First Things First

Donna Moll, 1987

I received an email from a designer last week who was thinking of moving to San Francisco. Coming from the east coast, he mistakenly thought it was just over the hill from Los Angeles. "I looked at their office online," he said about one firm, "but they had bad lighting." WTF? Bad lighting? That's even a consideration point. oy!

My first job was at The New York Public Library. Granted, we had wonderful light and I worked in one of the most beautiful buildings in New York. But I would have worked in the basement, which still had the rock walls of the 19th century reservoir preceding the Library. 

Donna Moll designed a publication I still keep on my desk, Know These Lines, a collection of first lines. I admit I could never match the delicacy of this design. The Mohawk Superfine slightly creamy paper paired with the softest rose color ink. Even the black is considered. It's not process black, but PMS Black which is slightly warmer. The Library was type boot camp and this piece by Donna proves that. It was a different time, when one spent days refining typography and methodically creating mechanicals with precision. I know that sounds old.

And to add to these, some of my favorite first lines:

Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987)
124 was spiteful. 

Toni Morrison
Paradise (1997)
They shoot the white girl first.

Joan Didion
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996)
Some real things have happened lately.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Balthazar’s Marvelous Afternoon (2007)
The cage was finished.

A.M. Homes
The Safety of Objects (1999)
Elaine takes the boys to Florida and drops them off like they’re dry cleaning.

Raymond Carver
Why Don't You Dance? (1977)
In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard.

David Sedaris
Santaland Diaries (1994)
I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles.

Mona Simpson
Anywhere But Here (1986)
We fought.

Claire Vaye Watkins
Battleborn (2014)
The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.

Margaret Mitchell
Gone With the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

PG Wodehouse
The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.

Alice Walker
The Color Purple (1982)
You better not never tell nobody but God.

Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle (1948)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Sylvia Plath
The Bell Jar (1963)
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.


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/ 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.

The City of Trembling Leaves

It may seem that I spend an eccentric amount of time reading books on American history or novels by Edith Wharton. Yes, that is true, but I recently read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. It is a collection of stories, most located in the harsh Nevada landscape. Hence the name Battleborn, Nevada’s nickname, and the frequent connections to silver, Nevada: The Silver State. Often I stopped at the end of a paragraph astonished by the remarkable language. The style is unforgivingly sharp, crisp and spare paired with mournful, poetic and florid. As an example in “Ghosts, Cowboys,” she writes:

The coroner’s report noted that her tumors were visible, and in the glaring light of the microscope seemed “like hundreds of hairlike silver ribbons.”

Someone unfamiliar with the Nevada desert might describe Watkins’ stories as desolate and empty people inhabiting a landscape of the same nature. But, the stories are not this. These are people who seemed crushed by the weight of this landscape, trapped and controlled by external fate. They participate in a pre-determined narrative unable to exert free will, and when they do, they simply maintain the plot.

When I was 19, a group of us drove up to Virginia City in the middle of December. We made a short super 8 film, drank too much beer in the gothic western cemetery, and considered ourselves quite sophisticated and cynical. Of course, at 19, most everyone feels this way. We were a group who spent summers together at Lake Tahoe, or driving to clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. But we had grown apart when we went to different colleges. In Watkins’ story “Virginia City,” she writes:

There are plenty of good reasons to find yourself in Virginia City, but there’s only one reason. We came to time travel.

When I read this, I thought, “Of course. Why did I not see this? That is what that day was.” I was dumbfounded as if I had just learned that the earth was round.

When reading this book, I continued to think of Diane Arbus. Arbus is unrelated to anything in the stories. But she had a magnificent way of photographing the edges of society with a compassionate eye. Watkins could easily have slipped into the tone of an outsider exhibiting the freaks to us. But she manages to maintain the same compassion and connection with her characters.

For me, like my cards, Sad Places for this isn’t about poverty or humiliation. It it about giving up, or exerting the smallest effort to exist. It is about the last attempt at happiness, the plastic flowers in the frozen ground.