Review: Design and Science

Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin
By R. Roger Remington and Robert S.P. Fripp
160 pages, hardcover, $70.00
Published by Lund Humphries,

After famed art director Cipe Pineles passed away in 1991, her archives and those of her equally famous husbands William Golden and Will Burtin were moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology, where author Remington has been a professor for many years. Although definitive biographies have been published on both Pineles and Golden, little has been written about Burtin, save for a chapter in Remington and Barbara Hodik’s essential Nine Pioneers of American Graphic Design. In 1996, Remington began a collaboration with Fripp, Burtin’s son-in-law and one-time junior assistant, to produce this long-overdue portrait of one of the geniuses of twentieth century design.

Will Burtin certainly had an exciting life and Design and Science is captivating reading. He and his first wife Hilde, also a designer and photographer, set up shop in Berlin, where Burtin, still in his early twenties, gained quick success for innovative information and catalog design, enough success in fact to attract the attention of Josef Goebbels, who wanted Burtin to become the director of design in the Nazi propaganda machine. Quick thinking and a cousin of Hilde’s got them safely to the US, where they made early influential friends with Bob Leslie of The Composing Room, James Marston Fitch of The Architectural Forum, and Pineles and Golden.

Burtin brought his unique skill for making science and technical/mechanical topics understandable to the nontechnically-inclined. In his first few years in the US, he applied that skill to gunnery manuals for the Army, a 1939 World’s Fair exhibit for the Federal Works Agency, and several magazine assignments, including the now famous cover illustration of a test tube baby for Scope, pharmaceutical giant Upjohn’s new magazine. As art director for Fortune, Burtin continued to make clever use of illustration, photography, collage, and type to present complex information in a simple but lively way and to hire other talented designers like Matthew Liebowitz, Alex Steinweiss, and even young Andy Warhol to help.

Burtin’s pioneering designs were the large-scale exhibits he created for Upjohn and other clients. The first was Cell, a walk-through model made of plastic, wires, and light that fascinated scientists and the general public alike and even became the set for a BBC television series on science. Other models followed: The Brain, using huge aluminum discs and tubing with tens of thousands tiny lights to show the movement of thoughts along neural pathways through time, Defense of Life, made from Plexiglas and aluminum to show how inflammation counter-attacks bacteria in human tissue, Genes in Action, with swirling sixty foot aluminum tubes representing DNA strands unwinding and replicating, and Atomic Energy in Action (aka Uranium Atom).

Prolific as a designer, Burtin also taught at Parsons and Pratt, was one of the founders of the International Design Conference in Aspen, and served as director of the AIGA which, in 1971, awarded him their prestigious Medalist Award. Burtin died too young in 1972, barely 64, of mesothelioma, the same disease that had taken Hilde’s life at age 50 and was most likely caused by the asbestos paper they had used early in their careers. Ending on a graceful note with Saul Bass’s loving eulogy, Design and Science is a fitting tribute to Burtin’s life and work.