George Tscherny, a leading figure in postwar graphic design whose work unified the clean, crisp lines of European modern art with an American commercial pop sensibility, died Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 99 years old.
His daughter Carla Tscherny confirmed the death.
Tscherny began his career in the early 1950s, near the beginning of a long golden age of consumerism and corporate growth in the United States, a period that demanded new types of advertising.
Many of the designers who created the distinctive images of the era were European immigrants, often refugees like Tscherny, who became familiar with the latest in modern art and design. His work graced advertising campaigns, produced on Madison Avenue, that brought cigarettes, toothpaste and airline travel into American homes.
After working as an apprentice in Manhattan design studios for five years, Tscherny opened his own practice in 1955. He soon had a client list that read like a who’s who of postwar corporate America. American Can, Colgate Palmolive, Pan Am and RCA hired his office to design advertising, logos and annual reports.
His work differed from that of many graphic designers who gravitated towards the so-called Swiss style, an austere and minimalist aesthetic loaded with grids, clean lines and abstraction. He brought humor and humanity: for an Overseas National Airways ad promoting winter travel, he arranged silhouettes of airliners to look like a snowflake.
“It didn’t follow a set condition of rules,” Steven Heller, a former art director at The New York Times who now teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, said in a telephone interview. “There was always a cheerful wit in his work.”
Mr. Tscherny once described its design approach as “maximum meaning with minimum means”; he also called it “the implicit human element.” One famous poster, by furniture designer Herman Miller, showed a cowboy hat sitting on one of the company’s signature chairs and the text “Herman Miller is coming to Dallas.”
“I see myself as a bridge between commerce and art,” Tscherny said in an interview for the Art Directors Club in 1997, when the club inducted him into its Hall of Fame. “Just as copy can be literature, design can be art when it reaches certain levels of originality and distinction.”
George Tscherny was born on July 12, 1924 in Budapest. His father, Mendel, was a Russian soldier during World War I who was captured by Austro-Hungarian forces and imprisoned in Hungary; When he ended the war, he stayed.
George’s mother, Bella Tscherny, a Hungarian Jew, worked as a seamstress.
The family had very little money and when George was 2 years old they moved to Berlin to escape anti-Semitism and be close to some of his mother’s relatives, who helped support them.
He recognized from an early age the way in which high art and commercial art overlapped, blended, and even nested within each other. There was perhaps no better place for that education than Weimar-era Berlin.
“Growing up in a poor, working-class home, I had to find art and culture outside the home,” he said in a 2014 interview with Print magazine. “Modern architecture, which began to appear on the streets of Berlin around 1930, sparked my interest in walks around the city.”
The family was pressured to flee Germany when the Nazis took power in the 1930s. In 1938, one day after the Kristallnacht pogrom, George and his brother Alex, boarded a train to the Netherlands, where they lived in a home for refugee children.
His parents emigrated to New Jersey, but it would be three more years before their children followed them there.
Tscherny joined the US Army during World War II. He served in France, as a translator, and later in occupied Germany. After being discharged in 1946, he studied for a time at an art school in Newark and then transferred to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He married Sonia Katz in 1950. She died in 2020. Along with her daughter Carla, she is survived by three grandchildren. Her brother, Alex, died in 2020. Another daughter, Nadia, died in 2019.
With only a few credits left before graduating, Mr. Tscherny left Pratt in 1950 to work for Donald Deskey, a renowned industrial designer. In 1953 he moved to the office of George Nelsonwhere he worked primarily for one of Mr. Nelson’s largest clients, Herman Miller.
He left in 1955 to start his own company. That same year he responded to a call for a professor of design at what was then known as the School of Cartoonists and Illustrators and is now the School of Visual Arts, in Manhattan.
Although Tscherny taught there for only eight years, he left an indelible legacy in what would become one of the country’s leading schools for aspiring art directors. He created his graphic design program and then teamed up with other artists to create a famous series of ads promoting it on the New York subway.
In 1996, he unveiled the school’s familiar wavy flower logo, which it still uses. It was classic Tscherny: placed next to the school’s name, written in what he called the “icy perfection” of the elegantly formal Bodoni font, the scrawled image points to the “human element” behind every design.
“It reflects what SVA has become: an art school with a wide range of offerings, from technology-based programs to painting activities,” Tscherny said. “I think the logo avoids the monotony of regular corporate branding.”