It’s safe to say that most Canadians couldn’t get through an average day without seeing at least one Tim Hortons logo, Air Canada’s iconic red maple leaf or the green TD Bank sign.
But few have heard of Hans Kleefeld, the man who conceived these and many more of the country’s instantly recognizable images — simple and dynamic masterpieces of corporate branding that have endured for decades.
Kleefeld, a German-born designer, died in Toronto on March 10, at age 86. He is remembered by colleagues as a humble but no-nonsense, innovative graphic artist and teacher who applied European ideas to produce Canadian corporate images — from the Bank of Montreal’s stylized blue M to the curved-line composition of the old Scarborough Town Centre logo and the Tudor-style calligraphy of the Stratford Festival.
Born in Berlin in 1929, Kleefeld came of age amid the chaos of the Second World War, which indirectly set him upon his career path while he was studying at the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts.
“One of the stories he related to me was that when he was about 16, at the end of the war, there were a lot of bombed-out buildings in Berlin,” said Bill Ross, a former colleague of Kleefeld at Sheridan College. “He was rooting around in the basement of a department store and discovered a cache of design magazines.”
That magazine, Gebrauchsgraphik, opened the young Kleefeld’s eyes to the world of graphic design, and the advantages of an arts education.
“Reading through these issues I was surprised to learn that the majority of graphic and exhibit designers, illustrators and photographers active in the mid-20th century had never formally studied at any college, academy or university,” Kleefeld later wrote.
Unlike today, when students produce designs by clicking a mouse, Kleefeld was taught to create with what was then state-of-the-art technology: his hands.
“The challenges,” he wrote, “of laying down a perfectly flat colour, poster-size, in gouache with a brush, or to hand-render 10-point Bodoni, were enough to have weaker spirits consider switching to something less taxing, such as milk delivery.”
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