On Good Work

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, I’ve been called a media whore, PR hound, and the Paris Hilton of design. I prefer to think of myself as the Marcus Welby of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are graphic designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, I moved as quickly as possible along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE! LOVE ME!!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

The only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.

Call Me Eunice

One of the upsides of being obsessive is having perfectly organized drawers. One of the downsides is that I become engrossed in the wrong story. When we read Wuthering Heights in high school I was bored to distraction by Cathy and Heathcliff. Whiney, whiney, whiney. They were pretty people who did a lot of whining. I wanted to know what happened to Heathcliff’s tortured wife, Isabella. Unfortunately, she is only a secondary character and we are left to imagine her story.

The same is true in the case of What’s Up Doc?Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand play the main characters, Howard Bannister and Judy Maxwell. But, I only care about Madeline Khan’s character Eunice Burns. She has a nice wig, wears good Republican dresses, and is quite concerned about maintaining traditional behavior. Eunice is incredibly annoying and wonderful. And as they say, if someone has dressed with propriety and buttoned every single button, they must have a huge fire inside to be contained.

Eunice: I'm not looking for romance, Howard. 
Howard: Oh? 
Eunice: No, I'm looking for something more important than that, something stronger. As the years go by, romance fades and something else takes its place. Do you know what that is? 
Howard: Senility?
Eunice: Trust! 
Howard: That's what I meant.

I know that I’m supposed to like Ryan O’Neal’s confused professor character and Barbra Streisand’s wacky free spirit, and they’re fine. But the entire movie should have been about Eunice. I would suggest a remake, Call Me Miss Eunice.

High Notes

In my taboret, I have two notes I will save in a fire. I have a quickly scribbled note from Tibor Kalman congratulating me on a project and a note from Tony Palladino, complimenting my first UCLA Extension poster back in 1998. The note from Tony was, for me, the equivalent of an Academy Award. At the time, I was getting slammed left and right by the groovy design set since I wasn't layering images on images, mangling type, or making purposely oblique messages. The UCLA poster was about my philosophy; keep it simple, pure, and playful. Tony’s note was an affirmation that I might be doing something right.

Tony Palladino’s work is inherently American. He was born in Manhattan in the 1930 and spent his youth in the vibrant and gritty world of New York during the depression. He may have adopted some of the principals of Bauhaus Modernism, but it is filtered through a layer of American high energy and spontaneity. Like jazz, Tony’s work is rigidly crafted, but bursting with an energy that does not play politely. His solutions are brave and unapologetic.

The SVA poster hand-drawn with markers is actually hand-drawn with actual markers. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would be a sketch, and the final poster would be a polite geometric set of vector art lines, dull and elegant.

The American identity is complex. It is a mix of Puritanism and extremes. It is pragmatic and didactic. And, it is about optimism. Tony’s humor is clear in all of his solutions. This levity, craft, vitality, and intelligence are a miraculous combination. Add in Tony’s poetic vision, and the results are rare and spectacular.


Sean Adams, UCLA Summer Sessions, 1998

When Colors Collide

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964

Last week at the How Conference, a guy came up to me after my presentation and said, "You are so amazing with color. I wish I could do that. What should I do?" He wanted to know what books to read or if I had any snappy tricks for creating a palette. I answered, "Do whatever you like, just do it with confidence." The point is, no two colors dislike each other. People say, "Oh, that was an awful color combination," or, "You can't use those colors together. They'll be hideous." They are wrong.

I find "awful" color palettes all the time. But if you take them apart and use them like there is no tomorrow, people will think you're brave and leading the way. At least, that's what I think, because that's what they say to me. But they could be walking away and saying, "What the hell was that?"

In all fairness, I am hopeless when it comes to choosing colors for the living room or any space I inhabit. What if I pick the wrong color for the sofa? What if the chairs clash? I need to listen to my own advice and let the taste police judgement go. I'll be super confident when guests come and marvel at the rust, turquoise, and magenta furniture.

Tech Rap

When I put cable and wifi in at the house in Palm Springs, it came with a land line. I hate the land line telephone. I need to disconnect it at my house in LA. It rings endlessly and is never for me. I've taken to pretending to be disturbed and confused when answering, "Hello, is Mr or Mrs Adams at home?" and I yell, "Why do you keep calling me? Who are you? What is going on?" I do this in a very Sorry Wrong Number tone.

I'm glad we don't have video phones that were predicted in the 1970s. Face Time and Google Hangouts require special lighting and a vaseline filter over the computer's camera. 

I have a series of images I was planning to use on a project that died. The old tech, so big, chunky, and heavy. Rap sessions to discuss feelings around the tech, and ferns in the office. It sounds so relaxing.

Random Images with No Reason

You need to be careful what you wish for. Last year, I thought, "Gee, I haven't written a book in awhile. That would be fun." Within a week, two editors called me and asked me to write a book. I wrote the proposals and designed some spreads and the projects went off to publishing world. After a couple of months after not hearing anything back, I figured they were gone. Last month they both came back with the thumbs up. 

So now, in addition to my next LinkedIn/Lynda.com course, I'm working on two books. They all require examples of design, art, architecture, and products. I spend more time than I should researching imagery and looking for examples. 

Along the way, I find the most wonderful images that are entirely not relevant to the courses or books. I collect them and add them to the photo library and admire them. These, then, are some of my recent finds that have absolutely no reason to be.

Ray of Light

Each term, I curate and install the ArtCenter Graphics Gallery. It's exciting to see the breadth of work produced, and get a sense of the tone of the department. A couple of terms ago, as I was waiting for a batch of posters to arrive, I wandered into the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery, which is behind the student gallery. The exhibition was Ray Eames: In the Spotlight. Now this is a case of discovering something wonderful in your own backyard. I've walked by the gallery several times a week, but was always too busy to stop. Boy, that was dumb.

When I finally stepped in, I was shocked to find the best exhibition I've seen in years. After multiple visits to the great museums of Europe and New York, this was the one collection that inspired me the most. The exhibition highlights Ray's work, not just more Eames LCW chairs. It contains the incredible collections in her drawers, the rack of slide carrousels, her early artwork, even her own incredibly tailored dresses. The density of visual ephemera is remarkable. This isn't an exhibition for minimalists. But there is a rigor and tightness to the chaos, and an unrelenting sense of optimism. Even the Computer House of Cards talks about the beginnings of things and the possibilities of technology.

Of course, I wanted to buy many of the items, but since it was a gallery exhibition, they said no. That seems very unfair.

Going Dutch

I hear many designers say, "My client won't let me do cool work." I've certainly had clients that were overbearing, controlling, and particular, but typically they save me from doing something dumb. I'm the one that is at the meeting saying, "Wow, you're right. I see now that red and black could be kind of fascist on a children's lunch box."

This happened to me this week. I'm working on an annual report for a great group that helps students go to college. I designed a couple of versions and was rather please with myself. During the presentation, one of the clients said, "It seems kind of Danish, like a Danish public transit form. Could it be a little friendlier?" First I was impressed that she made the connection. Second, I'm pretty sure it was more Dutch than Danish. And third she was 100% correct. I had unwittingly designed a formal, chilly, and "Dutch" annual report for an upbeat and friendly brand.

My unwittingly chilly Dutch pages

Wim Crouwel and the studio, Total Design is Dutch, but the work is never chilly. It's clear, direct, simple, and bold; attributes I love. The confidence of form is beautiful. There is no desperate attempt to do something witty with a visual pun. It is a symphony of typography and shape. But it has a sense of play, even when it is serious. If you don't own it already, buy Unit Editions' book TD 63–73. It's comprehensive, beautiful, and dense.

I admit, I often see students slip into the "Dutch" thing and I work to "beat the Dutch out of them." Not because I don't like it, but because they are not living in Holland. They are in Los Angeles. It's 90 degrees, blindingly bright, and saturated with Mexican, Asian, and South American colors. If you're in Amsterdam, go for it, not at Zuma Beach.

Project

The next project

Last weekend we went out to Palm Springs to visit the house we bought as a weekend house for us and a full-time house for my mother. The plan is that everyone in the family will use it frequently. We arrived and opened the door at noon, then I began to freak out. I have a batch of furniture in my rumpus room that needs a new home, but now there is a 4 bedroom house with no furniture. Then I recalled that I felt the same way when we moved into the Los Feliz house 10 years ago. 

It took some time and lots of weekends painting, scrubbing, and fixing things, but it's at a good place. Of course, when it's your own house, you only see the flaws. The cactus garden is overgrown, the rug in the den looks like I feed pigs on it.