The Sunset Years

I was flying to New York a recently, and one of the designers at AdamsMorioka gave me a DVD she thought I’d enjoy. I can’t recall the name, but it was a 1960s movie about a women’s motorcycle gang. It was funny in the way really terrible films, like Showgirls, are. Everything was fine until the rape scene in the women’s prison. It took me a couple of minutes to recognize that everyone around me on the plane was looking at my computer in horror. I had accidentally been watching soft-core porn in the American Airlines Business Class cabin. Bad form. I turned it off, and wondered if it was illegal to watch porn on an airplane.

Reading material is potentially as dangerous. The person next to me is always pretending to stretch so they can see what I’m reading. I should bring Devil Worship: Simple Satanic Rituals, but they are usually history books like Accommodating Revolutions: Virginia's Northern Neck in an Era of Transformations, 1760-1810. Other passengers have groovy magazines like Dwell, or Wallpaper. I don’t understand these. There are lots of people living barefoot in houses with plywood cabinets. I bring Sunset magazine.

I love Sunset. If you live in the American west and enjoy gardening, you get Sunset. I love the how to projects, and the affordable, and sensible good taste. But, I especially love the logo. For a time, Sunset took a slight detour, but under Mia Daminato they’ve returned to the classic script. Too often recently, organizations abandon a beautiful mark in favor of something with chrome and highlights. Sunset’s decision to return to the 1937 logo is smart and brave. I also like that the covers have used beautiful photos of Lake Tahoe, or a picnic. Nobody is offended when I pull Sunset magazine out of my bag on an airplane. That’s better than leaving an issue of Juggs on a plane (true story via my sister-in-law, an American Airlines flight attendant).

The Circus is a Wacky Place

As a design student, I was repeatedly told to study Polish poster art. This was in response to my work that was deemed, “too tasty, too polite.” I spent hours looking at these posters and..., nothing. They made no sense to me, and I could not understand what they meant, how they arrived at this odd aesthetic, or what they had to do with my work. Today, I realize the value of these posters. They transcend the expected. They follow an aesthetic that is fearless and non-traditional. And they allow for gesture and passion.

Now I find myself suggesting the same thing to my students. My students come back and say, “Professor Adams, I don’t understand what they have to do with my work.”  To which I say, "Look at them again."

The CYRK (circus) posters were designed during the golden age of polish posters, from 1962 to 1989. The state commissioned these posters to promote a new, modern circus. The designers followed this assignment with non-literal, suggestive forms. Often, these contained hidden anti-Soviet and anti-Communism symbols.

In all honesty, they still mystify me. I can imagine how Josef Muller-Brockmann designed a poster, or Alvin Lustig, or even Yusaku Kamekura. They are beautiful and mysterious, but are from a culture so far removed from my reality, that Martians might have designed them.


from the Lou Danziger Collection

Wiktor Gorka, 1967

The dog will have its day

While I may seem incredibly confident, some may even say smug, I’m always worried about the content of my presentations. Too much eye candy, and the audience is angry they didn’t learn anything. Too little, and the audience is angry and bored. Last Thursday, I spoke at Julia Rheinhard Lupton’s Design Fictions Conference at University of California, Irvine. Julia is Ellen Lupton’s twin sister. This made me feel I felt as though I’d known her for years, and probably scared her as I was a little too friendly. Added to this was the terror of speaking with two noted and smart architectural critics, Geoff Manaugh and Charlie Hailey. The audience, primarily humanities students, was also smart and literate. And I only had my dancing poodle show. Nobody threw anything at me, so I guess it was okay, and the crowd loved the tutu and flaming hoops with Fifi the Wonder Poodle.

While it may seem that life at AdamsMorioka is a full-time exercise is popular culture, bright colors, and endless hilarity, it’s not. Sometimes we even read a book. One of my favorite projects right now is an identity and cross-media system for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Public Library is such a remarkable resource, and the Foundation is committed to creating something innovative and remarkable. I can’t show the identity yet; it’s still in process. But, I can show a little preview with a little 5"x7", 16-page booklet that served as an invitation to the Annual Gala. More to come as we proceed.

Hot Times in the Big City


My great grandfather, George “Goggy”, was born in Caliente, Nevada. My grandmother and father were born there, too. My grandparents met and were married there. I have an idea to drive there and see it someday. But it’s an eight-hour drive, and it’s only one block big. So it would be rather anti-climactic. I’ve come to realize that Caliente and Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are related. My grandmother talked about being a girl and having picnics at Cathedral Gorge. Oddly, it looks exactly like Big Thunder. Caliente experiences a desert flash flood. And, yes, so does the Walt Disney World Big Thunder. Caliente looks like it was a happening place in the nineteenth century, so does the little town at Big Thunder. And finally, Caliente exists as a railroad town. The Caliente station is the big attraction in town as one of the last Mission style stations built. Big Thunder is a railroad! You be the judge.


The Customs Of The Barbarous And Civilized

I planned on taking photos of the good and awful outfits at the AIGA Bright Lights event. But, then I was sidetracked by the sight of the bar. Clearly, my drinking is getting in the way of my fashion photo-journalism (is that an oxymoron?). What I need is another person who follows me around and takes photos while I'm busy spilling cocktails on someone.

This year, the event called for cocktail attire, as opposed to black tie. Personally, I prefer the black tie option. It's nice to show respect for the Medalists who are honored for a lifetime of work. This year, however, I was relieved to not wear the tuxedo. When I tried it on for another event, it was like putting on a child's suit. I must have been ten pounds lighter when I bought it. I guess those Sunny Von Bulow dinners of martinis and ice cream sundaes were a bad idea. I was confused about the "cocktail attire" idea. Was this what I wear at home at cocktail hour? Pajamas? Fortunately, Michael Vanderbyl, the best dressed man in design, gave me the low-down. The other guests ranged from elegant and gorgeous, like Pam Williams, to clownish. Sorry, I won't name those people. I still need to work in this profession. But look for the tell all book ten years down the line.


The Pleasure of Leaving

I spend too much time at LAX. But I have a system that works fairly well. I arrive 90 minutes before my flight. I go through security, head to the Admirals Club, and set up my computer and get to work. It all works very nicely. What I like best about LAX, however, isn’t the body revealing scanners, or the Crispy Chicken Crispers at Chilis. Down on the bottom level, in the long corridors connecting the gates to the exit and baggage claim is the most wonderful tile in Los Angeles. Why nobody has determined it to be “old” and torn it out is a miracle. It’s been there as long as I remember. I’ve tried taking photos of the tile in sequence to make one long photo, but TSA has stopped me. I don’t know why they think it’s dangerous to photograph tile. The next time you pass through LAX, go downstairs and check out the tile. It’s worth visiting Los Angeles just to see that, then turn around and fly home.

Everyday is like sun day

When I start talking about identity design, everyone loses his or her sense of humor. “Logos? That’s no laughing matter,” is the tone. There’s no room for funny in logo design or ID systems. Don’t you people understand this is a serious business? Of course it’s serious business. It’s the cornerstone and foundation of a company’s communications plan. But does that mean every logo should be a hard lined box with a tortured letterform, and a system with a vertical blue bar on every piece of collateral? I would say, “No.” Communications should engage and delight. That applies to identity design as well as a website, brochure, or signage program.

A great example of this approach is Alexander Girard’s design for La Fonda del Sol restaurant. In 1960, Restaurant Associates hired Girard to oversee all elements from the logo to the plates. Located in the Time & Life building in New York, La Fonda del Sol embraced the international ambitions of Rockefeller Center. Girard’s identity is varied and uses a multiple set of icons. What, you say, more than one logo? Was he mad? I don’t know about Girard’s psychological health, but it works for me. The restaurant paired the hand-made, craft of Mexico with a high-end and cosmopolitan tone. The solution was years ahead of a tongue-in-cheek tone now used by Jet Blue and Virgin Air. I especially like the newspaper ad that reads, “Will the lady who lost her composure during Fiesta at La Fonda del Sol please come back this Sunday?” I’m not so sure about the completely non-politically correct Siesta ad.

The Sweetest Things in Life

Alvin Lustig made some purty nifty design. Often when a print designer turns to environmental work, the result is flat designs on a wall. Lustig’s collaboration with Victor Gruen for Barton’s Barton's Bonbonniere is a great example of his talent in spatial thinking. His solution is energetic, playful and takes advantage of the 3 dimensions from the ceiling to the floor. I can’t say I’d like to live there; it might drive me to drink. But what doesn’t?

I have friends from Brooklyn who remember Barton's Bonbonniere as a place to visit on special occasions. Viennese immigrant Stephen Klein established Barton’s in 1938. In the 1950s, Barton's had three kosher candy production plants in Brooklyn. Barton's was particularly known in the Jewish community for being "the" Passover chocolate of choice. In the 1960s, the Klein family sold the business.  Barton’s name was used by several parent companies until it was discontinued in 2009. I don't like candy, or chocolate, but I don't like that I can't visit Barton's Bonbonniere

Days of Nothing

I think in charts. I try to picture a chart diagramming the amount of images created by humans through history. I see an image of the earth surrounded by 100 cave paintings, and slowly adding images, with a massive jump in the last 20 years. When we needed to process film, we were more selective about the images we made. The internet has provided a place for all of us to load every digital image we make, regardless of the mundane subject matter. Since I like mundane subject matter of ordinary life, this is good.

I recently found a set of images on the Elko County Rose Garden website. I can’t remember why I was at the Elko County Rose Garden website, which is sort of like having a blackout and waking up in Tijuana, “What? How’d I end up here?” There is a section on the site of images of Currie, Nevada. Currie is a town that is for sale if you want a town. Pretty mundane and wonderful.

I’m a big fan of photographers Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Jeff Brouws. These Currie, Nevada photos are incredible in the same vein. I don’t know if it is intentional or accidental, but these are beautiful. I love the empty vastness, and the sense of giving-up. The compositions are wonderful, and the subject matter is beautiful. In this instance, I’m not going to decide if these images have pedigree and judge them accordingly. I’m just going to like them.

The Innocents Aboard

If you come to Disneyland with me, you will have a dull time. Since I can go at any time, any attraction with a line is out of the question. I avoid the parade after seeing it for the first time. I prefer a slow and easy experience. I like sitting on Main Street, riding the Disneyland Railroad, and the Mark Twain Riverboat.

It’s not that the attractions with lines aren’t worth the wait. I typically say, “Oh, too long. Let’s do that next time.” So, you can see, after walking around the park with me passing every attraction, you would not be happy.

Here’s the secret to sitting on Main Street: get some popcorn, or ice cream and sit on a bench at the Railroad Station. If you buy ice cream, never go to Gibson Girl. Use the Main Street Cone Shop, which is on the side street behind the Market House. Don’t sit on the curb, unless you're watching a parade. It’s like being homeless at Disneyland and people may step on you.

When you ride the Mark Twain, head for the Promenade Deck (the second floor for land-lubbers) and the bow of the ship. Everyone else will race up the stairs to the top Texas Deck, or scramble for the chairs on the Main Deck. Relax, and take in the scenery. There’s no need to race around the ship like a headless chicken; you can ride it as many times as you like. And go to the bathroom before boarding. You don’t want to be on the far side of Tom Sawyer Island and tugging on doors hoping to find a restroom. There isn’t one.

The Great Wall(s)

This term, Nik Hafermaas, the chair of the graphic design program at Art Center, asked me to help curate the gallery. It seemed like an easy job. How hard could it be to choose some posters and hang them evenly spaced apart? The reality was more complicated, in a good way. In the end, I was faced with an enormous wealth of incredible projects. My first impulse was to put everything in the gallery. That, unfortunately, would lead to an episode of Hoarders. I didn’t want to be faced with a professional organizer, television crew, unhappy movers, and weeping family members while I tried to climb over mountains of design projects.

Let me define “incredible projects.” These aren’t the perfectly made and tasteful wine labels, or nice and tight simple logos. These are the projects that go beyond the assignment and ask fundamental questions about culture, how we read symbols, and what we make. And they are perfectly made. The high point of the gallery task was seeing the work and being endlessly energized and inspired. The low point was not being able to fit everything in our space. I need design a solution that allows for more projects and doesn’t point to a psychological disorder.

Below is one of my favorite projects from last term, Dawn Kim’s map poster for Knotts Berry Farm. First, it’s beautiful, like a Jackson Pollock painting. Dawn’s poster is so dense and multi-layered. It isn’t collage to solve a problem of filling space. It’s frenetic energy and possibility of discovery does the job of redefining the Knott’s experience beautifully. I would gladly show more great projects from the gallery if my students sent me their pdfs. Hint, here, guys.

My Battle with Kathy Griffin

I feel sorry for my trainer, Bobby Solorio. He’s a fantastic trainer, always on time, and always changing things around to keep me interested. He also trains Kathy Griffin, hence the issue. I’m sure Kathy keeps him entertained with hilarious stories and tales of her exciting travels. I tell Bobby about speaking engagements at conferences and try to explain something wonderful I’ve seen, like a new typeface. And I endlessly tell him stories about my family and American history. These are wildly interesting to me, but I’m sure Bobby feels like he is trapped in a terrible American History class in high school.

Here’s an example: Kathy tells a great story about working with Anderson Cooper. I tell Bobby about visiting Colonial Williamsburg and actually meeting historians who knew about distant grandparents and other relatives at each of the buildings. Then, I excitedly tell him about the paint colors of the buildings. “Bobby,” I say, “I can actually get the same paint color that was used on the Peyton Randolph House, or the wallpaper color of the George Wythe House. George Wythe was married to two of my distant great-aunts, not at the same time, and then was murdered by a trashy nephew.” Then I recount the entire George Wythe story starting with Thomas Jefferson’s law studies. How does that compare to meeting Liza Minnelli?

However, someone out there might care about our country’s glorious history and the amazing colors at Williamsburg. And I, frankly, would much rather paint a wall with Wythe House Gold, than hang out with fabulous celebrities at glamorous galas.

The Variation of Animals Under Domestication

The first year Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened, we made a family trek to Florida to see it. The weather was remarkably authentic to equatorial Africa. Florida in July is, strangely, rather hot. This forced the animals to sleep in the shade or hide. Leaving, we all agreed it was incredible looking, but perhaps, the Vegetable Kingdom would be more appropriate. A couple of years later, we returned when it was not high noon and 115 degrees. This time, the animals were out wandering.

I have a love/hate relationship with the Animal Kingdom. It is visually sublime. The attention to detail is amazing, and it highlights man’s struggle at taming nature beautifully. But the attractions scare me. I like the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction, but after going on safari in Africa, it was nice, but not really the same thing. The rest of the time, I wander around terrified I will be forced to go on the scary attractions. It’s hot, and I don’t want to have a fainting spell on the Expedition Everest roller coaster, or the dizzy and spinning Primeval Whirl. That’s embarrassing when grandmothers with canes happily ride these with no fear. I am extremely terrified of the extremely terrifying Dinosaur attraction. The first and only time I went on this, I put my hands over my ears, closed my eyes, and basically curved up into a fetal position. The snapshot taken automatically at the end of the ride captured a car of happy people, and someone who looked like he was having a seizure.

It's a Wide, Wide World

The Cinerama Dome is an incredible movie theater in Hollywood. The screen curves at the front of the theater to create a “surround” experience. I recall seeing Vertigo there (the re-digitized re-release. I’m not that old), and sitting on the far left of the front row. The result was a bizarre and skewed Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Now the Cinerama Dome is part of the Arclight complex. The Arclight makes other movie theaters seem like filthy places where old men are touching themselves. I especially like being able to reserve a specific seat. I hate sitting in the middle, and prefer an aisle—hence the skewed Jimmy Stewart.

Cinerama was created in the 1950s along with a host of other technologies that would draw the viewers away from television and back into the theater. It was sort of like 3d now. Sometimes this was nifty, as in Lawrence of Arabia, but the un-letterbox version broadcast on television created many odd scenes of people talking to no one. The logos for these technologies were often better than the movie. So here, for you viewing pleasure, are some of them.

Avocados and Watermelon

This year, we signed a new lease on the office. Last year was so crappy that Noreen and I decided a mini-overhaul was due. We had the office repainted and replaced the green carpet that looked like a dental office. We’ve lived with the same pastel colors for 17 years, and it seemed like the right time to evolve. For me that meant leaving behind the world of 1955 and moving forward to 1967. Mary Blair’s color palette for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has always been a favorite of mine. So this became our jumping off point.

I was pleased that we were evolving into a more sophisticated palette until the building management reported back that they loved it because it looked like a Mexican restaurant. Fine by me, if we could get a liquor license I would gladly begin to serve Margaritas. I’m sure it would be more profitable than being a design firm. Hey, there’s an idea here. I’ll talk to Noreen about this tomorrow.

Sour Pussy on the Beach

I’m back from vacation and the settlers cabin is, once again, open for business. Last week we spent our annual post Labor Day vacation at Kona Village on the big island of Hawaii. While others were photographing their newlywed wife on the beach, or close-ups of the turtles sunning themselves, I was shooting type. At one point as I sat on a chaise lounge reading about my grandmother’s cousin Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and FDR, other guests were wildly photographing the turtles. “Why?” I ask myself. What are you going to do with a bunch of photos of a turtle? Then I took time to photograph the hand-made Stop sign.

If you think you’re a super groovy designer who is first at making lots of funky hand drawn type on posters, get a clue. Kona Village’s signage program is decades old and has the grooviest type I’ve ever seen. And you’ve got to love a place that is truly sustainable by taking bits of wood and logs and making signs. It’s not like the Four Seasons next door, with the fancy pants typeset signs.

In addition to taking photos of signs, I read seven books, ate enormous amounts of ahi, and put my phone in the safe. One of the benefits of visiting at the same time each year is seeing the other guests who visit at the same time each year. This leads to an atmosphere not unlike a summer camp with the same friends each year. Of course, someone is always willing to not play along. For almost a decade we’ve seen the same people and become great friends. But there is one woman who refuses to smile or say hello. Even when I have pointedly looked straight at her and demanded a cheery “Hello,” I’ve only received a sour face and mutter of “hmm, hello.” I decided this was unacceptable rude behavior and someone suggested she had a “sour puss.” After that I only called her “Sour-Pussy,” until my friend Jill noted that it didn’t sound like I was talking about her sour facial expression.

Mai-Tais and Suicide, Is it Bad?

One of my favorite spots was Trader Vics at the Beverly Hilton. It used to be a very Sinatra Beverly Hills crowd, but then the other group, producers and prostitutes, found it. Unfortunately, it was recently updated. Why, I don’t know. I guess it was on the verge of being very cool, so time to make it tasteful. At the other end of the spectrum is Trader Dicks at the Nugget in Sparks, Nevada. It’s amazingly cheesy in a 1980s porn movie way. I actually love it more. If you are looking for an evening of serious career alcoholic drinking with mai-tais, this is the place. This is dangerous, though. You can either revel in the plastic flower, velveteen booth, and fried pupu platter wonderfulness, or it can go the other way. If you are the type who drinks and has crying jags, this atmosphere may lead to the most depressing evening of your life. But it’s Reno, and a gamble as to whether the night ends with hilarity or an intentional overdose.

My Suite Life

Since I live in Los Angeles, I don’t have the opportunity to stay at the Disneyland Hotel. The unique aspect of the Disneyland Hotel is that it lacks a theme. Other Disney hotels, Disney’s Grand Californian, Disney’s Yacht Club, etc. have clear themes. The Polynesian Resort is, indeed, Polynesian. Disneyland Hotel is only about Disneyland. This makes good sense to me, since that is where you are staying. Over the years, the hotel has changed. It’s been expanded, and updated, and modified. I didn’t notice that the building had changed until it was pointed out to me. Of course, it’s been changed from something that someone thought was out of date, to an aesthetic that is about taste and high quality.

Surprisingly, I wish it had stayed the same. The old sign was a true thing of beauty. I loved the classic 1960s contemporary interiors. For a few moments, Noreen and I toyed with the idea of moving our office to the Plaza building. But, it would have been a long commute. And we would spend more time sitting on park benches on Main Street eating popcorn, than designing.

All Else Failed

Everyone has a Plan B. It’s the plan in the back of my head that happens when all else fails. For me, Plan B is buying a vintage trailer, parking it in the Mojave Desert, and collecting rocks. It sounds like fun, but I imagine it might get old fast. That is where alcohol enters the story. In order to get through each day, I would, no doubt, need to begin drinking in the morning. This would enable me to yell at passers by, “Get out o’ here. What you lookin’ at?” I could holler.

I’ve also tried unsuccessfully to persuade several friends to buy a trailer for their backyard, rather than adding on to their house. Nobody particularly likes this idea. I think it would be wonderful, if you had the space, to have a 1955 turquoise trailer as a guesthouse or office. My grandparents had one of those giant RVs for a while, and boy was it ugly. If you like mauve, almond, and beige, you’d like this RV. When I suggested they buy an old Airstream, they just stared at me. But I don’t want to drive one around and go to campgrounds. I just want to sit on a lawn chair outside my trailer at sunset, drinking out of the bottle and yelling at wild rabbits.

Distant Longings

Several years ago, I went to San Juan, Puerto Rico for an AIGA meeting. I don’t remember the name of our hotel. It was a big Art Moderne building that had the vague feeling of being a grand hotel in Havana long after Castro took over. It was definitely past its prime, but still trying. At one point during a break, Laura Shore called us over to the window. The Caribe Hilton was next door and filled with bright umbrellas, a sparkling pool, and happy people. We were in a dark room drinking expired sodas. It was reminiscent of the scene in Stardust Memories when Woody Allen is on the sad train, and looks over at another train with people in formal wear laughing and drinking martinis.

I recently found the identity for the Caribe Hilton designed by Warner Leeds in 1952. Of course, this has long been abandoned. I especially love the odd “space” menu. Someone should make a "Logo Commission" in the spirit of the Landmarks Commission to prevent the loss of such treasures. Of course, business owners probably wouldn't appreciate being forced to use the same logo forever.