The Still Room of Quiet

I like to think of the 1950s and early 60s as some kind of wonderful “Pleasantville” experience. I imagine I’d wear my letterman’s jacket, do well in school, and come home in time for cookies, milk, and an early bedtime. It would all be so well ordered and clear. Recently, I found a box of slides at my grandparents’ house. I sent it out to be digitized and was rather alarmed when I looked at them on screen. They must have been taken around 1963. There is an image of President Kennedy’s funeral on the television. Some of the photos are at my great grandparents’ anniversary party. Others are at an unknown social event.

The upside is the television tray usage. I still have those TV trays. I use them at home, but didn’t realize they were appropriate for a party. Now I see how handy they can be. The downside is the subtext in every image of restrained frustration. Nobody looks comfortable. Everyone looks like they could use a stiff martini. I imagine the polite chatter, “Bob, how’s your golf game these days,” “Betty, I loved the coffee cake,” “Could you be more proud of Sherman, valedictorian?” But I’ve seen enough movies to know that everyone goes home drinks too much, cries, and screams. I hope. Otherwise there’s a whole lot o’ suppressed issues here.

This is a glimpse into the reality of the late 1950s. There was no room for differences or individuality. God forbid someone was African-American, Asian, gay, or just a little odd. Somehow this seems obvious on an episode of American Experience, but these slides made it real for me. It clarified why, several years later, my parents dropped out and moved to the Haight. And why there was so much tension between my parents and my grandparents, and I was somewhere in the middle.


The Brutalism of Books

Years ago, there was a wonderful school supply store in Los Angeles. It didn’t have an inventory of fine new textbooks, cute brand new classroom decorations, or specialty learning tools. This was the warehouse of the misfit supplies. This is bad if you want to teach children up to date information, but wonderful if you prefer to live in the past. Noreen bought a huge roll up wall map of the world with all the nations in 1958. We found old textbooks, cursive lettering wall charts, and diagrams of evolution from the late 1960s. There were no prices on anything, which proved to be a bonus. When we were checking out, the cashier looked at our cart of old stuff and said, “Hmm, what about $20.00 for everything?” Pretty nifty.

I especially coveted a collection of Life Nature Library books. These are the books that explain all types of scientific information in simple terms. For me, this is good. But, it’s the design that is the high point. The books are clear and simple. They are almost industrial in their functionality. This is brutalism in publication design. They are elegant in their minimalism. Nobody was trying to show every design skill they had all on one page. Even the charts are miraculously un-designed. This isn’t about laziness. It’s about restraint.

The Big Story

Lately, you may have noticed a longer time between postings here. Yes, of course, I’ve been busy. A new term at Art Center just began; I’m working on a new book, several time intensive projects, and heading to the Dice conference tomorrow to speak. Nevertheless, I’ve been busy for years. The saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” applies to me. The issue is graphic design. I spend all day with it. I teach, write, and yammer on about it. Lately, when I think about posting something I look at possible design pieces and think, “I am so over this.” Don’t worry. It’s a passing phase, and I’m bound to find some design I’m inspired by soon.

To escape typography, I watched Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ryan’s Daughter again recently. They are all remarkable. If you haven’t seen these, they aren’t what you think. Yes, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter are love stories. But they are played out on such a vast scale against epic times. And, they are extraordinarily and exquisitely designed.  David Lean’s vision is clear and refined. Julie Christie (who looks remarkably like Paula Scher) is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The Panavision cinemascope and color is unbelievable. These are big, big, big movies. This is what a movie is supposed to look like.

I admit, there are some aspects that didn’t age well. Everyone’s makeup in Doctor Zhivago is a little heavy and runs toward a groovy 1965 dark eyes, light lips look. As T. E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole captures a complex and troubled character, but he should have said “no,” to the third application of mascara.

Finally, there is a scene in Ryan’s Daughter that is my favorite in any film. It’s only a moment, when Sarah Miles lies on the forest ground and looks up. The camera points up to the tree's canopy. There is no music, only the sound of the rustling leaves and creaking of the branches as they barely move in the wind.

The Post About a Book With a Super Long Title That Was Shortened to an Acronym That Also Has a Cool Design Using a Great Cut of Didot (Designed by Firmin Didot around 1784).

Robert M. Smith, designer: 41ADNY62, cover

The 41st Annual of Advertising and Editorial Art & Design of the Art Director’s Club of New York is an incredibly long title. If I were faced with this, I would suggest making it longer by adding multiple adjectives as in, The Unbelievable 41st Annual of Glorious and Mind-blowing Advertising and Kick-Ass Editorial Art & Design of the Grooviest Art Director’s Club of the Center of the Universe, New York. But, clearly, the editor in 1962 did not have the foresight and genius to do this. So it was shortened to a simple acronym, 41ADNY62. Which is okay if you like to read license plates.

Title aside, the book design is sublime. I have worked on many book projects, only to realize that I am shamelessly appropriating from this annual. If I were smart I would simply steal the design, claim it as my own, and deny and wrong doing. One of my downfalls is, unfortunately, a commitment to ethics. So I admire the book, and design something of my own. If you have no ethics, here it is, in all its beautiful Firmin Didot-esque glory.


A good friend of mine, the amazing designer Jim Cross, is a great aficionado of traditional Hawaiian music. Jim has impeccable taste. His taste in classic, authentic Hawaiian music is educated and refined. I, on the other hand, have plebian taste in many things. I’m just as happy at In-n-Out Burger as a 5 star steakhouse. My taste in Hawaiian music is no less low-end.

If you want to experience the truly relaxing Hawaiian sounds, check out Hawaii Calls. This was a program broadcast in front of the banyan tree at the Moana Hotel on Waikiki. On weekends, I tune the Pandora station to this and relax with rum based beverages. If you enjoy chanting, ukulele, drums, and the slack-key guitar (and who doesn’t), you’ll love this Hawaiian music. If you have a problem with the soothing sounds of the islands, buy the records for the covers alone. At least you will be anxious, mean, and angry while enjoying the album art.

Fearful Symmetries

Guests visiting AdamsMorioka for the first time are often disgusted. William Pereira designed our building in 1969 as the Great Western Savings and Loan headquarters. Today it is the headquarters for Flynt Publications. The classic mid-century aesthetic has evolved into a lush “Las Vegas casino” style. I’ve grown to embrace the beautiful silk flower arrangement on each elevator lobby and the faux-marble elevator walls. The disgust our guests experience comes from our door sign. Clearly Tiffany Heavy and Optima are not expected here.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “black rock.” The New York headquarters for CBS designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962. The signage for the building is a flawless version of Didot. Lou Dorfsman commissioned a new version of the font specifically for CBS. This served as the corporate typeface for over a decade. As designers, we disagree on many issues: Fillmore posters sucked or ruled, modernism is over or relevant, AdamsMorioka does vapid and fun or smart and seductive. I don’t think anyone would argue, however, that the CBS Didot signage and collateral is remarkable.

Think of it this way: a client asks you to do a signage program, a designer in your office suggests Didot, what would you say? If I weren’t aware of the CBS program, I’d probably say, “Are you out of your mind? Do you really think that’s legible? Who is going to fabricate these letterforms and not break the very thin parts of the letters? Get the hell out of my office! In fact, leave for good.” Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that. I’m the nice one. Noreen would say it.

Desire at Ala Moana

Last month, my sister, Heather, moved to Honolulu. So far, by all reports, she loves it. Every year, we go to Kona Village on the big island, so my trips to Honolulu are rare. But I have every intention of visiting her. Of course, I will need to go to the Reyn Spooner store also. Reyn Spooner is a company that makes the shirts you’ve seen a thousand times, and you'll immediately say, "Oh, yeah, I know those." If you watched Arrested Development, George Michael wore a Reyn Spooner shirt in every scene. Reyn Spooner was started in Hawaii in 1962.

Hawaiian shirts can go very wrong if not monitored. Too loud and you look like “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski. To subtle and you fall into that terrifying middle-aged, uptight, white guy, dad, Tommy Bahama look (sorry to the uptight white dads out there).

Some of the hipper readers will disagree with me and put Reyn Spooner shirts in the unhip category. They are wrong. Reyn Spooner sits right on the other side of the suburban dad line, but isn’t deep in the stoner region. The Lahaina shirt is the classic. The last time I was in the Ala Moana store, I begged the manager to take one of the historical shirts off the wall. He wouldn’t. Something about it being the only one they had. I need that 1965 calico pattern shirt.

In Time

One of my favorite films is Chris Marker's La Jetee from 1962. If you've seen 12 Monkeys, you know the plot, minus Brad Pitt's crazy person. If not, here's the gist of it: A boy is at the airport in Paris and witnesses a man being shot. Later, this same man is sent back in time after the 3rd World War. He meets a woman and falls in love with her. She sees him as a spirit. He wants to stay in the past, but this isn't allowed. He goes back and is shot at the Paris airport by a man from the future. He is the same man he saw as a boy.

Okay, on paper this sounds very sci-fi action packed, with car chases and explosions. But the 26 minute Marker film is poetic. The entire film is made with narration and black and white still photographs. There is one moment of live action that lasts for a couple of seconds as the woman in the film opens her eyes. The images individually are genius. Paired with the standard French film of the 1960s existential questions, they are dreamlike. The book version designed by Bruce Mau reproduces the images with the script.

I'm not using the French version here because I'm tres chic and continental. The film loses something when it's redone in English. I have no problem with 12 Monkeys which is based on this. La Jetee, however, strips away all excess, is simple, and concise. I know it could be a stretch if you're hoping for Terminator-esque action sequences, but think of it more like an exhibition of photographs in a quiet dream.

La Jetee, the book

Secret Love

1963 Cadillac

My family never had a Cadillac. My grandparents always had a beige or brown Mercedes, and the Wagoneer, "Old Blue," at the ranch. My father stuck with the Mercedes thing except for a detour in the late 1960s and the requisite VW bus. Other friends' families had Cadillacs. I coveted them and was deeply jealous. The Mercedes was nice and staid, and said, "Please. We're not flashy." But a yellow Cadillac said, "What the hell, let's have drinks and get into trouble." When you're 13, this sounds far better. Now the unfortunate part of this is that by the time I could buy a Cadillac they were, forgive me, ugly. For awhile I considered buying a vintage one and researched every year and make. Like most of us, I've been conditioned too well. It sounds like a swell plan, but when the time came to head to the vintage car auction, I thought, "well, they really are kind of flashy."

For me, 1964 was the pinnacle year. The fins were still in place, but had lost the trashy factor of the 1959 model. The profile is clean and almost a perfect rectangle. It's sleek and clean. It's probably a good thing that I'm not the CEO at GM. If I were, I'd be retooling and pumping out 1964 Cadillac Eldorados. If they worked like a new car and had all the features we now want, like seat belts, who wouldn't want one? And if they were all over the road, I wouldn't feel too flashy in mine.

1964 Cadillac Eldorado

1962 Cadillac Eldorado

1960 Cadillac Eldorado

1959 Cadillac, too flashy

Change is Bad

There's no such thing as too much madras

Many of you have written or called and asked me, “Sean, how do you stay trapped in 1962? Where do you find those clothes?” or “Sean, I’d be more than happy to take you shopping, I’m sure I could help you be more up to date.” The answer is that it’s not easy to stay trapped in 1962. The clothes I buy come in and out of fashion every 20-25 years. So I’m quite hip for a few months every two decades. Since the fashion industry insists on change, if I find an item I like, I buy several and store them. Some items such as Sperry Topsider canvas sneakers have never been out of production, thankfully. The secret is J. Press. They have the same ethos about change (it’s bad) that I do. J. Press is in Cambridge, New Haven, Manhattan, and Washington D.C. and is exactly the right place to find madras shirts and handkerchiefs, whale or anchor motif belts, and good school color repp ties. Of course, I have other sources for non-groovy 1962-wear. But the best advice I can give is to buy multiples. It’s possible that the next time you go to buy classic khakis, they will have been replaced with a cut that some might call “European.”

This is how hanging out on campus should be

J. Press catalogue 1962

Good ties, but you need to order through the time machine

American Graffiti, Ron Howard, good fashion tips

You never know when someone may say, "Sailing?"

Notice how well groomed and neat these students are