Gnarly Dude

Last week I visited the Herman Miller showroom to look at the new furniture systems for the ArtCenter Grad program. There's some pretty snappy stuff and I may need to get a stand up desk for myself. In the George Nelson room there was print of John Neuhart's poster for Alexander Girard's Textiles and Objects shop. 

Designed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Matter employed organic forms and paired them with hard geometry. The organic forms, boomerangs, kidney shapes, and liquid shapes were a reaction to the hard and cold machine aesthetic of World War II. After years of tragedy, it isn't surprising that designers and the public would move toward life affirming forms. Even Matter's layouts for an article on the Ray and Charles Eames dances the line between grid and freeform.

It was reassuring to see the spread with the gnarly wood (as in tangled not rad). I have many pieces of gnarly wood and frequently find more on my hikes. It looks odd when I come down the trail with a pile of wood held in my shirt, but tough.

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/Lynda.com 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 Avant Garde in Felt

Sean Adams, AIGA 100 project: 1955

A few weeks ago, I was asked to create a solution for an AIGA project celebrating the 100 year anniversary. 100 designers were asked to choose a year, and design a piece that highlighted an event from that year. Michael Bierut got to 1968 before I could, so I took 1955. In 1955, the Ford Thunderbird was released and Disneyland opened. Obviously, Disneyland ended up as my subject.

As a roundabout explanation of the process, I've been a huge Cathy of California fan for years. I was having lunch at our local groovy Los Feliz Mexican restaurant, Mexico City, when I recognized Cathy Callahan herself. I'm not easily impressed by celebrity. I've met my share of famous actors and such. But I was super freaked meeting Cathy in real life and probably a babbling fool.

Around the time I started the 1955 project, I bought Cathy's book, Vintage Craft Workshop: Fresh Takes on Twenty-Four Classic Projects from the '60s and '70s. Something clicked, or broke, in my brain, and I decided to make my piece out of craft materials. It seemed fitting for a 1955 concept and I obviously have too much time on my hands. I could have cheated and Photoshopped the whole thing from stock images, but I actually went to Michael's craft supplies (that was a terrifying experience) and bought stuff.

I cut up my felt, raffia, burlap, and glitter paper. I found old buttons and cufflinks. I used the hot glue gun to attach the stuff to the burlap (which smells weird), and voila. I know most designers are looking for a cutting edge, an extreme approach to the avant grade, and the next big thing. I now have clear evidence that I am as far from hip and cutting edge as Lawrence Welk or Barry Goldwater. At the same time, I think my craft solution this proves that I am incredibly brave or, more likely, clueless.

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The Third Act

My first job was as a designer at The New York Public Library. Beside a major screw up when I handled a business card run for the executive team containing a misspelling, The New York Pubic Library, I had a wonderful time. In 1987, I designed the materials for an exhibition of Truman Capote artifacts. I asked the print and photograph division head for an image of Capote for the poster. He gave me a telephone number and suggested Dick might have a photo. Surprisingly, Richard Avedon answered the phone and asked me to come over to see a photo he took of Capote during the filming of In Cold Blood in Kansas.

I won’t go into Capote’s entire biography. In brief, Capote grew up in a chaotic environment, moving between relatives, an alcoholic mother, and stepfather. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical success and bestseller in 1948. Over the next decade, he became one of America’s most celebrated authors.

Part of Capote’s success was his genius at self-promotion. He used his sexuality as a counterpoint to the accepted idea of macho masculinity in post-war America. His portraits are clearly gay, often seductive, and always flamboyant. He tackled subjects that challenged polite society. In his short story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is clearly a prostitute.

In 1966, Random House published Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The book is based on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. During the writing, Capote developed a close relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith. After Smith’s execution, Capote changed. It was as though his childhood terrors caught up with him.

In the 1960s, Capote’s friends were New York society, upper class women who shopped and gossiped. His black and white ball in 1966 was the party of the decade. In 1975 Esquire magazine published excerpts from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. He based the short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” on the secrets of his society friends. In turn, they rejected him. This led to years of alcoholism, drug use, and endless parties at Studio 54. Capote died in 1984 at 59.

What I find remarkable is the split between Capote’s life pre and post In Cold Blood. The ability to overcome a tragic childhood was lost. We are taught to expect stories of a hard childhood, incredible struggle, success, and a happy ending. In this instance, the narrative took a turn toward tragedy. It was as if his psyche was a sweater, and one thread began to unravel it.

For further reading: Capote: A Biography.

Deep Impact

These are the questions I’m typically asked at speaking engagements: “What is your inspiration, are you hiring designers, and what is your favorite part of being a designer?” The answers are: “How much time do you have, sometimes, and working deeply with different businesses.” I like working with a client and learning about their industry or discipline in depth. It’s impossible to work for a medical client on a diagram illustrating the process of clinical trials without understanding the subject. Or to design signage for a hospital and not understand patient and doctor behavior issues.

Will Burtin never worked on the surface. His work is clearly the result of an impressive and deep understanding of the subject. He was a master of re-framing complex scientific and medical issues with design. His elegant solutions provided simple and clear access for an audience without deep medical knowledge. This goes beyond nice information graphics. His work with Scope magazine for Upjohn is a masterpiece of scale, shape, typography, and pacing. But, it also adds a layer of deep information about complex and confusing subjects.

It is convenient to say, “I don’t have time to learn this,” and fall back to the old bag of design tricks. The result is a perfectly adequate layout. But this is not only a disservice to the client; it is a lost opportunity to do dig into a subject deeply. Good design takes time, not because designers like to move a 7 point line of Garamond back and forth 1 pica. It takes time to learn, digest, and re-articulate with intelligence and craft.

images from the Lou Danziger Collection

When Little Things Hurt

The Smart Car is surprisingly large on the inside, but terrifyingly small outside. I’ve heard that it is safe because it will behave like a ping-pong ball in an accident. That doesn’t sound safe to me. Noreen enjoys it, but I suspect she likes being morally superior to me.  I drive a giant car. Yes, I know, I’m bad. I’m evil. I’m going to hell. Got it.

If the Smart Car is like a ping-pong ball, the BMW Isetta was a death bubble. It’s cute as all get out, but that front door that opened forward is scary. You have a minor rear end collision with the car in front of you. The door won’t open out and the car blows up. You drive into a lake. It’s impossible to get leverage to open the front door. You drown. A Volkswagen beetle gently bumps into you. You slam into a wall. There are no airbags or seatbelts. Bad.

Nevertheless, the BMW Isetta looks wonderful. In 1955, BMW needed a profitable car. The BMW 502 was three times the standard wage in Germany, so not a big seller.

The Italian scooter manufacturer Iso was producing the Isetta (literally, "little Iso"). It looked like a tiny mobile egg. The entire front end of the car hinged outwards to open. Oddly, the driver and passenger were expected to escape through the canvas sunroof in the midst of an accident. It wasn’t too speedy. The Isetta took over 30 seconds to reach 30mph. BMW took over the manufacturing rights and launched the Isetta in 1955. The Isetta fit a tight post-war European economy. It got 60 mpg, and BMW increased the top speed to 50 mph. It was small and could fit on Europe’s smaller streets.

In 1964, BMW ceased production. Europe’s economy had recovered, and there was a need for larger cars. Now that everyone has a hankering for small electric cars, perhaps it’s time to bring it back. This time without the opening in front of the passenger, and a giant steering wheel death column.

The Sweet Sounds of Filth

I admit I’m a dingbat with some technology. But, I thought I could manage iTunes. Clearly I can’t. I thought I was purchasing a Jackie Gleason song, Serenade in Blue, and I somehow purchased the entire Jackie Gleason easy listening library. I now have 100 of your favorite quiet songs for sedation. Whooee, hot times at the old homestead are in store for you. I don’t understand why it’s called elevator music. They don’t play it on any elevator I’ve ever ridden. I would love to hear easy listening in the elevator.

On that note, I pulled out some of my favorite records. I hadn’t noticed the sexual overtones used, but then I was typically looking for a specific song. Now that I see it, I can’t get it out of my head. Who bought these albums? Did only men shop at record stores in 1955? It’s an odd marketing approach. Maybe women weren’t allowed to purchase records and were forced to listen to whatever the husband liked. “You will like this version of Wives and Lovers, dammit.” The woman with the pussy especially disturbs me. It’s oddly suggestive.

 

Delight and Disgust

Everyone loves a story about the misunderstood artist, reviled in his time, and then lauded in his old age. Morris Lapidus is that story. When the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau Hotels were built, Lapidus was called vulgar, pretentious, artificial, and tasteless. Both hotels, however, were incredibly successful. The design challenge was to build a hotel where “the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day will look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create the hotel.” The result did this. Lapidus used a cinematic approach to architecture. His buildings look the way America in the 1950s thought luxury looked like, via Hollywood. Granted, some of the design, such as the Lapidus Residence bathroom, escapes me. But, if you like fancy, it sure is “fancified”.

I find it endlessly fascinating that populist work is typically deemed, “unworthy,” while something created for a small minority of elite intellectuals is “worthy.” If a basic tenet of Modernism is to create good design for the masses, this is contradictory. Lapidus weathered the decades of criticism and kept working. In 1970, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s critique of Lapidus was typical: “Lapidus is a sleazy, self-promoting careerist, an architect on the prestige-make. Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. He made his pile and excuses his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public).”

We can dissect the virulent antagonism in multiple ways. Since the work was designed to appeal to the masses in Florida, and was not in New York or Chicago, there is a distinct sense of regional and class elitism. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that his work was “uninspired superschlock.” This was a criticism of Lapidus’s ornate decor, but Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, suggesting anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, by the time Lapidus had retired, and was 97, the architecture community began to acknowledge his work. The book, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy, is a wonderful collection of exuberant and interesting work that challenges our ideas of taste and modernism.

Images below are from this book

No More Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee

One of my bizarre obsessions is riverboats. I don’t particularly want to take a ride on a new casino riverboat in St. Louis, but I’d be fine taking a riverboat cruise in 1850 up the Mississippi. I’ve found a repeating motif of riverboats in illustrations between 1950 and 1960. They were used on ads for pharmaceutical products, handkerchiefs, posters, and wallpaper. If the riverboat craze happened in 1940 it would make sense. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, and all things antebellum south were the cat’s pajamas. Perhaps the 1950s trend with riverboats had something to do with the nostalgia for a simpler time when atomic warfare was a constant worry.

Maybe that’s my issue too. Noreen keeps telling me, “Sean, it’s not 1955. The Soviet Union is not planning a strike. You can stop digging that bomb shelter.” Or, maybe I just like the way these riverboats look. Like Mark Twain said, "Riverboats look like floating wedding cakes." In the past few months I’ve been able to use riverboats on two projects. I made one for my lecture poster for AIGA Orange County, and I used a wonderful painting of another riverboat in the latest Mohawk Via promotion (to be released soon).

Cockeyed Optimist

19 The Sermon

20 You'll Never Walk Alone

Some weeks are just plain hard. I know I've had a difficult week, when I find myself listening to Rodgers and Hammerstein albums. Oh, and drinking heavily, too. Many of you already know that when we were at the ranch growing up, the only records we had to play were Rodgers and Hammerstein records in my grandmother's den. The lyrics had an evil way of knitting themselves into my head. So now, when I feel really crappy, one of those lyrics pops into my head: When you walk through a storm, keep your chin up high, climb every mountain, don't worry about others not liking you, just try liking them, and you'll never walk alone are the bits of advice I tell myself. But don't knock it until you've tried it. There's nothing wrong with a little pep talk. And when you're feeling a little beat, play some Rodgers and Hammerstein. And when you're really, really beat, listen to The Sermon from Carousel (above).

Thank You Fess Parker

Today, Fess Parker passed away. He's better known to everyone as Davy Crockett. Everyone on the planet knows the song (or you're from Venus) Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. I had a coonskin cap, my brother had one, my 10 year old nephew, Chance, has one. Even though I've never seen an episode of the television show, I have an idea that Davy Crockett was brave and noble, and a good role model. Fess Parker made him real, and not a cartoon. I'd suggest that everyone find their coonskin cap and wear it tomorrow in honor of Parker, but I doubt clients would understand. Many thanks Fess Parker.