Drag Me to Hell

Before TMZ and online gossip sites, there was Star magazine Scandals. Noreen claims I speak like I’m in a 1950s low-end movie. This may be true. From what I’ve been told, “Swell,” is no longer used in everyday language. I’d much rather speak in Star magazine headlines, “I’m not under thirty. I’m not an alcoholic. I don’t need another Hollywood bar designer get-together.” The verbiage is matched only by the design. This is proof that modernism failed. Less is less here, and once is never enough.

Is there a grid? Who cares when Fergie romps topless with her Texas millionaire as her children watch? Are there typographic consistencies? “Princess Caroline’s husband zooms to his doom. Kiss Papa goodbye,” does not need a common type size. The Scandal issue is the design equivalent of “Shock and Awe.” Every page is a barrage of information screaming at the highest volume. Every fact is extreme.

This is how all copy should be written, regardless of the client. The exhibition, Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, at MOMA should be renamed, “Stalker Machines Terrorize and Attack Innocent Hipsters.” The New York Times should reconsider headlines such as “Obama Administration Calls for Syrian President to Step Down” to “Pres Lashes Out in Furious Rage at Evil Tyrant.” See how much more exciting the news could be.

Begin at the Beginning

There are a few projects that I regret not doing. The first was the Avalon Hotel, here in Beverly Hills. It was a perfect job for us: mid-century Alvin Lustig tiles, incredible building, beautiful redesign by Koning Eizenberg, and just a few blocks from the office. But, alas, it was not to be. The project went elsewhere, and as is typical, the final result was pretty darned good. I also was desperate to design a little book on “first lines,” when I was working at The New York Public Library. Again, the project was designed by my friend Donna Moll, who did a far better job than I would have. So the lesson here is to be glad that some projects get away, as long as they go to someone good. Or, if you don’t like the choice of a different designer, well accidents happen everyday.

The Know These Lines booklet that Donna designed is a gem. The design is subtle and incredibly crafted, and fits the subject matter flawlessly. The content is fantastic. The idea is to read the first sentence of a famous book, and answer its origin. For example, “Call me Ishmael.” is the first line in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. However, like the New York Times crossword, the choices become more difficult. If you have the kind of parties where people in worn out, but well made suits (men and women) get angry over a discussion about modernism and Virginia Woolf this is a perfect game for you. One caveat, however, like most things in life this game is better after cocktails.

Delight and Disgust

Everyone loves a story about the misunderstood artist, reviled in his time, and then lauded in his old age. Morris Lapidus is that story. When the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau Hotels were built, Lapidus was called vulgar, pretentious, artificial, and tasteless. Both hotels, however, were incredibly successful. The design challenge was to build a hotel where “the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day will look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create the hotel.” The result did this. Lapidus used a cinematic approach to architecture. His buildings look the way America in the 1950s thought luxury looked like, via Hollywood. Granted, some of the design, such as the Lapidus Residence bathroom, escapes me. But, if you like fancy, it sure is “fancified”.

I find it endlessly fascinating that populist work is typically deemed, “unworthy,” while something created for a small minority of elite intellectuals is “worthy.” If a basic tenet of Modernism is to create good design for the masses, this is contradictory. Lapidus weathered the decades of criticism and kept working. In 1970, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s critique of Lapidus was typical: “Lapidus is a sleazy, self-promoting careerist, an architect on the prestige-make. Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. He made his pile and excuses his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public).”

We can dissect the virulent antagonism in multiple ways. Since the work was designed to appeal to the masses in Florida, and was not in New York or Chicago, there is a distinct sense of regional and class elitism. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that his work was “uninspired superschlock.” This was a criticism of Lapidus’s ornate decor, but Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, suggesting anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, by the time Lapidus had retired, and was 97, the architecture community began to acknowledge his work. The book, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy, is a wonderful collection of exuberant and interesting work that challenges our ideas of taste and modernism.

Images below are from this book

The Mystery of the Clichéd Typography

The hate mail with corny typography

Getting criticism is part of the deal we made when we accepted that first speaking engagement, or magazine article. If you put yourself out there publicly, you’ll get some nice responses, and conversely, not so nice responses. The New York Times had asked Noreen to respond to a question, and obviously somebody didn’t like her answer. I’d love to say we were hurt and upset when this anonymous note showed up. Noreen was in New York, and the rest of the studio thought it was hilarious. Trying to solve the mystery of who sent the note became an ongoing project. Note the clues: the old How magazine logo, but I’m pretty sure Bryn Mooth at How didn’t send it; she’s actually one of those people who is good to the core. The consensus was that it came from a woman-owned company due to type from Cosmopolitan magazine, and the Hollywood postmark limited the attacker to Southern California, or a tourist at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Unfortunately we never solved the mystery. We hid the note in a drawer so Noreen wouldn’t see it. I wanted to wait until she was having a really bad day to show it to her. I’m that nice. The upside was that I didn’t like our website’s navigation, and now I had validation in the form of hate mail even though it used pretty expected typography.

The spineless no return address envelope for the hate mail with corny typography