Michael Vanderbyl

by Sean Adams, Print Magazine

Michael Vanderbyl

Beauty is a bad word in design. It is dismissed as shallow and irrelevant. It is about veneer and artifice. Beauty talks about the way a thing looks rather than what it means. A serious designer will reject elegance, harmony, and beauty in favor of dystopia and acceptance of the repellent. This was the philosophy I was taught as a young designer. I attempted to embrace this and incorporated hideous shades of green, distressed typography, and unattractive imagery into my work. But there was that inner sense of living a charade. In my world, CalArts in the 1980s, I thought I was the only one who thought design didn’t need to be ugly.

It is rare that people experience epiphanic moments in life as if in a novel. That sudden burst of knowledge while sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or instantly recognizing that you are in love under a tree in the rain, is not common. I can pinpoint, however, the moment and place when I realized that dystopia and chaos was not the only way. I was sitting on the floor of the library at school between the stacks in the graphic design section. I recall the smell of old books and the scratchy wool carpet. I found a book, Seven, and opened to a page of Michael Vanderbyl’s work. The experience was the same we all share when we find something wonderful. It was that sense of excitement, discovery, envy, and longing.

To spend a concentrated amount of time looking at Michael’s work is to feel that beauty, harmony, and precision cannot be separated from content. The work seduces and remains in the viewer’s mind. But this is not beauty in the sense of an elaborate wedding cake or baroque cathedral. Michael strips the form to its essence and allows the simple and honest forms to convey the message. The result is a body of work that embraces the best and unapologetically demands excellence. The closest example is that of a chef using the best and highest quality ingredients to make a seemingly simple, but remarkable meal.

As designers, we all practice a form of hero worship. We make those we admire larger than life and untouchable. “Is that Saul Bass over there? I can’t say hello I’m too scared,” or “Can you believe Milton Glaser signed his book for me?” The reality is that this is flattering to the person in question, but usually awkward and uncomfortable. After all, being a famous designer is the same as being a famous accountant. This story would work best if I talked about meeting Michael for the first time, nervous and voice shaking as I introduced myself. But that would be a lie. Before I had the chance to be anxious, Michael introduced himself to me as if we were old friends, and immediately complimented a recent project. Flattery may be the devil’s tool, but I’m all for it.

For over two decades, Michael has been a friend, champion, mentor, and great dinner partner. I think of him first when faced with a professional dilemma. I turn to his work when I need inspiration, and when I need to know which Aston Martin model is best. Last year, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had spent two decades working with Noreen Morioka to build AdamsMorioka. I took three months and went to Berlin with a group of Art Center students. While there, I came to recognize that I could use the second half of my career continuing to do what I had been doing for 30 years, or take a different path. The other path was to focus my energies as a full time professor at Art Center, continue to serve AIGA, work with Lynda.com to reach people without access to design education, and design work I enjoyed. The core of this path was to work helping others reach their fullest potential. This concept would never enter my frame of reference without Michael.

Michael has committed his career to design, education, AIGA, and service. He continues to create remarkable work that advances the profession. If he could do this, so could I. Michael proves that it is possible to be a graphic, furniture, and environmental designer, AIGA president, educator, and whatever one aspires to. He doesn’t accept that there is only one choice.

He gave me the advice, as I faced this mid-life crisis, to do what made me happy. “If you think about doing something every day,” he told me, “like playing the piano professionally, then you should do it.” Fortunately, I didn’t want to play the piano. But, every day I regretted that I didn’t give enough time to a student, young designer, or someone who needed some help.  I didn’t regret not working more on the most recent newsletter for a medical client. Michael gave me the permission to make a course change and do what I loved, ignoring others who lived by hard rules and single definitions.

There is a downside to being Michael’s friend. Michael’s house is spectacular. The design is sublime and restrained. The symmetrical layout and forms are unexpected and, at the same time, feel exactly right. On my last visit, John Bielenberg and I counted 20 different shades of white paint on the walls and ceilings. The space is calm, casual, and flawless. The problem is going home. It is then that you realize, “Oh my God, I live like a wild animal.” Instead of harmony and simplicity, one beautiful Audubon print in the dining room, I have coral and sea-foam walls, surfing posters, a million pillows from around the world, and a sailfish. When I return home, I pare everything down and put the Mexican folk art in plastic bins in the garage. But after a week, they’re back, and then I find a miniature rocket that I must have.

Graphic design has been good to me. Or more specifically, graphic designers have been good to me, especially Michael. He helped launch my career, has gone to great effort to help me and champion my work. These things, though, are minor compared to the example he has shown. Through Michael, I learned to aspire to be gracious, humble, generous, and honest. I cannot repay his endless kindness and friendship. I can only do my best to emulate this and pass the concept of beauty and generosity on to the next generation.