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)

My mask of sanity is about to slip

One of the things I really hate

People often mistake me for a nice person.  Noreen tells me that she is constantly confronted with, "Oh, Sean is the nicest person I know." I'm actually a sociopath. At a lecture in Dallas ten years ago, during the Q+A, someone said, "You remind me of the guy in American Psycho." How right they were. When Steven Heller asked me to design a poster for the Complaints exhibition at the Wolfsonian, I was chomping at the bit. There were so many things I hated. I couldn't decide which I despised more: walking slowly four abreast, stopping at the top of the escalator, hipsters, children in matching outfits, guys who shave nude at the gym, or salespeople touching me. The list kept going. So I did all of them. They are quite varied and point to my rage issues. The commonality is that I would like to kill each culprit slowly with a butter knife. Golly, I guess that's not too nice.

Adams_Complaint_01.02americanpsycho2 yacht tenure tables spacenitwithappy greetings facial-hair escalator children

One of the things I really hate

salespeople photo nude hipsters bunny


Inside Job

Writing books is hard. First you are required to write; that’s hard. Then you need to find images. That's hard. And you must have the rights to use the images; harder. Somehow my friend, Steven Heller, manages to do this continuously. If I heard that the United States government was going after Steven for having a monopoly, I wouldn’t be surprised. If you need a well-written book about design, go no further.

Steven’s recent book, Graphic, Inside the Sketchbooks of the World's Great Graphic Designers, co-written with Lita Talarico is a gem. Sharing your sketchbooks is not easy. They reveal a sliver of your internal processes. In some instances, such as Ed Fella, it is clear that Ed’s head is a complex swirl of forms and ideas. Ken Carbone’s remarkably beautiful and numerous sketchbooks betray a mind that is disciplined, careful, and sees a world that is lush and beautiful. Michael Bierut’s sketchbooks seem to point to an obsession with the letter “M”. They also have that wonderful mixture of words and images that is integral to Michael’s work. Marian Bantjes sketchbooks, are, surprise, unlike anything actual human beings can create. Since she lives in the backwoods of British Columbia, and alien abduction movies seem to be set there, well, you do the math.

My sketchbooks do a wonderful job of revealing just how shallow I am. Pretty colors and funny charts. I was there when they were created, and typically, I was sketching while someone was explaining something. This led to my standard response of looking up from my book, as if I were taking notes, and saying, “I’m so sorry, could you repeat that?”

Creator of the Gods

There was a time in the 1970s and 80s when record album designers were gods. If you saw one on the street you bowed down immediately and kissed his or her hand. They had the power to decide what was cool, and what was not. They could ignore budgets and demand the sleeve be wrapped in rubber. I had one teacher who would come to class and start with, “Sorry I was late. I was having lunch with Mick.” He didn’t mean Mick Hodgson at Ph.D. It wasn’t that way from the beginning. It started with Alex Steinweiss. Steven Heller, Kevin Reagan, and Steinweiss have written a new book, Alex Steinweiss: Creator of the Modern Album Cover

Working at Columbia Records in the 1940s he changed the industry. He replaced the previously generic stamped covers with remarkable 12x12 posters. These album covers reference European modernism, A.M. Cassandre, and Salavdor Dali in form.  They succeed in combining this high art aesthetic with wit and levity. Without knowing who made it, one of my biggest influences in high school was his cover for Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2. I’m pretty sure I somehow transposed the Russian landscape here into a poster for the school musical, Oklahoma.

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