Reviewing A Life Of Design

As assistant for six years to Dr. M. F. Agha, the legendary art director of Vogue and Vanity Fair, Cipe Pineles learned the techniques of magazine design just as the field was reinventing itself. Deploying ideas from European design within the capricious world of New York publishing, Agha was forging new attitudes toward photography, typography, and layout, and Pineles was at his side throughout his experimentation. Acting as mentor and collaborator, Agha often shared credit with Pineles for his professional awards, and he gave her considerable autonomy, assigning her to design two covers for Vogue and one for Vanity Fair, among other significant projects.

oldvanityIn 1942 Pineles became art director of Glamour, a Conde Nast publication aimed at younger women, and the loose, popular style she crafted for it kept links to modernist principles of structure and abstraction while using images and type playfully. Her openhearted brand of modernism continued to evolve in her work as art director of Seventeen (1947-50), Charm (1950-59), and Mademoiselle (1959-61). She paid keen consideration to the physical setting of fashion shoots and their two-dimensional impact, using typography to echo and emphasize photographic images. Approaching the magazine as an environment with its own scale as well as a window onto other worlds, Pineles often staged three-dimensional objects on the page, allowing samples of reality to converse with printed texts. A gifted illustrator herself, Pineles enjoyed commissioning work from fine artists as well as contributing illustrations of food and fashion to her own publications.

After these heady years at the center of the New York publishing world, Pineles shifted her identity in the 1960s, working as an independent designer for such institutional clients as Lincoln Center and the Russell Sage Foundation. She also began teaching at Parsons School of Design and later became its director of publications. Her work from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s continued to express a modernist sensibility enlivened by popular impulses, and she died in 1991.

The book Cipe Pineles chronicles each phase of her career with meticulous care, drawing anecdotes and first-person accounts from letters and other documents held in the Pineles Archives at the Rochester Institute of Technology, as well as from the many interviews Scotford has conducted. The book includes numerous reproductions of Pineles’s working sketches and fascinating descriptions of her working methods. This solid base of research gives the book utter authority, illuminating not only Pineles’s life and work but also the worlds of publishing, design, and New York intelligentsia surrounding her.

Martha Scotford is forthright about her feminist intentions: She sets out to pay tribute to a woman whose contribution to design has been largely overlooked and undervalued. Pineles emerges from the book not as one of the boys but as a distinctly female figure who faced and overcame specific career challenges. Scotford shows that although fashion publishing employed numerous women across a spectrum of positions – from editors-in-chief to overeducated assistants – very few women worked as art directors, making Pineles’s achievement all the more remarkable.

Cipe Pineles is very much a biography, casting a warm light on Pineles’s life as a woman as well as a designer. We learn of her struggles with infertility, her attempt at suicide, and the loss of two husbands; we learn about her dinner parties in the hip Rockland County suburbs in the 1950s, and we see how the art direction of her magazines related to the decoration of her homes. These intimate details reflect Scotford’s feminist methodology, depicting a woman’s life as a non-linear path shaped by the countless interruptions of love, death, home, and family. Influence and collaboration are part of this twisting tale, and Scotford shows no hesitation in discussing Pineles’s intense and productive relationships with men, from Agha, her boss, to her two husbands, the designers William Golden and Will Burtin. Each of these men, especially Agha and Golden, nurtured Pineles’s talent and fostered the growth of her career. Scotford depicts them fairly and generously; Golden in particular emerges from the book as a man of depth and humanity, in love with his wife and proud of her independence.

The book is unencumbered by heavy theory or tendentious interpretations. Scotford struggles neither to vilify the fashion world nor to recast it as a “site of resistance.” She doesn’t apologize for fashion magazines, seeing little contradiction in celebrating female achievement within a media world that sometimes exploits women’s desires and manipulates their self-image. Indeed, part of what makes Pineles such an important figure is the realm of her work: While the accomplishments of many of design history’s most cherished pioneers circulated within relatively narrow cultural arenas, Pineles plunged into the raging river of mass media and culture.

Given her fascinating life story and ravishing work, it’s heartbreaking that Cipe Pineles reproduces the images of her design at a tiny scale. Given such small reproductions, readers must be trained in the mysterious alchemy of magazine design to recognize their beauty and originality. I fear that a student, for example, might pick up the book and quickly put it down, unable to decipher the brilliance locked inside the cramped little pictures. The book’s text, while interesting, is long and detailed; I wonder whether a few words could have been sacrificed for bigger pictures. And as Scotford designed the book along with writing it, I wish she had found a fairer balance between image and text, or had selected fewer pictures and shown them larger. Perhaps the author was too close to her subject to make such sacrifices.

One Response to “Reviewing A Life Of Design”

  1. raihan karl says:

    It’s flattering that people nowadays realize the importance of giving recognition to those who have provided brilliant contributions to any industry. This is more than giving honor to the person herself. It is more of continuing her desire to inspire and encourage everyone to perform well in whatever industry she belongs.

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