Reynold Ruffins, an honored commercial and fine artist whose experiences ranged from helping to form one of the most celebrated design studios in New York City to volunteering to design artwork for posters and greeting cards for a community organization in his beloved Sag Harbor, died on Sunday, July 11. He was 90 years old.
Not long after graduating from Manhattan’s Cooper Union, Mr. Ruffins and three fellow classmates in 1954 formed what would become Push Pin Studios, a design shop that helped to redefine the role of designers in media, and the visual culture in general. While still in school, the four friends had actually started a business they called Design Plus, which turned out to be the precursor for the celebrated studio.
“Reynold had been proposed to be a partner from the very beginning, but he had just started a family and was nervous about leaving a job he had as art director for a pharmaceutical company,” recalled Seymour Chwast in an interview this week. Mr. Chwast, who continues Push Pin Inc. today, was one of the original partners, along with Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser.
For his part, Mr. Ruffins was set on a career as an artist, even if his family wasn’t so convinced.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” Mr. Ruffins said in a 2013 interview with The Express. “Luckily, my father encouraged it. He didn’t ever think I’d make a living at it though, so on his death bed he said to take the civil service exams for the fire department and the police department.”
A couple of years out of school, said Mr. Chwast, “Ed and I were getting hired and fired from a bunch of jobs and we decided maybe it was time to open our own shop.”
Early in the partnership, Mr. Ruffins, Mr. Sorel and Mr. Chwast (the other founding member, Mr. Glaser, was studying abroad on a Fulbright scholarship at the time), created the Push Pin Almanack, “a sort of nod to the old Farmer’s Almanac,” Mr. Chwast said in an interview this week. The publication was intended to showcase the designer’s work and drum up business for the fledgling company. Over the years, in addition to dozens of corporate clients, the partnership did work for a host of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, among many others.
At the time, said Mr. Chwast, Mr. Ruffins’s work was “decorative, like we were all doing; and he was doing it beautifully.” His work was strikingly colorful and precise.
By 1959, Paul Davis, who also now lives in Sag Harbor, had joined the team of artists at Push Pin Studios.
“It was my first job out of school, and it was an incredible opportunity,” Mr. Davis said this week, “and I think Reynold was the most empathetic those first few months I was there.”
Mr. Davis described an exciting, if cramped, environment.
“At that point, they were all working out of a townhouse on East 31st Street,” Mr. Davis recalled. “I was working in a front storage room as an assistant. But I was then moved into the one big room, because they needed the storage space for a conference room,” he laughed.
“We had rolls and coffee, and listened to Stella Dallas every afternoon on the radio,” he said. “It was an ebullient atmosphere.”
Mr. Davis and Mr. Ruffins would, later on, also be asked to teach at Syracuse University, and Mr. Ruffins had a long career as a professor at CUNY Queens College, as well as teaching at the School of Visual Arts, and The Parsons-New School of Design.
“His relationship with his students must have been wonderful, considering how helpful he had been with me,” said Mr. Davis. “He must have been equally inspiring to his students.”
Shortly after Mr. Davis arrived, Mr. Ruffins left the company to pursue his own freelance career and, in 1963, partnered with the artist and writer Simms Taback. Their shop lasted about 30 years.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Ruffins would also begin a long period working on children’s books, of which he illustrated about 20, as well as other projects for children.
It was probably the book, “The Amazing Maze,” which was done with several other authors and illustrators, that started Mr. Ruffins in this direction, suggested his son Seth, in an interview this week.
“Once he began, he was someone people came to,” said the younger Mr. Ruffins.
The American Library Association presented Reynold Ruffins with its Coretta Scott King Award for the book “Running the Road to ABC.” He also teamed up on several books with the author Jane Sarnoff.
In 1991, he worked with actress Whoopi Goldberg and musician Herbie Hancock to produce “Koi and the Kola Nuts,” a highly praised video for children. It was part of Rabbit Ears Productions’ “We All Have Tales” series.
In his commercial career, Mr. Reynolds created work for a wide variety of clients, including IBM, AT&T, Coca Cola, CBS, Pfizer, The New York Times, Scribners, Random House, Time Life, Fortune, Gourmet Magazine, and the U.S. Post Office. This work garnered him many awards from the New York Art Directors Club and The Society of Illustrators.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Ruffins and his wife, the late Joan Ruffins, also an artist and a former student at Cooper Union, were spending more time in Sag Harbor. In the mid-1950s, his brother John had bought property in the Sag Harbor Hills neighborhood of the village, and by 1963-64 the brothers had built a house they would continue to share for years, bringing their families out to spend summers, recalled Seth Ruffins.
In 1992, Reynold and Joan Ruffins bought a house closer to the village’s downtown and moved to Sag Harbor full time. And while he was still doing some work for commercial clients, he had begun to keen more toward painterly work. It is an arc many commercial artists take, said Mr. Davis this week; moving from the very specific, structured work one does for a client to something more liberated.
“I think he frequently felt that some of his work was more of journeyman’s work,” said Seth Ruffins. “I think some of the painting he did still had the figurative work of illustration, until he was able to free himself of it. That was part of the conversation: ‘How do I let go?’”
“When you go into design and illustration, you’re always working for someone else, you’re there to solve those problems and you hope to have the greatest amount of satisfaction for yourself, but you’re being directed by someone else’s needs,” he said in a 2008 interview with The Express during an exhibit of his paintings at the Sag Harbor Historical Society’s Annie Cooper Boyd House.
Mr. Ruffins’s commercial work has been displayed in exhibitions around the world, from inside the United States to Italy and Spain. Many of the paintings he did as he pulled away from his career as a commercial artist have been exhibited locally. In addition to the Historical Society exhibit, he also showed at the John Jermain Memorial Library.
A notable departure from the “turning to the easel,” as he called it in a 2013 story in The Express, was a series of illustrations and posters he did as a volunteer for the Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor (CONPOSH), a civic group that sought to organize the village’s disparate neighborhoods. In addition, he created a poster for the 65th anniversary of Sag Harbor Hills in 2015.
“He clearly had a trajectory of his own,” said artist April Gornik, who first came upon Mr. Ruffins’s work when she was helping CONPOSH with its website and getting information out.
She was struck from the beginning, she said, with the illustrations he did for CONPOSH.
“He had a fantastic eye, he was a great designer,” she said.
In particular, she remembers an image of a butterfly and a bee dancing and toasting for a piece he did promoting CONPOSH’s New Year’s party.
“Really great graphics and really great art,” she said.
Later, when Ms. Gornik was on the board of the Eastville Community Historical Society, they hosted an exhibit including Mr. Ruffins.
“He insisted we include work from his wife and children as well,” she said.
“I don’t know where his work could have gone,” said Ms. Gornik optimistically. “It always had a beautiful flow. The colors were playful. And smart.”
Born August 5, 1931, in New York City, Reynold Ruffins was predeceased in 2013 by his wife Joan. He is survived by his children Seth Ruffins, Todd Ruffins, Lynn Ruffins Cave and Ben Ruffins. He is also survived by a number of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
At the time of his death, Mr. Ruffins was selecting a collection of his commercial work that he was invited to submit to Stanford University’s special archive of work by Black graphic designers.