RIP Lanny Beal Sommese
“Know when your work is done, then just walk away before you F*ck it all up.”
The professional life of Lanny Sommese, graphic designer, poster maker, painter, artist and educator is easily told in numbers and letters: 100+ posters in the Library of Congress National Poster Collection; founder and longest running member (1976-2022) of the Philadelphia chapter of AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts); member in the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI); artist whose work has been exhibited/is held in dozens of the world’s major museums, from SFMoMA to the Poster Museum at Willinow in Warsaw to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Lanny spent over 45 years inspiring and mentoring students as the head of Penn State University’s graphic design program, sending dozens upon dozens on to distinguished careers as educators and successful designers in a multitude of industries; perennially awarded creator, with gold awards from shows spanning the globe, from Biennial of the Poster in Mexico to Triennial of the Stage Poster in Bulgaria; and the writer and/or subject of articles in a wide variety of the most important publications in his field, from Graphis and Print (New York) to a! Diseno (Mexico) to the Munich-based Novum: World of Graphic Design.
This last, Novum, the granddaddy of design publications (1924-2021) was the very magazine with which a chance encounter as a freshman at the University of Florida sent Lanny into the field of design in the first place. Here’s the story, as told to a journalist in 2017: It was 1961, he was wandering through the stacks, and, as he recalled, “I kicked over a book and the damn thing was about graphic design. It was called Gebrauschgraphik, one of the major publications for graphic design. I opened the book and I was looking at my future. I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
That honest memory, told guilelessly, brings the legend Lanny Sommese down to earth. It gives a glimpse of the excited soul within the man and the creator, the one especially during the last few years of his life, took over, or came back into its own, charming both the closest members of his family and those new in his circle. This Lanny, kind and jovial, appeared to caregivers and others who made his acquaintance as Alzheimer’s claimed the parts of him that had sometimes terrified students, giving them reason to either step up and do better or give up on design as a career, and also overtook the parts that had allowed for a long and productive partnership with his spouse, designer and design educator Kristin Sommese, in Sommese Design since 1989. In other words, as the disease ravaged and obscured the parts that had led to the successes tallied above, another more forgiving and amazing soul came forth.
And yet this innocent and visionary Lanny was clearly also there within the productive design professional and the demanding, sometimes fierce professor. That insightful and canny Lanny was the force behind both the almost 50 years of cheerful, color-strewn posters for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and those works that challenged the viewer to care, and to act. The Lanny Sommese whose rape hotline poster was so powerful that it brought university administrators into the discussion of its publicity, concerned that it was ‘too graphic” to be posted on campus, exhibited the same brilliant judgement as the one who put a striped cat on a spotted dog in front of a rainbow-shaped staff for the local arts festival. As Chip Kidd, former student, trusted friend, and highly successful book designer, novelist and nonfiction writer put it, writing in NOVUM, “In his hands, these subjects [rape, war and racism] became giant political cartoons that were posted everywhere and impossible to ignore.” It is the penetrating eye, unique and undeviating, that animated the artist within Lanny Sommese and forever inspired, and required, a response from us.”
In their own work, Kristin and Lanny’s children, Saige and Zane Sommese, have managed what all parents wish for their children; they have gone beyond, combining the fervor, discernment and discipline familiar to those who know the work of their parents with an attention to the needs of today’s world, creating meaningful messages in the contemporary context. Saige has continued to design the Arts Fest posters, at first with her father, and most recently starting with some of his notebook sketches and adding her own ideas which include the introduction of the first female jester. Both Saige and Zane have been awarded high honors from Graphis for their work.
Always the sports competitor, from his earliest days as a basketball star in his birthplace of East Moline, Illinois, and later at the University of Florida fighting Gators, to his later years as a fixture on the Joel Confer Softball Team and Toftrees Men’s Golf League, Lanny Sommese found camaraderie on the court, the field and the course. There, he bonded and bantered with his various tribes, happily participating in a world where the mental calisthenics demanded by design were given over to the joyful physicality of games played among friends.
Lanny is survived by his beloved wife Kristin Sommese, daughter Saige Sommese, son Zane Sommese, sister Paula, father-in-law Robert J. Breslin, brothers Greg and Mark, brother and sister-in-laws Robin, Gwen, and Cathi Breslin, and grandchildren Maddy and Markus. In addition, there are many other dear family members, former students and assistants and friends that are too numerous to mention.
Lanny is preceded in death by his mother Maxine, daughter Lani Kaye, brother Joe, and mother-in-law Barbara Breslin.
In lieu of flowers, or in support of how he has touched your lives, his family asks that donations be made to the Lanny Sommese Foundation, whose mission will be to continue his legacy of fostering excellence in design education and the dissemination of his work so that a wide audience can benefit from his vision and his passion. Further information will be available in the near future.