György Kepes: Vision + Value

by Alice Rawsthorn

It would have been quite a coup for any 1960s editor to have begged, coaxed, or harried not only such eminent architects as R. Buckminster Fuller, Alison and Peter Smithson, Fumihiko Maki, and Pier Luigi Nervi into contributing to a book, but the physicist Lancelot Law Whyte and mathematician Jacob Bronowski too. And it would have been an even greater coup to have persuaded them to make their essays quite so thoughtful and provocative.

But György Kepes, who rustled up that dazzling cast of essayists for just one of the six Vision + Value books he compiled for the independent New York publisher George Braziller during the mid-1960s, was a remarkably persuasive man. So much so that the contributors to the rest of the series ranged from the movie title designer Saul Bass, media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and historian Siegfried Giedion to the artist Ad Reinhardt and composer John Cage.

Kepes conceived Vision + Value as a collective endeavour in which designers, artists, scientists, psychologists, and historians would explore ways of combining their respective skills and knowledge to visualize—and eventually realize—a better future. Dauntingly ambitious though his objectives were, Kepes was admirably equipped to realize them, thanks to the friendships he had forged in an unusually peripatetic and intellectually dynamic life. 

Having mixed in Constructivist circles in Budapest as a young artist in the 1920s, Kepes fell in with the modernist movement in 1930s Berlin, where he and his fellow Hungarian, the radical Bauhaüsler László Moholy-Nagy, conducted pioneering experiments with the new genre of mechanically constructed images produced by photography and film. He then joined Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus émigrés in exile from Nazism, first in London, and then the United States. The two men founded an experimental design school in Chicago only for it to close after a few years. By the mid-1940s, Moholy-Nagy was terminally ill, and Kepes taught at Brooklyn College for a year then joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

He and his wife, Juliet, settled into a modernist house, designed by another Hungarian Bauhaüsler, Marcel Breuer, on the northwestern coast of Cape Cod. Working alongside the scientists and technologists at M.I.T., Kepes pursued his fascination with science’s relationship to art and design. He urged M.I.T. to allow him to start a new unit, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, which would extend his research with Moholy-Nagy into the imagery produced by computers. Eventually, M.I.T. agreed and CAVS opened in 1968. Vision + Value was published a few years before as its unofficial manifesto.

Drawing on his connections in different countries, including the scientists he had encountered in London and Bass, who, as a young designer, had taken a two-hour subway ride to attend Kepes’s classes in Brooklyn, he commissioned roughly a dozen essays for each of the six books. Every title addressed a different aspect of visual culture: structure, objects, movement, symbolism, repetition, and education, respectively. The contributions ranged from authoritative essays by world-renowned experts like Bronowski,to the illustrator Robert Osborn’s caricatures of the pain inflicted by a hangover.

As well as designing the books, each of which was nine inches by eleven inches in size with a traditional cloth binding and minimalist graphics on its jacket, Kepes wrote introductory essays for some titles and compiled eloquent image sequences. Among my favorites is his juxtaposition of traditional objects with their contemporary counterparts, such as the pairing of an ancient shell mask unearthed in Tennessee with a racing driver’s helmet in The Man-Made Object.

Vision + Value was published nearly half a century ago, yet its contents remain compelling today, as does Kepes’s central concern of nurturing new links between disciplines to address social, political, and environmental challenges. Best of all is his spirit—generous, eclectic, open-minded, and optimistic—which, exhilarating as it seems to us now, must have appeared even more so when the books were first published. 

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.