Paula Scher: Raising the Bar

Paula Scher: Raising the Bar

In the late eighties, Paula Scher came to SVA to teach portfolio.
When the semester began, the other students in Paula's class were Gail Anderson, Drew Hodges, Jackie Murphy, Jackie Seow, Mario Pulice, Archie Ferguson, Deb Bishop, Richard Baker, Frank Garjulio, Alexander Knowlton, Syndi Becker and a host of other current industry greats. Over the next twenty years of Paula's SVA teaching career, the sheer number of other stars to be taught by Paula would be legendary. This was a time at The School of Visual Arts when Richard Wilde had brought a host of new and visionary instructors on board: Carin Goldberg, Henrietta Condak, Louise Fili and Chris Austopchuk. Even Richard Wilde, Chairman of the Advertising and Graphic Design Department, will admit that it was the dawn of a new era in how Graphic Design and Typography would be taught at SVA.
As soon as we had had out first class, we were all totally impressed by Paula. She knew every typeface, on a first name basis. She called Futura, "Fut." Paula was very tough and opinionated, smart, sophisticated, but also charming and incredibly entertaining in the classroom. Paula was very well known for chain smoking, and she would often take a long drag on her cigarette and say, "Your generation's politics leave me cold." We were so wet around the ears and naïve that, to be perfectly honest, we did not even know what she was even talking about. At that point in time, many of us still did not know the difference between Futura and Helvetica. Politics? We were these 'kids', 'art students', from the Bronx, or from New Jersey or even from Rome.  We did not know "anything about anything," much less follow current events. You have to remember that this was a time, well before the Mac, the iPod, the cell phone, or e-mail.  We were not yet the totally wired global world that we are today. What we did learn from Paula was that we were not allowed to use Helvetica--ever.  And that Haber was the typesetter for all of the New York design intelligentsia. Until Carin Goldberg and Paula came into our lives, SVA students had traditionally used rub-down press type, for everything, and press type does have it limits....

Each Thursday, Paula would come to class at SVA and we would put up the work for critique, and hope (and maybe even pray a little), for a good or encouraging comment. And each week, Paula would come in and transport us into this amazing world of design that until then was a mystery to us. Paula would tell great stories about 'Seymour' (Chwast) and 'Milton' (Glaser) and 'Henry' (Wolf); about chatting with Massimo (Vignelli); or even about the current record cover that she was doing with Guy Billout (and she would pronounce his first name in the French way, 'Gui', instead of the Americanized 'Guy'). These were Paula's peers, and she socialized, and collaborated with these people everyday.

To us students, 'le peuple,' just dying to even see a book cover, poster or some other great piece of design created by any of these industry leaders, was exciting enough. We were so impressed that Paula really actually knew all of these people. I remember Paula would tell incredible stories of reviewing portfolios at CBS, day after day, week after week.  Apparently, more often than not, the cigarette ash would burn down so long at the tip of those Parliament 100's she smoked that frequently the ash would just fall off and drop right into the portfolio she was reviewing, and she said that she "...would just zip that book back up, and move on to the next."

As an instructor Paula was very approachable. She was pretty, blond, and had a great sense of humor. As students, we were naturally super-competitive, jockeying for Paula's approval, wanting desperately to receive praise from her on our work. The interesting thing, truth-be-told, was that it was not only the great students in Paula's class that she made greater. In reality, every single student who was in Paula's class ended up coming out with a really great portfolio. Paula raised the bar for excellence with everyone she taught. Paula really knew how to see genius in people--and how to bring it out.  At SVA, Paula was a real Art Director in the truest sense of the word. According to 'The Boss,' Richard Wilde, "...the mark of a great instructor is that the work is so important to them, they raise even the bad students up." Although, there were no bad students ever in Paula's class. Paula's enthusiasm for design and typography were legendary--and it infected everyone.

In May, two weeks before graduation, Paula turned to me and said, "You will never be able to finish your portfolio on time. But you are good--so go over to my studio, (which was Koppel & Scher at that time), and work out a schedule with Drew Hodges (who was already interning there), and finish your book on time." And Drew and I did just that.

After the portfolio reviews, Paula told everyone in the class: "Don't ever give up" and "Don't call me"--but of course, we all thought she was joking and we did anyway.

The summer after I graduated from SVA, I had to make this incredibly difficult decision: whether to stay in NYC and start a real job working for Sam Antiput at Abrams, or move to London to go to The Royal College of Art for a graduate degree, also in graphic design.

Paula said, "F--k Graduate school. Go to London, get your visa, and go over to Paris work for Grapus." And, true to her word, in August of 1984, Paula arranged for me to meet both Milton (Glaser) and Henry (Wolf), to show them my portfolio and to ask them both to write me introductory letters for Pierre Bernard, the 'leader' of Grapus.  The power of two letters made my interview at Grapus, in Aubervilliers, (the dirty Parisian proche banlieue), possible.

Sorry to interrupt, Richard Wilde just came in and told me to stop writing my tribute to Paula, and to get back to work for him and SVA. By the way, Paula, "Richard still desperately wants you to come back to teach portfolio. Can you please give him a call?"
  • ramilippa

    Back in 1984 I had the privilege of being tutored by Paula. I had, arrived from Israel 3 years earlier to study graphic design at SVA; in one of the most stimulating cities in the world. I was in awe of the architecture, the street culture and the then developing art scene of NY. Keith Haring was painting his graffiti art in subway stations and Francesco Clemente was exhibiting at Mary Boone.

    Each week, we began our portfolio class with Paula; with a mix of trepidation and excitement. At the start of class we had to pin up our own work on the wall and start talking about it. That was an experience that didn't come naturally to me, but prooved to be a great one. The discussion was always good, and Paula invariably pushed us to go out there and do more, improve on the idea or sometimes start the assignment all over again! Her passion for type was infectious and it certainly turned me into a type nut. I can't walk by a street poster without trying to guess which font is used!

    I left NY with a good portfolio thanks to Paula. After freelancing in NYC, went with it to London, England, where I met David Hillman at Pentagram. (He had just designed a new magazine called Business and they hired me as a designer.) I stayed in London for over 18 years and became a creative director; I'm now back once again on this side of the Atlantic, in Toronto, Canada; still as a CD, now working as a consultant. My fond memories of those 'wall crit' days with Paula will always stay with me, as the best training I had to develope a critical eye for design that uses type in a way that attracts, stimulates and delights. Thanks Paula!

  • Donna Reiss

    I think for anyone who has attended SVA, and has had the privilege of having Paula Scher as their instructor all ride the same emotional wave of being awe struck by her presence. Paula was my graphic design portfolio teacher in 1999, our class was held in Pentagram's conference room, and I remember feeling like it was the coolest place on earth. I felt so important and honored to be there which also made me feel incredibly nervous and extremely fearful of my work not being good enough to be acknowledged by her. If Paula Scher really liked your work, it was like winning an Oscar. I remember one of the projects was to redesign LIFE magazine. I came up with the concept for the cover of making the Logo super large, bleeding it off the page, and I thought it was too extreme and that she was never going to like it... That day, she walks into the conference room and immediately over to my cover and says "I want to buy this."

    I thought I was going to pass out. That day turned out to be more than just having "Paula Scher" really liking my work, but it gave me confidence as a designer, to work hard, communicate well, and to never stop thinking outside of the box.

    I will forever be grateful for her time, her inspiration and for her deep love +passion for design. Thank you Paula!

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