Push Pin Studios graphic artist Reynold Ruffins dies at 90

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Reynold Ruffins, an illustrator, graphic designer and artist who was an early member of Push Pin Studios, the playful, buzzy design firm founded by fellow Cooper Union classmates Milton Glaser, Ed Sorel and Seymour Chwast, died on July 11 at his home in Sag Harbor, NY He was 90 years old.

The cause was cardiac arrest, her son Seth said.

Print advertising in the early 1950s was a formal and rather boring affair. The products were mostly peddled using traditional typefaces combined with romantic or idealized photographs and illustrations on the one hand, or, on the other hand, a cold and rational European modernist style, with elegant photographs and a sans serif type.

In witty and deceptively nostalgic designs and lettering, Mr. Glaser, Mr. Chwast, Mr. Sorel and Mr. Ruffins, all illustrators, have shaken up the field. In doing so, they largely created the postmodern discipline of graphic design, taking what had been disparate roles – illustration and type design – and stitching them together.

“They made entertainment design,” said Steven Heller, former art director of the New York Times Book Review and editor of “The Push Pin Graphic: A Quarter Century of Innovative Design and Illustration,” a 2004 visual history. workshop work. “They did this by using vernacular forms like cartoon, and going back to styles like Art Nouveau and Art Deco and reinterpreting them. They brought back the past. They introduced pastiche into the design vocabulary and made it cool.

In his own work, Mr. Ruffins has exploited late 19th and early 20th century European imagery, such as posters and illustrations by Emil Pretorius or Heinrich Christian Wilhelm Busch, a German cartoonist and illustrator. The kinetic madness of German cartoons and the bloated art nouveau forms espoused by Mr. Ruffins and the other Push Pin illustrators foreshadowed the trippy, psychedelic imagery that would become a signature of the late 60s.

“Reynold played with the forms,” Mr. Heller said. “Although they are part of the 20th century continuum, they are definitely his.”

As Mr. Ruffins later recalled, being black made him a rarity in the advertising business – an industry that, before the civil rights era, was an all-white world of Mad Men. As his work was his business card, clients often did not know his race.

“After I finished a job, I was going to meet an art director, and there were surprises”, Mr. Ruffins told the Sag Harbor Express in 2013. “Once I finished a big job – both physically and financially – and I had my wallet under my arm. I felt so good. The receptionist looked up and said, ‘Mailroom is over there. The assumption was that if you were black, you were delivering something.

Reynold Dash Ruffins was born on August 5, 1930 in Queens. His father, John, was an appliance salesman for Consolidated Edison, the energy company; his mother, Juanita (Dash) Ruffins, was a homemaker.

Like Mr. Glaser, a high school pal, Mr. Ruffins went to the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan (now Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Arts) and then Cooper Union, the highly selective and, at the time, tuition-free arts college in Lower Manhattan. He graduated in 1951.

One summer, he and his classmates there, Mr. Glaser and Mr. Chwast, formed a graphic design company called Design Plus. They had two clients. One wanted to make cork placemats (Mr. Ruffins designed the tropical scene they screen-printed on them), and the other was a monologue that needed a flyer. “Then our vacation was over and we went back to school,” Mr Chwast said.

Then Mr. Chwast, Mr. Sorel, and Mr. Ruffins came up with the idea of ​​selling themselves with a compendium of type and illustration, a four-page booklet designed as a parody of The Farmer’s Almanac. They called him the Pushpin Almanac and sent it to the art directors to speed up the work. (Mr. Glaser had gone to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship.) It was filled with bits of ephemera—factoids and poems and ancient toothache cures, for example—rendered in a neo-nostalgic style that was unique to them. Mr. Ruffins designed the thumbtack logo. Copies of the Almanac and its successor, The Push Pin Monthly Graphic, are now collector’s items for design enthusiasts.

In 1954, Mr. Chwast, Mr. Glaser and Mr. Sorel formed a proper design company and named it Push Pin Studios, although they had virtually no clients. They invited Mr. Ruffins to join.

But he had married Joan Young, a classmate at Cooper Union, and they had had a baby, so he took a job at a more established company. (A sign of the times, Joan was asked to leave Cooper Union when she was pregnant. The dean told her she was losing a spot that could be given to a man. Decades later, the school awarded her a certificate of completion.)

After Push Pin Studios was established, Mr. Ruffins returned and stayed for about five years, Mr. Chwast said, before going out on his own in 1960. Mr. Sorel, the well-known political cartoonist and New Yorker contributor, is left early. , too much. Mr. Glaser would become a co-founder of New York Magazine, create the “I ♥ NY” logo and other iconic designs.

Mr. Ruffins helped design The Urbanite, a short-lived cultural magazine for what he called “the new nigger.” Published in 1961, it was put together by Byron Lewis, an advertising executive, and others, and James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes and LeRoi Jones were contributors.

“We couldn’t attract any paid advertising,” said Mr Lewis, who later set up his own advertising agency, Uniworld, to focus on the black market. “No mainstream advertiser wanted to advertise in a black publication. That’s what we were called then. We were a start-up trying to be different from Ebony and Jet, which focused on black celebrities. Reynold was a pioneer, working in the white world of mainstream advertising. It was unheard of for a black man at the time. He was a model. »

Mr. Ruffins then launched the Ruffins/Taback design studio with his friend Simms Taback. (They also had a greeting card business, called Cardtricks, featuring the two men’s expressive arch designs.)

He also collaborated with Jane Sarnoff, a writer, on 14 children’s books, which were quirky, comedic expositions on any topic that interested them in any given year, from superstitions to chess to puzzles.

His illustrations for “On the way to ABC,by Denize Lauture, a Haitian poet, earned Mr. Ruffins illustration honors at the 1997 Coretta Scott King Book Awards. “Illustrator Reynold Ruffins’ stunning one- or two-page gouache images capture the cadence of Lauture’s rhythmic text and the vibrant colors of the children’s world,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1996.

Joan Ruffins, painter, died in 2013. Besides his son Seth, Mr. Ruffins is survived by two other sons, Todd and Ben; one daughter, Lynn Cave; and six grandchildren.

During his long career, Mr. Ruffins has created designs and illustrations for publications such as The New York Times Magazine and Gourmet and Essence magazines. He taught for over a decade in the art department at Queens College. In the early 2000s, he began painting full time, creating cheerful, jazzy and often abstract works which he exhibited in Sag Harbor and elsewhere.

“I’ve been blessed to almost always enjoy my work, some less, of course, than others,” he told the Sag Harbor Express. “I probably work harder at easel painting than I did as an illustrator, because I had the constraints and the need to satisfy the client, although it can be useful to know what you can’t do.”

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