When Illustration Takes a Holiday

The first image we recognize as human beings is a face. Babies can recognize parents and mimic expressions within days of birth. We operate as social animals by identifying other people we know. The human face is the first place we look. It gets our attention. This is why every magazine cover is an almost life size image of a face looking at the viewer. It works to get our attention, but not particularly exciting or unexpected.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Frank Zachary was the art director at Holiday magazine. He hired relatively unknown illustrators for the covers. Most of these star illustrators later. The illustrative covers never fail. They are light, often funny, beautiful, and smart. Holiday’s photographic covers, however, have been relegated to history’s sloppy seconds. Perhaps it is due to the surplus of photographic covers now. The illustrations seem completely fresh and new. But, why do I keep going back to the photos on the covers?

First, they are not the standard big head staring at the viewer. Second, the scale, point of view, and overall composition are often unexpected and odd. Third, the subject matter is never the obvious. An issue on Park Avenue has an abstract image of car lights. No attempt is made to show Park Avenue clearly. The issue covering the Caribbean’s photo is shot from a bird’s eye view, minimizing the bathing suit clad woman in the hammock. I especially love the September 1952 issue on Colorado. At first glance, it’s a standard portrait of a young woman and her horse. But, look closely. The young woman is not focus on the center of the page. The horse is. This is a beauty shot of a lovely horse.

many of these covers are from gono.com

Kangaroos Loose in the Top Paddock

I went to grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. For some unknown reason, airline bags were the “in” thing to have. Looking back, this makes no sense. Why do 9-year-old children need to look like they spend their time jet setting around the world? Perhaps it was the one thing that stood out in a sea of grey uniforms. I had a BOAC bag that I proudly took to school each day. I also had a BOAC poster in my bedroom, perhaps again, to show my interest in international travel.

I came back to the U.S. when I started the 6th grade. This is the worst time to show up with an Australian accent. At that age, everyone wants to fit in. I was asked repeatedly in the halls to “say something.” I also sucked at American football. I had learned Aussie Rules Football. The rules are different, for example throwing the ball is not allowed and a player cannot get caught holding the ball. The first time I caught the ball on an American field, I immediately kicked it away. Not good I learned. I was Cracker Jack at cricket, but that skill was rather useless at Clayton Middle School in Reno, Nevada.

I continue to mix up English versus American spelling. But, by the time I reached high school, I lost my accent and knew that I could throw a football. And I didn't bring my BOAC flight bag to school.

The Lights of Old Santa Fe

Years ago, I saw a documentary, 901: After 45 Years of Working. This documentary follows the archiving of the Eames studio, as its contents were packed for shipping to the Smithsonian, after Ray's death. It’s incredible, of course. A lifetime of collecting is carefully organized in flat files and boxes. There are flat files filled with thimbles, another drawer of round shells, another with buttons, pieces of kimono fabric, spoons, pebbles, Victorian cards, and anything else you might consider collecting. After an hour of drawers, drawers and more drawers, and boxes of stuff, I found myself getting edgy. Yes, it’s incredible, but stop the archiving, get a Hefty bag.

I bought the new Alexander Girard book by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee. I expected a nice comprehensive publication of Girard’s work, not another catalogue of cute Girard blocks and merchandise. And it is exactly that: smart, comprehensive, beautiful, and well printed. The book is enormous. I felt sorry for the UPS dude. It’s almost as big as the coffee table, is 672 pages, and weighs 15 pounds. It is comprehensive and spectacular.

Girard’s house in Santa Fe is overwhelming. Here, more is not enough. The colors and textures are playful and exuberant. There isn’t a detail overlooked. It gave me permission to paint a mural in the hall, or put out every Mexican and Japanese folk art item I own. Like the Eames studio, there is a lot of stuff. And when there isn’t an object, he paints the surface to invoke a landscape. I was especially interested in the mural that looks exactly like It’s a Small World. Was it zeitgeist? Did Mary Blair visit and copy him? Did he copy from Mary Blair’s drawings? Who cares? It’s extraordinary.

Images from Alexander Girard, by Todd Oldham and Keira Coffee, and the Library of Congress

Snowflakes from Hell

My friend, Terry Lee Stone, introduced me to the term, “special snowflake.” This applies to young people who have attitude problems. Typically, for their entire lives they were told, “You’re special. You’re unique. You can do no wrong. There is no such thing as competition, everyone is a winner.” So they start college and are shocked when they are told to do a project over, or that their solution is not world changing. Oddly, there is competition in the world. Oddly, some people are better than us at something. Part of the problem is society’s need to celebrate every aspect of a child’s life.

Now I know there will be huge outcry over my next opinion, but the truth must be told. I believe in positive reinforcement. But I do not understand the graduating ceremony for the end of grammar school and middle school. Graduating from high school is an achievement. Some people don’t. Unless you are taken to live in a Unabomber cabin in the woods, everyone will automatically move from grammar school to middle school, and middle school to high school. There is no choice, and no risk of not achieving this. So, why have a graduation celebration?

This leads me to typewriters (I know it’s disjointed, but imagine living in my head all day). When I started high school, my parents gave me a portable red Olivetti Underwood typewriter. They did not throw a big party for my ability to pass the 8th grade. They didn’t send me on the Grand Tour of Europe for the summer. Sensible and appropriate? Yes.

Olivetti's commitment to design was inherent in all aspects, from product design to graphic design. The roster of design consultants could have been made by following the AIGA Medalist list. Olivetti's designers included Bayer, Rand, Lionni, Pintori, and Ballmer. As opposed to other corporations in the 1960s approach to good corporate identity, which was typically a whitewash, Olivetti's made design part of every aspect of the company.

Stop the Madness

There are few things in life that really enrage me. One is when people turn on their turn signal only after the light has changed and I am stuck behind them. The other is when someone on HGTV decides to renovate a perfectly good bathroom. “Look at this atrocious 1950s bathroom,” the designer says, “We’ll get rid of that turquoise bathtub and make a relaxing spa retreat.” I want to go through the television with a baseball bat and knock some sense into them. First, the turquoise fixtures are impossible to find now. The sea-foam tile is built to last during an atomic war. The bathroom is efficient and stylish. Second, why does everyone want a “spa retreat” in his or her bathroom? I like to use my bathroom for hygiene and then leave. I don’t want to linger, light candles, stare at the wall, and soak in filthy bath water. It’s just plain disgusting.

I am guilty of the crime of renovating a pink mid-century bathrooms. I will, no doubt, be run over by the karma train for this. I tried valiantly to save the bathrooms. But, the fixtures had been replaced and didn’t match the tile. The bidet was odd and not needed, and the flowers on the tile pushed it over the edge from mid-century sweet into sickening old age home. The tile that ran up the wall to the 6-foot level also left the impression of being in a Frances Farmer insane asylum hosing down room.

I did my best. I found style appropriate sinks and faucets at Waterworks. I used plain white square tile, as opposed to something hip like glass pebbles. And I put in a terrazzo floor that might have been chosen in 1953. This should not be taken to be an absolution by the renovation people on HGTV. I am begging you to please stop destroying the national treasures of pastel bathrooms and replace them with faux Asian bamboo retreats.

The Book of Love

Many of you have written to me and asked, “Sean, just how do you have such impeccable taste in type?” I’d like to say it’s simply who I am, but I must reveal my secret weapon. It’s The Encyclopaedia of Typefaces, published by Blandford Press in 1953. I’ve had this book since I graduated from college. It was $100.00 that was a month’s pay back in 1954. Whenever we buy a new cut of a typeface, we compare it to the cuts in the Encyclopaedia. What we discover is often disturbing and disgusting.

Many designers assume that the Univers they have on the computer is Univers. But it’s an ugly stepsister who has locked the beautiful Univers in a tower. When you see the difference between what we use now to the Deberny & Peignot cut from 1957, you will want to vomit. It’s that different. And don’t get me started on the Garamond. The elegance and grace of the Simoncini Garamond makes me weep. This may seem extreme, but good taste must be paid attention to rigorously. Anything less deserves severe discipline.

detail, Grafotechna Garamond Italic