Archive for the ‘People’ Category

Obsessed

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014
Ken Briggs, Left, 1950s

Ken Briggs, Left, 1950s

 

Recently, a young designer met with me and talked about obsession. “I’m worried it’s wrong, but I get obsessed about something and can’t stop,” she said. She wasn’t talking about Justin Bieber or heroin. She gave the example of string art. “I can’t stop looking for it online and want to learn how to do it.” Who doesn’t?” was my reply.

I don’t know where she heard that being obsessed was bad. Sure, if you’re stalking someone and build a shrine with sacrifices for them you may have a problem. But I’ve been working on my OCD family tree for years and never tire of it. Paula Scher makes wonderful paintings of maps. Marian Bantjes works with pattern. Massimo Vignelli couldn’t get enough Bodoni. Being obsessed is part of the job.

Ken Briggs was a British designer responsible for many of the beautiful posters for the National Theatre in London. Clearly, Briggs was obsessed with the New Typography, inspired after seeing a copy of Josef Müller Brockmann’s Neue Grafik. The posters relentlessly use Helvetica, golden section proportions and grids. But, Briggs took the rigid rules and tweaked them with surprising color choices and offbeat photographic solutions. He added a dry British wit to a sterile approach.

Briggs didn’t do this once, or for a couple of months. He did it over and over and over. And thank God for that obsession. The lesson here, obsession makes perfection.

 

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Shooting the Tube

Thursday, October 9th, 2014
LeRoy Grannis, 1969

LeRoy Grannis, 1969

There is a huge difference between a dull photograph of Yosemite Valley and an Ansel Adams photo. Adams didn’t photograph Yosemite Valley, he shot the weather in the valley.

In the same way, there is a lot of bad surfing photography. It’s the same shot over and over, someone tube-riding shot from below. LeRoy Grannis‘ photos, however, are good, really good, surfing photos. They are not the same shot over and over. Beside the obvious issues of lighting, composition, color, and content, Grannis’ images work because they are not photos of surfing. He photographs the people surfing. The images are about culture and community. They objectively depict the surf community in the 1960s and 70s. This separates the work from traditional sports photography. The action is the backdrop to the individuals in the frame.

They also work because everyone is super groovy, even the elderly spectators with bitchin’ sunglasses.

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Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, 1881

Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley, 1881

Ansel Adams, Yosemite Valley, 1942

Ansel Adams, Yosemite Valley, 1942

 

Twelve Inches of Pleasure

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014
Roland Young, Joan Baez: Where are you now, my son? album cover

Roland Young, Joan Baez: Where are you now, my son? album cover

Roland Young

Roland Young

I’m currently writing a new course for Lynda.com, Fundamentals of Graphic Design History. You’d think this would be easy. I know the history, have the images, and am so old I knew Guttenberg personally. But condensing all of the Bauhaus into a three-minute format and making sure it doesn’t sound like, “Bueller, Bueller, anyone?” is tricky. It’s a great challenge and fun.

When I started writing about design in the 1970s, I kept circling around album covers. The emotional impact of these artifacts is extraordinary. Sure, there was great corporate identity and typography at the time and more than enough to discuss with those alone. But when I mention a specific album, people light up. “Oh, I stared at The Tubes cover for hours trying to figure out how it worked.” or “I kept the Frampton cover on the top of my pile of records just to see it when I woke up every morning.

When I went to college, Roland Young was one of my teachers. I was 19 and knew everything. On the first day, when I realized that Roland was responsible for a big part of the record covers I loved, I was impressed. And that’s not easy for an asshole 19 year-old. Today, Roland is a good friend. I took over his Communication Design 1 class at Art Center and still hear from almuni, “Wow, when I had Roland for that class my life changed.” My students say, “You were funny.”

I recently discovered his cover for Joan Baez, Where are you now, my son?. This cover may seem unassuming and quiet, but it’s masterful. The sharp typography with the confidence to be just what it is and the texture of the grainy image is contrast at its best. The image of Baez that speaks to the object of a printed photograph is about a moment in time and intimacy. The Smiths tried this later with some covers, but the original is still my favorite.

Roland’s body of work and career, from working with Lou Danziger to art director to teacher, is immense and impossible to show without a major book. Publishers, publishers, anyone?.

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Dynasty

Thursday, July 31st, 2014
King Edward II

King Edward II

King Edward III

King Edward III

Several readers have sent me notes asking for a family history post. So, I’m heading way, way back for this one to 1295 AD. The story of my 17th grandmother and 17th grandfather is filled with soap opera drama.

Isabella de Capet of France, also known as the she-wolf of France, was the only surviving daughter of Philip IV, King of France (16th grandfather). She was engaged to King Edward II of England as a child to cement a treaty between England and France.

The fun begins when she marries Edward II. It seems that he enjoys the company of young men, his “favorite” when they married, Piers Gaveston. Obviously this can cause discord in a marriage. Gaveston ends up being captured and executed by angry Barons who weren’t too keen on Edward’s policies and unorthodox arrangement. After a failed campaign to conquer the Scots, Edward was even more unpopular.

Now, he took up with a new favorite, Hugh de Spencer (yet another 17th grandfather). For several years, Edward and de Spencer imprisoned and executed enemies, confiscated lands from the barons, and punished extended family members and courtiers. Eventually, Edward and de Spencer confiscated all of Isabella’s lands and imprisoned her. This was a good sign to Isabella that the marriage wasn’t really working well.

Isabella returned to France and began an affair with Sir Roger Mortimer (18th grandfather). Together, they raised an army and returned to England to dethrone Edward II. Edward and de Spencer fled London, but were captured by Isabella and Mortimer’s forces. She had de Spencer hanged, castrated, disemboweled, drawn and quartered. She was very mad. Edward was forced to abdicate the crown to his son, Edward III (16th grandfather).

Now, the story gets confusing. The official story was that Edward II fell and died while imprisoned. Rumors spread that Isabella had him murdered with, sorry for the graphic part here, a red hot poker put up his rectum. Recently historians have argued that evidence points to Edward escaping and living the rest of his life as a hermit.

Isabella and Mortimer now thought they had it all wrapped up. Edward III was too young to rule, so they were ruling England, making lots of money, and everything seemed swell. But when Isabella became pregnant with Mortimer’s child, which would have created a new heir, Edward III was pissed. So he raided their castle, captured Mortimer and had him executed, even after Isabella begged for his life saying, “Fair son, have pity on gentle Mortimer!”

Edward III took on his role as King of England and exiled his mother to Norfolk. She lived well, as one of the richest women in England and died at 62. She was buried with Edward II’s heart. This is real life, and so much more exciting than Game of Thrones.

Isabella de Capet of France, played by Aure Atika, World Without End

Isabella de Capet of France, played by Aure Atika, World Without End

Inspection of Piers Gaveston's head

Inspection of Piers Gaveston’s head

Execution of Hugh de Spencer

Execution of Hugh de Spencer

Isabella and Roger Mortimer

Isabella and Roger Mortimer

Isabella accepts Edward II's crown

Isabella accepts Edward II’s crown

Edward II, played by Blake Ritson, World Without End

Edward II, played by Blake Ritson, World Without End

King Edward II, played by Ben Chaplin, World Without End

King Edward II, played by Ben Chaplin, World Without End

The Friendly Swiss

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014
Herbert Matter, Swiss travel poster, 1932

Herbert Matter, Swiss travel poster, 1932

There are two sayings in Hollywood that I like: “The ass you kick on the way up is the one you kiss on the way down,” and “Blame others, take credit, deny everything.” I know quite a few people that live by the motto of blame, credit, etc., and ignore the ass kicking advice. I’ve known fine designers who, after the first taste of fame, became heinous and awful divas making demands and driving kind conference organizers to tears. And I know fine designers who have been famous for years and are the first to wrestle credit away from others. My friend, John Bielenberg, suggested I start a magazine or blog that is like Vanity Fair of the design world, telling all the stories. That sounds fun, but I’d like to keep at least the few friends I still have.

Conversely, I am endlessly amazed at the down to earth, generous nature of some of the industries legends. 90% of them are just good people, willing to help others, devote time, and always have a funny story at dinner. From what I understand, Herbert Matter was one of the least pompous designers in the field. I’ve never heard anything that paints him as difficult or negative. From all accounts, he was a true mensch. You wouldn’t expect that from his work. It’s so brilliant and confident that the author would have all the right in the world to be a jerk. But, it’s proof that either we as designers are, on the whole, pretty darned good. Or we’re nitwits and falling behind while other in different professions claw, stab, and blackmail their way to the top.

Don’t be alarmed, three “Herbert” stories in a row does not mean the next one will be about Herbert Hoover.

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