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)

Happy Talk

I’ve spent a lot of time in airports and on American Airlines flights. Like everyone else on earth, I hate when people insist on a conversation. On one flight, the woman next to me talked about her affair, her husband’s affair, how hot the steward was, and why she hated her children. Another time, the flight attendant spilled an entire can of beer on my lap. She was horrified and deeply apologetic, but it was an accident so no big deal. Unfortunately, it meant flying from JFK to LAX and smelling like I was at a frat party. The guy next to me told me every story he had about spilling liquids (wow that was exciting), and then asked if I wanted some underwear from his overnight bag (oi!).

My favorite was a woman who was a famous gospel singer who was flying back from Chicago after being on Oprah. She talked about her upcoming wedding plans for three hours. After three vodka tonics, she became quite friendly and repeatedly said, “Why you are so cute. Let me give you just one kiss.” I reminded her that her fiancé was waiting to pick her up.

As obnoxious as chattering is on airplanes, it’s a good design device. Unless you implant one of those little audio chips, however, you need alternative ways to do this. I love quotation marks. I love talk bubbles. Both are incredible symbols that everyone understands, “Oh, that means someone is talking.” One of my all time favorite solutions is Matthew Liebowitz’s cover for H.L. Mencken Speaking. A single bad image of the author and an uncomfortable composition is brought to life with three pieces of simple punctuation. And, to make it even better, Mencken isn’t speaking. If he were photographed speaking, the cover would be too obvious and make us wonder what he is saying specifically and individually. The closed mouth leads us to hear all of his words.

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.

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.

Looking Back

And now, back to something about plain old graphic design. Down in the basement of AIGA National Design Center in New York is an old vault. The vault is filled with amazing treasures from the history of AIGA since the early 20th century. Most of these pieces were designed by some of the most prominent designers of the time, and celebrate the profession at a specific moment in history. It’s a good measure of “high design” of each era.

Every designer is told that work should be timeless. But that’s impossible. Design is not Darwinian; it doesn’t get better as the world evolves. We are products of our time and place on this planet. I don’t believe I’m doing better work than someone in 1970 just because it’s 40 years later. I don’t worry too much about “timeless” design, which is probably fairly obvious for those thinking I’m still in 1962. To me, these pieces are as incredible today as they were when they were produced. Actually, they’re probably considered better today, because someone down the street isn’t saying, “Ooh, I hate that guy. His work sucks, and I hear he yells at his employees. This poster ain’t that good.”