Blinded By The Light

I found the world of black light posters in late 1978, when I was in middle school. Every day, after school, we rode our bikes to a friend’s parents’ motel in downtown Reno. Frank’s parents owned one of those cookie cutter motels surrounding the main strip with names like The Pioneer, Thunderbird, and Stardust. We used quarters from a lobby slot machine to play video games at Pizza Hut. While everyone was excited about Centipede and Asteroids, I wanted to go back to the motel where Frank’s older brother lived in the room behind the office. He covered the walls with black light posters, kept the blinds drawn, and lit the room with a black fluorescent lamp and with a lamp with statue surrounded by simulated rain.

My world at home had nothing as remarkable. We had old family photographs in frames, paintings of ships, and models of ships. Boring. When one is fifteen, it is far groovier to have unicorn and Viking posters and a waterbed. Now, Frank’s brother was indeed a pot-head, had dropped out of high school, and spent his days listening to Led Zepplin. He was not particularly motivated. But, he had the coolest room I’d ever seen.

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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.

At The Edge of The Basin

I'm asked repeatedly what part of New England I'm from. It might be the madras shirts and khakis that lead to this belief. But, as many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada.

When I was growing up it was a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. The biggest thing to happen was when the Misfits was filmed several years before I was born. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more upscale, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, many establishments dropped the "western/cowboy" themes and relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. 

I'm also often asked, "Where do you get your color sense?" This is asked with a slight tone, not as in "The soft and tasteful tones are so subtle in your palette." The unspoken words are, "Good God almighty, what made you do THAT?" I used to think it was the Southern California influence, but I now realize it was Reno. How could I grow up and choose the winter light gray and beige when my formative years were spent in a place with giant neon Primadonna showgirls? In the end, I was left with a color concept veering toward garish and a set of George Nelson furniture from Harold "Pappy" Smith, the owner of Harold's Club.

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.

The Age of Wonder

When work is challenging, I wonder if it would have been easier if I had been born in Virginia in the 18th century. It seems to me that I would have it made regardless of my intelligence or abilities. If I wanted to be a senator or governor, I would simply need to tell my father or grandfather and it would happen. Then I remember that there was no indoor plumbing and you could die from a small cut. So it’s not a good idea. As it is, my family left Virginia, and I was born 200 years later.

I was born at exactly the right time and place to see remarkable motel signage. As many of you know, I was born in Reno, Nevada. The great thing about Reno is that it’s not as fancy as Las Vegas. It’s a small city at the base of the Sierras with great skiing, hiking, and the University of Nevada. When I was growing up it was still a cow town where cowboys would drive in on a Friday night and blow their paycheck. In the 1970s there was an attempt at making Reno more Vegas, but it didn’t take. I like that. The motel signs never became the neon extravaganza that could be found in Las Vegas. They relied on themes that now look rather depressing, such as a “circus/holiday” theme. I may not have been made a governor because I was related to the current one, but I have seen wonderful things, especially the Nevada Club logo: a little Nevada shaped cowboy.

There's Got to Be a Morning After

I love this hangover cure pack from Harold's Club. What a wonderful idea to give guests something to assist them after an evening of over-indulgence. Or this could be taken as a cure for over-indulgence at a religious tent revival. Although I can't imagine that large amounts of alcohol would be involved in that setting. This could also be clever packaging for the controversial "Morning After" pill. The possibilities for re-purposing this are endless.

Home Means Nevada

misfits-21

Whenever I go back to Reno, I’m amazed not by how different things are, but how they stay the same. The minute I step off the plane and see my first cowboy hat, I know it’s Reno. To me, it’s still a nice small town where Reno High School wins every game, and ranchers drive in to have a drink and blow their paycheck on Fridays. Of course it’s like every other town in America, and far more complex and diverse. Reno has another element that makes it different from other ranching towns in the west like Denver or Laramie. You can blame it on gaming, but it’s something else. I joke that Reno 911 gets it right at times, but The Misfits captures that feeling best.

My mother tells stories about the filming of The Misfits in 1961. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Monty Clift stayed at the Mapes Hotel downtown. People talked for 20 years about the event. The still images shot during the filming capture that indefinable quality that talks about the wide open spaces of Nevada, not as a John Ford western, but as an enormous setting occupied by isolated individuals.

Spinning Showgirls and Cows

Prima Donna Casino, 1970, spinning international showgirls

Many of you know that I was born in Reno, Nevada, Yes-sir-y Bob, I was birthed at Saint Mary's Hospital in 1964. Most people only know about Reno as a divorce town with dude ranches of divorcees, or from Reno 911. Sure it has a seedy side, what town doesn't? Wait there's Celebration in Florida—scary even to me. It was a great place to grow up. It's nestled up against the Sierra Nevadas in the high desert. Lake Tahoe is 20 minutes away, and much of everyone's time is spent hiking, skiing, and doing all types of outdoor activities. When I was growing up, Reno was still a cattle town with a few casinos on a small strip of Virginia Street.

I hate too admit it, but this strip had a huge influence on my design sensibilities. How can you be taken to the lunch counter at a place with a 20 foot tall showgirl that spins outside, and not be influenced? The western scene painted on the side of Harold's Club is pretty snappy; I'm more than happy to steal it if someone would let me. In fact most of my Knoll and Nelson furniture came from Harold's Club founder, "Pappy" Smith's estate. He was purty hip in 1955. There is an innocence to these images. The design was meant to be exuberant and playful. Good taste be damned. I'm sad that casinos today seem to be weighed down under the weight of focus groups and strategy, determining what theme will motivate gambling, and directing the design to the smallest detail. I'm sure nobody was thinking about human manipulation and revenue per square foot when they put the wonderful spinning atom on top of the Reno arch.

What most people think Reno is

Pappy Smith's Harold's Club

the Reno arch: the good one

Oxford Motel, 1969

Carousel Inn, it's a circus in every room

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