Mort Epstein, Designer
2009 LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD FOR Design
At 92, boasting a decades-deep portfolio packed with innovative creations in architecture, film, fine art, graphic and industrial design, photography, and sculpture, Mort Epstein has transcended the appellation “Renaissance man” and proceeded directly to “Living Legend.”
Reflecting on his abundant design achievements, Epstein succinctly declares, “I’ve had a long history of problem solving.”
Two years ago, to celebrate his entry into nonagenarian status, he and his family published a visual memoir that illustrates his immense and far-reaching range as a designer: Mort Epstein: Sixty-Nine Years of Design at Ninety. One reviewer wrote: “From the streamlined designs of the 1940s through the bright colors and bold geometrics of the 1980s, Epstein’s works are an endlessly creative catalogue of the graphic styles of our times.”
Fittingly for a man who has also remained socially and politically active throughout his adult life, the combination birthday party/ book signing/family art show was held at ACLU of Ohio’s Max Wohl Civil Liberties Center in Cleveland, and all proceeds from book and art sales benefitted the ACLU of Ohio Foundation.
Epstein, whose parents had both immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe as children, struggled initially with his father’s desire for him to become an attorney. Following his own interests, he enrolled in WPA art classes, which exposed him to the radical political discussions of the Depression. Eventually he attended the Cooper Union School of Art, where he developed his lifelong commitment to the Bauhaus belief that “form follows function.” He also met his late wife, Marion Miller, whom he married in 1941, shortly before joining the Army, where he spent three years as a designer and model maker.
After the war, Epstein took a job at an exhibition and display company in Cleveland. He progressed through several design positions at various firms, and even found time to design and build a Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced home in Parma Heights for his young family and become an active participant in the burgeoning Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. During the 1960s, he co-founded a design firm with John Szilagyi that thrived for 21 years, and he began a long and rewarding relationship with the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught in the Graphic Design Department.
“I’ve turned out a large number of successful designers throughout the years,” he says. “That’s been very important to me.”
He also continued his political involvement, championing fair housing, protesting the Vietnam War, and serving as a member of the Cleveland Committee on Soviet Anti-Semitism in the 1980s, which helped facilitate emigration for Russian Jews.
Looking back, Epstein reveals that one of his favorite designs was the provocative wall-outlet mural that stopped viewers in their tracks at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 18th Street for many years. Symbolic of racial diversity, the brown and white outlets with equal signs for screws celebrated Cleveland State University as “an integrated outlet.”
Though he is no longer directly involved with the design company he founded, he helped reorganize it in the 1980s, and Epstein Design Partners remains one of Cleveland’s oldest and largest design firms. Working out of his warehouse studio in downtown Cleveland, Epstein creates bowls, coffee tables and, ever the activist, an occasional political sign.
Currently, he is involved with Chapter 39 of Veterans for Peace, and serves on the Board and the Communications Committee of the Cleveland Chamber Music Society. He also recently completed the design and construction of a portable Arkfor the Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple of Beachwood that was inspired by visual sources from the 3rd and 12th centuries .
What he has always looked forward to most was “to have a happy conclusion,” says Cleveland’s inveterate problem-solver, whose creativity has been matched only by his enjoyment of a challenge. “However, that doesn’t always happen.”