February 19th, 2014 by Sean
NOLA, No. 16
A couple of years ago, somebody went on a rant on a website about the graphic design profession. This person named a batch of designers, myself included, who they considered the establishment that was holding him or her down. They insisted that the time was coming soon when we would all be the first ones lined up against the wall. I rather liked the idea that I would be put in front of a firing squad because I had the wrong group of friends, or perhaps used Franklin Gothic one too many times.
I’ve been reading Geoff Kaplan’s book, Power to the People. Now to remind everyone, I was not raised on Nantucket, I lived on the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park at the height of the counter-culture movement (1965-1970). Don’t get too excited, I was in pre-school. This exposure to radical revolutionary ideas and eccentric characters has left me with a mistrust of anything named “People.” People’s Park, People’s Bank, People’s Taxi and People’s Co-op are simply code for socialism. Yes, now you know so be careful with the organic food from “People’s Farms”. I did, however like Geoff’s book.
There is wonderful collection of underground design created by civilians. They rejected the look of expertise, Swiss typography, and Madison Avenue gloss, as part of the establishment. The proliferation of cheap reproduction technologies and DIY materials like Letraset allowed non-designers to create work that was concerned with the message over form. We look at this work now as quaint and naive. It has the same sentimental sense of nostalgia as a handmade book of recipes from a church bake sale. It is, however, hard to ignore the intensity of belief displayed here. The raw expression isn’t tainted by a decorative or professional graphic design veneer. But, most of these people were probably socialists.
Sean, 1967, San Francisco
February 13th, 2014 by Sean
Before people could take hundreds go photos a day without a care in the world, there was a time when every image counted. The prints and slides cost money. Each one, really. Consequently, people kept every print or slide, regardless of the quality. I recently converted a batch of family slides to a digital format. When I began to organize them, I found that my favorites were the odd photos that seemed to have no purpose. These were the accidents. Either the camera moved, or the subjects didn’t cooperate, or they simply seem to be of odd things like a bush. But, they were costly, so nobody threw any out. And now, I find that I cannot put them in the trash either.
February 10th, 2014 by Sean
One of the things I really hate
People often mistake me for a nice person. Noreen tells me that she is constantly confronted with, “Oh, Sean is the nicest person I know.” I’m actually a sociopath. At a lecture in Dallas ten years ago, during the Q+A, someone said, “You remind me of the guy in American Psycho.” How right they were. When Steven Heller asked me to design a poster for the Complaints exhibition at the Wolfsonian, I was chomping at the bit. There were so many things I hated. I couldn’t decide which I despised more: walking slowly four abreast, stopping at the top of the escalator, hipsters, children in matching outfits, guys who shave nude at the gym, or salespeople touching me. The list kept going. So I did all of them. They are quite varied and point to my rage issues. The commonality is that I would like to kill each culprit slowly with a butter knife. Golly, I guess that’s not too nice.
One of the things I really hate
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.