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.


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. 

The Empty Water

Ed Ruscha, Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, 1968

The pagination of a book should be like a film. There will be loud and energetic scenes, quiet moments, long shots and close-ups, and titles and credits. If you haven't watched Chris Marker's La Jetee, watch it now. It is the best example of pagination and pacing with still images. 

Ed Ruscha's Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass is another wonderful example. The images of swimming pools without people, expanses of blue, and blank white pages talk about the sense of emptiness and absence in a world of luxury and leisure. The broken glass image adds a hint of danger. Ruscha made this book in 1968, a year before the Manson murders. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion captured the atmosphere of emptiness and looming danger in the late 1960s: 

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing persons reports, then moved on themselves.

And then there is the simple beauty of the book. The turquoise color and minimal typography in Stymie are aesthetically incredible. Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass is the best argument that the pages do not have nothing on them, that negative space is bank. There's a whole lot of emptiness there.

images via Elisabeth Tonnard

That Perfect Day

George Hurrell, Errol Flynn

Every few months one of the news channels does a story about the unethical practice of Photoshopping models. "They send the wrong message." "Nobody could meet that level of perfection." "It's dishonest and false." Yes, these are all true. But it's not a new concept realized by the power of Adobe tools.

The Greeks slowly refined their sculpture of the human body over several hundred years. The first figures of gods and goddesses were more realistic than Egyptian stylized sculpture. By the Classical period, they managed to perfectly recreate a human body in marble. The figures were perfect anatomically. But nobody liked these. So the sculpture moved toward an idealized version of the human form. Take a couple of ribs out, reposition the oblique, create stances that defy gravity, all good. People liked these.

In the 1930s, George Hurrell mastered a technique that reframed the movie stars of the period as the gods. He posed them in romanticized settings, added flawless lighting, and retouched the images creating a marble like appearance while holding the sharp detail. Other photographers have attempted to recreate this technique, but there is an extra spark in the Hurrell images. Again, the public opted for the fantasy of perfect creatures living in paradise, free from disease, poverty, and depression. 

My headshot has been heavily retouched. I'm rather wrinkled and aged so I demand this. Of course, it's a shock when people meet me in real life. It can be demoralizing when someone shrinks back kind of throwing up in their mouth, but at least the photo is nice.

Veronica Lake

Joan Crawford, unretouched left, retouched right

The Scope Trial

A great part of being a designer is learning about complex issues and working with smart and logical people. A common issue is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. It's important to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers.

Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high resolution four-color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time. No doubt, Beall and Burtin slaved away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snowed outside toiling to meet the deadlines.

Don't Eat Like a Cat

Each term, I give a lecture to graduating students about basic business etiquette. It's one of those things you presume everyone knows and then another designers tells you, "I had lunch with one of your recent graduates. He didn't use his utensils, but ate the food like a cat with his face in the plate."

This is, of course, a rare instance, but it can't hurt to refresh the point that eating like a cat is distasteful and embarrassing. The students laugh and watch me as if I were explaining how to do basic math to astrophysicists. But when I pass out the plastic forks and knives and demonstrate the right way to hold them, the room falls silent. I'm amazed how many people at fine restaurants or dinner parties hold their knife and fork as if they were killing a mammoth. It isn't going to try to get away. There is no need to hold it down with a fork and clenched fist, then stab at it repeatedly.

I also remind them of basic business etiquette. Stand up when someone enters the room. Don't sit there silently staring at your lap. Shake hands firmly, not as if your were holding a perfume scented handkerchief to your nose. Open the door for others. Don't chew gum at work. And don't ever, ever say to anyone, "You don't remember me do you?" It's best to remind them, "My name is Sean, we met previously at Joan's club. You were Betty's bridge partner that evening."

Some of these rules may be outdated, but will never be wrong. It's better to err on the side of good manners than being too casual. And if any of the students at least remember that a place setting is BMW (left to right: bread, meal, water), they won't steal my water glass at lunch.

At The Edge of The Basin

I'm asked repeatedly what part of New England I'm from. It might be the madras shirts and khakis that lead to this belief. But, as many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada.

When I was growing up it was a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. The biggest thing to happen was when the Misfits was filmed several years before I was born. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more upscale, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, many establishments dropped the "western/cowboy" themes and relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. 

I'm also often asked, "Where do you get your color sense?" This is asked with a slight tone, not as in "The soft and tasteful tones are so subtle in your palette." The unspoken words are, "Good God almighty, what made you do THAT?" I used to think it was the Southern California influence, but I now realize it was Reno. How could I grow up and choose the winter light gray and beige when my formative years were spent in a place with giant neon Primadonna showgirls? In the end, I was left with a color concept veering toward garish and a set of George Nelson furniture from Harold "Pappy" Smith, the owner of Harold's Club.

With a Swirl

Herb Lubalin

I've been told by leading strategists about millennials and what they want. According to marketing experts these people (born between 1980 and 2000) have no interest in artifacts, individual design heroes, or anything not about social causes. I am polite, and listen to this as long as I can before saying, "Okay, that's bullshit."

I spend an enormous amount of time with this generation of young designers. I'll generalize here. They love making things, finding incredible artifacts, and detailing the craft to perfection. They have design heroes and ask for any suggestions for other designers they should know. They work in teams, but have their own distinct vision and value the individual. They care about doing good and want to make this integral to their choices, but they have huge loans and recognize they need to make a living. In comparison to my generation who primarily wanted to get drunk and skateboard, they are remarkable people.

So for today's entries, there is no collaborative strategic focus. No post-it notes were taped to a board to create these. The designer didn't document the process and stop when it was time to make something. These are examples of swirly love.