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Byars studied journalism in the 1950s at the University of South Carolina. He subsequently settled in New York City and eventually became active as an art director or creative director for a number of publishers, such as Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill, and for advertising agencies, including Leber Katz Partners (subsumed into Foote, Cone & Belding, the world's second oldest advertising agency, founded 1873). In the early 1980s, he studied anthropology under Stanley Diamond (1921-1991) in the master's-degree program of The New School for Social Research. And, previously there, he was enrolled in the School of Media Studies.
A decade later, he turned to the history of applied art/industrial design and served as the archivist of the Thérèse Bonney Photography Collection (images of 1925-35 French decorative arts and other subjects) in New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and has been a major donor of 20th-century objects to the museum's permanent collection. He has made other donations to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague (Um?leckopr?myslová museum v Praze),Israel Museum,Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, and Columbia Museum of Art.
Byars has taught at Pratt Institute and Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City and Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Holon Institute of Technology in Israel and at others as well as lectured widely while remaining active in the advertising sector. Since May 2017, he writes a column for Elephant art and culture magazine.
Byars's most significant work is the second edition (2004) of The Design Encyclopedia, which won the Besterman/McColvin Gold Medal for the best reference book of 2004 from the British Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. When active in graphic design earlier in his career, he won a number of awards, including from the Art Directors Club of New York and had works published in various books such as 100 Years of Dance Posters and Dance Posters.
In addition to The Design Encyclopedia, other literary works include more than a dozen books, essays for various design-exhibition catalogs, book introductions and articles for I.D., Beaux Arts, Clear, Echoes, Graphis,form, and other periodicals. A number of the books have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Hebrew