E' una buona forchetta

John Alcorn, Evolution by Design: Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

I planned on doing a post today to rant about bad clients. Sure there are some that were indecisive or unclear, but I can only think of one who was someone I'd love to run into, when I'm driving and he was walking. Then I looked through Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi's book, John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The ranting concept seemed small and petty compared to the vastness of the Alcorn work.

I'm not opposed to small and petty, but each spread is breathtaking. Steven Heller calls Alcorn the 4th Beatle of Graphic Design. He was the youngest (21) member of Push Pin Studios in 1956. His work with Push Pin and Lou Dorfsman at CBS is smart, sophisticated, and elegant. He never succumbed to a "cutesy-pie" approach common to illustration in the 1950s. As he matured as a designer, the work takes on layers of sensuality. There is no restrictive diet here; the shapes, images, and typography are rich and full.

This maximalism expanded when Alcorn moved to Italy. After 1971, the illustrations are a feast of vibrant and complex forms with pleasure and passion, like good Italian cooking. The work is a reminder of the joy in design. It reinforces the good parts, not the murderous tendencies and anger management problems, but creative expression and love of craft.

 

John Alcorn in Santa Croce, 1973 (Courtesy of Stephen Alcorn)

The Fall of Society

Grace Kelly's last film before she became Her Serene HighnessThe Princess of Monaco, was High Society. High Society is a remake of The Philadelphia Story, which is about waspy rich people who misbehave. Grace Kelly is the spoiled rich girl with an icy heart. Before her wedding to a fussy and uptight man, Frank Sinatra shows up as a writer for the trashy tabloid Spy magazine. Yes, Spy magazine, but not the 1980s one. Bing Crosby is Kelly's ex-husband and happens to be throwing a jazz festival with Louis Armstrong. It's wonderfully Hollywood. Everything in the house is brand spankin' new and big. I love the incredibly hip patio furniture that was obviously on a set in Culver City. The film looks fantastic. The songs, when not sung by Kelly, are swell.

But there is a giant elephant in the room. Bing Crosby is the true romantic interest for Grace Kelly, but he's older than her grandfather. It's creepy. And Frank Sinatra is lurking around the property leering at Kelly. The reality of a dusty old mansion with ancient broken lamps that shock you when turned on doesn't fit here.

I would like to remake High Society, but with realism, like Trainspotting. This is how it could work: The main character (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is divorced and bitter, with a filthy mouth. She lives with her hateful sister and alcoholic mother at the family estate with cat urine and a filthy kitchen. Her ancient, creepy ex-husband, who moved next door, (Harry Dean Stanton), stares at her through windows. "I liked it when you dried yourself with the pink towel," he could say. The tabloid reporter (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an immoral opportunist, who spends a good deal of the film secretly playing with the family dachshund in both an abusive and almost sensual way. I'd drop the songs, they get in the way of the scenes with screaming followed by tense silences. Of course, the film cannot end with the heiress reuniting with the ex-husband. It will be left open for interpretation, with a final scene of the heiress standing on the verandah with broken rattan furniture and empty Mountain Dew cans, staring at herself in the reflection of a window.

Slow Boat to China

A great episode of the Twilight Zone is Time Enough at Last with Burgess Meredith. Meredith plays a man who loves to read, but is annoyingly interrupted by those around him. He survives a nuclear war while reading in a bank vault, and then discovers a post-apocalyptic world with no people and all the time to read for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, he drops his glasses and is left with time and books, but cannot see them. I have a similar irony, albeit less dramatic.

I love dishes and drinking glasses. I have too many of these. But, I live in a region where earthquakes cause breakage. I’m also concerned that my guests will break a glass or dish. So I keep the collections in a cabinet, and use the Melmac plastic dinnerware. I typically say, “I know you won’t mind using plastic, but we’re all family and can be casual.” Of course I say this to everyone regardless of my relationship and carefully watch the dish cabinet. I realize this is selfish and stupid. Is my goal to maintain a complete set of Russell Wright Iroquois Casual dinnerware intact until I die?

One of my absolute favorite sets is Salem China Company’s Pat Prichard Nostalgic Old America from 1956. Viktor Schreckengost designed the forms, and Pat Prichard created the art. Old Gloucester is a fantastic collection of New England forms such as clipper ships, rooster weathervanes, baked beans, and a seaside village. I guess baked beans are big in New England. Old Comstock depicts a western scene with happy horses, old west saloons, and a stagecoach. Clearly, this is New England nostalgia from another time. Unlike the HBO mini-series John Adams (yes related), there is no depiction of surgery with no anesthesia. And on Old Comstock, unlike Deadwood, there is no whoring or liberal use of the “C” word (and I don’t mean China).

Wonky Type Round-up

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I can spot the issues of a counter in a bad cut of Bembo. I berate students until I see tears for the use of a bold serif (bad, bad, bad). Yet, I love wonky type. I’m not talking about über-hip hand-drawn letterforms on a gallery announcement. I’m talking about a 1965 Sprite can. There is something so happy and hopeful about wonky type. It’s spontaneous and communicates levity. This love, however, should not be taken as an excuse by any current or future student as an excuse to ignore tragic typographic choices such as ITC Garamond Bold Italic.

Lost in Inner Space

This morning, driving to work, I was thinking not about an upcoming presentation, but about robots. I was trying to determine why I preferred the 1960s Lost in Space robot to Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. They’re both clumsy, have difficulty navigating around a rock, and have trouble grabbing items. They make a lot of noise and have lighting effects. These would be dangerous in a stealth operation on another planet. But I like the saucer top on the Lost in Space robot. It has the style of a hair dryer at a beauty parlor. He has treads like a tank, or the vehicle used to move rockets at Cape Canaveral. Robbie, however, is like the Michelin Man. Why all the balls? The advanced civilization couldn’t smooth him out and help with his limp?

Now the vehicles are another story. When I was a kid, I loved the RV on Lost in Space. The all glass exterior is a fantastic design to drive around a planet and see the sights. The drawbacks are, of course, the weight. Schlepping that thing around in the space ship must have taken a lot of extra fuel. And it was bad dealing with falling boulders. Their spaceship, the Jupiter 2 is a great flying saucer design. It’s not as svelte as the Forbidden Planet one, or the fatter saucers from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s functional, though. The Forbidden Planet saucer is like a 1954 Corvette. It’s sleek and hip, but seemed to break down often. The Jupiter 2 is more reliable, like a 1964 Mustang, but had a crap navigation system.

And Now for Something Really Disturbing

Do you ever do something and then doubt your sanity? For years I’ve been collecting family images. I find them at the Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress, old books, a shoebox from my grandmother, and ask for photos of portraits hanging in a relative’s foyer. So far, so good. This might be obsessive, but certainly productive. Everything was working perfectly. I’d find an image of Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, attach it to a short bio, and voila, another leaf on the tree was articulated. In some instances, I could only find someone in a group photo such as the crew team at Harvard in 1914. But that was fine, as long as I could point out the right person.

Then something changed. Working on this one night after a rather grueling day and a couple of ginescas (Tanqueray and Fresca), I slipped into a disturbing place. I fixed the levels and color of the image, and then replaced my relative with a picture of myself. Okay, scary, I know. Then it seemed to become a bizarre art project. It’s not as easy as it seems. Modern lighting and cameras are very different than an image taken in 1880. Now it hasn’t gotten so bad that I’ve started recreating the lighting and shooting new images to drop in (although I did consider it). I can justify this in a couple of ways: first, I’m learning Photoshop techniques; second, it’s a “Cindy Sherman in history” art project. But I’m pretty sure this points to a tragic desire to retreat into the past.

When Gray is Good

 

One of my favorite possessions is a Graphis magazine, No. 69 from 1956. We’ve opened it so often that it’s falling apart. I tried taping it back together since this is something you do when you get old. But now the cover has fallen off of it. There is a rather dull feature on calendars, but an incredible profile on Milner Gray. Gray (1899-1997) was a British designer who founded the Society of Industrial Artists and the Design Research Unit (not to be confused with Ellen Lupton’s Design Writing Research). His work is primarily in the realm of packaging design, although he did identity and environmental design for the 1951 Festival of Britain. Gray takes heraldry and traditional forms and treats them with a modernist bent. Simple shapes are combined with flourishes and Victorian typography. There is a contradictory sense of minimalism and ornamentation.

Unfortunately, Gray is one of those remarkable designers who have been sadly neglected in print or online. Someday, I’d like to write a book about all of these unsung heroes who changed the profession quietly.

Sentimental Journey

One of the things I love most about Mad Men is that we know what is coming. We knew that November 22, 1963 was a bad date for Roger’s daughter’s wedding. We know that Don’s daughter, Sally, is destined for counter-culture rebellion in 1968. Reading The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is the same. Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel follows Tom Rath as he tries to find direction in a materialistic post-war America. Clearly, much of Mad Men was derived from this. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is remarkable because it stepped out of the conformity of the 1950s and asked how an individual could function post-World War II. How does someone go from killing an enemy with a knife and then sitting politely in the suburbs or in a corporate setting?

The book was made into a film with Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in 1956. At a time when other films of the time, like It’s Always Fair Weather, are contrived and feel like a cartoon reality, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is authentic. It doesn’t shy away from issues; it doesn’t gloss over adultery, or depression. On the shallow side, it looks great. The set design is beautiful. This is what Mad Men would look like if it had the budget of an A-list Hollywood movie.

All the Way with Adlai

Adlai Stevenson campaign poster 1956

Last week, I found a set of slides from my parents’ wedding in a box with a batch of Eisenhower campaign materials. There was nothing particularly surprising to be found. The ceremony was held at my grandparents’ house. A good friend of the family, a judge officiated. Everyone wore tasteful summer wedding attire. The only odd part was that both sets of my grandparents were together. This rarely happened. I remember my paternal grandmother disagreed with my maternal grandmother’s resignation from the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) over their segregation policy until 1952. And they held polar opposite political views. My maternal grandmother, being a good Virginian, was an old guard Jeffersonian Democrat. My paternal grandparents were friends of the Reagans and staunch Republicans.

One of my maternal grandmother’s many cousins was Governor Adlai Stevenson, II. Until her last days, she lamented about “cousin Adlai’s” loss in the 1952 and 1956 United States presidential election. After she passed away, I found one of my favorite posters for Stevenson at her house. The poster is so unusual. It’s missing the red, white, and blue flag motif, and is candid. Of course, Stevenson is looking backwards, which maybe was a bad choice. In both campaigns he lost to Dwight Eisenhower. There has been conjecture that Stevenson was too much of an “egghead”. Or that he didn’t understand the importance of television as a medium (true). But it was highly unlikely he could win. There had been a Democratic president for almost 20 years, since FDR took office in 1933. The Republican Party needed to win the 1952 campaign to remain viable. And then, there was Eisenhower. After losing the 1956 campaign, Stevenson said, “Never run against a war hero.”

President John F. Kennedy appointed Stevenson as the US Ambassador to the United Nations in 1961. After the United States discovered offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. This is the moment, for me, that defines my grandmother’s “Cousin Adlai.” Without Stevenson’s aggressive and intelligent confrontation, the crisis might have taken a fatal direction, and I would not be writing this post.

Dwight Eisenhower campaign

Adlais Stevenson 1956