The Circle of Life Part II

As it’s Election Day, and almost every man in my family line was a politician, I’m posting about someone who went down another path. Chester Alan “Gavin” Arthur III was President Chester Alan Arthur’s grandson. His grandmother, Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur is one of the family members who looks exactly like my mother. After President Arthur died, his son, Chester Alan Arthur II withdrew from Columbia Law School and sailed for Europe. He then spent his life mingling with the social elite of Europe and America. He was interested in horses, women, and fine cuisine. He owned a 250,000-acre ranch in Colorado, but never dirtied his hands with actual work. Oddly, I’ve found this to be a pattern with a large portion of family members.

Conversely, his son, Chester Alan Arthur III rejected the elegant living and embraced political and social issues. In his 20s, he joined the Irish Republican Movement. In 1930, he founded the magazine, Dune Forum, which promoted communication between the masses and intellectual elite. He was a member of the Utopian Society of America with John Updike. In the 1950s he taught at San Quentin State Prison.

By the late 1950s, Arthur moved to San Francisco and was part of the Beat Movement, devoting his time to astrology. In 1966, he wrote The Circle of Sex, a book about gay, bisexual, and gender issues in astrology. His life intersects mine in 1967. He used an astrological chart to determine the date for the Human-Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was there. At the end of his life, in 1972, he was a leader in the gay movement, and had been married to three women.

This seems to be the pattern in the family:

Generation 1: Someone works hard, does well, and is engaged politically.

Generation 2: Uses the money from the previous generation and enjoys the high life.

Generation 3: Goes counterculture

Generation 4: Works hard, does well, and is engaged politically.

And it starts again.

If I could do it again, I’d rather be in Generation 2, than 4. Its sounds like so much more fun to spend life worried about first class tickets on the Queen Mary, than going to meetings and meeting deadlines.

President Chester Alan Arthur I

Words and No Pictures

Designers often ask me what I look for in a portfolio. I always look at typography. There are a million decisions and variables in type. If someone can manipulate the complex issues of legibility, form, scale, and meaning with combinations of 26 letters, and create something wonderful, they can probably manage any project. But what makes good typography? It’s not about choosing beautifully drawn typefaces (but that’s a big part), or setting everything at 4 point (some of us like to read the words). It isn’t about maintaining a rigid Swiss structure (but that’s a good place to start). It’s about making a dynamic, exciting, and meaningful experience.

I’ve seen solutions that are incredibly elegant, but make no sense. A refined cut of Didot is probably not needed for a poster about seal clubbing (the animals and blood, not the musician and nightclubs). I don’t like typography that's just nice. There’s enough boring stuff to look at already. If the type is classical and elegant, it should be so beautiful that you want to throw up. If the subject, such as The Angry Black South needs simple communication, let it be just that: simple communication. I like to think of typography as pictures of words. Which makes the statement, A picture is worth a thousand words,” a very complex math problem.

Goodbye Robert Venturi

I went to college at the height of the anti-modernist, semantic, deconstruction period. While this encouraged great debate and analysis, it made for lousy cocktail party conversation. The modernists had ruined the world with their evil black box buildings. They created banal and boring buildings. The graphic design was fine in its time, but didn’t work in a multi-cultural world of complex messaging. If something didn’t have at least five historical typographic references and a nod to rococo, it was a failure. More was more. Five varnishes and 12 colors, no problem. A plethora of meaningless forms, sounds pretty. And while you're at it, can you add some Greek columns and floral wallpaper?

I recall seeing The Fountainhead in Film History. In this scene (above) Howard Roark, our modernist hero, is asked to add columns and decorative bits to his pure building. He won't, of course. After the film many students disagreed with his position. They were insistent that the hideous post-modern applications brought his building to life.

In my Junior year, my comfortable post-modern world was turned upside down. I visited one of my professors who lived in a Richard Neutra house in Silverlake. I expected her house to be cold, impersonal, clinical, and boring. But, it was a revelation. The structure had harmony, grace, and elegance. It was surrounded by eucalyptus trees and was warm and inviting. Every space, from a doorway to a hall, was beautifully proportioned. How could I have been so wrong? How much time had I wasted deriding the true one God? I was converted. Today, this scene from The Fountainhead is painful to watch as the pure and simple beauty of the structure is vulgarized and abused like putting Grace Kelly in hooker heels, hot pink overalls, and a tie-dye t-shirt.

 

The Age of Wonder

When work is challenging, I wonder if it would have been easier if I had been born in Virginia in the 18th century. It seems to me that I would have it made regardless of my intelligence or abilities. If I wanted to be a senator or governor, I would simply need to tell my father or grandfather and it would happen. Then I remember that there was no indoor plumbing and you could die from a small cut. So it’s not a good idea. As it is, my family left Virginia, and I was born 200 years later.

I was born at exactly the right time and place to see remarkable motel signage. As many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada. When I was growing up it was still a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more Vegas, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. They relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. I may not have been made a governor because I was related to the current one, but I have seen wonderful things, especially the Nevada Club logo: a little Nevada shaped cowboy.

Driving in Circles

One of our great mentors was Saul Bass. Saul was endlessly supportive and encouraging. Saul was the first phone call we received that first day at AdamsMorioka when the phones were turned on. Losing Saul was a huge loss that we still feel. After he passed away, The Academy held a memorial service at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. Another memorial was held in New York. The New York memorial focused on Saul’s identity and graphic work. The Los Angeles memorial was about his title sequences. Seeing these on huge screen with incredible sound was life changing. I love showing my first term students some of Saul’s title sequences. They are inspired and awed, especially by the lack of CGI. It’s amazing what can be done with a few lines and some type.

One of the often-missed sequences is for Grand Prix. There is no flying type, no intense digital effects, and no techno music. Live action, some simple type, and genius editing make a dynamic introduction. The repeating images, repeated usage of circular forms, and sound of the race let us know the subject, tone, attitude, and pace of the film we are about to see. We’ve often said that our job is not to make lots of sweet frosting, but to make a solid cake. Grand Prix is this, the core of an idea expressed elegantly and minimally.

I Just Wasn't Made for These Times

When we started AdamsMorioka in the mid 1990s, the design world seemed endlessly enthralled by the discordant, weird, and complex. Unfortunately, we’re none of those things, so we were forced to fall back on our own values and personalities. I recall talking with Noreen at Hamburger Hamlet about this. “Let’s face it,” I said, “We’re just not that groovy.” She agreed, and made a wonderful analogy that the designers doing work that was complex and avante garde were like Portishead or The Smashing Pumpkins, we were like The Beach Boys. This was confirmed years later at a dinner with Ellen Lupton. After dinner, she turned to me and said, “You know, you’re actually smart. I thought you were just a beach surf guy.” I’m taking this as a compliment.

Actually, I liked being more like The Beach Boys than The Boo Radleys. First, Pet Sounds is one of my favorite records. Second, I think they were adventurous and did some amazing things with unexpected instruments and tone. The Beatles gave them credit for being a major influence on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And finally, Wouldn’t it Be Nice? is a remarkable piece of music that I could listen to endlessly. And, I do at work. It’s like torture, but it’s the price you pay if you work with us.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Priscilla's Beauty Salon, Los Angeles, California

We are now traveling along the Burning Settlers Cabin Trail leaving the world of high-end classic design and entering the land of wonder. This business card may, indeed, be the most inspiring and influential business card in history. First, who knew that business cards could be die-cut with a palette shape. Second, why have I not used people's heads on my business card design? And finally, gradated pastel rainbow forms create an etherial tone. The miraculous Tadanori Yokoo obviously used this business card as the basis for all of his work, as evidenced below.

Tadanori Yokoo, Koshimaki-osen, 1966

Be Very Still and Quiet

I promised myself today that I would not do a post about anything pre-1990. Then on my drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the still photo scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I’ve shown this scene to my students at Art Center as an example of narrative and images in pure form. Blow-Up is a film made in 1966, yes, I’ve broken my promise, about a photographer (David Hemmings) in swinging London. He spends time hanging out, shooting naked skinny models who wear Mary Quant outfits, having sex with them, and going to Yardbirds concerts. It’s all very hip and Carnaby Street. On an outing to a park he shoots some random shots, and later after blowing up the images determines that he has photographed a murder. The images are individually beautiful. The scene when he examines the photos is pure and minimal. A series of 16 still and abstract images tells a clear narrative in less than a minute. The only audio is the rustling of the leaves in the park’s trees. This is the pivotal action scene in the movie. Now imagine the same scene filmed today. You see why it’s so amazing.