February 7th, 2014 by Sean
Jennifer Morla, photo: Jock McDonald
I was in Las Vegas yesterday doing a speaking engagement for AIGA Las Vegas and Mohawk. The term “design rock star” was thrown about quite a bit. While this might seem flattering, it’s remarkably unsettling. I’m just me, kind of a bozo. A “design rock star” is someone like Jennifer Morla. Since we’re on a roll with powerful women designers in San Francisco, Jennifer must be included. She is from the generation that followed Marget Larsen and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. She began her career when San Francisco was a field of Michael’s (Vanderbyl, Cronin, Mabry, Manwaring, Schwab…). See no girls here. Jennifer entered the scene and stood as tall (sort of) as the dudes.
Jennifer made and continues to make work that could only be made in San Francisco. It is playful and light, Victorian and sleek, dark and complex. Like San Francisco, the work is a study in contradictions. A DWR catalogue has organic imagery of a bird set, not in a forest, but on a minimal modernist white background. Jennifer’s felt screen uses forms that would typically be constructed with materials such as lace, but are re-presented with a utilitarian textile. The Mexican Museum recasts Frida Kahlo as a large set of photo-mechanical halftone dots, denying the painterly or sentimental representation typical of Kahlo. Each project slams one form against another creating work that is always unexpected and wonderful.
I can’t say that envy is a big part of my emotional composition. I know that everyone has their own wacky shit going on even if the exterior looks perfect. And like every designer, I have the sensation of joy and discovery when I find a designed item that I wish I’d done. However, when Jennifer showed me her solution for the Clorox 100 Anniversary book, I was jealous. I was envious that she did something so remarkable and simple using the Clorox plastic material as the cover, and I would never have thought of that. And I was really envious that she owned that artifact. I wanted to have it for myself. This is pretty positive proof that a solution is great. I regret my sinful thoughts of envy, but excuse myself as it was caused by the extraordinary. And she has the most magnificent laugh.
February 6th, 2014 by Sean
Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Sea Ranch
After my last post about Marget Larsen, Michael Vanderbyl reminded me about the remarkable Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. Solomon was another woman working in San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. And, again, another incredible talent who left the field too early. In Solomon’s case, she left graphic design in 1977 to pursue a career as a fine artist. This was predicated by the choices and options that were available to a working woman designer with children at that time.
As Solomon points out in a recent interview in Creative Review, “Now that I happily live alone with my dog I have time to think, and I realise that I was always so frantically busy making money to live, taking care of my daughters and worrying about men, that I never had time to think, least of all about my work. At my office I just drew up the first design I visualised so that I could leave to pick up Chloe or Nellie from school, shop for dinner, cook and clean, play wife and do all the stuff that working mothers do.”
Reading this description without seeing the work would point to delicate and polite typographic solutions, not Solomon’s aggressive and bold aesthetic. This work has balls. It is unapologetic, confident, and in your face. It transforms architecture and space. When she left the field, Solomon wanted to unlearn the Swiss modernism she was taught. Put this in the context of work in the 60s and 70s; precise, refined, and modernist design spoke to the idea of expertise. Raw, hand-made, and “bad” work was counter-culture, rejecting the idea of expertise and authority.
What Solomon created, was indeed counter-culture. While it relied on modernist forms, it pushed them past the limitations of rigorous Swiss typography and commanded attention.
January 31st, 2014 by Sean
Many of you have written me and asked, “Sean, WTF? What happened to Burning Settlers Cabin?” The simple answer is that I have four jobs: AdamsMorioka, Art Center, AIGA, and Lynda.com. As you know, I was also in Berlin for three months for the Art Center TestLab. And, of course, I have a very busy routine hanging out at the country club drinking martinis, tennis lessons, and playing golf every afternoon. But now, I’m getting a handle on it all and back to bring optimism back to the world.
In between my freshman and sophomore year at college, I was asked to interview at Landor and Associates for an internship. The interview was remarkably humiliating. The first comment being, “Uh, you might want to consider cleaning up the rubber cement on your projects, and using something other than a chainsaw to trim them.” The downside was no internship. The upside was a great lesson that my sloppy, messy CalArts portfolio wouldn’t fly in the actual professional world.
In my head, I imagined all the work in San Francisco to be like the remarkable packaging Marget Larsen did there. Her projects for Joseph Magnin were light and playful and people coveted them. They have a tinge of counter-culture, Victorian eclecticism, and clear Modernism. Most importantly, they were fun. They didn’t look constipated, uptight, and angry. It was clear that the designer enjoyed making them. Today, when every project is run through ten committees and budget is the highest concern, it is hard to imagine anyone giving the green-light to a box that turns into a Thonet chair or multi-colored set of game boxes. Larsen’s work is ground-breaking and was widely imitated. She had the misfortune of working at a time when few women in the profession were recognized on a coast where only “far-out and wacky” work was produced.
November 25th, 2013 by Sean
Epcot gift bag, early 1980s
When EPCOT opened in 1982, the concept was innovation and globalism. Wait isn’t that what every conference today is about? The park was and is divided into two sections, Future World and World Showcase. Future World was where corporations like Exxon could prove how good strip mining was. World Showcase would bring cultures from around the globe to the American tourist. The visual theme of Future World was the same as the 1990s Star Trek: TNG, mid-level hotel or medical offices in non-threatening tones. The large spaces had lots of carpeting, an abundance of rounded corners, and odd geometric benches.
In my head, I’ve always pictured 1980s EPCOT as a unified and sleek place. The color palette was silver, blue, and white. The materials were aluminum and fiberglass. But, I was wrong. While researching the color palettes I found some truly hideous combinations. Now, I’ve always said no two colors dislike each other. Again, I was wrong. Some of the combinations are terrifying. It would never occur to me to combine pink, teal, plum, and orange. I’m still semi-sane. So what happened? Why the hard left away from the silver and blue? I don’t know. I do know, however, that these combinations do not exist naturally, and no software product will ever provide a palette like these.
Epcot map, 1983
Gateway Gifts sign, Epcot, 1982
Gateway Gifts palette
November 19th, 2013 by Sean
AIGA article, U&LC magazine 1975
Some of you are probably aware that AIGA has been working on some primary issues for the last several months. The future of the organization, whether the headquarters building should be sold, and a multitude of other issues have been debated vigorously across 67 chapters and 23,000 members. Many of you have sent me kind notes, worried that the stress is getting to me. In all honesty, and this is probably not something I should divulge, I’m not that stressed. First, I know we’ll end up in a good place. Second, between the national board, advisory board, and chapter leadership I have the smartest people in the industry working on this. And, third, genetics must be at play. Yes, it’s important, but it’s not founding a nation.
I found an old issue of U&LC from 1975. It has an interesting article from AIGA about typeface copyright protection. I like that it’s set in justified, tightly leaded Tiffany. If a typeface needs protection, it’s Tiffany. It’s sort of the fat friend who dresses a little too glitzy. I’m also struck by the extreme niche subject matter. It was a time when AIGA was primarily a small New York club with 1700 members. An issue like typeface protection merited a whole page. And I now believe AIGA should drop the current clear and classic logo and go to the Tiffany solution.
AIGA article, U&LC magazine 1975
U&LC magazine 1975