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January 17, 1908|
|Died||January 18, 1972
Mount Sinai Hospital, New York
Will Burtin was a graphic designer from Germany. Burtin was a design theorist, lecturer and educator, as well as conference planner. He arrived in the United States in 1939 after fleeing Nazism in Germany. In the United States, he worked for Fortune Magazine. He designed for Union Carbide, Eastman Kodak, The Smithsonian, and Upjohn. In 1971, he received a gold medal from AIGA. He was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1974. Will Burtin died on January 18, 1972, in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Burtin’s cause of death was mesothelioma, cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
Early Life in Germany
Will Burtin was born in Cologne, Germany, to August and Gertrud Bürtin on January 27, 1908. Burtin’s education was interrupted early during World War I when German armies commandeered his elementary school for cavalry barracks. Burtin also never graduated the German equivalent of high school; instead, Burtin started studying topography at Handwerkskammer Köln. After graduation, Burtin studied graphic and industrial design at the Kölner Werkschulen with Richard Riemerschmied and Jacob Erbar in 1926. During his time studying topography and art, Burtin apprenticed at the typesetting studio of Dr. Philippe Knöll. He worked for Knöll on exhibitions at GeSoLei in Dusseldorf. In 1927, Burtin opened his own design studio in Cologne, in which he created booklets, posters, type books, exhibitions, displays, advertising, and movies for German, French, and other clients. He had this studio from 1927 to 1938. In 1930, Burtin started teaching in Berlin, where he met art student Hilde Munk. Burtin and Munk married in 1932 and Munk became partner in her husband’s design studio, Entwurfe Bürtin (Designs by Burtin).
During the war, the Nazi Party was determined to win over the public opinion, which brought Burtin's design studio to the party's attention. Nazi officials began asking Burtin to work for their cause, while trying to persuade him to divorce his Jewish wife. Burtin was able to reject early Nazi attempts to retain his services; he claimed he was always too busy. However in 1937, Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels made an official request for Burtin to become the Ministry’s director of design. Burtin was able to stall for some time, pleading his private clients for business pressures. Burtin’s wife Hilde took advantage of this stall to write an urgent appeal to her cousin, Max Munk, in Maryland, asking him to sponsor the couple’s immigration into the United States. Munk responded to Hilde’s letter by sending an affidavit, dated November 15, 1937, sworn in Washington D.C., granting Will and Hilde Burtin a visa. Meanwhile back in Germany, Burtin was summoned again to Berlin, this time to meet Adolf Hitler. Trying to disqualify himself from holding a high position in the Third Reich, Burtin mentioned that his wife was Jewish; however, Hitler replied with no issue and his first assignment would be to create an exhibit projecting the impacts of Nazi culture. Again trying to buy time, Burtin replied to the invitation, saying it was an honor to be considered but needed a short vacation to be well rested for his new duties. The Burtin’s decided under no circumstances could they work for the Nazi Party and they fled to the United States, abandoning all their possessions except a specimen sheet of the type Firmin Didot. 
Career in the United States
After settling in New York City with his wife, Burtin got his first job, which was designing flex O prop logo, trademark of Munk Aeronautical Laboratory. Within months of his first job, Burtin was commissioned to design a major exhibit for the United States Federal Works Agency in the U.S. Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. He supervised eighty people to create the Federal Works Agency Exhibition. The exhibit featured four free-hanging displays representing education, libraries, recreation, and conservation. Burtin was awarded the Art Director’s Club medal for cover design on the World’s Fair issue of the Architectural forum magazine. He began teaching communication design at the Pratt Institute in 1939, and later became chairman of the Department of Visual Communication.
Will Burtin was then drafted into the United States Army in 1943 and assigned to the Office of Strategic Services. Burtin designed gunnery manuals for the U.S. Air Force and visual presentations of strategies and other materials for the OSS. These manuals were extremely important due to their ability to communicate complex, critical information with economy of means and clarity. Burtin was committed to the safety of the gunner, in which he stated “was engaged in serious business in which his life might depend on the swift functioning of his knowledge and equipment. He deserved dignified treatment and the clearest possible statement of facts.”
Following World War II, Burtin returned to freelance design and teaching. He became Art Director of Fortune Magazine. He remained in that position from 1945 to 1949. Burtin employed important artists such as Jacob Lawrence and Ben Shahn, as well as influential designers Lester Beall, Gyorgy Kepes, and Arthur Lidov to assist in the design process. He also used the work of key photographers including Walker Evans and Andre Kertesz. In 1949, he opened his design studio in New York City, named Will Burtin, Inc., in which he created advertisements, booklets, magazines, cover designs, and exhibits. Until his death in January 1972, Burtin served as designer and consultant in advertising for industrial and editorial projects for clients such as Eastman Kodak, IBM, the Smithsonian, Mead Paper, Union Carbide, Herman Miller Furniture, and United States Information Agency.
Burtin designed many exhibits for USIA. “Plastics in America” was one notable exhibit. However the most successful exhibits was “Kalamazoo…and how it grew!” which reached England and Berlin. A winding paper ribbon and oversize Gibson guitar represented the past and current industries of the region, and were exhibited along with personal insights of the average citizen of Kalamazoo.
Eastman Kodak, 1960-1962
Burtin’s work with Eastman Kodak included new construction techniques and a unique “flying carpet” design. These new techniques and designs brought considerable attention to Burtin’s Eastman Kodak Pavilion at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair. The pavilion included an eighty foot high photo tower and moon deck. Although Burtin’s contract with Eastman Kodak was terminated before the pavilion was built, the Concrete Industry Board gave Burtin a special award in 1964 for its design.
Union Carbide, 1962
Burtin designed The Atom in Action, which showcased at Union Carbide’s headquarters in New York City. He designed this exhibit with the portrayal of the complexities of atomic energy. Burtin Once again, he showed obscure scientific principles into an easily reached, yet sophisticated exhibit. The “Atom in Action” maintained popularity and remained exhibited at Union Carbide for many years.
Upjohn Company, 1949-1971
The principal client with whom Will Burtin worked with from 1949 to 1971 was the Upjohn Company. Burtin served as Art Director of Upjohn’s publication Scope, to assist doctors in understanding medical, scientific and pharmaceutical information for over 15 years. Among the many projects Burtin executed for Upjohn were three famous exhibits: The Cell, The Brain, and The Chromosome. The Cell, completed in 1958, was developed by request from Upjohn, as Burtin says, “to recommend a visual method of explaining new knowledge about organic structure to the professional and general public…One of the first conclusions reached was that the entire structure should be built in a size large enough to enable the viewer to walk inside it, so that he would get a most intimate and dramatic close-up view of all the relationships between various parts of the cell and the whole.” The 24-foot three-dimensional model of a “generalized” human red blood cell was built with consultation from leading American scientists including Dr. Porter and Dr. Moses of the Rockefeller Institute, Dr. Hamilton of the Sloan-Kettering Institute, and many other scientists throughout the country. The Cell demonstrated the inter relatedness of cellular function, linkage among organelles, and Burtin’s vision of a cell’s physical structure. The Cell was an immediate success, traveling throughout several U.S. cities, including San Francisco, Kalamazoo, New York City, and Chicago. The exhibit also traveled to England. With over 2 million people visiting the exhibit, it was reviewed in Newsweek and Life as well as numerous other publications in the design field.
Burtin received many awards for his designs. He received the Art Directors Club medal in 1939, 1941, 1955 and 1958. He received the AMA award in 1958 for his exhibit of The Cell. In 1971, Burtin was awarded a gold medal from AIGA. He was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1974.
Mr. Burtins own practice had transcended the “commercial art” model most common in the 1950s and 60s, and had gone on to synthesize design thinking with education and technology. Will Burtin focused on the relationship between spatial forms and their functions. With a designer's vision, he saw how molecules of a certain shape could be expressed through visual art. Examples of Burtin's work include “The Cell,” “The Genes in Action,” and other processes or microstructures that required a unique understanding of both art and science. His work was publicized in world press and a variety of scientific journals.
In 1930, Burtin started teaching in Berlin, where he met art student Hilde Munk. Burtin and Munk married in 1932. Will and Hilda Burtin spent most of their lives dedicated to design. Both worked in Burtin's design studio. The couple had one child named Carol, born on October 10, 1942. Will and Hilda were married from 1932 to 1960, when Hilda lost her battle to cancer. Hilda Burtin died on October 10, 1960. She was fifty years old at the time her death; Will and a friend stood by her side as she passed. October 10 was the same day of the Burtin’s daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Will was determined to shield this from his daughter Carol; he had a friend call the next day, October 11, to break the news of her mother’s passing. Will kept this a secret until he passed and it wasn’t until seeing a copy of her mother’s death certificate did Carol realized her father efforts to hide the fact. In January 1961, Burtin remarried Cipe Pinles, a long time family friend. Burtin and his daughter Carol moved in with Pinles because their house had too many raw memories of Hilda Burtin. Pinles later adopted Carol in 1973, after the passing of Will Burtin. Will Burtin died on January 18, 1972, in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Burtin’s cause of death was mesothelioma, cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. George Klauber, a long time friend, was by side at the time of his death. Burtin’s doctor determined it was possible Hilda Burtin died of the same cancer, which was unnamed at the time of her death.
After Burtin's death in 1972, The Cleveland Health Museum and Education Center took The Cell, Defense of Life, The Brain, and The Chromosome as permanent exhibits.
A biography of Will Burtin, "Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin" was published in 2007 by Lund Humphries, in London; jointly with Ashgate Publishing, in New York. Authors: R. Roger Remington and Robert Fripp, who is Burtin's son-in-law.
- Vilz, Amy. "Will Burtin Archive at RIT". RIT Libraries. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- Remington, R. Roger (2007). Design and Science: The Life and Work of Will Burtin. United States: Lund Humphries.
- Vilz, Amy. "The Will Burtin Archive". RIT Libraries.
- "The Will Burtin Papers". RIT Libraries. Retrieved 10 December 2013.
- "AIGA: The Professional Association for Design". Retrieved 10 December 2013.
- "Art Director's Club Hall of Fame". Retrieved 10 December 2013.
- Wild, Lorraine. "Will Burtin: Design and Science". Retrieved 23 November 2013.
- "Will Burtin". Art Director's Club Hall of Fame. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
- Wild, Lorraine. "Will Burtin: Design and Science". The Design Observer Group. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
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