Lester Beall (1903–1969) was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and was a renowned figure in graphic design. With a unique blend of artistic creativity and disciplined precision, Beall left an indelible mark on the industry. His work encompassed various mediums, including poster design, magazine layouts, and corporate identity systems. This article explores Beall’s journey from early beginnings to his influential contributions, focusing on his notable poster series for the Rural Electrification Administration and his pioneering work in corporate identity systems.
“Lester Beall was a graphic designer who broke the mold. His innovative and unconventional approach to design brought a fresh perspective to the field, pushing the boundaries of visual communication.”
Early Years and Influences
Beall’s educational background reflects his dual passions for art and engineering. He studied engineering at Lane Technical School in Chicago and later pursued art history at the University of Chicago. These two disciplines would intersect throughout his career, shaping his approach to graphic design. After completing his studies, Beall established his office in Chicago in 1927, initially working as a freelance advertising artist. In 1935, he relocated to New York, immersing himself in the city’s international artistic climate.
European Influence and Unconventional Style
During his time in New York, Beall was heavily influenced by European artistic developments, particularly constructivism and the Bauhaus movement. Drawing inspiration from their experimentation with typography and photography, Beall developed his unconventional style. His designs often featured woodcuts, drawings, flat abstract shapes, directional arrows, and striking typographic devices. This unique approach brought a fresh and lively perspective to his work, even when dealing with mundane objects or limited colour palettes. Notably, his poster series for the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s exemplified his ability to enliven visuals and transcend constraints.
Recognition and Continued Contributions
Beall’s talent and innovative style gained recognition in 1937 when he became the first commercial designer to have a one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This acknowledgement further propelled his career, and he continued to work independently in the city, producing a wide range of graphic materials. In 1951, he took a significant step by relocating his design office to a farm in Connecticut. This move allowed him to create an environment that nurtured his design practise as a total lifestyle, which he embraced until his passing.
Apart from his notable poster series for the Rural Electrification Administration, Beall’s work extended to other prominent projects. He designed for Scope magazine, collaborating with the Upjohn Pharmaceutical Company, and created layouts for Collier’s and Time magazines. However, Beall’s most significant contribution lies in his pioneering work in corporate identity systems. He played a crucial role in demonstrating to the industry the tangible benefits of incorporating design into business strategies. By emphasising the importance of cohesive visual branding and identity, Beall helped revolutionise American advertising design.
Julier, G. (1991). Illustrated Dictionary of Twentieth Century Designers. Chartwell Books.