Well known for his segment comedy segment, “Pierre Bernard’s Recliner of Rage” on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Pierre Bernard Jr. shares his long and winding career in design, recounting just how unpredictable a life in the arts can be.
Join in on an enlightening conversation about Bernard’s background and philosophies surrounding graphic design.
Recently, Billy Agustin (Content Writer) sat down in a Zoom meeting with Pierre Bernard Jr. to discuss his graphic design career.*
*This article has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What form of art do you specialize in?
Bernard: I’m a graphic artist. I used to work with Conan O’Brien, that’s what people mostly know me for. I started with the show in 1992 at NBC studios in New York. Prior to Conan, the way that he found out about me is that I was doing Letterman’s show in New York, and that was freelance. Whenever their graphic artist would go on vacation, they would call me in for a couple of weeks to do graphics and it was around that time that the whole shake-up with Late Night occurred, with Leno taking over for Johnny Carson. Letterman was upset that he didn’t get the job, so he left NBC and took the entire graphics staff with him. They were scrambling to get a replacement for Late Night, and Conan’s name came up. They hired him and they needed a new staff- this one person who was still working at NBC remembered me and my help with Letterman, and they asked if I’d be interested in working with this new talk show. I said yes, and that’s where my career with Conan began. I was doing graphic design- my background is in illustration at Carson’s School of Design in New York, but I still did graphic design for a living -I was doing graphic design for Conan, and I would say about two years in they started using me for little, weird comedy things. I didn’t realize that was evolving into something, but low and behold, a few years later, they started writing me into little comedy bits on the show and that evolved into them creating the Recliner of Rage and from there, it became history.
On that show, I had dual jobs as a graphic artist and a job as a comedian. Who knew?
That went on straight into the 90s. When we moved to California in 2009, it continued on The Tonight Show for a brief period. Once The Tonight Show was over, a lot of things changed. My work started leaning more towards my graphic design and less towards the comedy side of things. In 2017, since the ratings were going bad, TBS decided to start cutting the budget and the bulk of us were let go. Nowadays, I work freelance. I’ve worked on a few TV shows, which is great- the final season of Homeland, this Apple TV show, an opera production from last year -I’ve been doing a lot of odd jobs. On top of that, I run a workshop for the Art Director’s Guild with my union here in California. I host a lot of drawing events at different comic conventions. This year was going to be a very special year because this year I was going to start taking this overseas and try to hit foreign countries. And, well, uh…something happened in March! Another thing that started when I first came to LA: I didn’t know anyone here, but a friend of mine who was a comic artist invited me to this event called Drink and Draw. It was basically an event where artists get together in a bar and they draw and they drink. Even though I don’t drink, It sounded like a good social event to go to so I joined in. The first time I went there, I was blown away. It was like the who’s who of animation and comics. Like, the people you’d ask for autographs from, sitting around the table, and then there’s me, a nobody sitting among them. Something that came up at one of the sessions, this woman asked me a question about something I was doing in a sketchbook, which was drawing a lot of circles. She asked me, “Why are you always doing that?” and I told her I had no idea why I do that other than I enjoy drawing circles. The conversation never went beyond that, but now, after 11 years here,
I finally figured out what I was directing myself towards, which was pattern design.
As of late, I’ve been getting into pattern design and surface design, and I’ve found that the circular art that I’m creating is transitioning into that arena as well as fine arts, doing large oversized canvas paintings. So, that’s a quick background!
Q: When did you start graphic design and when did you become interested in it?
Bernard: I went to The High School of Art and Design, my degree was in illustration. I went to Parsons School of Design, where my degree was also illustration. What happened when I graduated was that I could not find work. There wasn’t a lot of illustration work available for someone new, and I think the transition was starting to occur as well- a lot of people were starting to use illustrators a lot less and they were starting to use clipart and stuff of that nature. Because I couldn’t find illustration work, I ended up working at an ad agency doing storyboards and comps. That was the only illustration work I could find. That was fun, for the time being. In that studio, I met someone who had goals starting his own studio.
This was around the time the Macintosh computer appeared. He convinced me to go with him, so we both bought computers and set up a studio in New York and we started doing graphic design for different companies. That went well, and I must say, that was my door into the graphic design world. That’s when graphic design began becoming my thing and illustration a lot less so. I worked with him for a while, and somehow, Credential Security needed someone for a job, so I ended up working there for about two years. There were so many things to love about that job as a graphic designer. The variety of things I got to work on was tremendous. I took over their newsletter which was basically a magazine. I redesigned it for them and adjusted it for the Mac. That was one of the projects! That job allowed me to create a project from the beginning, design it, present it, and execute the job to its final printed piece.
Another thing, too, that was fun about that job was that I got to go to work in a suit and tie. I know that sounds crazy, for an artist to say they want to work in a suit and tie, but I felt very professional. It was a great environment and I really loved that. The reason it came to and end- my dad passed away from cancer, and Credential Security was a job that required a lot of my time. I couldn’t give them the time they needed at that point while also dealing with what was happening at home. It’s just called timing- I got the phone call from that woman at NBC. I said yes to the 2-3 day a week job, because I figured I knew what kind of work they wanted from me. It was a lot of drawing, and it was really easy.
If there’s anything I can do well, I can draw. I can do it in my sleep.
I figured with what was going on at home, this job was ideal. So I took it, and obviously I never went back to doing credentials. That’s sort of where my career led up to where I am now.
Q: What was the shift like from working in Credential Security graphic design to television graphics? Was it difficult or did it happen organically?
Bernard: It happened organically, actually! The only things that I had to adjust were minor things. For example, when you do type for print, you can get away with using a lot of variety of typefaces and line weight. In print design, if you use a half-point line, you’re sort of skirting where whether or not you can print properly, whereas on TV, a half-point line can’t be seen because of the resolution on the monitor. So I had to learn, when I created my graphics, to heavy them up a little. Make the type a little bolder or get an outline- something so that when its on the TV monitor, it doesn’t look so light and washed out. But that was minor, I wouldn’t say that was a handicap that I had to get over. It was just an adjustment. I think overall, the transition from doing commercial art to TV was very organic.
I feel, for myself as an artist, I don’t see the division between graphic design as an illustration, for me they’re married into one another. If you’re a good graphic designer, chances are you’re capable of illustrating, and if you’re a good illustrator, chances are you’re capable of designing.
Q: What is one of your favorite and one of your least favorite things about graphic design?
Bernard: There’s a lot of things, right off the bat. I get to be creative. I value creativity like no one’s business. I think being able to be creative is a gift, I don’t take that lightly.
When your mind is able to go beyond your social boundaries and look at things and reimagine things- I think that’s one of the big loves of a graphic designer.
I love art supplies! I think that’s a big part of being a graphic designer because if you don’t like using the tools that are available to you, you’re not going to be a very good graphic designer. I love pens, paints, to some degree, the computer.
The thing I don’t love about graphic design…people like me who are graphic designers, we love what we do and unfortunately we’re willing to do it for nothing. That has created a weird relationship between us and our clients, and I’ve realized that this is consistent. Every job I’ve had, regardless of who you are or what fame you have, it just seems consistent that you are not respected for what you do. I can’t tell you how often writers would approach me saying, “I have my kid’s birthday coming up, can you design a birthday card for my kid?” On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a problem, but imagine if you flipped that story and approached the writer and go, “Hey, my kid’s birthday’s coming up, would you write me something for my kid?” How does it sound when it’s being asked for free? It’s one thing if I’m going to pay you to do it, but if I’m just saying, “Can you do me a favor?” It diminishes the value of what you do and that’s something I really hate about how we are treated as graphic designers. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t value the service we provide in a professional manner. They look at it as something disposable and cheap. And I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it, my friends have experienced it: where we go in and try to negotiate our rates and our rates would be debated. That shouldn’t be. Could you imagine it in any other field?
Q: Do you have a story you want to share about your experiences working in this field?
Bernard: There are so many stories… I’ve got to say, I’ve had a really unique career. It seems like my career never followed that straight path. It’s hard for me to figure out what story to give to you, because anything that I can think of that I like, they are all the result of one another.
The only ones I can think of that are recent, actually- two years ago, I won this Netflix competition for their red envelope illustration competition. It was one of these things I did last-minute after procrastinating on. It was a Christmas contest, and I won, and I was happy as well. Basically, this mailer was an art piece for me. It was a great highlight for me, just seeing something like that happen with my work.
The other is this book I self-published back in 2013, an art book called 18 by 24 and Other Sizes. It had photos of artwork that I did of art models here in California for the first three years. That did very well. Those are the two things that come to mind that I was really proud of and felt really good about.
Q: What was your goal when you were younger and have you achieved it, or what does that goal look like now?
Bernard: When I was in college, I wanted to be an illustrator. I wanted so desperately to be an illustrator. I even looked into illustrating for magazines, but I was just trying to be an illustrator. Like I said, there wasn’t a lot of work in illustrating, so I ended up in advertising. One advertising was done, there was a small window of me looking into illustration again, as an outlet. Newsweek Magazine got ahold of me. Newsweek Magazine, I did illustration and a little graphic design, but mostly presentation. They called me up and asked me for a freelance rate, and they agreed because they were desperate. Newsweek Magazine was fantastic. The only reason why I ended was because the person who became head of that department came in with the goal of destruction. She was evil, I will say that on tape. She wanted to dissolve that department and replace us with people she could control. We were all fired.
After doing Credential Security, I was so sure I wanted to be in graphic design. Then Conan came along, took me on a detour. Up to the point, I’d say that I was still playing with the circles. I never considered fine arts as a career goal. It was always floating in the back of my mind, but in the last 2-3 years, I started seriously looking at fine arts as a career I’d like to pursue. As a result of running all these life drawing workshops, I started looking at teaching as another outlet I might want to pursue. And in these past few years, all these things are sort of coming together: the fine arts, selling my paintings. The teaching, I taught a couple of classes at an art center here in LA. I was so nervous that I would have nothing to say, but I heard the students gave me good reviews. God bless them. As of now, my new goal in life is to become a surface designer and pattern designer. I found a way to incorporate everything I want to do under one umbrella. I think that’s my goal at the moment, and everything else will float around that.
I think, as an artist, we never stop having goals in life. Having goals is as natural as what we do. Each time you express yourself as an artist, you’re constantly looking for ways to do it better, more efficiently, more direct. That is, in a sense, a goal.
Goals will always be intertwined into what I do. I think they’re just one in the same.
Q: Is there anyone or anything that inspires you?
Bernard: Oh, tons of people. Art-wise, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell, Al Parker, John Whitcomb, I would say Picasso to some degree. Almost every impressionist that ever existed. It’s a ton of things, I’m hard-pressed to make one stand-out among the other because it’s a combination of a lot of things. Art Noveau, art deco, 1950s graphics, vintage things. There’s no one thing I can bring up!
Q: What advice would you give to young artists who are looking to pursue art as a passion or career?
Bernard: Get out of art school, become a doctor, just anything else that makes a living! Ha!
If you’re pursuing graphic design as a career, you have to be persistent. One of the things, as an artist, the majority of people who are serious about their art suffer from something. I don’t know what the word is for what we suffer from, but it’s there. It manifests as self-doubt. You’re always second-guessing yourself, you’re never happy with what you do, you keep comparing yourself to other people even though you know it’s bad. Sometimes it gets so bad you can’t get out of bed, or you find yourself distracting yourself with TV so you don’t have to work on a project. My advice to these future graphic designers is to know you’re not alone. It might seem like that since we work in an isolated environment. You, as an artist, might be struggling a little. When those moments strike, stay true to yourself. Believe in yourself. That’s a huge part of what you do. You have to love what you’re doing. If you don’t love what you’re doing, don’t do it.
Always try to find some love for what for doing because if you don’t, you’ll never be good at it.
Be persistent. Aspire to be better, never think you’ve reached the pinnacle of your work. Norman Rockwell, for example, was an amazing painter. By the time the 1950s rolled around, he was at the top of his game. He was making millions as an artist. All that said, Norman Rockwell still had self-doubt. He was still trying to be better than who he was. To such a degree that a young guy named Al Parker- the illustrator, not the performer -came along and took the entire art world by storm. What made Al Parker unique was that his work was so diverse, he could work with anything. Everyone wanted to be Al Parker. Norman Rockwell wrote Al Parker a letter where he told him how much he was a fan of Al Parker and how much he wished he could do what Al Parker was doing. Your goal should always be shooting to be better, always keep that in mind.
Going back to the depression and self-doubt, always try to limit that voice in the back of your head. You’ll never be able to block it, I’ve tried. It’s impossible. You cannot shut that voice out. The best thing you can do is quiet it. Whenever those doubts start to creep in, try to do stuff that’ll inspire your mind on paper. Eventually, that’ll blossom into a project to be inspired about. Whenever possible, do not let money becomes the thing that defines you as an artist. That would be my advice to young people coming up and going into this art world.
Learn more about Pierre’s work here!