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/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.

Delusions of Grandeur

My grandmother was born in 1901. While she didn’t live in Virginia before the civil war, she told stories about her grandfather and his bucolic existence. In her world, everyone was kind, gentle, good, and came from good families.  When she talked about emancipation, she remained unmoved, telling us, “Well, after granddad freed his slaves, why they refused to leave. They loved him so dearly, they all cried, ‘oh, please let us stay.’” My brother, sister, and I tended to look at her and not know what to say. So we politely nodded with frozen, terrified smiles. It never occurred to her that they these people had been held in bondage for two hundred years, had little education, no prospects, or anywhere to go.

I’ve been reading a biography of another family member, Thomas Nelson Page. Like my grandmother, he seemed to live in a dream world. Page was a well-known author, who wrote books that promoted the idea of, once again, a romantic antebellum American south, filled with chivalry, fine ladies, and happy slaves. Page was 12 years old when the civil war ended. He was born at Oakland Plantation in Virginia. He was descended from two prominent families, Page and Nelson. Like most Virginia gentry, he was related in multiple ways to most of the other gentry.

I can understand how seeing life before the war as a child, and then facing the destruction and upheaval during and after the war could color his perception. He could not grasp the full ramifications of slavery. In other ways, Page saw the reality. Old Virginia was ruled by a small group of the aristocracy, and after the war replaced with a moneyed, capitalist class where family names had little value. His world and its benefits had collapsed. As it had for many others, including my grandmother. So they retreated into a past that was kind, and slavery was justified as a paternalistic obligation.

This is what I find difficult to understand: Page was enormously successful in the North. His book, Marse Chan (Master Channing), was a best seller, as well as other antebellum nostalgic novels, In Ole Virginia, Two Little Confederates, and The Old Gentleman of the Black Stock. The concept of a great broken civilization, and the lost cause, played out repeatedly in popular culture. This Moonlight and Magnolia style culminated in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The lesson here, then, has something to do with self-delusion, or a way of ignoring all facts to embrace a preferred history.

Before my grandfather died, he called me over, “You see, Sean, there is something wrong with your grandmother in the head. She can’t understand that we are on a railroad journey.” In reality, they were at home, but my grandfather was convinced they were traveling by rail around the American west, and somehow the US Post always found them. He was sure his worldview was correct, and my grandmother was wrong. How many of our own perceptions are delusions? Maybe I’m not actually going to work each day, but sitting in a sanitarium somewhere.

Begin at the Beginning

There are a few projects that I regret not doing. The first was the Avalon Hotel, here in Beverly Hills. It was a perfect job for us: mid-century Alvin Lustig tiles, incredible building, beautiful redesign by Koning Eizenberg, and just a few blocks from the office. But, alas, it was not to be. The project went elsewhere, and as is typical, the final result was pretty darned good. I also was desperate to design a little book on “first lines,” when I was working at The New York Public Library. Again, the project was designed by my friend Donna Moll, who did a far better job than I would have. So the lesson here is to be glad that some projects get away, as long as they go to someone good. Or, if you don’t like the choice of a different designer, well accidents happen everyday.

The Know These Lines booklet that Donna designed is a gem. The design is subtle and incredibly crafted, and fits the subject matter flawlessly. The content is fantastic. The idea is to read the first sentence of a famous book, and answer its origin. For example, “Call me Ishmael.” is the first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. However, like the New York Times crossword, the choices become more difficult. If you have the kind of parties where people in worn out, but well made suits (men and women) get angry over a discussion about modernism and Virginia Woolf this is a perfect game for you. One caveat, however, like most things in life this game is better after cocktails.