Arnold Varga was one of America’s multi-talented creatives. He illustrated, designed and art directed. And he did all three to supreme perfection.
His work had an impeccable beauty that was highly individual and timeless. He was playful with type, often making witty interplays with his illustrations. Those illustrations could be dense and meticulous or reduced down to starkly minimal and clean graphic lines.
He was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, and kept close to his birthplace throughout his life. A childhood friend, the great American photographer Duane Michals, said of him: “He worked in this little steel town, without any real nurturing, and he bloomed into a major talent. He made it happen on his own energy.”
Varga also had another obstacle: being almost blind in one eye. But it didn’t stop him. He would draw and take his portfolio around local department stores, which would often result in a commission.
In the 1950s, he took on a job as a messenger at the Sterling Lindner Davis department store in Cleveland, Ohio. Eventually, it led to him becoming head of advertising there. He moved on into the world of advertising, joining the agency Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove, Inc. He later landed a job at BBDO in Pittsburgh.
During the late 1950s, he began to produce some outstanding freelance work for several department stores, including Horne’s, Cox’s, Wanamaker’s and Higbee’s, often collaborating with copywriter Alan Van Dine, whom he’d met at BBDO. Describing Varga’s working process, Van Dine said: “It was completely backwards. Arnold would say ‘I want to do a watermelon’. Or ‘a baby carriage’. My job was to come up with something lively to connect the visual. We didn’t know at that point which client was going to see it.”
In 1959, the National Society of Art Directors named Varga Art Director of the Year, which included former recipients Saul Bass, Charles Coiner, Walt Disney, Leo Lionni and Bradbury Thompson.
In 1967, he produced a memorable Christmas advertisement for Horne’s department store (below). It depicted an immaculate portrait of Dickens’ Scrooge.
It was so successful that the store had to produce postcards and Christmas cards to give away. Milton Glaser said that Varga’s images were “impeccably rendered and beautiful... One of the main tests of these things is their durability, and they are still very fresh, very innovative.”
From the late 1960s to the early ’70s, he had an agent who said that Varga was very picky about what he would take on, often turning down high-paid jobs in favour of a small one that paid next to nothing because he felt it had more potential.
Arnold Varga moved to Pleasant Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh, where he ran a sort of one-man agency from home. He worked on various commissions from mainstream clients until he retired in the late 1970s to look after his elderly mother, who died at the age of 96. After which he became increasingly reclusive living alone. He wasn’t as long-lasting as his mother and checked out at the relatively young age of 68.
Arnold Varga 1926 - 1994
You can view a short video on Varga's work presented by Rick Landesburg at an AIGA event in Pittsburg a few years ago. Click here.