Jennifer Morla, photo: Jock McDonald

I was in Las Vegas yesterday doing a speaking engagement for AIGA Las Vegas and Mohawk. The term "design rock star" was thrown about quite a bit. While this might seem flattering, it's remarkably unsettling. I'm just me, kind of a bozo. A "design rock star" is someone like Jennifer Morla. Since we're on a roll with powerful women designers in San Francisco, Jennifer must be included. She is from the generation that followed Marget Larsen and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon. She began her career when San Francisco was a field of Michael's (Vanderbyl, Cronin, Mabry, Manwaring, Schwab...). See no girls here. Jennifer entered the scene and stood as tall (sort of) as the dudes.

Jennifer made and continues to make work that could only be made in San Francisco. It is playful and light, Victorian and sleek, dark and complex. Like San Francisco, the work is a study in contradictions. A DWR catalogue has organic imagery of a bird set, not in a forest, but on a minimal modernist white background. Jennifer's felt screen uses forms that would typically be constructed with materials such as lace, but are re-presented with a utilitarian textile. The Mexican Museum recasts Frida Kahlo as a large set of photo-mechanical halftone dots, denying the painterly or sentimental representation typical of Kahlo. Each project slams one form against another creating work that is always unexpected and wonderful.

I can't say that envy is a big part of my emotional composition. I know that everyone has their own wacky shit going on even if the exterior looks perfect. And like every designer, I have the sensation of joy and discovery when I find a designed item that I wish I'd done. However, when Jennifer showed me her solution for the Clorox 100 Anniversary book, I was jealous. I was envious that she did something so remarkable and simple using the Clorox plastic material as the cover, and I would never have thought of that. And I was really envious that she owned that artifact. I wanted to have it for myself. This is pretty positive proof that a solution is great. I regret my sinful thoughts of envy, but excuse myself as it was caused by the extraordinary. And she has the most magnificent laugh.


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American Psycho

When I decided to go to CalArts, my mother said, “Well, once you’re eighteen, you’re on your own.” I’m not sure if my parents lack of interest or support was due to my choice of school, art school over Harvard, or because they were too busy arguing to notice. They seemed confused about my college until I graduated, telling friends I was at CalTech. The upside of this was absolutely no interference with any of my own decisions. The downside was the financial responsibility to pay for college on my own.

I hate that some of my students now have similar financial struggles. This is the time they should be free to focus on becoming the best possible designer and finding their own distinct voice. I do what I can personally with the scholarship fund but this can’t solve someone’s entire college expenses. When Moo.com asked me to design a set of business cards, I was interested. They are the best quality, printed on beautiful Mohawk Superfine paper. When they told me I could dedicate the Art Center Scholarship Fund as my charity, I was thrilled.

Now, this is one of those classic “do whatever you want” assignments. These sound great, but lead to sitting at my desk staring at a blank pad of paper. So, I thought about cards I want. First, I’d love a set of nautical themed cards, and a set of vibrant patterns and color, then, disturbingly, a set of really depressing places. The nautical and pattern cards are perfectly logical. Who doesn't want nautical business cards, or bright and cheerful color and pattern.

I admit the depressing cards are odd. But I love the idea of shaking someone's hand, smiling and handing out a business card with an image of a place of despair. These are the spaces where people gave up. They stopped trying. They are about lethargy and exhaustion, places where all else failed. What could be more fun?

To paraphrase Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, "I don't ask for much." Now I'm asking that everyone spread the word, order some cards, look better when trading business cards, but most importantly, help a young designer as they struggle financially.

New Discoveries

I love working with clients who are smart. Duh. They know what they want, their business, audience, and how a design job happens. Cedars-Sinai is one of those for us. We’ve worked on several projects for them and each project continues to be challenging and rewarding intellectually and aesthetically. We recently completed the Cedars-Sinai magazine, Discoveries. Now I can boast about it, because I had only a part in its creation. Everyone in the office from Nathan, Monica, Chris, Terry, and Noreen worked to make a fantastic publication. Monica said it best when I asked her why she was happy with the final project, “This project was one of those wonderful examples of transcending the designer/client boundary and really working together as a team. We collaborated directly with Laura Grunberger at Cedars-Sinai and her staff; sharing ideas, refining concepts, and determining the vision for the magazine as a whole.” Monica clearly has a far better talent for articulation than I.

When someone asks me if print is dead, Discoveries is a great response. There is something about holding a physical artifact and spending time reading it, as opposed to looking at an article and reading a paragraph on screen. Colorgraphics printed almost 150,000 copies. And we used Mohawk 50/10, of course.

In the end, this project had a million moving parts, but the team worked together so flawlessly that it came together and looked effortless. That’s good design for me: work that looks easy not desperate. As I’ve said before, desperation is bad on a date, and in design.

The Paper Trail

Paper promotions are the first items to be discarded every time I’ve judged a competition. The other judges typically say, “Well, they don’t count. You can do anything you want.” Oddly, that’s not true. There is a client with specific needs, audience goals, budgets, and logistical issues. So when the other judges say that I want to knock them up the side of the head. I will admit, however, that working on projects for Mohawk Via is my favorite activity. There are so may moving parts between the concept and technical issues. I need demonstrate multiple printing situations on multiple papers. The most recent project that will hit the streets in a few weeks, Mohawk Via Paper and Printing, used 20 forms, each with different inks. I love piecing it all together to take best advantage of the presses.

One of the reasons I love working on Via is Mohawk’s commitment to sustainable practices and education. The most important aspect in making something sustainable is to make something useful that will be kept. The Mohawk Via materials have always been educational. There are no fancy photos of a flower for no reason. They are textbooks on printing and paper.

Mohawk Via Paper and Printing started with the idea of making a satirical sex education manual, but about printing. It was a cute idea, but quickly became apparent that it was a one-liner joke. It was getting in the way of the purpose of the piece—to provide printing solutions and examples. Around the same time, I visited Virginia. I found a unique American point of view in the art, architecture, and design at Williamsburg, Monticello, and the Virginia Historical Society.

This American point of view: expansiveness, honesty, plain speaking, compassion, diversity, and courage tied in perfectly with the attributes of Mohawk Via. So the final piece moved in that direction. The sex ed manual might have been funny, but the Albert Bierstadt painting on the Via Smooth page is sublime. The final version will be in inventory on October 18th at mohawkpaperstore.com

No More Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee

One of my bizarre obsessions is riverboats. I don’t particularly want to take a ride on a new casino riverboat in St. Louis, but I’d be fine taking a riverboat cruise in 1850 up the Mississippi. I’ve found a repeating motif of riverboats in illustrations between 1950 and 1960. They were used on ads for pharmaceutical products, handkerchiefs, posters, and wallpaper. If the riverboat craze happened in 1940 it would make sense. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, and all things antebellum south were the cat’s pajamas. Perhaps the 1950s trend with riverboats had something to do with the nostalgia for a simpler time when atomic warfare was a constant worry.

Maybe that’s my issue too. Noreen keeps telling me, “Sean, it’s not 1955. The Soviet Union is not planning a strike. You can stop digging that bomb shelter.” Or, maybe I just like the way these riverboats look. Like Mark Twain said, "Riverboats look like floating wedding cakes." In the past few months I’ve been able to use riverboats on two projects. I made one for my lecture poster for AIGA Orange County, and I used a wonderful painting of another riverboat in the latest Mohawk Via promotion (to be released soon).

Scary Monsters and Super Imitation Leather

Each time I begin working on an identity project, I think, “Wait, let’s not make a logo, let’s make a mascot.” Most of the time, common sense weighs in, but I’ve actually made it as far as the first presentation. Mr. M. TV, and Sunny Sundance didn’t get any further, but Verbenia Via for Mohawk, and Mr. Cecil for Mr. Cecil’s Ribs became real. The Nauga Monster for Naugahyde is a mascot and a toy. In the 1960s, George Lois proposed the mythical Nauga as part of the advertising campaign to distinguish Naugahyde from its competitors. At the last minute before the launch, the legal department became concerned that people would be confused and think the Nauga was a real animal. Fortunately, people are smarter than house cats (who would frankly also know it was fake).

Who do you think you're fooling?

International House of Pancakes

I’m sure most people have memories of going to the International House of Pancakes with their parents or grandparents and getting the Belgian Waffles. This is the exceedingly sweet combination of pancakes, whipped cream, powdered sugar, and berries, and you can add syrup if you still are lucid. Up until a year ago, I’d never had this. On a long press check for Mohawk in Dallas, my good friend and printing genius for Mohawk, Pam McGuire suggested I try them. Well, I’ll tell you, at 3:00 am when you don’t know which way is up, they’re damned good. This particular ihop had framed artifacts from the original International House of Pancakes, and they were damned good too. I understand the strategy, thought leader, brand elasticity issues and why the name changed to ihop, but I like International House of Pancakes better. My message to the brand managers at ihop: Why not be proud of who you are? Embrace your pancake expertise. You’re not Denny’s or Bob’s Big Boy, nobody is fooled and doesn’t think “pancakes” and ihop. Why not be the best pancake place in the entire world? Dinner be damned, make me proud to order Belgian Waffles.

International House of Pancakes match book cover

International House of Pancakes menu

International House of Pancakes illustration

International House of Pancakes cup and saucer

International House of Pancakes placemat

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