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Canadian Style Icons: Burton Kramer

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Photo by: Irene Marguerite Therese Kramer

Canadian Style Icons is a bi-weekly column authored by Daniel Eckler, serial entrepreneur and founder of Piccsy.

Though you might not know it, you've seen Burton Kramer's work thousands of times, and it's left an indelible mark on the design of modern Canada.

Born in New York City during the Great Depression, Kramer would go to Chicago to study at the Instiute of Design. His growth would continue at Yale's graduate program in graphic design, and he worked under the late Will Burtin as an assistant.

Kramer would eventually go on to work in Zurich at the E. Halpern design agency as its Chief Editor. Though Kramer had encountered modernist design movements before, at Yale and in Chicago, it was at Halpern that he was dove headfirst into the International Typographic Style movement, then in its heyday.

The movement sought beauty from simple designs, and was embodied by the aesthetic of the Helvetica font -- simple, bold and clear. Kramer took those ideas to heart, and by the time he moved to Toronto in 1965 to work for the signage on Expo 67, he was an ardent believer in principles of simple, clean design.

His use of wordless pictograms on the signage was a stroke of genius. More readily remembered than common lettering combinations employed at the time, the signage was also universal, completely eliminating the need for cumbersome translations to accommodate the multitude of languages the attendees spoke. Clean, simple and memorable, they were an important landmark in design, not only for Kramer and the modernist movement, but for Canada, who would earn a reputation as forward thinking and progressive from the Expo.

After Expo 67, Kramer founded Kramer Design Associates, and his agency would design advertising for the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as the logo for the CIBC, Bell Canada, VIA Rail and the Clairtone Sound Corporation. Most prominently, Kramer would design the logo for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Kramer took a simple C shape -- representing Canada -- and repeated its shape in all directions outwards - creating the impression of broadcasting waves. Today's CBC logo is a derivative that still follows Kramer's basic design, and is familiar to Canadians nationwide.

Kramer's clean modernist vision has its fingerprints all over the modernist designs that became de rigueur in Canada during the late 1970s to the early 1980s. From the graphic design you saw everyday on advertisements and in newspapers and magazines, to the architecture in newly constructed buildings.

Canada has also been grateful to the influence Kramer has given it. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Arts Toronto in 1999, as well as an honorary Doctorate in 2003 from the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he taught for twenty-one years. In 2002, Kramer was made a member of the Order of Ontario.

Today, Kramer has retired from graphic design, and works as an abstract painter, whose work has been exhibited in galleries worldwide.

Read on below for Kramer's thoughts on style...

What is your definition of style? And good style?
I had a teacher, at The Institute of Design in Chicago, who I quote "everyone has a style. If someone says 'they have no style', that's their style."

Judgements like good or bad are personal and may or may not be valid for others. It is difficult to make sense out of verbalizing about visible style. I would equate style with quality, which, of course is in the eye of the beholder. Some have an educated eye. Others not.

How do you describe your style?
My style in design, in art, is based on what is now a lifetime of study, experience and critical looking at everything. As Costanada wrote in Conversations with Don Juan... "how does she dance? She dances with everything she has. That's how she sees."

Why is style important?
Style is important as a visible, important expression of a time, which requires decades of refinement. It should not be "a one night stand."

What makes someone a style icon?
Being the creator of something(s) that have meaning to many. Then the media create the icon.

How do you describe Canadian style?
A very big question. In what area? I have little interest in nationalistic definitions, but rather in good art vs poor or mediocre, good design vs mediocre or poor. Defining good art or good design is another matter. These matters are, naturally, an expression of the society at a given time.