Paradise Lost

When I was twelve, I thought the coolest building in the world was the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. It was brutalist and a monorail drove through it. When you are a twelve year-old boy living in Reno, Nevada, these are the criteria points used for architectural criticism. Today, I still think the Contemporary Resort is cool, but now for the Mary Blair mural in the Grand Canyon Concourse. The Contemporary has a sleek boutique W Hotel feel. That’s great if you like that, but I spend enough time in W Hotel rooms, so I’ve moved on to Disney’s Yacht Club. My clothing choices fit in better there also.

When I see images of the Contemporary when it first opened in 1971 it looks like the most magnificent vacation spot ever. It’s so groovy and chic. The color palette of avocado, burnt orange, brown, and butter yellow is magnificent. There was a happening supper club, the Top of the World, with live entertainment in the style of Lawrence Welk. The disco had a nifty Logan’s Run vibe. I imagine happy men dressed in their finest maroon leisure suits and women in their floor length lime green chiffon dresses dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band, but a more mellow version. I want to go to a conference where the dining room is all orange and we sit at tables with ochre table cloth. But most importantly, there are giant acrylic trees in the lobby. I say to all the tasteful boutique hotels out there (and the current Contemporary Resort), “Dump the good taste beige and walnut. Put in autumn toned acrylic trees and psychedelic colored Navajo patterned carpet.”

Check out our friends at for more and better.

Contemporary Resort color palette, 1972

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/ He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Grand Canyon Sweet

And now, an old classic revisited. When I visit Walt Disney World, I'm often trailed by security. Well, that actually happens most places. This is because I'm the odd person photographing the Exit sign very closely. The same is true when I visit the Contemporary Resort to shoot Mary Blair's incredible Grand Canyon Concourse tile work. It moves me to tears that people will be sitting under it, and not notice it until I'm photographing it. "Whoa, well I'll be, what the hell is that thar thingamajig? It sure is big." I want to yell at them, "Look you nitwit. It's right above you, it's giant, it's impossible to miss!" But I don't because security is watching.

And Now for Something Really Disgusting

The beautiful Contemporary Hotel, site of the incident

One of the things I learned soon after AdamsMorioka was first published in a magazine, is that everything you say will be reinterpreted. I might say, "Design is in transition," and someone is bound to disagree and believe you are attacking them personally. So I became fairly adept at staying away from problematic topics, i.e. anything off-color or distasteful. This might seem easy. You are probably saying, "That Sean is nothing if not innocuous and nice." But I really do prefer to stay in the realm of off-color and distasteful. As I get older, it's been seeping out more. Hence this post. Warning: If you're squeamish or follow 18th century Calvinist thinking, you may want to not read any further.

On one of our first trips to Walt Disney World, Noreen and I stayed at the Contemporary Hotel. We were young and still shared hotel rooms to save money. (We don't do that anymore, except the time a hotel in Toronto made a mistake and we ended up sleeping as far away from each other as possible on the double bed. I know she was trying to touch me.) Now, we were at WDW theoretically doing a field audit for signage, but of course, we were also having fun. After a day of walking miles around the parks, we were exhausted. We got back to our room, put on our pajamas (hot, I know), and climbed into our separate beds. The next morning we woke up and I pulled back the covers and got up to get ready. "Oh my God! What did you do?" Noreen said. "What?" I asked. "Oh my God," she kept saying. I looked down and, this is the disgusting part, the sheets were smeared with brown streaks. My first thought was that I'd slept through the night and had some sort of filthy accident. But that hadn't happened before, so what could have gone wrong? This was really embarrassing.

Then I noticed the chocolate mint foil stuck to my pajamas. I had climbed into bed without seeing the mint on the pillow, and managed to melt it and smear it all over the sheets. I was pretty relieved I wasn't incontinent.

This terrifying moment over, and after we were dressed, Noreen opened a bottle of orange juice. It sprayed all over the room. Now we had brown stained sheets and yellow spray on the bed and walls. If we were decent people we would have left a note for the maid, but that wouldn't be fun. So we hid the foil and bottle and left for breakfast. Later as we passed the maid in the hallway, she stared at us all the way back to our room, disgusted.

A room at the Contemporary when the colors were hyper-groovy

Tile Your Way to Happiness

Grand Canyon Concourse mural, Mary Blair designer, Walt Disney World®

In 1971, The Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World opened. Forgive me, but it’s not too purty of a building. It used state of the art building techniques,  but the design is a little clunky. The true genius of the building is inside, the Grand Canyon Concourse Mural designed by Mary Blair (yes, of It’s a Small World fame). The concept, now lost amidst fighting thematic elements was that the interior of the hotel would reference the space of the Grand Canyon. The 90 foot mural made up of ceramic tile is a recreation of the strata of the Grand Canyon. The subtlety of the color combinations is remarkable. And the attention to the smallest details including 3 dimensional texture is genius, or OCD. Here’s a tip: you need to take the elevator up to the upper levels to see the best views of the mural. Okay, that’s kind of OCD too. Which leads me to Obsessed on A&E, but that’s another post.

1971, note the acrylic trees