Kirby Stephens Design

Malcolm Grear: Mentor and Friend

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Malcolm Grear at The Center for Rural Development in 1998.

I enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 1977 thinking I would eventually go to law school. By the summer of 1979 I had officially turned away from the idea of a legal career to a path in journalism. I landed a summer internship at The Commonwealth-Journal (a rural, community newspaper in my hometown) working in the copy editing and typesetting department.

One afternoon looking over the press release basket in the newsroom, I saw a release from the Veterans Administration (now the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) announcing the agency’s 50th anniversary. To commemorate the event, they had designed a new stamp that was being issued by the U.S. Post Office. Attached to the release was a color PR photo of the stamp sheet.

The stamp design intrigued me, and as I read the photo caption I discovered that graphic designer Malcolm Grear of Providence, Rhode Island had been commissioned to design the stamp. One of the only things I knew about Mr. Grear at the time was that he had grown up in my hometown of Somerset.

Looking for a break from my daily work in the typesetting department, I asked the publisher if I could take a crack at writing a story about Mr. Grear and his stamp design.

The questions I asked Mr. Grear that day and the answers he provided opened the door to graphic design and visual communication. His enthusiasm for and good humor about the work he was involved in left me even more curious.

The following summer during a break from college I was interning in Malcolm Grear’s design studio in Providence; and soon thereafter, studying graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design. Malcolm served on the faculty at the school from 1960 through 1998.

Malcolm became my mentor and remained one of my dearest friends until his death earlier this year.

Over the years Malcolm’s firm did work for many notable institutions and clients including the Presbyterian Church USA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Guggenheim Museum, the glass artist Dale Chihuly, Vanderbilt University and many others.

In 1993 Malcolm and the designers at his firm won the job of developing the “look of the games” for the 1996 Centennial Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The pictograms designating each sport, the gold, silver and bronze medals, the hand-held torch and the commemorative poster were all their designs.

In 1996 the Cincinnati Art Museum and Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design launched a retrospective exhibition of nearly four decades of Malcolm’s work entitled “Malcolm Grear: The Art of Design.” The exhibit included many of the designs and prototypes of the work for the Olympics.

In early 1998 my studio (KSD), two friends and local artists, Peggy Sherry and Ken Wesley, and The Center for Rural Development brought this traveling exhibition of Malcolm’s work to Somerset, Ky. The accompanying video (below) has a nice interview with Malcolm and shows a portion of what was on display. A few days after the opening reception I received a letter of thanks from Malcolm.

“It is well beyond my capabilities to fully express my feelings for the the specialness and kindness which you have shown. Going to such unselfish effort to honor a good ole Kentucky boy. Never before have I felt more humbled and honored, causing me to clearly realize how much it means to be from Somerset, a small Kentucky town,” he wrote. “I was especially thrilled and amazed by the group of fourth through eighth grade students. I was rushing through the gallery on my way to the bathroom, Peggy stopped me and said I needed to speak to this group of students. I said ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ she said ’NO because they have to catch the bus back to school.’ I stood there with my legs crossed, and asked if there were any questions — thinking this would be my quickest way to get to the bathroom, thinking, at most there would be only a few questions. Every hand went up, twenty or thirty.”

“Their questions were so profound and visionary. As an example: Why do I sometimes see the white space before I see the drawn form and sometimes I look again and I see the drawn form? In other words, form and counterform. Of course these observations thrilled me to no end,” Malcolm’s letter continued. “Thank you Peggy for causing me to almost pee in my pants!"

Malcolm was a man with a terrific sense of humor and a willingness to share his incredible gifts with anyone curious enough to ask the right questions.

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One of Malcolm's symbols that demonstrates the idea of form and counterform.


KSD IS 30! We're sharing some of the work and memories that have shaped the direction of our studio. We've been involved with community leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers, manufacturers, architects, writers and many others on exciting projects in Somerset, in Kentucky and beyond. Celebrate 30 with us! #KSDturns30

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KSD is an award winning, full service design communication firm located in Somerset, Kentucky.

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  • KSD  Kinetic | Strategic | Design
    219 E. Mt. Vernon Street
    Somerset Kentucky 42501
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