A “highly influential unknown” seems like a paradoxical statement. However, there are many such people – people that ‘do’, write, speak and teach, because they are compelled to do so and because they are consumed by their passion.
György Kepes (1906-2001) is one such brilliant person of the design discipline. The fact that he was an introvert might explain his obscurity.
I suspect that this unknown figure is about to become known to a broader audience, not only because we are becoming more literate and interested in design, but also because the topics that he pioneered in his lectures and writings — the fusion of design with other disciplines (a topic I have explored in various posts) — are now coming of age.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, considers him to be an important figure in our contemporary society: “He had a holistic approach to knowledge, and the links he made between art, design and other disciplines, especially science, are so important now.”
The quote from his book ‘Language of Vision’ reinforces what he strongly believed in:
“The language of vision, optical communication, is one of the strongest potential means both to reunite man and his knowledge and to re-form man into an integrated being. Visual communication is universal and international: it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar, and it can be perceived by the illiterate as well as by the literate. Visual language can convey facts and ideas in a wider and deeper range than almost any other means of communication. It can interpret the new understanding of the physical world and social events because dynamic interrelationships and interpenetration. Vision is primarily a device of orientation; a means to measure and organize spatial events.”
The quote above reinforces many points I make throughout this blog.
On arriving in the USA, Kepes founded a design school “New Bauhaus” in Chicago, together with his mentor Moholy-Nagy. In 1942, he was offered a teaching position at the Brooklyn College where he met and mentored Saul Bass (the topic of my next post).
In 1945 he moved to MIT and surrounded himself with scientists, architects and technologists, who helped him to refine his thinking and work. In 1967, Kepes founded M.I.T.’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies to conduct research in the development of what we now call digital imagery. This structure has become a model for art and technology programs through the world.
In 1956, he published his book ‘The New Landscape in Art and Science’, in which Modern-era artwork was paired with scientific images that were made with devices such as x-ray machines, stroboscopic photography, electron microscopes, sonar, radar, high-powered telescopes and infrared sensors.
Kepes’ work has influenced many people who have become influential figures in the development of digital images, which now fill our computer and phone screen – Muriel Cooper, John Maeda, Ben Fry and Casey Reas. He was also had strong influence on Saul Bass.
His theories on visual perception and, in particular, his personal mentorship, had a profound influence on young MIT architecture, planning and visual art students. These include Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City) and Maurice K Smith (Associative Form and Field theory). I will devote future posts to exploring the work of these fascinating people and how they have contributed to visual thinking. For now, I include an image from each of them below.