Alexander Tochilovsky, A’00

(This profile originally appeared in the CUAA December 2013 Newsletter)

Alexander Tochilovsky

Alexander Tochilovsky, A’00, is the Curator, Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography and is an Adjunct Professor, The Cooper Union School of Art. He was involved in the creation of, and currently teaches in, the new post-graduate certificate program in typeface design at Cooper Union, called Type@Cooper. Alexander is one of the editors of Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918–81) by Adrian Shaughnessy.

He was recently interviewed by Mary Lynch, ChE ’82.

When did you know that you wanted to do art?

I was first introduced to the art world when I attended an art school when I was about 11 years old. The Soviet government had state-run schools for students with art talent. I went to the art school each morning and then went to a regular school in the afternoon. That art training was formal and very classical.

Did you enjoy that art school and how long did you attend that school?

I did enjoy it a lot, but was only able to attend it for one year, because my family moved to the United States in 1989. We moved to Brooklyn and I didn’t have any art training for a while because I had to focus more on learning English.

During my junior year at Edward R. Murrow High School, I took art classes again. The school is located in the Midwood section of Brooklyn and has a very robust art program. One of my teachers there introduced me to Cooper Union through its high school Outreach art program. I attended that program the summer before my senior year and then in another program during the winter of my senior year.

What were your first impressions of The Cooper Union?

It felt like it was the right place for me the very first moment that I walked into the Hewitt building as a high school student. I knew that I wanted to be a part of this place, and I knew what to expect because the faculty who taught in the Cooper Union Outreach program were the same faculty that teach the undergraduate courses. The teaching approach was very different from what I had had in my early art training. Here the emphasis was not on technique and the students are trained to think about art very broadly. You learn to think through making.

What did you major in at Cooper?

The art school doesn’t have majors, and students are able to focus on certain disciplines. Graphic design and photography were my main concentrations, but I also took painting, sculpture and film classes. I am glad that I had the opportunity to take a little of everything because it helped me to become a better graphic designer.

What was your first job following graduation?

I worked in the Cooper Union’s Design Center as a student and I accepted a full-time position there when I graduated. Mindy Lang A’82, the Center’s director, was my teacher and later became my boss, is an incredible teacher. I learned a great deal about design from her in my four years working there. Mindy along with Inessa Shkolnikov, who also works there, helped me form the core of my ideas about typography and design thinking.

What did you do next?

I did freelance design work for a year while simultaneously preparing a portfolio for graduate school. Then I attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan where I earned my Master’s degree. Cranbrook is unique in that it has no classes and no grades. It consists of 10 departments, and each has an Artist-in-Residence who essentially provides informal and personalized instruction. The program offers a lot of opportunities for personal exploration.

What did you do next?

After I graduated from Cranbrook, I came back to Cooper Union in 2007 as a Typography Instructor. I was hired by Mike Essl, A’96 who runs the design department at Cooper. In 2010 I began working at the Cooper Union’s Herb Lubalin Study Center, which is an archive of some of the most important graphic design ephemera.

What is Typography?

Typography is essentially working with letterforms and is integral to graphic design. Graphic design is about communication and effective typography makes design pieces stronger.

What is your current position?

I still teach typography, and I also teach the Two Dimension Design class in the Foundation year. This gives me an opportunity to work with the freshman students for the full course year (2 semesters). I enjoy teaching that course as I see the incredible growth the students undergo in that one first year. I am also the curator of the Herb Lubalin Study Center and it is because of that role that I became involved with the recently released book, Herb Lubalin: American Graphic Designer (1918—81). And I teach in the post-graduate certificate program at Cooper Union, focusing on typeface design, called Type@Cooper.

Can you tell me more about the post-graduate certificate program?

It is the only typeface design program of its kind in the United States and it is doing very, very well. It is a program aimed at professionals who want to learn the craft of designing original typefaces. I the history, theory and context associated with typeface design.

What do you admire in Herb Lubalin, A’39?

I admire him for taking risks. He took on many design projects that were not financially prudent. Sometimes he did projects because they offered an opportunity to do something new in graphic design. He did work for many non-profit and progressive organizations. He understood that these groups needed effective communication just as much as everyone else, even if they couldn’t afford it.

As a curator of his collection, I try to give context to students and visitors that come to the Lubalin Center so they can understand what was really revolutionary about Herb Lubalin’s work. His works are still visually interesting and socially meaningful. Herb tapped into the energy of New York City a great deal. He felt that design work should be rich and colorful, funny and playful.

How did you become involved in the book about Herb Lubalin?

The book publishers approached us with the idea for the book since we possess the most comprehensive collection of the work by Herb Lubalin. Nothing similar to it has been published since 1985. A new generation of designers has now rediscovered the work of Herb Lubalin and the publishers felt it was time to look at his work again. I helped the author, Adrian Shaughnessy, with a bit of the initial research and provided access to all of the materials we possess. Adrian was interested in interviewing people who knew and worked with Herb, and I helped him identify some of the individuals to interview. I was also involved in the fact checking and the reading of drafts, with an eye for what might be missing and especially for attributing the proper credits wherever possible. I began the project as part of my curatorial duties at the Lubalin Center and evolved into an editor.

Has the book been successful?

Yes, very successful. The first edition of 3,000 copies came out in August of 2012 and completely sold out in less than a year. I think it is a real testament to lasting quality and the strength of Herb Lubalin’s work. A new, more compact edition is now available for pre-order. It will be shipped in December 2013

What do you think your classmates would be surprised to know about you?

I used to DJ for a few years after Cooper, and have a pretty sizable record collection.