Is History Dead

There are some people who take design a little too seriously. Years ago, I knew a designer who refused to speak to me or look at me in the eye. Yes, it's understandable when you get to know me, but this was about design philosophy. I preferred clean, simple, and honest design with optimism. He was a self-identified post-modernist who saw the world as distopian and wanted to reflect that in his work. That was fine by me, I loved his work. It just wasn't what I did.

Even last week at the Paul Rand event I did at Design Within Reach, someone walked up to Louise Sandhaus and me, looked at both of us, turned from me, and said to Louise, "I'm happy to see YOU." Puhleeze. It's not like we're on a reality show.

P. Scott Makela was a post-modernist, genius, and all around nice guy. He never was anything but a good and generous friend. He did work that was different than mine, and that's what makes the field so exciting. He was one of the first people to give me encouragement early in my career. 

I was helping a designer on a project last week based on the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. It gave me a chance to look back at some of Scott's remarkable work. The typography in Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream video is beautiful, crisp, and launched a digital revolution in font design. 

Scott's work with Laurie Haycock Makela, his wife, changed the profession. It stretched everyone's idea of digital possibilities, and it's damned beautiful.


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.

Stationery: spelled with an "e" for envelope

My friend, Kathy McCoy, recently asked if I had any Herbert Bayer images from his Colorado days. She checked with Lou Danziger who pointed out that we were the caretakers of his monumental slide archive of graphic design. After I pulled everything together, it was obvious that Bayer designed a lot of stationery, and I mean a lot.

The world is screaming insanely, "Print is dead, print is dead, the end is near!"  People may not be using letterhead for a casual note that can work on email, but they still use it in more formal situations. The good part of this is that clients want the best stationery with the options, not the down and dirty cheapest one. Now it really matters.

Bayer designed most of these at the Bauhaus and before he emigrated to the United States. The letterheads are all asymmetrical, use the golden section as a guide, and are designed for functionality. Since Modernism demanded that functional should be paramount, this makes sense.

When I design a letterhead I like to help the user also; add a short rule to delineate the fold, put a bullet where the date is typed, and guides that identify the margin.

Bayer takes this a little more seriously by identifying the location of every type of information. I'm certain that nobody tried to use too small of a margin or fail to line the date up with the type. I get the sense that this would have been a pretty serious infraction and all hell would break loose in the halls of the Bauhaus.

Goodbye Robert Venturi

I went to college at the height of the anti-modernist, semantic, deconstruction period. While this encouraged great debate and analysis, it made for lousy cocktail party conversation. The modernists had ruined the world with their evil black box buildings. They created banal and boring buildings. The graphic design was fine in its time, but didn’t work in a multi-cultural world of complex messaging. If something didn’t have at least five historical typographic references and a nod to rococo, it was a failure. More was more. Five varnishes and 12 colors, no problem. A plethora of meaningless forms, sounds pretty. And while you're at it, can you add some Greek columns and floral wallpaper?

I recall seeing The Fountainhead in Film History. In this scene (above) Howard Roark, our modernist hero, is asked to add columns and decorative bits to his pure building. He won't, of course. After the film many students disagreed with his position. They were insistent that the hideous post-modern applications brought his building to life.

In my Junior year, my comfortable post-modern world was turned upside down. I visited one of my professors who lived in a Richard Neutra house in Silverlake. I expected her house to be cold, impersonal, clinical, and boring. But, it was a revelation. The structure had harmony, grace, and elegance. It was surrounded by eucalyptus trees and was warm and inviting. Every space, from a doorway to a hall, was beautifully proportioned. How could I have been so wrong? How much time had I wasted deriding the true one God? I was converted. Today, this scene from The Fountainhead is painful to watch as the pure and simple beauty of the structure is vulgarized and abused like putting Grace Kelly in hooker heels, hot pink overalls, and a tie-dye t-shirt.

 

Let's Take an Old Fashioned Walk

Originally, I planned to do this post about modernism done well, and modernism done badly. For example, the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe is done well. A black box office building on Ventura Boulevard is not so good. The JC Penney annual report for 1970 is a great example of beautiful and precise modernism. George Tscherny’s design is crisp and clean. The Helvetica is elegant. This is what a Swiss grid and Helvetica can be in the hands of a master. This is, obviously, the intent for the current JC Penney Helvetica style.

But, while doing research for this post, I came across the website, www.wishbookweb.com. It’s a treasure trove of shopping catalogues. The 1970 JC Penney Christmas catalogue has nothing to do with the annual report beside the date. It’s a remarkable time capsule. The clothes are, of course, funny. It’s the odd subtext of the pages that make it such a pleasure. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did see some plaid shirts that I wanted to buy. But you cannot call 1970. Nobody answers, and there were no answering machines.

 

And now, from high modernism to nifty hats and big pockets on the front of pants.

I don't think anyone looks good in His n' Hers styles. Couples should not match unless they are in a groovy band like Kids of the Kingdom.

This is further proof that matching outfits are wrong. And these simply look illicit.

There is an odd prevalence of men holding women on the ground in this book. It's quite submissive and frankly disturbing. I believe the women should be allowed to stand, especially if forced to wear department store headbands. Even I know that's uncool.

Am I wrong or is this a page of "swingers"? And I don't mean the dancing to swing music people. These are the people who live down the block and invite you to a "key" party. Don't go. It will end badly.

What can be said? First, these are bathmats with holes cut for sleeves. Second, these vests scream, "beat me up! Please!" A nun would cross the street to beat up these kids.

A Contextual and Theoretical Christmas

Traditionally, we’ve always put a tree up right after Thanksgiving. This year, I need to buy a new one. The previous tree was white and had yellowed to a urine tone. In the past, I was forced to buy either a “lifelike” traditional tree, or a white one. But if a tree is artificial, shouldn’t it look artificial? Isn’t that a tenet of modernism, truth in materials? Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, this points toward a colored Christmas tree.

Fortunately, today, companies like treetopia sell colored Christmas trees. If you want a pink tree, you are now not forced to buy just a sad two-foot Barbie tree. This is disturbing to guests, or to use in the office, unless you have a young daughter. Like a visitor from the Soviet Union walking into a supermarket for the first time, I’m overwhelmed by the choices. Pink, blue, orange, or seafoam: which color is best? With the magic of Photoshop, I simulated the tree in its environment. I’ve found this to be a good tool for picturing possible furniture, landscaping, and hair color. Some of you are probably screaming at your monitor, “No you idiot! None of the above! Bad taste! Bad taste!” But I counter with my adherence to modernist theory.

The Devil's Net is Made with Onion Rings

Jack in the Box restaurant, 1964, courtesy of Charles Phoenix

I like to tell my crew, family, and friends, “We prove our resolve and courage by resisting temptation.” Oscar Wilde said, “Do you really think it is weakness that yields to temptation?  I tell you that there are terrible temptations which it requires strength, strength and courage to yield to.” And President Reagan said, “Middle age is when you're faced with two temptations and you choose the one that will get you home by nine o'clock.”

The Tacos at Jack in the Box, and Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken are two temptations that, like a narcotic to a junkie, sound so good as an idea, but end badly. They smell so nice and call to each person passing like Odysseus’ sirens. And then when you have finished your meal, you immediately feel deep regret and shame. “Why did I eat that?” I berate myself. Fortunately, this temptation only rears its head on long road trips, at the most once every two years.

The version designed in the early 1960s uses the entire building as a sign and a symbol. It’s clean, simple, and efficient—a masterpiece of modernism. Russell Forester designed the “big box” restaurant and said, “It’s not really a building. It’s an envelope to enclose machines to dispense food.” Meets the big tenets of modernism if you ask me. Plus the talking drive thru Jack (in the box) is so much more fun than a big board with illuminated photos of food. When I yield to temptation I want the whole cheesy enchilada with clowns, bright colors and wacky type, not a tasteful urban yet sophisticated attitude.

The Jack in the Box drive thru contraption

Jack in the Box, late 1950s

How to be a Good Designer

History of Electricity cover

Years ago, Lorraine Wild showed me a publication that Eric Nitsche had designed for General Dynamics and it changed the way I look at design. Nitsche had been a hero of mine for years. I tend to like the designers who aren’t the huge names, but do great work just under the radar, like Alvin Lustig, or Lester Beall. Am I self aware? Probably not. Steven Heller wrote a wonderful essay about Nitsche in 1999. Nitsche is not the rock star like his contemporaries, Paul Rand, or Saul Bass, but he is remarkable. His simple modernist aesthetic combines a scientific rigor and precision with an emotional fluidness. That’s not easy.  Michael Bierut says, “Design is 90% persuasion.” (Michael forgive me if I have the percentage wrong, its' not that I don't try hard, it's that I'm stupid). How Nitsche convinced his clients to give him enormous amounts of real estate on a page for nothing is genius. When I showed one of his spreads from a General Dynamics project to Chris and Monica in my office, they both said, “Yeah right. A client would demand that you make the image bigger, or add a few paragraphs.” We’ve religiously collected Nitsche’s books, and I’ve been warned by my staff to not share this secret. But I am convinced that we all need as much inspiration as possible these days. Does that sound political? Sorry, it’s in my DNA.

April issue of Gebrauchsgraphik, 1956

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

La musique et l’humanisme by Romain Goldron Volume 4 in the series 1966, Editions Recontre

History of Transportation, cover

Advertisement, general Dynamics

postcard, General Dynamics

Annual Report, General Dynamics, spread

General Dynamics, Convair 800 advertisement

Not my Nuts!

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

There are times in history when all elements come together at a specific place to create something remarkable. Fallingwater, the Lever House, the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, and, yes, the Nut Tree in Vacaville, California. For most people growing up in northern California or Nevada, the Nut Tree was a ritual. Every trip we took between our ranch in the Sierras to San Francisco required a Nut Tree stop. I believe I have the Nut Tree to blame for my vocation. I was mesmerized by the packaging, signage, typography, and artwork. And I was 4. Much of the design was the creation of Don Birrell. He introduced high California modernism to the farming fields of central California. The Nut Tree had Eames chairs in the Toy Shop, and Dansk flatware in the Dining Room. The mix of folk art, hand-crafts, and minimal modernism predated Alexander Girard’s Textile & Objects shop by 8 years. There was a clear sense of joy, clarity, and quality that pervaded the atmosphere. And this was, basically, just a roadside store and restaurant, with a small local airport. If one of the tenants of modernism is to bring good design to the masses, the Nut Tree is a prime example and is long overdue for the recognition it deserves.

Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train
Sean (4) admiring letterforms on Nut Tree train

Nut Tree Train, Vacaville, California

Nut Tree Dining Room, Vacaville, California

The Nut Tree Shop

The Nut Tree Plaza

"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978
"Dendriform" by Jean Ray Laury at the Nut Tree, Vacaville, California, 1978

Charlotte Patera poster, 1975, Nut Tree

Lowell Herrero poster, 1970 at Nut Tree

Woodcarvings, Stan Dann, Nut Tree Poster 1977