Mutilated Bodies

Some fonts are bad. They are like that photo of a horrible car crash that you can never unsee. It's not because they are cursed or especially ugly (well, some are), it's because they have been mutilated and left to die. As I've grown older, I'm drawn to typefaces that may, perhaps, strain the limits of good taste.

Last week, I used Davida, designed by Louis Minott in 1965, on an annual report project. Noreen suggested I was not following the corporate system and could be opening the door to future infractions. I saw it as adding some zest and excitement. I see so much good taste sans-serif typography on a daily basis that I'm starving for something wrong.

The problem was getting a good cut of Davida. The original is really well drawn and formed. But someone along the way discovered it in the bin of forgotten typefaces and beat it regularly. The digital version is a far cry from where it began. It's been around the block. My only choice is to redraw it myself and try to save it.

The lesson here is to find the original version of any font, see what it was meant to be before someone redrew it in a dark basement. I pledge to continue to rehabilitate Davida regardless of the current typographic style du jour.

The Slow Descent into Madness

I imagine being an interior designer is a hard job. So many people seem to have revolting taste. How do you tell a client that the orange deep shag carpeting and gold columns are tacky? As graphic designers, we face the same issue with typography. I’ve worked with clients who have the most beautifully designed offices, filled with Mies van der Rohe and Eames furniture. But, they invariably pull out a horrible piece of typography and suggest that for the logo. It isn’t the client’s fault; they don’t have the same OCD issues around a correct serif resolution that we do.

For my entire career, I’ve been a typographic purist. We managed to maintain with a handful of tried and true standards. We avoided trendy fonts and anything slightly degenerated or techno. In the past year, however, things have changed. We recently used ITC Avant Garde as a starting point on a wordmark. We re-purchased it, because I deleted it from every computer a decade ago. Last week, I designed a poster for our twentieth anniversary with ITC Bookman Swash Italic. What’s next, clown outfits for everyone at the studio? Linen paper?!

Once, when a client showed me a brochure with Avant Garde, I explained that this was the same as wall-to-wall green shag carpeting. Alternatively, Univers was a fine, tasteful, and well-made area rug. If I’ve accepted ITC Bookman, have I moved into liking Harvest Gold appliances? Is that so wrong? Perhaps the severity of my rules needs to be examined.

The Big Story

Lately, you may have noticed a longer time between postings here. Yes, of course, I’ve been busy. A new term at Art Center just began; I’m working on a new book, several time intensive projects, and heading to the Dice conference tomorrow to speak. Nevertheless, I’ve been busy for years. The saying, “If you want something done, ask a busy person,” applies to me. The issue is graphic design. I spend all day with it. I teach, write, and yammer on about it. Lately, when I think about posting something I look at possible design pieces and think, “I am so over this.” Don’t worry. It’s a passing phase, and I’m bound to find some design I’m inspired by soon.

To escape typography, I watched Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ryan’s Daughter again recently. They are all remarkable. If you haven’t seen these, they aren’t what you think. Yes, Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter are love stories. But they are played out on such a vast scale against epic times. And, they are extraordinarily and exquisitely designed.  David Lean’s vision is clear and refined. Julie Christie (who looks remarkably like Paula Scher) is the most beautiful woman who ever lived. The Panavision cinemascope and color is unbelievable. These are big, big, big movies. This is what a movie is supposed to look like.

I admit, there are some aspects that didn’t age well. Everyone’s makeup in Doctor Zhivago is a little heavy and runs toward a groovy 1965 dark eyes, light lips look. As T. E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole captures a complex and troubled character, but he should have said “no,” to the third application of mascara.

Finally, there is a scene in Ryan’s Daughter that is my favorite in any film. It’s only a moment, when Sarah Miles lies on the forest ground and looks up. The camera points up to the tree's canopy. There is no music, only the sound of the rustling leaves and creaking of the branches as they barely move in the wind.

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.

On Fame and Work

Noreen just took on the job of AIGA Los Angeles president for the second time. She served as president over a decade ago, and decided it was time to step back into the role. Of course, there were people who immediately claimed she was doing this for the fame and glory. And to those people I say, “(insert extremely offensive swearing here.)” If any glory is to be had, that happened on the first go-around. The second term is risk. She could just walk away and be remembered as a great president from the past.

As for fame, I don’t understand why anyone would put him or herself through that much work and stress for something so transitory. Over the years, we’ve been called media whores, PR hounds, and the Paris Hiltons of design. I prefer to think of us as the Donny and Marie of design, and just keep trying to make good work.

This is what I think about fame and design: famous designers are like famous dentists. There are famous dentists. I don’t know them. After all, we are designers, not George Clooney. Contrary to common thought, being famous does not translate into people handing you checks or offering sex (well, for some it does).

A couple of years ago at the Academy Awards, we sprinted along the red carpet to reach the Kodak Theater. It’s scary. There are lots of people yelling in the stands and lots of press taking photos. Normal people run from this. Actors wave to the crowd and encourage them, soaking up as much attention as possible. This wasn’t simply, “I love my fans.” It was a extreme version of “LOVE ME PLEASE!” I know designers can be needy, but not like that.

What’s important, the only thing that matters in the end is the work. Matthew Leibowitz is not one of the names design students regularly reference. There are no monographs or critical essays on his work. But, today, almost 40 years after he died, I still show his work as examples of great design. He pulled together a range of forms from minimal geometry to Victorian etching. There is a sense of Dada and Surrealism in his work. It always manages to walk that fine line of European modernism and American eclecticism.

I don’t know what Leibowitz thought about design celebrity. If he was applauded when he entered a room or ignored isn’t relevant. What is left is a remarkable body of inspiring work.

 

If you’d like to know more about Matthew Leibowitz visit some of these fine websites:

http://www.uartsgd.com/GD40/Leibowitz/MatthewLeibowitz.html

http://aqua-velvet.com/2010/09/matthew-liebowitz-general-dynamics-1965/

http://www.thisisdisplay.org/features/matthew_leibowitz_visual_translator/

http://library.rit.edu/gda/designer/matthew-leibowitz

Matthew Leibowitz, 1944

Non uccidere vostra moglie

On this season’s Mad Men, Don Draper has a groovy pad in Manhattan. This is what I thought until I saw How to Murder Your Wife. Jack Lemmon’s townhouse is what it should be. The movie is probably the most misogynistic movie ever made. It’s up there with the racist Birth of a Nation on the offensive scale.

Jack Lemmon plays a confirmed bachelor (not code for gay here) who accidentally marries Virna Lisi after a drunken party. Lisi is Italian and speaks no English, and begins to redecorate the groovy bachelor pad. She also cooks big buttery Italian meals and Lemmon gets fat. As a comic strip artist, he takes out his frustration by making his alter-ego character marry a woman and then kill her. When Lisi sees this she flees, and Lemmon is accused of actually murdering his wife. There is a big courtroom scene that is unbelievably disturbing where he proposes every man be allowed to murder his wife. Scary.

Plotlines and hate language aside, the design of Lemmon’s apartment is fantastic. It’s hip and urban, with a touch of Billy Baldwin (the designer not actor) eclecticism. There is an all white modular kitchen, all black marble bathroom, modern art mixed with Victorian lamps, a brass bed that is a piece of sculpture, and Fornasetti screen bathroom doors. The core by Neal Hefti (of The Odd Couple, and 1966 Batman fame) is sublime. And then, there is Virna Lisi. Let me just say this, “Un#%*!ing beautiful!”

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

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.

 

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.

Small Treasures

One of the most difficult tasks is to go through a family member’s things after they’ve died. After my father died, we did this so my brother and his family could take over his house. At first, it’s gut wrenching, and I wanted to keep everything for sentimental reasons. “But that was Dad’s rubber-band,” I would argue. After a few days, something else clicked in and the dumpster began to fill up. This was after we’d been told by several thrift shops to stop bring clothing from the 1970s. Fortunately, my sister gave the bulk of my father’s wardrobe to a friend who was the bartender at a groovy bar. Unfortunately, my brother had to stop going there because he thought it was creepy to see a young hipster behind the bar in Dad’s old striped shirts from Sears in 1975.

Books were the hardest to give away. Who knew that everyone was so picky? We called several used booksellers in Berkeley and San Francisco. They came out to the house, sifted through the hundreds of books and took three. Eventually we started throwing them away. I admit a book on Cobol (a computer language from 1959) is not a big draw. I did, however, save a wonderful assortment of ephemera. One of my favorite items is Kaiser Aluminum News III, from 1965. The drawings are by Saul Steinberg. Don Conover is listed as the art director. I don’t have any idea why my dad had this. Maybe he owned stock, but I don’t think he was interested in aluminum. There are some scary typographic choices (the bold Century Expanded and italic Optima), but each page is as incredible as the next.

Some day, after a few cocktails, I’ll do some drunk posting, and talk about the other “ephemera” we found.

Yes, No, Yes, No, I Mean Maybe

I’ll admit it; I’m contradictory. I’ve learned this is a good thing to say. I can get away with so many things. When I change my mind, I can say, “I know I said I like yellow, but now I want brown. I’m contradictory,” or, “I gave that Boardwalk Empire show a chance, today I decided it's boring.” At a lecture a couple of weeks ago someone pointed out that although I talk about clarity and a modernist approach, some of our work had ornamentation. My response, “Well I’m contradictory.” See how well it works.

Consequently, I love Tadanori Yokoo’s work. Theoretically, it should be too complex, layered, and decorative, and I should only like John Massey. But, Yokoo endlessly inspires me. His work is related to psychadelia and the Fillmore tradition in spirit, but also has a unique approach to space. Like traditional Japanese prints, distance is visualized by the placement on the page, not a western 3-dimensional perspective. His work takes traditional elements and combines them with western iconography and popular culture. He doesn’t carefully and harmoniously combine these; they seem slammed together with remarkable energy. Don’t get me wrong, though, I also love John Massey. Why? Yes, you know.

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.

This is Not Humor. This is Filth.

There are certain phrases that you hear, and they are with you forever. I have the standard uplifting phrases such as, “Walk on with hope in your heart,” or “Hard work and suffering will get you closer to God.” I also have the remnants that pop in for a visit once in awhile. For no apparent reason, I will be shown something, and I immediately hear, “And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour!” I also hear, “My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.” This is useful for any unsavory dining experience.

These phrases are taken from Joe Orton’s Edna Welthorpe letters. Edna, and other fictional characters were created by Orton to write complaint letters. Edna wrote about bad pie filling, or engaged in an ongoing argument with a catalogue company. Other characters wrote letters to the theater showing Orton’s plays to complain about the low morals. I often wonder what I would do if I didn’t work. I can tell you that I would definitely make it a point to write a complaint letter every day. It would be fun.

15th November 1958.

Dear Sirs,

I am puzzled by several letters I have received from you. Apparently you are under the impression that I am organising something for you, or at least that someone in this flat is. I assure you that there is no one called Mr Orton living here. I am a widow and dwell alone. 
You state that catalogues are expensive. I have no doubt that they are, but what, may I ask, has that to do with me. You surely cannot imagine that I have stolen your catalogue. And as for selling anything which your firm makes ... Please believe me if I arrived at the New Acol Bridge Club with a catalogue under my arm and explained to my friends that all goods were at cash prices, yet payable by small weekly installments, why I think they would laugh at me. 
Will you please stop sending letters to me, or I shall seriously have to consider putting the affair into the hands of my solicitor.

Yours faithfully,

Edna Welthorpe. (Mrs)

30th April 1965

Flat 4,
25, Noel Road, 
London, N.1

Dear Sir,

I recently purchased a tin of Morton's blackcurrant pie filling. It was delicious. Choc-full of rich fruit. Then, wishing to try another variety, I came upon Smedley's raspberry pie filling. And I tried that. And really! How can you call such stuff pie filling? There wasn't a raspberry in it. I was very disappointed after trying Morton's blackcurrant.

Please try to do better in future. And what on earth is `EDIBLE STARCH' and 'LOCUST BEAN GUM'? If that is what you put into your pie fillings I'm not surprised at the result.

I shan't try any more of your pie fillings until the fruit content is considerably higher. My stomach really turned at what I saw when I opened the tin.

Yours sincerely,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)

Sir

In finding so much to praise in 'Entertaining Mr. Sloane,' which seems to be nothing more than a highly sensationalized, lurid, crude and over-dramatised picture of life at its lowest, surely your dramatic critic has taken leave of his senses.

The effect this nauseating work had on me was to make we want to fill my lungs with some fresh, wholesome Leicester Square air. A distinguished critic, if I quote him correctly, felt the sensation of snakes crawling around his ankles while watching it.

Yours truly,

Peter Pinnell

Sir

As a playgoer of forty years standing, may I say that I heartily agree with Peter Pinnell in his condemnation of 'Entertaining Mr Sloane'. I myself was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. And to be told that such a disgusting piece of filth now passes for humour! Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people. I hope that the ordinary decent people of this country will shortly strike back!

Yours truly,

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)

Sir

I was nauseated by this endless parade of mental and physical perversion. Today's young playwrights take it upon themselves to flaunt their contempt for ordinary decent people.

Edna Welthorpe (Mrs)

Sir

I cannot recall a successful play - from, say, Othello to St Joan, from Tamburlaine to Look Back in Anger - which concerned itself with 'ordinary decent people'! Ordinary, decent people are the salt of the earth and the backbone of the country but they do not make subjects for exciting, stimulating, controversial drama. John A Carlsen 
Sir - Mr Carlsen's suggestion that Othello (the noble Moor!) and St Joan (belatedly canonised) are not decent people I find more than controversial. I find it completely unacceptable!

Jay Chakiris

Sir

Any oasis in the wasteland is welcome. And Entertaining Mr Sloane is not a mirage which disappears when the thirsty traveller approaches. If we find the customs of the country differ from our own - what else is foreign travel for?

Donald H Hartley

The Hallways of My Mind

The happy hall of different colors

As we've previously established, I'm not particularly good about sitting still. I try to sit by the pool and read a magazine, but after 5 minutes I notice that the patio needs cleaning, or there are weeds in the cacti garden. When it rains, I'm forced to find things to do inside. Fortunately, the work never ends. I have a dark hallway in my house that bugged me since we bought it. It's an interior hall and perfect for attacking someone if you plan a mugging. I tried painting it white and this made it seem like being in a dark hallway in a mental hospital. Then I found an article in a 1965 Sunset magazine that gave tips on brightening up a house. "Try painting each door a different color," was a small throwaway piece of text.

What could be better? This would take hours. Each door would need to be taken off, cleaned, and painted. And I would need to buy several cans of paint, and rewash the brush for each door. It turned out to be a larger undertaking than I imagined, but idle hands are the devil's playground.

The dark mugging hall

The many colored doors after

in process

Brighter, happier hallway

More hallway

The Blue Door

Something to offend everyone!

My good friend Erica, her husband Tristram, and two boys are moving to Los Angeles from London. I advised her to show Tristram The Loved One before committing to the move. The Loved One is a novel written by Evelyn Waugh, and made into a film in 1965. It is a dark and macabre comedy following a young British poet after his uncle commits suicide in the backyard of his Hollywood bungalow.  Aimee Thanatogenos is the beautician at Whispering Glades cemetery, based in Forest Lawn who our British poet is pursuing. She lives in one of those insane condemned houses on stilts that everyone is convinced will collapse in an earthquake. One of the film’s highlights occurs when the chief embalmer, Mr. Joyboy, takes Aimee home to meet his rather large mother. This movie is a cross between Six Feet Under and the Addams Family. If you like Forest Lawn, pet cemeteries, Liberace as a casket salesperson, Milton Berle freezing dead poodles in Bel Air, a bleach blond Rod Steiger, you’ll love The Loved One.