Archive for March, 2012

Words and No Pictures

Friday, March 30th, 2012

The Angry Black South, 1962

Designers often ask me what I look for in a portfolio. I always look at typography. There are a million decisions and variables in type. If someone can manipulate the complex issues of legibility, form, scale, and meaning with combinations of 26 letters, and create something wonderful, they can probably manage any project. But what makes good typography? It’s not about choosing beautifully drawn typefaces (but that’s a big part), or setting everything at 4 point (some of us like to read the words). It isn’t about maintaining a rigid Swiss structure (but that’s a good place to start). It’s about making a dynamic, exciting, and meaningful experience.

I’ve seen solutions that are incredibly elegant, but make no sense. A refined cut of Didot is probably not needed for a poster about seal clubbing (the animals and blood, not the musician and nightclubs). I don’t like typography that’s just nice. There’s enough boring stuff to look at already. If the type is classical and elegant, it should be so beautiful that you want to throw up. If the subject, such as The Angry Black South needs simple communication, let it be just that: simple communication. I like to think of typography as pictures of words. Which makes the statement, A picture is worth a thousand words,” a very complex math problem.

Robert Indiana, A Day Book, 1972

Larry Ratzkin, Black Power : The Politics of Liberation, 1967

Roy Kuhlman, New French Writing, 1961

Roy Kuhlman, Krapp's Last Tape, 1960

Roy Kuhlman, Three Plays By Harold Pinter, 1960

Roy Kuhlman, Ping Pong, 1959

S. Neil Fujita, In Cold Blood, 1966

AdamsMorioka, Building Sex, 1995

Roy Kuhlman, Four Plays, 1958

Roy Kuhlman, Nadja

Roy Kuhlman, Revolutionary Notes, 1969

Robert Indiana, Kulcher No. 17., 1965

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I Hear America Singing

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

I’ve been re-reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1891 edition). Now don’t think I’ve suddenly become a cultured intellectual. Don’t worry, if you continue reading I’ll prove my pedestrian self. But Leaves of Grass is a wonderful orchestration of words. Whitman paints with the language. The poems are about an earthy passion, lustful and natural. Simultaneously, I began to consider growing a beard.

Now for a complete left turn, to make matters worse, I began to think about the Hilltop Coca Cola commercial. This commercial was created in 1971 by McCann-Erikson. The world was in the midst of the Vietnam War, and conflicts in India and the Middle East. The year before, 4 students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State. While the goal was to sell Coca-Cola, the commercial’s message was about unification and peace. The lyrics to the theme song included these lines:

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honeybees, and snow white turtledoves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

These may not match Whitman’s eloquent language, but they share the same sentiment:
Have you ever loved the body of a woman?
Have you ever loved the body of a man?
Do you not see that these are exactly the same to all in all nations
and times all over the earth? 

Yes, my mind works in odd ways connecting ideas that are probably best unconnected. And if you are Walt Whitman fan, you are probably revolted by the audacity to compare Leaves of Grass to a Coca-Cola commercial. But there you are.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman, title page design, Leaves of Grass, 1891

For Purple Mountain Majesties

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

It’s hard to imagine a time when the government actually promoted the graphic arts. Yes, it’s true. It was once considered a respectable vocation, not just a haven for leftist intellectuals. Between 1935 and 1943, the Federal Art Project was created to encourage American design and art. It was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Works Progress Administration. The federal government created the WPA to help restore the economy during the Great Depression by employing Americans in every industry. Don’t worry, I’m not going to turn this into a lengthy essay on the ramifications and legacies of this leading to Johnson’s Great Society. Let’s stick to the travel posters; they’re a safer subject.

These posters promoted travel in the United States. They take advantage of the limited printing technologies available and use simple shapes to create depth. The colors are unexpected, but never seem incorrect. The Grand Canyon is a study in pink and purple. Lassen Volcanic National Park’s poster has a plum colored lake and avocado green sky. Often, the posters employ a strong foreground and extreme shadows. The result is a dramatic and grand landscape similar to a Bierstadt painting. The attraction posters at Disneyland designed 20 years later, employee the same techniques.

What is remarkable to me is the clarity of each poster. They each have a strong point of view and do not appear to be designed by a committee. But, the federal government was the client, so maybe every poster was subjected to 100 committees suggesting a nice blue sky, some culturally, age, and racially diverse happy people, representation of all the available activities, colors that are more lifelike, and more detail. After all, will anyone be able to recognize the blue shapes on the left as mountains?

Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Richard Halls, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Frank Nicholson, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Frank Nicholson, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Frank Nicholson, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Frank Nicholson, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

M. Weitzman, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Alexander Dux, Federal Art Project, WPA, 1935-1943

Disneyland Grand Canyon Diorama poster, 1959

Alfred Bierstadt, Among The Sierra Nevada Mountains California, 1868

Hold Me Now

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Individual frames now square

How many times have you come home after a long day to find all of your wall hangings crooked? I don’t know if tiny earthquakes cause this, or someone is purposely making them crooked to prove they’ve been cleaned. If I had one massive painting on each wall, then it wouldn’t be a problem. But I have photos and paintings specifically arranged. I plan the groupings out on the computer, measure with my Schaedler ruler (if you don’t own one, stop right now and buy one) and make sure everything is square with a level. This is not OCD.

Last weekend I was determined to solve the problem. Some people lie in bed awake at 3am wondering about a serious issue. I lie there trying to decide what adhesive will work best to fix the pictures in place. After much trial and error, Quake Hold Museum Putty works best. This is how to achieve perfectly square images that will always stay in place.

  1. Roll out a piece of the Quake Hold like a roll of dough
  2. Cut pieces off, about 1/8” each
  3. Roll these into little balls
  4. Affix the little Quake Hold balls to the bottom corners of the frame
  5. Use a small level to make sure the frame is correct, and push the bottom into the wall

Voila, you pictures will remain in place even when small children attempt to dislodge them. And when you want to remove them, give them a little pull, and they lift right off, no damage to the wall or frame. Then you will no longer be ashamed when you find a guest glancing at your wall.

Good for symmetrical groupings of photos

Different frame types and objects stay put

Another perfectly square arrangement

Large groups of family photos in my office stay square

Light troublesome frames now don't budge

Even round objects can be affixed

Quake Hold Museum Putty

Not a joint, a roll of Quake Hold

Trim off little pieces

Roll into balls and affix to the frames

Emotionally Repressed Party Chatter

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca

I’ve often been called uptight. I would tend to agree. I understand uptight people in movies. Everyone else thinks they’re the villain, emotionally rigid, or deranged. They just seem sensible to me. This comes, no doubt from a long line of, as Noreen calls them, “Uptight white people.” There are times, however, when the uptight problem turns into a self-abuse spiral. When I go to a speaking engagement, party, or conference, I spend the following day pondering what I may have done that was offensive. I typically have two primary offenses (there are probably many more, but I can only manage two).

First, I meet people who I have met before, but don’t recall them. I’m always careful to introduce myself, even if I’ve just been onstage, and say something such as, “It’s nice to see you, I’m Sean,” or “I’m so glad you’re here tonight.” Most people go with the flow and manage a pleasant conversation. Of course, once in awhile somebody challenges me, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I know I’ve offended them, but the problem isn’t that they aren’t important, it’s that I can’t remember my own family member’s names.

My other problem is turning my back on somebody. I’ll be carrying on a conversation, and in the middle be interrupted by someone else, usually by yanking on my collar. I’ll turn to acknowledge them, and then, the other party feels that I have simply become bored and turned away. Once again, it’s a brain problem. I have a true talent for deep focus on one subject, but I can’t juggle more than one conversation. So, if I have turned my back on you, it is a reflection of my growing senility, not your company.

I was taught a few simple rules by my grandmother who seemed to live only to practice correct manners.

1. No one ever wants to hear, “I know your face, but who are you?” If you can’t recall someone, the best approach is to say something harmless, “That is a really fantastic tie.” Hopefully, he or she will say something to trigger your memory.

2. Alternatively, no one wants to be accused, “You don’t remember me. Do you?” Instead, if you see someone out of context, or haven’t seen him or her for some time, provide some information, “Jane, it’s so good to see you. I’m Peter Meriwether. We met at Alice Thornton’s club.”

3. Never provide unsolicited advice. It is rarely if ever wanted, even by hyperactive attention seeking children.  It is one thing to lean in quietly and say, “Jack, you might want to check your trousers’ zipper.” This is helpful and a friend will always appreciate the heads up. It is quite another to say, “Thomas, your family may have been in politics for generations, but let me give you some tips on the correct way to campaign.” This type of advice only reads as bitter, condescending, and unpleasant, regardless of the intent.

4. When the conversation dips, these are three comments to move it along: “Tell me about your garden. I hear it’s incredible,” “Now, what brought you to Darien (or wherever you are),” and “Would you consider your taste to be traditional or contemporary?” These are all safe subjects and give a platform for conversation. “Did you know your hair is thinning?” is really wrong.

Bette Davis as the dowdy spinster aunt in Now Voyager

Gladys Cooper as the mean WASP in Now Voyager

Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People

Everyone in The Age of Innocence

Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey

Kate Hepburn as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story

My Uptight White People

President John Quincy Adams, cranky looking


Reginald William Rives, 1890s

GGG Aunt Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks