By Dr. Nadine Chahine
It is a cinematic tour de force of design and rebellion when we traverse the pages of Steven Heller’s memoir, Growing Up Underground. While the book is a collection of distinct essays that more or less follow a chronological order, one can pick up a few underlying threads that propel the narrative forward.
From childhood trauma and through adolescent angst, we follow a rebellious spirit simultaneously running away and pushing forward as it navigates the underbelly of New York in the 1960s and 70s. From cartoon drawings to art directing underground magazines, we watch in awe the origin story of a design legend. We meet the supporting cast, those great pillars of design who guided him in his first forays into the world of type and design.
We catch glimpses of a nation rising up against the Vietnam war and a growing civil rights movement. We see how “hippy-porn” magazines served as the means towards social and political emancipation, and how design and illustration supported that purpose — all the way to the courts of law. There are tales of arrests, of hostile prosecution witnesses, of mobsters, and of sex and drugs.
There is much to be learned in reading this memoir about how a designer is born, about the role of design when it engages in a social and cultural revolution, about the importance of mentorship, of design as practice. But perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is to look behind the façade of success: when we see a celebrated and distinguished designer as a person and not as a list of accomplishments. Then perhaps we are able to turn that gaze back onto ourselves, and others, with the same kindness and generosity of spirit that this great author exemplifies.