Mary Blair: The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural

The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural, The Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World

The Grand Canyon Concourse Mural, The Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World

We usually think of super-graphics as large letterforms on a wall, or broad multicolored stripes that run along a hallway. These are often designed to overcome bland spaces, as if somehow, magically, a giant “A” can transform a boring office into a wondrous experience. But there are other types of super-graphics that do more than just fill space. Mary Blair’s Grand Canyon Concourse mural in the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World is a super-graphic that transforms the architecture.

Designed by Welton Becket and opened in 1971, the Contemporary was a demonstration of new construction methods and technologies. The steel frame was constructed and individual rooms were “plugged” into the slots, like drawers in a dresser. The monorail track runs through the central cavernous space. 

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for In. 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.

More More

Sometimes, too much is not enough. This may seem contradictory to the typical badgering I do about minimalism. The point of minimalism is to use only what is needed and nothing more. And there are instances where quite a bit is needed. A few years ago I went to Hallmark in Kansas City to give a talk. On the tour of the headquarters, I saw the remarkable diorama Alexander Girard designed. Now, I typically, am not a big fan of cute Victorian paper dolls and tiny shoes. But in this context they sure looked good. Mary Blair was genius at combining multiple forms into a cohesive whole.

That same skill is evident in a feature Will Burtin designed for Fortune magazine in 1947. This is why the Burtin spreads work: First, there is a clear and strong grid structure. The elements work proportionately with each other. Second, Burtin uses scale to create drama and pacing. The cigar Indian is huge, while the huckster person is small. There are tiny and huge elements. Third, the pages are not a sea of rectangles, or as we like to say, “do not make that look like the wonderful world of rectangles.” Images are silhouetted, odd shapes, or trompe l'oeil. And finally, the color and typography are simple, consistent, and minimal.

However, beware of the temptation here. As you can see, it can be easy to become promiscuous with imagery. You don not want to be a layout slut, adding as many varieties of images and shapes as possible. 

The Lights of Old Santa Fe

Years ago, I saw a documentary, 901: After 45 Years of Working. This documentary follows the archiving of the Eames studio, as its contents were packed for shipping to the Smithsonian, after Ray's death. It’s incredible, of course. A lifetime of collecting is carefully organized in flat files and boxes. There are flat files filled with thimbles, another drawer of round shells, another with buttons, pieces of kimono fabric, spoons, pebbles, Victorian cards, and anything else you might consider collecting. After an hour of drawers, drawers and more drawers, and boxes of stuff, I found myself getting edgy. Yes, it’s incredible, but stop the archiving, get a Hefty bag.

I bought the new Alexander Girard book by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee. I expected a nice comprehensive publication of Girard’s work, not another catalogue of cute Girard blocks and merchandise. And it is exactly that: smart, comprehensive, beautiful, and well printed. The book is enormous. I felt sorry for the UPS dude. It’s almost as big as the coffee table, is 672 pages, and weighs 15 pounds. It is comprehensive and spectacular.

Girard’s house in Santa Fe is overwhelming. Here, more is not enough. The colors and textures are playful and exuberant. There isn’t a detail overlooked. It gave me permission to paint a mural in the hall, or put out every Mexican and Japanese folk art item I own. Like the Eames studio, there is a lot of stuff. And when there isn’t an object, he paints the surface to invoke a landscape. I was especially interested in the mural that looks exactly like It’s a Small World. Was it zeitgeist? Did Mary Blair visit and copy him? Did he copy from Mary Blair’s drawings? Who cares? It’s extraordinary.

Images from Alexander Girard, by Todd Oldham and Keira Coffee, and the Library of Congress

Gifts of the Gods

When you are a designer of any kind, interior, graphic, industrial, whatever, you receive really awful gifts. This sounds horrible and ungrateful. It’s the gifts your parents, grandparents, and cousins give you. We’ve all been in the situation when you’re given a lovely gift wrapped in the “cool” wrapping paper from the Container Store. When you discover it’s a remarkably over-designed swoopy lady-shaped wine corkscrew in lime green, you must express surprise and incredible happiness. It’s assumed that, as a designer, you must like the groovy designed things. I bypass this problem by telling my family to focus on gifts of cactus and American flags.

I did, however, receive one of my best gifts for my birthday this year. The Disney Gallery at Disneyland is holding an exhibition of Mary Blair. The studies for the lost attraction, Thunder Mesa, are truly genius. And the renderings for the Grand Canyon Concourse tiles are possibly the best color palette ever conceived. These two birthday gifts are now in my kitchen. I considered putting them downstairs in the rumpus room so they wouldn’t fade. That would be no fun. And that’s a bad path. Soon I will be closing all the blinds, draping furniture, and storing art in a dark space, like my grandparents.


The Grand Canyon Sweet

And now, an old classic revisited. When I visit Walt Disney World, I'm often trailed by security. Well, that actually happens most places. This is because I'm the odd person photographing the Exit sign very closely. The same is true when I visit the Contemporary Resort to shoot Mary Blair's incredible Grand Canyon Concourse tile work. It moves me to tears that people will be sitting under it, and not notice it until I'm photographing it. "Whoa, well I'll be, what the hell is that thar thingamajig? It sure is big." I want to yell at them, "Look you nitwit. It's right above you, it's giant, it's impossible to miss!" But I don't because security is watching.

Avocados and Watermelon

This year, we signed a new lease on the office. Last year was so crappy that Noreen and I decided a mini-overhaul was due. We had the office repainted and replaced the green carpet that looked like a dental office. We’ve lived with the same pastel colors for 17 years, and it seemed like the right time to evolve. For me that meant leaving behind the world of 1955 and moving forward to 1967. Mary Blair’s color palette for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has always been a favorite of mine. So this became our jumping off point.

I was pleased that we were evolving into a more sophisticated palette until the building management reported back that they loved it because it looked like a Mexican restaurant. Fine by me, if we could get a liquor license I would gladly begin to serve Margaritas. I’m sure it would be more profitable than being a design firm. Hey, there’s an idea here. I’ll talk to Noreen about this tomorrow.

Tile Your Way to Happiness

Grand Canyon Concourse mural, Mary Blair designer, Walt Disney World®

In 1971, The Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World opened. Forgive me, but it’s not too purty of a building. It used state of the art building techniques,  but the design is a little clunky. The true genius of the building is inside, the Grand Canyon Concourse Mural designed by Mary Blair (yes, of It’s a Small World fame). The concept, now lost amidst fighting thematic elements was that the interior of the hotel would reference the space of the Grand Canyon. The 90 foot mural made up of ceramic tile is a recreation of the strata of the Grand Canyon. The subtlety of the color combinations is remarkable. And the attention to the smallest details including 3 dimensional texture is genius, or OCD. Here’s a tip: you need to take the elevator up to the upper levels to see the best views of the mural. Okay, that’s kind of OCD too. Which leads me to Obsessed on A&E, but that’s another post.

1971, note the acrylic trees






The Color of Success

Mohawk Via, The Big Handbook

I was reading a post recently about a Mohawk project we at AdamsMorioka designed. “I love the pop sensibility,” read one of the comments, and the others followed suit. I imagine this is the mark of self-delusion, but I didn’t design the piece with that in mind. I just used colors I like. Backtracking, I found the page in my color notebook that I made when I was working on the project. As it turns out, I was guilty. There is a little note, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” So I appropriated the color palette from the 1967 film. Coincidentally, Mary Blair, who designed It’s a Small World, was the color consultant in the credits. How often do movies have color consultants? The color combinations make the palettes unique: salmon and ochre, baby blue and burnt orange, magenta and avocado. And as a bonus, Robert Morse, who is the diamond of the Mad Men cast, is the leading man in a similar setting in the film. I am considering demanding that people take shoes off when they enter my office.

Robert Morse (Right), Mad Men

Sean Adams color notebook

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Mary Blair color

How to Suceed in Business Without Really Trying, Mary Blair color

Why we bow down to It’s a Small World


It seemed fitting that Disneyland's It's a Small World should be the first post here. It’s hard for many to understand but we joke that the artistic genesis of AdamsMorioka is It’s a Small World. I’m usually met with a look of terror when I mention this. Now it’s not the tiny dolls I love, but the world they live in. Where else can such an incredible riot of color and form co-exist harmoniously and tell a coherent story, all to the tune of a song that can never leave your head?

Numerals, It's a Small World clock

Numerals, It's a Small World clock

Poster, interior, It's a Small World