Susan Jackson Keig dead at 99; trailblazing graphic designer worked for 72 years
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When Susan Jackson Keig sat down in an all-male electrical engineering class at the University of Kentucky, the professor told her to get up and get out.
“There’s no place for a woman,” he said.
In 1936, teachers like him had the power to bar her entry.
“So she went down the hall,” according to her son, J. J. Keig. “She picked up on her second love and interest, and that was art.”
Mrs. Keig graduated with a degree in art and design and became one of the most celebrated graphic designers in Chicago.
She worked in the field for 72 years.
Frank Lloyd Wright welcomed her to his Wisconsin compound at Taliesin — twice. She designed a cover for an LP by geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller, “Thinks Out Loud.” She called him “Bucky.”
In the mid-1950s, she became the first woman president of Chicago’s Society of Typographic Arts. She was a delegate to the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo, complete with U.N.-style translators in glass booths. Mrs. Keig was fascinated by the hunger among Japanese youth for American pop culture, telling the Journal of Commercial Art, “there are ducktail haircuts, black leather jackets and rock n’ roll.”
In the late ’60s, she became a vice president at the Goldsholl graphic design firm, known for hiring women and people of color at a time when corporate doors were usually firmly closed to them.
Mrs. Keig created honorary medals for President Ronald Reagan and English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, among others. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and more than 250 awards for graphic design. And she designed a poster for the city featuring Chicago bridges.
She lectured at Yale and was a renowned expert on the Shakers, whose spare designs reminded her of Chicago’s New Bauhaus school. New Bauhaus evolved into the Institute of Design, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where she studied — and later taught – under the legendary Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, one of the Bauhaus designers who fled Germany ahead of the Nazis. She designed the first exhibit on the Shakers to be shown in Europe.
Before her design career, she was recruited to work during World War II in the code-breaking division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in Washington D.C. Until the end of her life, she remembered Japanese phrases learned there, her son said.
Mrs. Keig, who lived for 58 years at the Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tower at 860 N. Lake Shore Dr., died in her sleep on Memorial Day, 10 days before she would have turned 100, he said.
“She was working until her death,” said Jill Gage, the Newberry Library’s curator of the history of design in Chicago. “She had the same clients for 30 or 40 or 50 years, which really speaks to how she was as a designer.” She did projects for Children’s Memorial Hospital, Evanston Hospital and Scott Foresman Publishing. She designed signs and selected art for the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. And she created signs that guided people touring the Pullman Historic District, her son said.
This year, Mrs. Keig worked for Northwestern University and on the annual report for the Breakers Palm Beach Resort, he said.
“She changed the field and she changed the way women are perceived in those roles,” said Tanner Woodford, executive director of the Chicago Design Museum.
“Every woman practicing design in Chicago owes Susan Jackson Keig a debt of gratitude, for she is acknowledged as the first woman to earn her place in what was then a male-dominated profession,” said graphic designer Rick Valicenti, a recipient of the Smithsonian Museum’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.
With her elegant dresses and graceful scarves, Gage said, “She looked like a Southern lady, but clearly was a tough person to survive.”
Mrs. Keig just ignored those who didn’t take her seriously, according to her son. “It didn’t matter to her,” he said. “She would just persevere” with an attitude of “You’re just a fly in the way.”
When she attended professional gatherings, Woodford said, “She walked in and the other designers stood up and clustered around her.”
Her design sensibility was like her attire: midcentury clean, with a stylish flourish. She’d finish an ensemble with a colorful scarf or the kind of big pin called “statement jewelry.”
In 1943 she wed Allen Chancellor “Chauncey” Karstrom, an Army second lieutenant. They moved to Evanston, and she landed a job at Chicago’s Scientific Research and Associates, where she helped design an advice book for returning servicemen, “Get THE Job.” After Karstrom’s death in 1952, she taught pottery-making at Hull House, her son said.
She visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Wisconsin twice, leading members of the Society of Typographic Artists.
In thanking the imposing architectural genius, she said, “You’ve done such a wonderful job, I’ll never forget it,” her son recalled. “And he said, ‘You damn well better not.’”
In 1958, she married Peter Keig, who died in 2006.
She also worked at the firms of Dekovic-Smith Design and Lathem Tyler Jensen before starting her own practice, Susan Jackson Keig Design, in the early 1970s.
“She could tell you who invented a particular font, and what revisions were made (to it), and by who, and when,” her son said. “You’re talking about a walking encyclopedia.”
Originally from the Lexington, Kentucky area, she recalled passing through Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill as a little girl. When the last Shaker there died in 1923, her father purchased some of the famed Shaker furniture at auction, her son said.
The Shaker Village is now a tourist destination. And Mrs. Keig created a popular calendar that’s been a best-seller at its gift shops for nearly 50 years.
She “spent more than 50 years photographing and collecting historic Shaker images. She graciously offered to utilize her renowned graphic design and art experience to create an annual calendar to help raise the profile of this nonprofit organization,” said Maynard Crossland, CEO of Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill.
“This is not just a group of buildings, museum exhibits, a delightful inn,” Mrs. Keig wrote in the calendar. “It is an environmental experience, a sense of dimension, of dignity, a relationship of function and innate beauty.”
She started keeping scrapbooks about architecture when she was 12. “She was very interested in space, in proportion, in line,” her son said.
Services have been held.