E' una buona forchetta

John Alcorn, Evolution by Design: Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi, 2014

I planned on doing a post today to rant about bad clients. Sure there are some that were indecisive or unclear, but I can only think of one who was someone I'd love to run into, when I'm driving and he was walking. Then I looked through Stephen Alcorn and Marta Sironi's book, John Alcorn: Evolution by Design. The ranting concept seemed small and petty compared to the vastness of the Alcorn work.

I'm not opposed to small and petty, but each spread is breathtaking. Steven Heller calls Alcorn the 4th Beatle of Graphic Design. He was the youngest (21) member of Push Pin Studios in 1956. His work with Push Pin and Lou Dorfsman at CBS is smart, sophisticated, and elegant. He never succumbed to a "cutesy-pie" approach common to illustration in the 1950s. As he matured as a designer, the work takes on layers of sensuality. There is no restrictive diet here; the shapes, images, and typography are rich and full.

This maximalism expanded when Alcorn moved to Italy. After 1971, the illustrations are a feast of vibrant and complex forms with pleasure and passion, like good Italian cooking. The work is a reminder of the joy in design. It reinforces the good parts, not the murderous tendencies and anger management problems, but creative expression and love of craft.


John Alcorn in Santa Croce, 1973 (Courtesy of Stephen Alcorn)

The Ballad of the Boring Logo


I prefer to not use this blog as a ranting venue; it is, after all about optimism. But, I really, really, really hate when my students refuse to take risks. It’s my job to help educate designers who can question the obvious, look at the larger picture, and challenge those ideas that exist only out of habit. If they can’t do that, they are doomed to a life of being “layout monkeys,” politely arranging type and images into a nice composition.

Lately, I’ve found this issue to be especially true in my trans-media branding class at Art Center. Perhaps it’s because branding has been elevated into some kind of nightmarish and unforgiving religion. “Branding is sacred.” “Bad branding will lead to the downfall of western civilization” “A logo is more important that the product, customer service, distribution, or financial issues—it is the center of an organization.” Of course, this is all hogwash. A logo is important, but it’s more like a great suit. It’ll make you look good and present a better image to the world, but it doesn’t turn you into a better person.

When I hear someone say, “But a logo can’t be like that,” I say, “why not?” If there is a good reason and it works, it can be anything you can create. We all have an image in our heads of a good logo such as the CBS eye and the Apple apple. They are successful and elegant. But there are other ways to create identity. When I look at these 18th and 19th century marks, I am reminded that branding exists to identify a products origin and ownership, not change a company’s banking options. Let me assure those who are fearful. God is not watching you, planning to punish you for a choice that is unorthodox.

Swiss, 19th century, Tobacco mark

Fearful Symmetries

Guests visiting AdamsMorioka for the first time are often disgusted. William Pereira designed our building in 1969 as the Great Western Savings and Loan headquarters. Today it is the headquarters for Flynt Publications. The classic mid-century aesthetic has evolved into a lush “Las Vegas casino” style. I’ve grown to embrace the beautiful silk flower arrangement on each elevator lobby and the faux-marble elevator walls. The disgust our guests experience comes from our door sign. Clearly Tiffany Heavy and Optima are not expected here.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the “black rock.” The New York headquarters for CBS designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962. The signage for the building is a flawless version of Didot. Lou Dorfsman commissioned a new version of the font specifically for CBS. This served as the corporate typeface for over a decade. As designers, we disagree on many issues: Fillmore posters sucked or ruled, modernism is over or relevant, AdamsMorioka does vapid and fun or smart and seductive. I don’t think anyone would argue, however, that the CBS Didot signage and collateral is remarkable.

Think of it this way: a client asks you to do a signage program, a designer in your office suggests Didot, what would you say? If I weren’t aware of the CBS program, I’d probably say, “Are you out of your mind? Do you really think that’s legible? Who is going to fabricate these letterforms and not break the very thin parts of the letters? Get the hell out of my office! In fact, leave for good.” Actually, I probably wouldn’t say that. I’m the nice one. Noreen would say it.

If You're Not Kama'aina, Your Dead

We’ve been down this path before. On a previous post, I discussed the reasons why Hawaii 5-0 kicked Magnum P.I.’s ass. You won’t see that on DesignObserver. Now, we face the issue of the classic Hawaii 5-0 and the new Hawaii 5-0. The old 5-0 had a better title sequence, but was basically Adam-12 in Hawaii. It was the show you watched when you stayed at your grandparents’ house, and they never changed the channel away from CBS. The new 5-0 has a title sequence that’s more ‘techno” and action packed, but lacks the finesse of the old one. The new 5-0, however, is more exciting. Or perhaps I’m now old, like my grandparents and don’t get out often.

The only thing I can’t understand is why the governor of Hawaii seems to operate like the chief of police. It seems that the governor is trampling on the police force’s territory. I’d be concerned that she was not paying attention to legislative issues, but sitting by the police radio listening for some action. It also seems to send the message that you will immediately be caught in cross-fire or kidnapped if you’re a tourist in Honolulu.

Why Did They Tear Down That Wall?

When I was in high school, I was asked to design a mural for the cafeteria wall. Of course, I had no idea how to do that and ended up making a 1970s supergraphic of a series of fat horizontal stripes and an abstraction of a seagull flying above. There are small miracles; nobody documented it. The next year was my first year at art school, and I discovered the Gastrotypographicalassemblage. This was Lou Dorfsman’s version of my high school cafeteria mural, minus the Airport ’77 supergraphics. The wall is a wonderful collection of 3-dimensional letterforms created by Lou Dorfsman, Tom Carnase, and Herb Lubalin in the mid-1960s for CBS. The result is a wood-type shop exploding next to supermarket. Sadly, the wall was demoslished in the 1980s and now sits in storage, awaiting rescue. I can only hope that my wall was painted over by another artist in residence after I left high school.

In My Own Little Corner

Florence Knoll Bassett, CBS, 1954

I have a horrible guilty pleasure, Tabitha’s Salon Takeover. I stumbled across it over the holiday break and was riveted. There’s something wonderful about unruly and terrible business owners going head to head (no pun intended) with the hard-boiled, no nonsense Tabitha Coffey. Strangely, I think I’ve gotten some good advice from her show. Typically she visits a salon that has awful management, out of control hair stylists, and filthy working environments. I’m pretty sure we’re decent at management, and everyone on my staff is smarter than I am, but the office was starting to look a little ragged. We’ve been in this space for 10 years and the carpet shows it. I suggested today that a section by the kitchen looked like someone threw up and then walked away. Of course, everyone denied this, and then it might have been me. So we’ve decided to freshen things up.

I immediately thought about Florence Knoll’s designs for CBS in 1954. My office should look like this, but it would mean moving everyone out of the space except me.  Florence Knoll is an American furniture designer who studied at Cranbrook and worked with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. She was instrumental in the hiring of architects to design furniture. Her work is minimal and rigorous. The construction is more closely related to Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building than traditional furniture. The materials are what they are: metal, wood, simple textiles. Somehow all of this combines to create a harmonious effect. But, I don’t think I’ll be getting my 1954 CBS executive office. I get to keep my Knoll lounge chair, but nobody is willing to move their desks into the storage room.

Florence Knoll Bassett, CBS, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, General Life Insurance Company, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, Knoll Showroom, 1955

Florence Knoll Bassett, Knoll Showroom

Florence Knoll Bassett, CB Credenza, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, Lounge Chair

my little corner