Eulogy for Irv Koons
by his loving son Jon
September 12, 2017
[Some sections were not spoken during the actual service because of timing. These are highlighted with italic type.]
My Father, Irv Koons has died. It is a sad time for all of us who knew and loved him, a time for introspection, a time for remembrances. But not a time for grief. His was not a tragic death. Lets face it, he was an old guy. He died when it was his time. Ninety five and a half years old. Just think about that for a moment. Nearly a century of life and experience. Think of what my Dad did and saw throughout his life. If you knew my Dad, if you knew Irv Koons, then words aren’t necessary; and if you didn’t know him, no words can suffice. Nonetheless I am going to try a few of my own. Settle in.
My Dad lived life on his own terms. They say, and I’m beginning to learn this now from personal experience, that for every old person who looks into a mirror there is a young person inside looking out saying “What the hell happened?” My Dad never asked that question, because until the last, he saw himself as he had always been. Young, Vital, Indestructible. This endearing quality, unfortunately, was eventually his undoing, as he could never accept the limitations that the ravages of time impose on us all. When he was required to use a walker to get around he often decided he didn’t really need it… That led to the fall that broke his neck. Amazingly he got through that, no paralysis or anything, but a couple of subsequent falls proved it was unsafe for him to continue living with me and my family. He moved across the street to the Actors Home, where my mom still resides. And is doing fine, by the way.
My Dad was something of a medical miracle. Decades ago when open heart surgery was in it’s infancy, he had a double bypass operation. He beat all the odds by living well past any recorded survival rates for that operation. About a decade ago, give or take, he had a heart valve replaced, and again, continued living a happy, healthy and fulfilling life.
Irv Koons virtually invented the industrial design industry, and created packages for products that can still be found on the shelf today. Anyone who has walked into a supermarket or liquor store… especially a liquor store—extra dry Tanqueray martini up with a twist—has been affected by Dad’s work. They may not have known him personally, but everyone would recognize some of the hundreds of packages that he designed. People study, collect and catalog his teachings, work and life.
We spent many summers in our youth in Amagansett, Long Island. I was on the beach one day with my dad, I’m pretty sure Josh was with us, and I think Adam, when he found an old rusty can washed up on the rocks. He picked it up and was elated. Saved it for years until it crumbled to dust. He explained to us that, unlike most forms of art—painting, sculpture, and so on, which were meant to be displayed and admired and last; the art of package design was one intended to be used and discarded. If his art hasn't been destroyed it hasn’t served it’s purpose. That became the central theme of his numerous lectures around the world on package design.
My Dad won every major design award, and in 1982 was named Packaging Person of the year by Package Designers Council. This was a rare award, presented only twice before, and only when the Council thought it warranted. This is the invitation to the event. As you can see, his rusty can adorned the cover. Now, the invitation says the event was to take place at the Plaza Hotel in NYC. They had reserved a room and figured on fifty or so attendees. Days before the award presentation the location had to be switched to the St. Regis, a larger venue, because they received over 150 RSVPS from designers, friends and students from all over the world who wanted to be there to honor Irv Koons. That is how loved and respected this guy was.
Through his distinctive illustration style and innovative product and package design, my dad shaped much of the look of the mid twentieth century. His work is featured in collections in museums around the world. Irv Koons, the man, may be gone, but his legacy lives on.
I was speaking with my good friend Jim Brown after my Dad died, who has known me and my Dad since before I was in Middle School. I commented that it was a shame that my Dad had outlived most of his old friends and peers who could say a few words if they could be here today. And Jim said to me “They Can.” This tribute is in Irv's own words, and those of his friends.
AN AUDIO TRIBUTE TO IRV*
(Sound of printing press)
(Voice of Irv Koons)
“I was born in the print shop, virtually next to the printing press, and the sound, the very steady sound of the press as each individual piece is printed—the flywheel going around, the motor, belt, the platen hitting the type. It’s stayed with me all of my life.”
(Kids voices reciting poem written about Irv in camp)
Far above the din and furor, far above the noise,
Stands old Intellectual Irvin, always calm and poised.
In the chorus lift your voices, loud your praises high.
Hail to Intellectual Irvin. The re-e-e-design-ed guy!
(Voice of friend and designer, Art Eckstein)
“Irv is the kind of guy that you have to like. He’s sincere. He’s a really great individual—he’s a good friend. Personally I admire his work because his work has a very high degree of integrity. It is not solution for it’s own sake, I admire the evident thinking that goes into his work. I am honored to be counted among his close friends.”
(Voice of friend and UJA/Federation head, Bob Smith)
“Just as liquor or cigars or spaghetti or anything else is a product, so too is the need for man to care for another man. Only difference is that it is an intangible product. It is something that exists in the mind, the heart and the soul of a human being. Irv knew how to capture this. There was something innate in this human being that made him understand the hardships and the yearnings and the insecurities and the fears that all of us possess, and how we are able to assist people at that moment of greatest need. (music begins) I fell in love with the drawings, and I guess at that time I fell in love with this rather remarkable human being, who has warmth and wisdom, who has beauty and kindness, and who, for all of the work that he’s ever done in the commercial world, he’s done it with great integrity and a great sense of responsibility.”
(Voice of Irv Koons)
“When I was a kid there wasn’t anything else I ever wanted to do except something in art. And I was doing it all the time. I never stopped, and I still haven’t. It’s a lotta years to be doing the same damn thing without stopping!”
How can I follow that? Beautiful. Thank you, Jim.
I was with my Dad for lunch one day, I was working with him at his office at the time, and we went to a Japanese restaurant. Our family had been eating Japanese food since there were two… two Japanese restaurants in the New York City. Imagine that. Anyway, we’re sitting at a sushi bar and in walks a very regal, beautiful black woman wearing sunglasses and a scarf over her head. She sat down next to dad. I didn't pay much attention. Now Dad being Dad, he struck up a conversation. “Do you eat here often?” She said that she always came to this restaurant when she was on this coast. It was the kind of place that put down banana leaves instead of plates. Then I took a look and recognition dawned. So Dad asks, “You say ‘when you’re on this coast.’ Do you travel back and forth a lot?” “I do, for work.” “Really? I’m Irv.” I’m beginning to sweat at this point. “Hello, Irv, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Cecily Tyson.” And they shake hands. “So, well… Cecily Tyson! I am pleased to meet you… So what do you do, are you a singer, a dancer…?” That's when I jumped in and mentioned the whole recent Academy Award winning actress thing. I suggested we leave Ms. Tyson to order, and so we sat and perused the offerings. Major crisis averted. …“So, my son Jon here is an actor…”
My Dad donated his time and talents to numerous humanitarian causes. He was the most generous person alive, even when he couldn’t afford to be. In addition to a pension, he instituted a profit sharing plan for his employees. He donated thousands of dollars a year to worthy causes. His concerns were for his family and for humanity, and rarely for himself. I think he was proud of the fact that, as he tells it, he “got thrown out of a psychiatrists office because he was just too damned nice and concerned about everyone but himself.” In the end, my Dad gave away most of his money.
In his later years living with us in Englewood, he turned his attention back to painting and spiritual pursuits. He painted several series of works on religious themes, plus many other fanciful paintings, and wonderful illustrations. Over time macular degeneration, and the ill advised treatment of that disease, robbed him of his eyesight.
Towards the end Irv’s eyes could see only blurs and shadows in the present, but could see very clearly in the past. He could see the exotic places he’d traveled—India, France, Israel, China and so many other far off lands. He could see the faces of his companions, most often a radiant Leah, sometimes ambassadors, or noted creators of art. He sure got around, my Dad. Knew a lot of folks. And after all of his travels, we are happy that they brought him back to us in Englewood.
It was a joy and a blessing that our son Ryan got to spend so much time together with his Pop. Popop earlier on. Dad was a constant source of love, support, creativity, intellectual discourse, and just plain fun around our household for nearly a decade. Mikki and I have loved every minute of living with Dad. Ok, not every minute. I mean, lets face it, at times he was a pain in the ass. Crotchety and whatnot. Temperamental artist type. But he’d earned it, and we loved him for it, and cherish all of the time we had with him.
My dear friend since High School, Jane is here. She visited my Dad in his last days. She and my Dad had always had a special relationship. So, when we needed someone to keep an eye on him for a little bit while we’d be away, Jane eagerly volunteered. When I started to brief her on the necessities, she said “Oh, I know. He’ll make his cheese and crackers and martini, and then take them and sit in his chair with some music playing.” I was like, wow. “Probably classical, but sometimes show tunes,” she goes on. “Then he’ll have dinner watching TV, and then go sit in his chair again and have some cognac, maybe smoke his pipe until bedtime.” It was astounding. Some things really do never change. Thank you, Jane, for everything.
Dad did love music. Classical, jazz, The Beatles, show tunes. He loved Broadway, and he and my Mom risked a small investment in a struggling show you might have heard of called Fiddler On The Roof. Since then that show, in it’s many incarnations, has been an important inspiration for my Dad and the family. Obviously this side of my Dad’s personality was a big influence on me, as were so many more, and he was particularly thrilled and proud to see me play the role of Tevye in our high school production of Fiddler. He did, by the way, get to see the most recent production of Fiddler on Broadway.
My great friend Roland, who is like a brother to me, told me on the phone that he was flying out from LA for the funeral. I asked, “Are you sure?” He said, “Hey—it’s Irv.” And there he sits. Thank you Roland.
Irv Koons has had a wondrous and happy life, full of love and creativity and success and adventure. He has traveled the world, seen and done things that others can only imagine, and lived and died the life he wanted to.
He made the world a more colorful, artistic, caring and exciting place to live in. He snagged a real catch as a wife, our beautiful Mom, Leah, and the love of his life. He raised three sons, and I don't think we turned out too bad. Fairly magnificent all in all actually, I would say. He was a proud grandparent of Isaac, Aaron and Ryan. He began life as an artist, and lived a life in art. His work and life continue to inspire thousands, and his name won’t be forgotten.
My Dad will always be an inspiration to me, and will always be held tight in the hearts and minds of our family. The spirit of Irv will always be with us. I will mourn for My Father, but not for long. I will be content with happy memories.
And just like his rusty can, after ninety five years, Irv Koons has served his purpose.
He left this world better than he found it, and you can’t say better than that.
Love. Peace. Happiness.
*The audio tribute was created by Jim Brown, assembled from sections of the multi-image show called IRV KOONS: A Man And His Art, produced by Jim and Jon for Irv’s Packaging Person of the Year award ceremony.