Tunnel of Love

People say the 1950s were uptight and squeaky clean. But if you've seen Pillow Talk or Lover Come Back, it's clear that people had filthy minds. They are both filled with innuendo and shocking comments. Both have the same plot: Rock Hudson and Doris Day hate each other, but only know each other by talking on the phone; they've never met. When he sees her in person, he takes on a false identity to woo her. She falls in love with the fake version and he subtly convinces her to have sex/get married. That part's a little murky. She's a good girl and seems petrified of any sexual situation. I think she was supposed to be a virgin, since she's unmarried. But she's a little long in the tooth for that. So it appears that she has a psychological issue such as repressed memory or PTSD.

Lover Come Back takes place in the advertising world. It's one of those great Hollywood versions where campaigns are fully develop, products are redesigned, and copious research happens in an hour. I love the idea of an "Ad Council" that is a court determining ethical issues and can eject someone from the advertising world. I don't that's legal, and certainly wouldn't fly with AIGA. But, there's still time and I could do something especially heinous.

Design Sexy Time

Paul Hesse photo  

When I was in college, a visiting artist gave a presentation on "Sex in Advertising." As this was in the midst of the women's art movement and high critical thinking, the audience expected a relentless assault on the horrors of sexuality in advertising and design. Instead, the artist presented an intelligent examination. She discussed issues such as objectification, subjugation, and patriarchy. But she also talked about less black and white points like seduction, human nature, beauty, and the power of primary impulses such as sex and eating. When she turned from the attitude du jour of the evils of sex and began to explore the possibility that sex might be positive, the audience responded with outrage. They stomped out of the theater in disgust and fury. It was like a stampede of crazed buffalo.

Of course, sex in design can be detrimental and negative. But are there instances when it works? Is it okay to like a poster or ad because it is "hot." For some reason, a large proportion of older male designers in the 1960s and 70s retired and made fine art that was really just thinly disguised soft core porn. Henry Wolf used imagery that might work in Playboy on mainstream advertising.

I've always liked the definition that "good" is about creation and construction, "evil" is about destruction and making someone "less than." Perhaps this is the filter to view this type of work. Is the subject glorified and celebrated, or minimized and objectified?

Milton Glaser

Henry Wolf

Advertising 1950s

Navy Recruitment poster, WWII

Henry Wolf

J.C. Leyendecker

Colin Forbes

J.C. Leyendecker

Tadanori Yokoo

Victor Moscoso

Robert Brownjohn

Men's Fashion, 1978

Peter Behrens

Aubrey Beardsley

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.”

It's a Small World

When I was in school, I was taught this: if you want to sell the cake, show the cake. And, then I was told to break that rule when needed. A great example of this is the comparison of an Edsel ad and a classic DDB Volkswagen ad. The Edsel ad, while trying hard, is, well, stupid. It shows the Edsel, tells us some nice information, and begs us to buy one. The 1961 Volkswagen ad confidently sends the message that “you’re cool enough to get it.” It’s the same tactic that Starbucks uses when it makes cups with only an icon, or creates a faux language for the sizes of the cups. This lets us feel that we’re part of a special group, and we “get it” because we know what venti (Gigantic and will make you shake) means.

I’ve heard people argue about “intelligent design” and evolution. The Volkswagen ads prove that evolution is not true. If it were, then car ads would now be even better. But alas, they look more like the Edsel ad than VW. I don’t really understand the “intelligent design” idea. The Volkswagen ads are intelligent and they are designed. This must what they mean when they talk about intelligent design.

Extracurricular Activities

I advise people to do their own projects if they are feeling stifled at work. Arnold Varga did just that. Working as an art director in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, he produced a wonderful range of ads on a freelance basis. His ads for department stores Cox, and James Horne Co. are fresh and witty. They somehow skirt the issue of showing a dress with a big "Sale" sticker. Varga worked steadily as a small agency until he retired in 1970. When asked about his work, he replied, “It’s informative. It’s honest. It doesn’t hurt the eye when you look at it.” It don't get better that that.

Between the Lines

Years ago, I knew a designer who was a speed addict. He stayed up all night drawing blades of grass. In his mind, there was no design solution that didn’t involve tiny blades of grass. A poster for a festival in Italy led to grass in the shape of Italy. New layouts for a book of poetry, why not use grass on the cover? I’m not a speed addict, but I am obsessive. I happily work on my crazy family chart, or re-organize the garage several times a year. I love obsessive work. This ad for the advertising firm, Mel Richman is just that. Someone with a lot of time drew every little activity at the agency. This was created in 1955, so it makes sense. There were only three networks on television with limited programming. People, undoubtedly, sat in their living rooms staring at the wall wondering what to do. Obsessive drawing was clearly a good solution for the relentless boredom.

Sad Men

The 1950s and 1960s are called the “Golden Age” of advertising. America was filled with new products that had been developed to fight World War 2, people had money in their pockets, and the baby boom created the need for housing, appliances, cars, and anything one might need to raise a family. These products needed to be sold. Advertising was the way to create that desire to own that washing machine, Cadillac, or new sofa.

I show some of the classic ads in my first term class at Art Center. They are well crafted, beautifully composed, and smart. I don’t show the ads that I really like. These would point a group down the wrong path. I like the bad ads. The corny ones are fine, and I enjoy the funny atom bomb/gum ad as much as the next guy. The ads that are depressing and contradict the message are wonderful. Rather than enticing the viewer into a product, they say, “Life is sad and banal. Nothing will ever be good.” My favorite is an ad for Nevada Warehouse Corporation. Nothing says breadth of experience, and abundance like a sad scattering of products on a black background. And I can’t wait to head over to Gray Reid’s to buy my dungarees next to the emergency room.

How to be a Good Designer

History of Electricity cover

Years ago, Lorraine Wild showed me a publication that Eric Nitsche had designed for General Dynamics and it changed the way I look at design. Nitsche had been a hero of mine for years. I tend to like the designers who aren’t the huge names, but do great work just under the radar, like Alvin Lustig, or Lester Beall. Am I self aware? Probably not. Steven Heller wrote a wonderful essay about Nitsche in 1999. Nitsche is not the rock star like his contemporaries, Paul Rand, or Saul Bass, but he is remarkable. His simple modernist aesthetic combines a scientific rigor and precision with an emotional fluidness. That’s not easy.  Michael Bierut says, “Design is 90% persuasion.” (Michael forgive me if I have the percentage wrong, its' not that I don't try hard, it's that I'm stupid). How Nitsche convinced his clients to give him enormous amounts of real estate on a page for nothing is genius. When I showed one of his spreads from a General Dynamics project to Chris and Monica in my office, they both said, “Yeah right. A client would demand that you make the image bigger, or add a few paragraphs.” We’ve religiously collected Nitsche’s books, and I’ve been warned by my staff to not share this secret. But I am convinced that we all need as much inspiration as possible these days. Does that sound political? Sorry, it’s in my DNA.

April issue of Gebrauchsgraphik, 1956

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

History of Transportation, cover

Advertisement, general Dynamics

postcard, General Dynamics

Annual Report, General Dynamics, spread

General Dynamics, Convair 800 advertisement