Unsinkable Brown

Recently, a client asked for brown as a color option on a project. A couple of years ago, I would have resisted. But, brown has slowly been creeping into my mind. First, I found myself admiring the brown tile at the Honolulu Airport. Then, I decided I should move away from my earthquake safe Melmac dinnerware. So, I bought several settings of Heath Ceramics dinnerware.

The Heath colors are subtle, subtle and subtle. Seeing one brown combined with cream or tan plate convinced me that brown could be alright. Some of my favorite design solutions are brown. Does this mean I'm mellowing, or developing, God forbid, good taste? I still resist any attempt to put brown in bathrooms. Brown wall, tiles, fixtures, or accessories should never be used there. I won't go into details, but how do you know if someone previously had an "episode" in the bathroom if everything isn't bright white?

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Gnarly Dude

Last week I visited the Herman Miller showroom to look at the new furniture systems for the ArtCenter Grad program. There's some pretty snappy stuff and I may need to get a stand up desk for myself. In the George Nelson room there was print of John Neuhart's poster for Alexander Girard's Textiles and Objects shop. 

Designed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Matter employed organic forms and paired them with hard geometry. The organic forms, boomerangs, kidney shapes, and liquid shapes were a reaction to the hard and cold machine aesthetic of World War II. After years of tragedy, it isn't surprising that designers and the public would move toward life affirming forms. Even Matter's layouts for an article on the Ray and Charles Eames dances the line between grid and freeform.

It was reassuring to see the spread with the gnarly wood (as in tangled not rad). I have many pieces of gnarly wood and frequently find more on my hikes. It looks odd when I come down the trail with a pile of wood held in my shirt, but tough.

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Chair of the undergraduate and graduate Graphic Design Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for LinkedIn Learning/Lynda.com He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

More More

Sometimes, too much is not enough. This may seem contradictory to the typical badgering I do about minimalism. The point of minimalism is to use only what is needed and nothing more. And there are instances where quite a bit is needed. A few years ago I went to Hallmark in Kansas City to give a talk. On the tour of the headquarters, I saw the remarkable diorama Alexander Girard designed. Now, I typically, am not a big fan of cute Victorian paper dolls and tiny shoes. But in this context they sure looked good. Mary Blair was genius at combining multiple forms into a cohesive whole.

That same skill is evident in a feature Will Burtin designed for Fortune magazine in 1947. This is why the Burtin spreads work: First, there is a clear and strong grid structure. The elements work proportionately with each other. Second, Burtin uses scale to create drama and pacing. The cigar Indian is huge, while the huckster person is small. There are tiny and huge elements. Third, the pages are not a sea of rectangles, or as we like to say, “do not make that look like the wonderful world of rectangles.” Images are silhouetted, odd shapes, or trompe l'oeil. And finally, the color and typography are simple, consistent, and minimal.

However, beware of the temptation here. As you can see, it can be easy to become promiscuous with imagery. You don not want to be a layout slut, adding as many varieties of images and shapes as possible. 

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

Cabin in the Sky

In the 1960s, Branniff Airlines had a groovy thing going on. Alexander Girard designed a great program that made every other airline look boring and sad. But one little company was leaving Branniff in the dust regarding grooviness. Pacific Southwest Airlines was a regional airline on the west coast. Many of us remember the PSA planes with the smile on the front. But do you remember the super-fine uniforms and graphics? Today, I fly American Airlines exclusively. Their uniforms are clean and professional. My sister is an American Airlines flight attendant, and once I mention that on-board, the other flight attendants are extra nice. I guess it’s good to project a business atmosphere on a plane. However, the PSA uniforms are so incredible and bright. Of course, they didn’t project a business atmosphere, unless it was businessmen watching women pole-dancing.

To learn more about PSA, Chris Laborde has a fantastic site dedicated to all things PSA.

Everyday is like sun day

When I start talking about identity design, everyone loses his or her sense of humor. “Logos? That’s no laughing matter,” is the tone. There’s no room for funny in logo design or ID systems. Don’t you people understand this is a serious business? Of course it’s serious business. It’s the cornerstone and foundation of a company’s communications plan. But does that mean every logo should be a hard lined box with a tortured letterform, and a system with a vertical blue bar on every piece of collateral? I would say, “No.” Communications should engage and delight. That applies to identity design as well as a website, brochure, or signage program.

A great example of this approach is Alexander Girard’s design for La Fonda del Sol restaurant. In 1960, Restaurant Associates hired Girard to oversee all elements from the logo to the plates. Located in the Time & Life building in New York, La Fonda del Sol embraced the international ambitions of Rockefeller Center. Girard’s identity is varied and uses a multiple set of icons. What, you say, more than one logo? Was he mad? I don’t know about Girard’s psychological health, but it works for me. The restaurant paired the hand-made, craft of Mexico with a high-end and cosmopolitan tone. The solution was years ahead of a tongue-in-cheek tone now used by Jet Blue and Virgin Air. I especially like the newspaper ad that reads, “Will the lady who lost her composure during Fiesta at La Fonda del Sol please come back this Sunday?” I’m not so sure about the completely non-politically correct Siesta ad.

The Color of Fear

Many of you have written and asked, “Sean, I find your color sense excellent. How can I acquire this skill?” This is not an easy question to answer. As far as I can tell, any color works with any other color. All that information about primary, complementary, and tertiary colors is nonsense. Although you should know it, so buy my color book.

To prove this point, look at the color palette in Airport 1975. Fuchsia and brown: why not? Lavender and magenta: of course! Butter yellow and violet: go for it. Why can’t airplanes look like this anymore? Everything is so “business professional” with navy blue and gray.

I want flight attendants in violet, and wall hangings made of carpet in intense colors. I want that groovy first class lounge upstairs on a 747 with an “autumnal” palette of browns and oranges. Alexander Girard did a fantastic job on Braniff (to be covered on another post), but he wasn’t brave enough to throw brights, pastels, and earth tones together in a crazy jumble. And finally, all airline companies should stop with the boarding music or Gershwin, or the American Airlines soundtrack. They should play Helen Reddy’s rendition of “Best Friend” repeatedly. This alone will make anyone who is frightened to fly desperate for the plane to take off and stop the music.

Let's Make a Pit

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957

One of the stories in David Sedaris’ Naked is about his Greek grandmother. At one point, she is moved into a high-rise complex for the elderly. Sedaris describes his visits:

I enjoyed pretending that this was my apartment and that Ya Ya was just visiting. “This is where I’ll be putting the wet bar,” I’d say pointing to her shabby dinette set. “The movie projector will go in the corner beside the shrine, and we’ll knock down the dividing wall to build a conversation pit.” “Okay,” Ya Ya would say, staring at her folded hands. “You make a pit.”

When I read this, my first thought was of the conversation pit at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Eero Saarinen designed the house in 1957, Dan Kiley designed the ground-breaking (no pun intended) modern landscape, and Alexander Girard designed the interiors. Of course, the house is a masterpiece of modern architecture and design. The interplay between the sleek and hand made folk art is remarkable, and the breakdown of the interior versus exterior space is elegant. But, I can’t stop thinking about that pit. When you are in there do you see everyone’s shoes when the move out of the pit? Does it promote licentious voyeurism from the ground level up? Do you set your drink on the floor/edge of the sofa? I ponder these questions. And there is something about conversation pits that screams “Key Party.” Maybe I won’t dig that hole in my living room.

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, from exterior

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, the pit

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, dining room

Eero Saarinen, Miller House, 1957, hall

Miller House exterior

Not my Nuts!

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

There are times in history when all elements come together at a specific place to create something remarkable. Fallingwater, the Lever House, the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, and, yes, the Nut Tree in Vacaville, California. For most people growing up in northern California or Nevada, the Nut Tree was a ritual. Every trip we took between our ranch in the Sierras to San Francisco required a Nut Tree stop. I believe I have the Nut Tree to blame for my vocation. I was mesmerized by the packaging, signage, typography, and artwork. And I was 4. Much of the design was the creation of Don Birrell. He introduced high California modernism to the farming fields of central California. The Nut Tree had Eames chairs in the Toy Shop, and Dansk flatware in the Dining Room. The mix of folk art, hand-crafts, and minimal modernism predated Alexander Girard’s Textile & Objects shop by 8 years. There was a clear sense of joy, clarity, and quality that pervaded the atmosphere. And this was, basically, just a roadside store and restaurant, with a small local airport. If one of the tenants of modernism is to bring good design to the masses, the Nut Tree is a prime example and is long overdue for the recognition it deserves.

Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train
Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train

Nut Tree Train, Vacaville, California

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

The Nut Tree Shop

The Nut Tree Plaza

"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978
"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978

Charlotte Patera poster, 1975, Nut Tree

Lowell Herrero poster, 1970 at Nut Tree

Woodcarvings, Stan Dann, Nut Tree Poster 1977