From the Ashes of History

wALT Five, Design: Sean Adams and Peter Grant, 1984

I found this issue while cleaning the bookcase. wALT was the student publication at CalArts in the 1980s. It included contributions from students in all majors including essays, poetry, and visual arts. Peter Grant and I designed this issue using the Macintosh 128K that Apple recently sent to the department. It was the one that required a floppy disk to run and had limited software such as MacPaint and MacWrite. There was no scanner. Apple included a set of typefaces named after cities, such as Monaco, Geneva, Chicago, and San Francisco. The typeface New York was the stand-in for Times Roman (but I called it Times Roman because I could).

To produce the publication, we set the Times Roman on the Mac and printed out “galleys” on the low resolution image-writer (no Laser-writer yet). We set the headlines in Gill Sans, a typeface on the Mergenthaler VIP typesetting machine. The whole thing was pasted-up as mechanicals and sent to the printer (see video below). We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a first step toward digital design production. It was a wacky hybrid that required endless typing and rubber cement. But it was fun.

Apple Macintosh 128K, 1984


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.

May

I was fortunate to have three Mentors when I was at CalArts (yes Mentors, as in an official title, not a Yoda-like master): April Greiman, Lorraine Wild, and Lou Danziger. These three widely varied points of view gave me a range of conceptual approaches that have been incredibly useful over my career. 

Recently, Tracey Shiffman collected a suite of materials from Lou for me to scan and archive. To see one project is wonderful, but to see a collection of work at once, well that made my month.

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.

Time after Time

Marianne Brandt, student at the Bauhaus, 1931

When someone asks me, "With all the different technologies, which one is the most important for a designer to learn?" If I were clever I'd answer, "flash." But I'm too honest and, of course, explain that good concepts and smart thinking will always be more important than the newest tools. Every generation believes they are the hippest chosen people of all time. The old people are clueless and totally square. It's good this happens, otherwise, culture would stop evolving and we'd be trapped in 1892.


Students and Professors at the Bauhaus, 1920s and 1930s

Images of students at the Bauhaus in the 1920s and 30s show super groovy people, strange art people, and tortured hairstyles. The same is true for Black Mountain College in the 1930s. Cool design students talking about design and hanging out. When I was at CalArts, we were certain we were so much cooler than anyone over thirty. We took artsy Polaroids and did live drawing from new wave models. Today, at ArtCenter, I can see myself through the eyes of my students, a square dude with odd plaid shirts and khakis. This may be true, but DO NOT mistake them for Dockers. They're Brooks Brothers and J. Crew., which is probably just as un-hip.


Students at Black Mountain College, 1930s and 1940s

Ray Johnson, Black Mountain College, 1945


CalArts, 1980s


ArtCenter, 2010s

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.

Blood on the Walls

Black Flag, CalArts 1982

When I was at CalArts, the older crowd complained that things were never as fun as the "old days." But they seemed wacky enough to me. We knew to not drink any punch at an opening or party as it was laced with LSD. The pool had a clothing optional policy which was enjoyed, of course, by those who should not be naked. My dorm room was right about the jacuzzi which made me privy to conversations each evening, two people shout ing over the bubbling water, "What school are you in?" and "Do you want to come to my room?" The jacuzzi was quickly renamed the jiz-cuzzi.

During one class in a small windowless classroom, the punk group Black Flag came to play a gig. We all sat in our desk/chairs while they set up. Obviously, when they started, it was quite loud. Small classroom are not a typical punk rock concert venue. As Henry Rollins ran toward the class shouting and waving his microphone, everyone stood up and ran to the back of the room. When he retreated back to the stage, we slowly returned to our desks, and again jumped and ran as he moved into the room. Oh yeah, we were cool, but this proved we were all just white suburban punks.

For some reason, one woman who was sitting in the front row of desks refused to budge. She wasn't doing this because she was a major Black Flag fan. Her art centered on hard core feminist themes, so I imagine it was in protest, or as an act of resistance. Unfortunately for her, Rollins took this as a challenge and repeatedly shoved his crotch into her face. At the same time he slammed the microphone against his head until it was bleeding. So she sat there, resistant, while having a crotch thrusting and blood flying around her. Now that was fun.

 

My friend Peter Grant and I, CalArts, 1982

My friend Erica and I, Bob's Big Boy, 1982

American Psycho

When I decided to go to CalArts, my mother said, “Well, once you’re eighteen, you’re on your own.” I’m not sure if my parents lack of interest or support was due to my choice of school, art school over Harvard, or because they were too busy arguing to notice. They seemed confused about my college until I graduated, telling friends I was at CalTech. The upside of this was absolutely no interference with any of my own decisions. The downside was the financial responsibility to pay for college on my own.

I hate that some of my students now have similar financial struggles. This is the time they should be free to focus on becoming the best possible designer and finding their own distinct voice. I do what I can personally with the scholarship fund but this can’t solve someone’s entire college expenses. When Moo.com asked me to design a set of business cards, I was interested. They are the best quality, printed on beautiful Mohawk Superfine paper. When they told me I could dedicate the Art Center Scholarship Fund as my charity, I was thrilled.

Now, this is one of those classic “do whatever you want” assignments. These sound great, but lead to sitting at my desk staring at a blank pad of paper. So, I thought about cards I want. First, I’d love a set of nautical themed cards, and a set of vibrant patterns and color, then, disturbingly, a set of really depressing places. The nautical and pattern cards are perfectly logical. Who doesn't want nautical business cards, or bright and cheerful color and pattern.

I admit the depressing cards are odd. But I love the idea of shaking someone's hand, smiling and handing out a business card with an image of a place of despair. These are the spaces where people gave up. They stopped trying. They are about lethargy and exhaustion, places where all else failed. What could be more fun?

To paraphrase Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, "I don't ask for much." Now I'm asking that everyone spread the word, order some cards, look better when trading business cards, but most importantly, help a young designer as they struggle financially.

This is the Day, Your Life Will Surely Change.

You've been reading some old letters --

You smile and think how much you've changed.

All the money in the world

Couldn't buy back those days.

These are some of the lyrics to This Is The Day by The The. I was thinking about this as I was cleaning out the flat files at home and came across some of my student work. Unfortunately, I found that I haven’t changed. I might be a little smarter and definitely have a bigger waist size, but damn if those colors and the whole attitude looks the same. This means either I have a strong and consistent vision, or I have one idea that I keep banging out repeatedly.

I made these projects in 1986, my last year at CalArts. Yes, they have little new wave in them, but that was what you did in 1986. I rather like the Olympics poster, but the Neo Youth project is scary. I remember it was a proposal for a monument to Los Angeles. This was the idea: L.A. is obsessed with youth. It needs a monument, rather than building a big statue, create an organization of young people who would travel around town and help people. The more good work they did, the more medals they would get. This would take the place of the latest Guess jeans as a status symbol since everyone between 14-18 would be in uniform.

Yes, you may be saying, this sounds quite a bit like Nazi Youth, Young Pioneers of China, or the USSR’s Communist Youth Organization (Komsomol). I may be rather dense at times, but this was part of the concept. If being young were a religion in Los Angeles, go all the way. Of course, now I realize that I was wrong; the uniforms were probably too trendy.

Airing the old laundry

Noreen Morioka, Sean Adams, the Peoplemover, Tomorrowland

Many people ask how Noreen and I met. I like to tell them it was in prison, but that’s not true. We met in school, at CalArts. We went our separate ways after we graduated, Noreen to Tokyo, and I went to New York. At the end of 1993, we were sitting on the Peoplemover in Tomorrowland and decided that rather than complaining about design, we should step up and have our own firm. Much of that work was documented with transparencies and hasn’t been published for over a decade. So we decided to drag the pieces out of the archives and give them some air for awhile; even if they are a little dated.

Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities

Our first postcard, some were sent back with added drawings

SCI-Arc Building in Los Angeles, 1994

Wired magazine

SCI-Arc Spring Lecture Series

Poster, LA Louver Gallery

Living in the 80s

Poster, Spring Dance Ensemble, 1985

I’m often asked to bring in my student work by my students at Art Center. I went to CalArts from 1982–1986, so the work tends toward the New Wave. I was fortunate to have some great instructors including Lou Danziger, Lorraine Wild, April Greiman, and Roland Young. Here are a few of my projects. Now, remember, this was when type was generated by an old Merganthaler VIP photo-type machine, or by letterpress, and you needed to make giant negatives and print posters either as a slikscreen or Diazo print (blueline). So they ain’t as purty and slick as the fancy pants digital printed student work today. And I walked ten miles in the snow to get to school after milking the cows.

Poster, 4 Australian Poets, 1986

Poster, Phil Garner Visiting Artist, 1986