MacArthur Design Geniuses: A History


Last night’s announcement of the MacArthur Foundation’s yearly $500,000 “genius” grants brought a pleasant surprise for fans of good TV: The Wire and Treme creator David Simon made the list, in a rare nod to pop culture. He certainly deserves the recognition, but we’re also excited to see that the foundation, which has always been more generous to fine artists and architects, has handed out its first design award in over two decades. Meet Matthew Carter, the type designer who made the cut, and the four other designers who have won the grant, after the jump.

Matthew Carter, type designer (2010)

Carter’s “Mantinia” font, via

You may not know Matthew Carter by name, but chances are you’ve seen his work. This principal of Carter and Cone Type, Inc. has created more than 250 fonts and 60 typeface families over the course of his five-decade career. His fonts have appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Wired, and even the most casual word processor user will recognize such ubiquitous typefaces as Verdana and Tahoma. And while the 72-year-old designer apprenticed in traditional, metal punch cutting in The Netherlands at the tender age of 19, he has, since the early ’80s, been blazing trails in digital type. Most recently, the Yale graphic design program critic is working on developing fonts that can easily be read not only on computers, but also on small-screen devices like mobile phones and ereaders.

Top image of Matthew Carter via MacArthur

Claire Van Vliet, book artist and printmaker (1989)

Pulp-painted pop-up by Claire Van Vliet with Katie MacGregor, from Janus Press’s The Gospel of Mary, translated by Karen King. Via.

Claire Van Vliet founded Janus Press 55 years ago, and she has operated the small publishing house ever since. Although she did her apprenticeship in typesetting, Van Vliet is also an accomplished illustrator, printmaker, and fine artist. Janus’s books, broadsides, and pamphlets, are pointedly lo-fi, hand-printed and often featuring pulp-painted illustrations. The publications are known for bringing together writers such as Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, and John le Carré with artists including Ray Metzker, Peter Schumann, and Van Vliet herself.

Sam Maloof, woodworker and furniture designer (1985)

Maloof’s iconic rocking chair. Image via.

Sam Maloof, who died last year at 93 years old, had the classic American success story: The son of Lebanese immigrants, he began to develop his talents for woodworking as early as high school, built all the furniture for his and wife Alfreda’s first home in the years after he returned from World War II, and started working out of that house soon after. By 1953, he had his own studio and was building a reputation for his elegant, minimalist pieces. His work, including his famous long-tailed rocking chair, has been collected by several major art museums.

Adrian Wilson, book Designer, printer, and historian of the book (1983)

Known mostly to others in the field of book design, Adrian Wilson (1923-1988) spent much of his career working at his small, home studio, which he called the Press at Tuscany Alley. He also designed books for a handful of university presses and The Limited Editions Club. Wilson is also known as a mentor to younger colleagues and the author of several manuals on book design. His 1967 volume, The Design of Books , is still a classic text in the field.

Charles A. Bigelow, graphic designer (1982)


The first designer to earn a MacArthur fellowship, Charles A. Bigelow was still in his mid-30s when he received the grant. But is that really so surprising, when he’s also the guy who co-created Wingdings? Bigelow also shares responsibility for Lucida, and some of the best-known early Apple fonts, including Chicago and Geneva. He has been on the faculty of several university typography programs and, with Kris Holmes, operates the foundry Bigelow & Holmes.