Styles of Radical Will

January 18th, 2015 by Sean
Gene Frederico, moving announcement

Gene Frederico, moving announcement

Some designers take great pride at being an a-hole. I was speaking with a designer I’d never met before, and he boasted for quite awhile about his take no prisoners attitude. He told me a story about yelling at a young designer at his firm during a client presentation until she cried. He loved to invite freshly graduated designers for an interview and then tear their work apart piece by piece.

While this sounds like an interesting reality show, the result is simply hurt and terrified designers. It doesn’t make anyone better. Unless someone shows up with a heroin needle stuck in their arm, there really is no reason for berating until tears in design. The profession is hard enough without that.

I’d rather take my cue from Gene Frederico. Frederico was one of America’s most revered art directors for decades until he died in 1999. He was passionate about good design, and certainly never let anyone slide by with less than their best. Yet, he took time to see young designers and critique his or her work in a constructive way. Most designers at his level could simply pass this task along to someone else.

Frederico’s work is witty, fresh, and bold. It never feels overwrought or desperate. He used typography as illustration. Frederico named A.M. Cassandre’s poster, S.S. Amsterdam, as a great influence on his career. His work meets Cassandre’s high standards of flawless shape and form, but takes it one step further, always adding that smart and unexpected concept. His moving announcement, that depicts everyone moving, is a perfect example of his dry humor and incredible skill. To paraphrase a song by the Burning Sensations, Gene Frederico Was Never Called an Ass-hole.

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AM Cassandre

AM Cassandre

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California Dreaming

December 31st, 2014 by Sean
Louise Sandhaus, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986

Louise Sandhaus, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986

Someone wise said, “Surround yourself with people smarter than you.” I find that to be sage advice and not too difficult. The problem is spending time with my friends that are all smart. They discuss books on semiotics, who won the Rome Prize this year, essays in the New York Times about an artist at the Whitney, and so on. I nod along and hope someone asks about Battlestar Galactica or something about American history. But nobody is interested in either. However, I have learned that you can pepper your sentences with these words to sound smart: vernacular, visceral, oblique, didactic, epiphanic, and artifact.

One of my smartest friends, who mysteriously is willing to spend time with me, is Louise Sandhaus. Louise just released a book that was a true labor of love, years in the making. Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936–1986. I’m not in it; I didn’t graduate until 1986. I’m a media hog, but I love it nevertheless.

Louise found work that was buried and forgotten. It’s remarkable and hugely inspirational. When the media center and most of the design magazines were in New York, much of California design history was dismissed as “wacky.” Even good architects like Frank Gehry were categorized in the “weird California stuff” pile. The review of the book in the New York Times is titled, “The Colorful History of California Design,” translated as “Aren’t those Californians all just “wacky?” Louise has gone back and reintroduced many of the most influential designers in the last century that you may never have known. And, most importantly, they are presented with intelligence and honesty. And the book is a beautiful artifact (see that word adds a level of intelligence).

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The Settlers Return

December 19th, 2014 by Sean


Hey Hey Crochet

December 14th, 2014 by Sean
Why? In the name of all that is holy, why!?

Why? In the name of all that is holy, why!?

People often ask me to explain how I choose colors on a project. “You’re so good with color,” they say, “What is your process?” My process is to liberally take color palettes from anywhere. Some call it stealing, I consider it appropriation.

I have a collection of crocheted hangars my grandmother made. I don’t use them because I’m too OCD and all the hangars in the house must be the exact same white plastic or wood version. But I do love the crochet hangars. The colors are wonderful. So I made a color palette out of them. It’s not high design. It’s not a careful exploration of values and tones ala Johannes Itten. It’s a palette from 1970s yarn.

I’m impressed at how many of these my grandmother, Oma, made. She was an avid crocheter and made many afghans, hats, and sweaters. I don’t understand the afghans. Since they are made with big crochet holes, they don’t really keep anyone warm. And as much as I admire Oma’s fortitude and talent, I was never a big fan of receiving a crocheted sweater. They aren’t really hip in the 6th grade.

It could have been worse, 1970s crocheted clothing is far worse than any bad gift you will ever receive. The next time you complain because Aunt Bess gave you hideous patterned sweater, be thankful it isn’t a rust and mauve crochet caftan.

Me, my sister with a crochet hat, and my brother with a crochet sweater. Pink, rust, turquoise? uh, ok.

Me, my sister with a crochet hat, and my brother with a crochet sweater. Pink, rust, turquoise? uh, ok.


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Wear a quilt as a dress

Wear a quilt as a dress

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Belted sweaters for men are never a good gift concept


Does that dress look suspiciously like a plant hanger?



E’ una buona forchetta

December 8th, 2014 by Sean
John Alcorn, Evolution by Design: Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

John Alcorn, Evolution by Design: Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

I planned on doing a post today to rant about bad clients. Sure there are some that were indecisive or unclear, but I can only think of one who was someone I’d love to run into, when I’m driving and he was walking. Then I looked through Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi’s book, John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The ranting concept seemed small and petty compared to the vastness of the Alcorn work.

I’m not opposed to small and petty, but each spread is breathtaking. Steven Heller calls Alcorn the 4th Beatle of Graphic Design. He was the youngest (21) member of Push Pin Studios in 1956. His work with Push Pin and Lou Dorfsman at CBS is smart, sophisticated, and elegant. He never succumbed to a “cutesy-pie” approach common to illustration in the 1950s. As he matured as a designer, the work takes on layers of sensuality. There is no restrictive diet here; the shapes, images, and typography are rich and full.

This maximalism expanded when Alcorn moved to Italy. After 1971, the illustrations are a feast of vibrant and complex forms with pleasure and passion, like good Italian cooking. The work is a reminder of the joy in design. It reinforces the good parts, not the murderous tendencies and anger management problems, but creative expression and love of craft.


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John Alcorn, Evoultion by Design, by Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

John Alcorn, Evoultion by Design, by Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

John Alcorn in Santa Croce, 1973 (Courtesy of Stephen Alcorn).jpg

John Alcorn in Santa Croce, 1973 (Courtesy of Stephen Alcorn)

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