Which Craft?

I’ve been accused of living in a bubble. Supposedly, the real world is very different than the one I inhabit. One of the issues with my bubble world is that I assume everyone knows the same things I do. Last week, one of my students told me she had read only ten books in her entire life. The week before someone told me they like old movies, especially Clueless. I assumed my Vertigo references and discussions about Ginsberg’s Howl made sense to everyone. A light bulb went off in my head, and I discovered that references I take for granted are not as universal as I thought. Of course, it’s a 2-way street. When someone asks if I like any new music, I say Thompson Twins.

Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman are remarkable artists. I presumed everyone knew their work. But, as I have learned, sometimes that isn’t true. The Ackermans are integral to the fabric of California craft. Since they opened Jenev Design Studio in 1952, they opened the door to the idea of craft combined with modernism. Their ability to swing from ceramics, wood, textiles, metal, and glass is remarkable. And across all these media, the sense of exuberance and joy is apparent. Bad design can sink under the weight of its own importance.

The Ackerman work is incredibly important. It inspired generations of artists in California as well as everyday people who wanted to dabble in craft. Yet, it never is self-important. The work always communicates the idea of the human hand. And it invites viewers to stop whatever they are doing and begin to create.

Many of these images are from one of my favorite sites, http://www.midcenturia.com.

Defense of Garish Acts

A few weeks ago I attempted to repaint my living room in sophisticated silver grey. This was a mistake. What looked beautiful in the Restoration Hardware catalogue looked like a prison cell in my living room. If I wanted to interrogate visitors, or slam them up against a wall with a shiv this would be perfect. I called my trusty painter Jeirro and he repainted it back to aqua and watermelon pink. Clearly I am doomed to what others refer to as bad taste or garish color.

In defense of garish color I point to some of our finest designers, Paul RandArt PaulTadanori Yokoo, and Paul Bruno. We think of these people as refined craftsmen. But did they shy away from magenta and orange, purple and lime green? No. They embraced it and ignored the calls from the sophisticated elite, “More beige, please.”

I’ve often used the baby mobile argument. If beige mobile and a brightly colored mobile are presented to a toddler, he or she will always gravitate toward the bright one. The bad things in life, rotten meat, deadly deep water, and coffins are dull and grey. The good things, non-poisonous berries, swimming pools, and pink Cadillacs are bright and cheerful. This is why clients react badly when presented a baby shit green poster, and cheer for the bright yellow and happy pink one.

Paul Rand, 1964

The Goodness of Nothing

The hardest thing to do as a designer is nothing. Not as in, “I’ll sit on the sofa and stare at the carpet.” What I am talking about here is the restraint to let something be what it is. One of the tenets of modernism is to be true to materials. Steel should look like steel. It shouldn’t be painted to simulate wood. The idea then is to let something be what it is.

The first thing I do as a designer is reach into my bag of tricks. I can put the image inside the typography, make a bright background, overprint a big yellow word, or create a grid of interesting colors. Fortunately, I move on to actually thinking and do something different (unless a big yellow word makes sense that day). Often, the subject matter is more than enough visual interest. Or it is complex conceptually and doesn’t need flying triangles to assist in the message.

When we worked on the reface of the Sundance Channel, we built a system that had one rule: use one typeface, Bob, in all caps, the same size, on a centerline horizon. Anything behind the type was fair game. This was a network about film and ideas, not graphic tricks. It worked great for about a year, and then someone got antsy and decided to add a colored box. Then the floodgates opened and the flying boxes and graphics ran back in.

When I look at Chermayeff and Geismar’s 1971 campaign for Pan Am, or Doyle Dane Bernbach’s 1964 campaign for Jamaica, I see how this restraint and faith in the subject works. Lou Danziger's poster for UCLA Extension is genius in it's obviousness and simplicity. It’s not easy to walk into a client’s office and say, “I don’t want to do anything. I just want to focus on the subject in the simplest way possible,” and then send an invoice. A great subject will always make a great solution, unless you get in the way.

The Commercial with a Sensayuma

Being in advertising on television is hard. Darrin on Bewitched was in advertising. I recall a campaign of insects walking into a bank with this tagline, “Even the little people matter at Bank Such and Such.” At 8 I knew this was a bad ad campaign. Insects are creepy, and the subtext of the message is patronizing at best. On Mad Men, Don Draper won an award for a commercial with a tiny chuck wagon. I assume this is based on the Chuck Wagon commercial from 1970. Recently, Peggy described an ad with a ballet of beans. I assume this shift is talking about the changes in advertising from the 1950s through the 1960s.

When I’m teaching, I show a 1958 Edsel ad to explain a boring ad. It’s a photo of a car and the copy tells me it’s a car. On the other end of the spectrum is a campaign like the Levy’s Rye Bread campaign from 1964. I see the product, but the copy asks me to do some work. It relies on the viewer’s cultural knowledge. It demystifies a product that might be considered exotic in 1964. And the final takeaway is a sense of humor and success. “Oh, I get it, the policeman must be Irish.” If you ad the fact that most ads in 1964 had a whole bunch of white people and nobody else, these are even more striking. So, why now do I see current ads that show me a car and read, “This is a car.”

The Red and the Black

People often ask me, “Sean, what’s the secret with this whole graphic design thing?” Of course, there is no secret. Or if there is, nobody told me. I can say, however, that a big rule for me is contrast. There is no such thing as too bright, or too much contrast in design. I’m not big on de-saturated colors and soft contrast. Design should be bold. There’s an old saying about teaching a donkey. First you smack it in the head with a two by four, and then give it the message. Now, clearly, I don’t advocate donkey cruelty. But, design is the same. First, get the audience’s attention. Then tell them the story.

Red, white, and black are good choices for contrast and bold statements. I’ve used this combination many times and quite enjoyed it. The danger is looking like a Nazi. The Nazis were rather keen on black and red, so you need to be careful to not appear to be a Facist. Using a little bit of red and a little bit of black isn’t the same thing. Remember: donkey, two-by-four, and big.

Directions from Right to Left

You might have noticed a “Goldwater in ‘68” sign in a window on the Mad Men premier. This may seem trivial, but is part of a more convoluted story. For those youngsters in the room, Barry Goldwater was a conservative Republican Senator from Arizona. He ran for President in 1964 against President Lyndon Johnson. My grandparents, as life-long Republicans, called Goldwater a true conservative for my entire life. They appreciated his stand on conservative issues while rejecting the evangelical right. Lyndon Johnson was the Vice President under Kennedy. He became President after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson won the presidency in one of the largest landslides in history.

Obviously there are multiple points of view on the campaign and results. But many consider the “Daisy” commercial to be one of the most successful campaign ads in history. Tony Schwartz at Doyle Dane Bernbach created this commercial in 1964. The ad, made for the Johnson campaign, implied that Goldwater would lead the United States into a nuclear war. The ad aired only once and was pulled after it was deemed unfairly inflammatory.

Now, back to Mad Men. This gets complicated. The Goldwater in ’66 sign is in the window of the ad agency Young and Rubicam where water balloons are dropped on African-American protesters below. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This led to Goldwater winning states in the Deep South, but losing everywhere else. Later in the episode, Henry Francis tells someone on the phone to not appear with Governor George Romney in Michigan. Henry Francis’ character previously used to work for Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and refused to support Goldwater. This caused uproar at the 1964 Republican convention. And you thought this bog was just about pretty stuff.

Welcome to the World of Love

I was pulling together some postings from this blog yesterday for a book Steven Heller is writing. This led me to discover a predominance of posts about counter-culture in the 1960s. Who knew? I’m really square, so I found this odd. Nevertheless, I decided to avoid posts in this vein for a while. Then I found this Call for Entries for the New York Art Directors Club (now the Art Directors Club). Peter Max designed it in 1964. Yes, this is about counter-culture, specifically the psychedelic experience. The collage device refers to Victorian decoupage, Picasso, Matisse, and the Dada movement. The booklet could fall into the trap that much of today’s “collage” approach does, a mishigas of more mishigas.

The strict use of typography and tight composition, however, give it gravity and allows the imagery to take center stage. The spread with the Victorian people looking at the psychedelic cloud is remarkable. It is such a simple juxtaposition, but alludes to so many issues, including the Victorian taste for psychotropic drugs such as opium (see Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Allusions aside, the composition is about wonder and different perspectives. So, you see, I had to post another one about counter-culture.

Soda Pop

There is a fine line in design between clever and trite. Often, I'll see a solution that is trying too hard, forcing itself on the viewer and screaming, "I'm clever!, I'm clever, dammit!" The projects that succeed are the solutions that appear effortless, even obvious. Obvious is hard. It's easy to think something won't work because it's so obvious everyone would have the same solution. But, that's just it. Everyone thinks that, so nobody does the obvious. The best example that is clever, effortless, and once seen, seems completely obvious is the work Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar did for Pepsi-Cola World. It's light, playful, never forced, and beautifully articulated.

The solutions, often a fused image, provide the viewer with the pleasure of solving a problem. The payoff is delight. I don't mean delight as in "That tea set is just delightful." Delight is hard to make. And it's a feeling that makes life worth living.

images courtesy of the Lou Danziger Collection and AIGA Design Archives

Pepsi Cola World, Chermayeff and Geismar, May 1958

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

Showtime

I admit I’m fairly out of touch with the lifestyles of young and sophisticated urbanite males today. I know where they are. I see them at skate stores at Sunset Junction and tiny restaurants in Brooklyn. I know that a beard is required, or a “scruffy” look. Jaunty hats of all types are good. And vintage ironic t-shirts are useful. I’ve tried the beard thing, but I look like Burl Ives, and when I don’t shave I hear my grandmother’s voice in my head, “a man who doesn’t shave every day is like a woman leaving the house in hair curlers.”

In the early 1960s, the same crowd took tips on life from sophisticated and intellectual magazines such as Esquire, Playboy, and Show. No, Playboy was not always just images of naked young ladies. Each of these magazines targeted that young man on the town with articles about hi-fi stereos, how to smoke a pipe, and current political thought. Show was a short-lived, but remarkable magazine devoted to the entertainment arts. Henry Wolf was the art director and responsible for unexpected and smart covers. Today, Show would be Us magazine. What a wonderful time it must have been when a magazine about entertainment could have a cover with a re-purposed Ukiyo-e print on the cover, not Kim Kardashian.

Huki-huki-huki-huki-huki-hukilau

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.

All the joy that love can bring

If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Sandpiper, you will recall Elizabeth Taylor playing an artist living at the beach at Big Sur. She spends her time making abstract seascape kinds of paintings. Her studio is cluttered with driftwood-like art. It sounds like fun to live at the beach on the California coast, feel moody, and collect driftwood. It must have been a wonderful time in 1965 when poor artists could buy beach houses and wander the dunes. In 1954, the Pasadena Art Museum held the first of a series of exhibitions celebrating design in California. Graphic design wasn’t included, and there seemed to be a prevalence of handcrafted ceramics, and woody furniture. It was all very natural in a California eco-friendly pre-hippie way. Of course, now I would love to own some of these items. Or I could move to the beach and begin making ceramics and driftwood mobiles.

 

Car Trouble

Today is my birthday, so it seemed fitting to post something from the year of my birth, 1964. Yes, 1964 had the New York World’s Fair, Mary Poppins, LBJ’s landslide election, and the arrival of the Beatles at JFK. But more importantly, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte was released. This was a follow-up to the hugely successful Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Bette Davis plays an aged southern debutante who is nuts. Olivia de Havilland is her kind and gentle cousin who has come to care for her. After de Havilland throws the back-woods maid, Agnes Moorehead, down the stairs. It becomes clear she’s not so gentle.

Charlotte is great to watch if you need tips on life. If the maid is to annoying, shove her down the stairs. If you are driving and your passenger won’t stop yammering, pull over and smack them senseless. I won’t ruin the rest of the film, but there are many other great suggestions including how to use an ax properly, what to do with heavy planters on the balcony, and how to dress after driving a relative insane.

 

Tequila Sunrise

If you were “with it” in 1967 you went to cocktail parties in Malibu, drove a yellow Corvette, made macramé plant holders, and listened to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. You may already know Herb Alpert from Casino Royale (the first one), or Pee Wee Herman’s dance to Tequila. In today’s hustle and bustle world, I find Herb Alpert to be the perfect music for the drive home. It’s relaxing, fresh, and pretty groovy. I have a special weakness for 1960s Victorian revivalist typography. This is the kind of typographic layout seen at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. Alpert’s 1965 album, Whipped Cream & Other Delights, is the prime example of this. I tried using this kind of composition on a magazine project recently. I thought it was the hippest thing I’d ever done. The client just laughed and said, “That reminds me of something old timey. Like a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour.” And…

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.

Wrap Up Your Troubles

I’m sure everyone has different holiday gift traditions. Whether it’s Christmas or Chanukah, gifts are wrapped, and as they are opened, we watch for expressions of happiness. In our house, everyone patiently took turns unwrapping a gift. This was followed by any of the following statements, “It’s perfect. Thank you so much,” or “You have such a talent for finding the exact right thing,” or “Of course this multi-colored sweater is what the other boys are wearing. Thank you.” I once went to a friend’s house when they opened gifts and it was a mad free-for-all. After our civilized and polite Christmas mornings, this was like anarchy. If you’ve seen those old silent movies about ancient Rome with the orgies, then you know what I mean.

We’re also careful about unwrapping. I haven’t solved the problem of asking someone outside of the family to be more careful, and give me back the wrapping paper. It’s not about being cheap; it’s about the paper. Here is the issue: if I buy ugly new paper, I don’t care if it’s destroyed. But my friends and family deserve the good stuff, the vintage paper. So I am doomed to watch in terror with a frozen smile as a child tears through the delicate paisley paper from 1968.

Everyone Knows It's Windy

I’ve read multiple essays on the “zen-ness” and subtext of “nothingness” of Charles Eames’ Do Nothing Machine. He designed the object in 1958, and it didn’t do “nothing”; it moved with the use of solar power. It may have been a comment on the psychology and consumerism of late 1950s America, but I can’t stop thinking about its relationship to the Tower of the Four Winds.

Rolly Crump at Disney designed the Tower of the Four Winds for the front of Pepsi/Unicef's "It's a Small World" at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It looked like the Do Nothing Machine, had parts that spun around, and was powered by a natural element. Hmmm. The difference was scale. The Tower was 120 feet and the Machine looks like it was 1 foot tall. Of course, this could have been one of those moments when one designs something and forgets about the original inspiration that is deep in the unconscious mind. In the end, though, who cares? Both the Tower and Machine are incredible. In fact I think more are needed. Household sized Do Nothing machines (not if you have children who will put their hands into it) and a Tower of the Four Winds for backyard usage (unless you have bird migration).

Charles Eames, Do Nothing Machine, 1958

1964 New York World's Fair, Pepsi/Unicef Pavilion

Charles Eames and the Machine

Bombs Away

One of the disturbing things about getting older is that all of your cultural references become obsolete. I’ll mention Leave it to Beaver, and get blank stares. Or I’ll suggest someone look at the colors of the Fillmore posters, and, once again the stare that says, “Wha’?” and, “You’re old.” Today I mentioned Pablo Ferro’s incredible title sequence for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and had a similar reaction. I love Ferro’s explanation that refers to the sexuality of the scene. Others might skirt the issue, or suggest the viewer can determine his or her own meaning. Pablo states blatantly, “Everything we do is always very sexual. A B-52 refueling in midair? Of course! It’s sexual.” The combination of the wonderfully immediate typography, easy listening music, and documentary footage creates a pornographic and sensual experience. Okay, maybe not hot, hot, hot pornography, but certainly sensual.

Seduction and Symbols

It’s not considered hip to like Norman Rockwell. But, fortunately, I gave up on the hip idea a long time ago (hence the madras shirts and khakis I wear). Last term, I suggested that one of my students look at the Norman Rockwell Four Freedoms. I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d suggested researching an obscure 14th century painter. This was a terrifying moment. People’s grandmothers like Norman Rockwell. I assumed everyone in the civilized world knew at least a few paintings. I was wrong, and that is the tragedy of today’s wayward youth. They all need a good dose of Rockwell’s wholesome small town. That would keep them away from the constant huffing.

Obviously, this world is a mythical place sort of like Pleasantville. Rockwell’s paintings go beyond the sentimental. They carry symbols and iconography that allow us to manufacture a clear narrative. It is not just a picture of the teacher’s birthday. The scene is set with a multitude of clues. The coat in her hand and chalk eraser on the floor communicates her surprise. A line of small gifts is on her desk. Each of these tells a story of the children preparing for this day at home, or on the walk to school. Even the tiny section of the American flag sets the scene in a minimal way.

The Problem We All Live With, painted in 1964, depicts Ruby Bridges walking to the newly integrated Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. It is the most requested piece at the Norman Rockwell Museum. This incredible painting succeeds with the use of a tool I often discuss, seduction. The unassuming and innocent approach welcomes the viewer into the piece, and then communicates a complicated and disturbing subject matter. The racial slurs on the wall, and thrown tomato contrast with the girl’s white dress and confident stride. The touch of a notebook with stars and the red and blue pencils suggests the American flag subtly. This is not sentimental, or purely journalistic. Rockwell was a genius at utilizing symbols, color, and scene to convey a narrative in a single moment.

Staying on the Road

Last week at school, I introduced my first term students to the golden section. If you’ve worked as a designer as long as I have (since 1752), these proportions come naturally. I’ll work on a poster and then lay the golden rectangle on top of it, and what do you know, it all fits. But when you’re first starting out, it’s a little trickier. I can explain the math and show my Designorama film about it, I even show them Donald in Mathimagicland (we’ll tackle this on another post). Explaining it is similar to explaining how to drive; it’s pointless unless the student is in the driver’s seat.

I’ve been collecting examples to show my class, and each year I find more. Next term, I’m pulling out the Swissair posters as examples. They are so sublime and simple. They are rigid in their proportions, but fluid. Now I understand that a little Swiss typography goes a long way. Overused and the world could become a rather dull place. I’ve always believed that good typography is like a spider web; it is precise, perfect, elegant, ordered, and adheres to a strong grid. But it doesn’t work, unless one thing interrupts it.