957.

New York and Geigy
“To be a Modernist is to not rely on the solutions and stylistic quirkiness of the past, but to become part of creating an idiom of today and tomorrow2.” Kramer began his professional career with the Will Burtin studio in New York, and after that, he became the Assistant Art Director of the Architectural Record and the New York Life Insurance Company. In 1960, he was recruited by the International Geigy Pharmaceutical Company, New York. The project began with Kramer’s designs under the company’s consultant, Gottfried Honegger’s, supervision. From Kramer’s perspective, Honegger was an artist in every way and his sculptures and paintings had a specific touch of minimalism. The advertisements and magazine covers that Kramer designed for Geigy are brilliant examples of his capabilities and of his understanding of Modernism.

The Swiss Years
Living and working in Switzerland had a profound effect on the development of Burton Kramer’s approach. In 1961, Kramer moved to Zurich and gained success as the senior designer at the Erwin Halpern Advertising Agency. He built a strong portfolio containing a series of promotional advertisings, posters, billboards, and packaging for Modissa and Witzig office furniture, all which are clever combinations of photography and typography inspired by the Swiss style. He was honored with the Swiss Poster Award and Swiss Packaging Award. Following his professional success, he became the first non-Swiss designer to join the VSG (Verband Schweizer Grafiker (Swiss Graphic Designers Association).

Immigration To Canada
Massimo Vignelli believes that the best examples of graphic design in Canada are from the sixties, so it is no exaggeration to call these years the ‘Golden age of design.’ Kramer’s professional life entered a new stage following his move to Toronto in 1965. He designed the Expo 67 signage system, the visual identities for the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Educational Television in parallel with launching the Kramer Design Associates. R. Roger Remington wrote of him: “even though ‘corporate identity’ was very much in the air in the 1960’s, Kramer, possibly because of his unique background with Will Burtin, Geigy and Halpern, was a highly visible pioneer in this kind of work in Canada3.”
Kramer expanded his professional career to creating the comprehensive visual identity strategy of CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At that time, there were about twenty-six CBC stations in Toronto, which proves the importance of developing this logo as the core of the visual identity. The company logo was placed in the corner of the television programs and a supporting audio recording announced, “This is CBC.”
The logo lasted for eighteen years before it redesigned in 1992 by another designer. The redesign replaced Kramer’s letter ‘C,’ a representation of the first letter of ‘Canada,’ with a circle. He criticized the new design’s cultural separation, “They have this thing, which I don’t see as Canada’s broadcasting symbol. I could see it as symbol for something else, but there is nothing specific that references Canada. That was the biggest problem.” 

It has been almost two decades since Kramer shifted his career focus to painting. His work has appeared in the form of drawing boards following the logical stream of his design thinking. In his paintings, which he calls ‘visual music,’ he expresses the sound and rhythm of music through color and form. “If you have taken a look at Carlos Castaneda’s book called Conversation with Don Juan, you know he speaks of seeing. How do you see music? You have to hear the sounds…the rhythm…to able to see it. And if you can’t see it, then it’s not there,” says Kramer. During his process, he draws the initial studies on paper, masks the canvas with a tape, and then paints elaborate, geometric forms with acrylics in the masked areas. At the first glance, it looks like a digital print, but when you get close to it, you will be astonished by the elaborate implementation of these colorful surfaces. Kramer’s work can best be described as a collection with active, visual powers that enchants the viewer through geometric shapes, and these are just coming from the mighty hands of a modernist designer and artist.

1&2The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design, Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio ABRAMS, 2017, p. 214
3R. Roger Remington, ‘Burton Kramer, Canada’s Incorrigible Design Optimist’, Graphic Design Archive Online, 2008

Majid Abbasi

is design director of Studio Abbasi active in the international community, based in Tehran and Toronto. He leads a variety of design projects for start-ups, non-profits and educational organizations worldwide. Majid actively contributes to the international design scene as an instructor, jury member, curator and writer. He has been editor-in-chief of Neshan, the leading Iranian graphic design magazine since 2010. Majid has been members of Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS) since 1998 and Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 2009.

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