Looking back at Dan Friedman’s radical modernism

Alex Bigman

If you’re ever in New York City, make sure to stop by AIGA’s National Design Center, the ground floor of which serves as a gallery for rotating exhibitions of work in design. Currently they have an excellent show devoted to the career of Dan Friedman, a pioneer of “new wave” design in the 1970s and 80s whose life was tragically cut short.

Friedman is a figure that all designers should be familiar with, so for those who can’t see the show in person, we put together a sneak peek.

Radical modernism is …

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These days, it’s easy to look back at modernism as merely a “style” of art and design. In fact, it was much more, comprising an entire worldview and ethics based on the principles that technology and aesthetic innovation could materially improve people’s lives, create a ground for authentic experience and foster political agency.

Friedman was a true modernist, but like many in the 1970s, he became disillusioned with aspects of the modernist program – particularly the way it had been co-opted by corporations. His response was a new, vibrantly humanistic style that maintained a belief in the political ideals of modernism, while shedding its formal orthodoxies in favor of a more exuberant expressionism.

But before we get to that, a look at Friedman’s early days is in order.

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In Switzerland …

After graduating from college in the United States, Friedman went on to study at several Swiss design institutions. Here, he clearly picked up the country’s hallmark emphasis on the grid and meticulous typography.

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Posters by Friedman for the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the New Haven Dance Ensemble

At the Schule für Gestaltung Basel, however, Friedman had the opportunity to study with Wolfgang Weingart, a designer with novel attitudes toward the Swiss tradition. Known as the father of New Wave or “Swiss Punk” typography, Weingart encouraged his students to take conventional Swiss type in new directions.

In Corporate America …

Back in the United States, Friedman taught at Yale University and then took a position at Pentagram, becoming one of the first employees of the famed agency. Here, Friedman accomplished a broad swath of branding work, for example, developing the branding of banking giant Citicorp.

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Posters by Friedman for Citicorp Center

In the East Village …

In the 1980s, Friedman became increasingly wary of the role of design in corporate culture. Around the same time, he enmeshed himself in the lively and eccentric East Village arts scene, becoming close with graffiti artist Keith Haring, whose book Friedman would design, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and dealer/curator Jeffrey Deitch.

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One of Friedman’s sculptural works

Friedman’s own work became more experimental, often veering into the world of sculpture and furniture design. One project involved continually re-decorating the interior of this apartment from top to bottom, the results of which you can see below.

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Parting words …

Friedman would spend his last years working mostly as an educator, before dying of AIDS-related complications in 1995. Shortly before he passed away, he composed 12 pieces of advice that should resonate with any member of the design community:

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Have anything to add about Dan Friedman or Radical Modernism? Share in the comments!

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