By Brenda So (EE ’18) Photo by Kelsey Mitchell (Art ’18).
The Pioneer sat down with Professor Alexander Tochilovsky, known to many students simply as Sasha, about his experience as a former Cooper student and his advice for students attending Cooper Union today.
What can you tell us about you?
I was born in Odessa, Soviet Union. When I left in 1989, it was still Soviet Union, so technically right now it is Ukraine. I was 12 when I left. And then I grew up in Brooklyn, went to high school in Murrow. And then got to Cooper in 1996 and graduated in 2000.
Tell us about your education and professional background.
I got my BFA at Cooper. I focused on design and photography, but mostly on design. I then worked for the Design Center in Cooper, which does most of the design work for the school. I also do a lot of work for pro-bono and non-profit clients out there. Once I graduated from Cooper Union in 2000, I continued to work in the Design Center for a few years and then went got my Master’s degree from Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan. Within a year I came back to New York, I was asked to teach a course here in
Cooper. I have been teaching in Cooper since 2007. And then about four, five years ago, a position at the Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design and Typography opened up. I applied and was selected to be the curator.
What classes do you teach at Cooper?
I teach two undergraduate courses: two-dimensional design, which is part of the foundation year, and typography, which is mostly geared towards sophomores in second semester and
juniors. It is a co-requisite for advanced design courses.
When did you learn about the Cooper Union?
I think a lot of people have had similar experience. Cooper is such a small school with an amazing reputation that works through organic channels from people to people. I learnt about it from one of my high school teachers. During the summer between 11th and 12th grade, I got a flyer for Cooper Union’s Summer Outreach program for high school students, which sounded pretty interesting. In the first day of the program, Cooper just blew me away. It was a really magical moment. It was a great experience, just being part of the high school program, being part of the fabric of the Cooper Union.
I applied to Cooper in 12th grade. I didn’t think I had a big shot — I knew how competitive it was. But I was really hoping that I could get to be here and I was fortunate enough to be admitted.
Can you talk about your role here as a professor and a curator?
I teach typography in the School of Art. Typography is fundamental to graphic design. Without a good sense of typography, graphic design is very difficult to do well. What I try to do is to teach the mechanics of typography, on how to make good decisions when choosing types. Everything in design is communication, and communication happens predominantly through language. In a word, typography is the shaping of language.
What I try to do is make sure that students are considering things they weren’t previously aware of. The collection here has so many examples of really good typography, and very often I will bring work to class to show examples. Once in a while I would also have session in the Lubalin Center. Any time the Lubalin Center is open, Cooper students can come in and use the resources. This is a collection of graphic design with all sorts of media. Design is relevant to pretty much every industry, and so we have examples of a lot of material that covers different centuries, industries and cultures. For people who are interested in humanities and architecture, there are a lot of things here that are of potential use and potential interest.
I am trying to see how we could find ways to engage the other schools. We’ve been working with the architecture school for a bit, to try to get students there to be aware of what we have and see if it is useful. We are also trying to find ways that it might be interesting
and relevant to the engineering department and humanities department.
How did you interest in typography arise?
My interest in graphic design came from being in Cooper, specifically in the Lubalin Center. One year, I helped with the end of year show installation and part of that happened in the Lubalin Center. After the installation, I asked if there was a possibility for me to work during summer, and they said yes. However, I had just been through the foundational course, and design is something you start in sophomore year. I had no connection to design yet, except for
being in the Lubalin Center and accessing this amazing design work, but something clicked.
I was really interested by the books and magazines that I kept seeing and their sensitivity and composition really spoke to me and made me want to do design. I worked in the Lubalin Center for two years. It really changed my perspective of graphic design. And that’s something I do as a curator here, trying to help students make this connection. There is so much to learn from this material and it really is a way to actualize design history. Design pieces have a timeline, of the people working on it, their contributions to the piece, and so on. There’s something really amazing about holding the actual object you’re studying. And we have so many of these famous pieces of graphic design. You can see what size they are, the paper they’re printed on, every decision that the designer made. There’s a huge paradigm shift when you can see that.
What do you love most about your job?
I love my job. It’s really nice to be surrounded by this stuff. It’s really inspirational. I like knowing more about the pieces we have in the collection. If I find out more information, it means that other people would find out more information. Design is very rarely a one-person task. Twenty or thirty years ago, there were teams of people involved in making up the work, and it’s always very hard to know exactly who contributed. The famous names are the ones that people know, but there’s always a few other people involved. I enjoy identifying some of those people that were involved. And many of them were Cooper graduates and that’s a really great thing for me to find. That’s a very inspirational thing for me and it keeps me going.
“I think it’s important to look at history. As a designer, you’re looking forward and going forward, you’re going to make new work.”
Any advice to give to Cooper students, especially those who want to go into design?
A lot of times there’s a drive to make something different, and that’s simply inevitable. It’s a very natural feeling. I remember having the exact same thoughts when I was graduating from school.
When you look forward, I think it’s important to also realize you need to look back. There’s a less useful way of looking back by trying to copy or mimic things — that’s not what I’m recommending. Instead, there’s a more nuanced way of looking back, to find inspiration in how people make decisions. A lot of the Cooper graduates who changed the design field made those impacts due to a certain mindset that was imbibed here at Cooper. That’s the way that this institution is different from other institutions. It made them go about their craft in a slightly different way and they made a name for themselves. There’s a lot to be learned from those people, especially here at Cooper.
It’s not only looking at work for the aesthetics but also researching what they did and how they did it. For instance, Herb Lubalin did a lot of work for clients who did not have any money. But he also maintained creative control over those projects. A lot of ethical choices he made are still really relevant and designers could start looking for those moments to help them make their career stronger. It’s not just about the money. It’s about the ethics and doing good work and making sure there’s healthy balance.
You mentioned that some designers’ efforts are not fully acknowledged after creating their pieces. Do you have any advice for students to avoid falling in this trap?
It has a lot to do with the politics in the design studio. Today, many design studios have changed and adapted – a good example is Pentagram. They publish a lot of the work online on their website and they credit everyone who is involved. If that culture is not part of that company, then it gets a little tricky.
With the internet, designers have their own personal website and are able to show their own work. Information dissemination is much more democratic than it used to be.
What are your hobbies?
I played soccer since childhood and I actually played for the Cooper soccer team all four years, and I pretty much stay active and I play soccer every week.
The other thing I am really interested in is music. I spend a lot of time
collecting records, seeking out stuff. I don’t go to shows as much as I used to, but it’s definitely a big part for me since it helps me work. I cook a lot too, regardless whether or not it’s a hobby.