We're moseying out this week to round-up some dogies and rustle up some holiday grub. Come visit us fer a spell next week.
I have a romanticized idea of design in the 1960s and 70s. I imagine the designers of that time sitting at their drafting tables, ordering type, calling an airbrush illustrator, sketching wildly on their large pads, and jumping into their Corvettes to hang at a local Victorian bar with the other designers. Early in my career, I went to Robert Miles Runyon’s office in Marina Del Rey for an internship interview. I recall a woody interior with macramé and hanging ferns. It was very “Regal Beagle” from Three’s Company.
I never met Marget Larsen, she died prematurely in 1984, but I imagine her in this way: “Here’s a sketch,” I imagine her saying to young designer in a white shirt and black tie, “I’m thinking Caslon.” then sitting back and drawing curly-cues. The work is sublime and looks so effortless. Of course, it was probably much more difficult.
Larsen worked in San Francisco. She worked on ads for whisky, bread packaging, and fashion stores. Her touch was delicate and bold at the same time. There is a slight touch of Victoriana and assemblage in the work. Her sense of typography for ads designed while she was at Weiner & Gossage elevated their genius copy and gave them national standing. These ads move away from the traditional composition of product image, headline, secondary copy and logo in the bottom right corner. They are designed with the presumption that the audience is literate and can read. My favorite Larsen design is the cardboard Thonet chair. It’s one of those ideas that I see and say, “Why didn’t I think of that? Can I copy it and nobody will know?” Since I’m publishing it here, I guess not.
I’m sitting at Bob Hope Airport (Burbank), waiting for a flight. My post today is subsequently limited to what I have on my computer. Fortunately, I have a lecture that I give to my students about idea making. OK, yes, it could be dull. However, you can’t complain there was no educational value in the Burning Settlers Cabin.
Here is the problem: we experience the world in scenes. We watch scenes on television, we see them in life from eye level, and we see them in our mind when we listen to the radio or read a book. I realized this when I noticed a trend with my students. All of their solutions tended to be a depiction of a scene. If the assignment were a poster for “spring in Paris”, they would return with solutions of people sitting at tables with the Eiffel Tower behind them. But this is boring. This is what most movie posters are.
Lou Danziger taught me about the “fused metaphor”. This formula can be used when designing that combines symbol A with symbol B to produce a new result. This is my process: I make a list of every symbol, for example, Summer in Los Angeles: summer; sun, beach, beach umbrella, swimming pool; Los Angeles; freeway, oranges, palm tree, etc. and then combine the symbols. What happens if you combine a freeway with the sun, or an orange and the beach? The solution is a combination of symbols that have more resonance than a scene of people sitting on Venice Beach.
When we design an identity system, we go through a long and thorough process. The final outcome fits the client's business and is the foundation of a larger system. But when I see this logo for Douglaston Steakhouse designed by Restaurant Associates in the 1960s, I want to drop all of the thinking and visual exploration and only design logos with sad animals. Strangely, this logo seems more fitting for PETA, than a steakhouse. It's honest, though, and I appreciate that. If you eat steaks, well, there's no getting around the fact that a cow had to die. I think the cows in this are experiencing the classic stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, and acceptance.
I’ve been encouraged to do some “how to” posts. This is difficult because I’m sure my methods are whacked and I wouldn’t want to run anyone down the same path. Nevertheless, I’m often asked about our color palette. Usually the question is, “where do you come up with these colors?” I know the subtext is, “Where in the hell do you come up with these colors?”
The typical color palette at AdamsMorioka is bright. This is partially because the floor ceiling windows that line one entire wall of the studio blinds me. I also know that people like bright colors. They make people feel upbeat and energized. Bright colors open the door for the viewer to feel comfortable. I’m a fan of doing work that is seductive, not repulsive. And I probably have bad taste.
A commonality in most of the palettes is their connection to Technicolor. If I could only achieve that intense and saturated color in Bye Bye Birdie I would die happy. Bye Bye Birdie is a cartoon, painted with a fauvist sensibility. The tones are pure and intense, and liberally sprinkled on each frame. One secret I’ve used to try and replicate this intensity in 4-color printing is to use touch plates of fluorescent magenta and yellow under the CMYK. Try it. You’ll like it.
I teach Communication Design 1 at Art Center. This is a first term class that teaches students about images and their meaning, ideation, and iconography. The final project changes each term. Last term, the assignment was to design a poster for an AIGA Conference with the theme of Obsession. The assignment should communicate the students’ own obsession, hopefully an embarrassing one. This sounds easy. I would simply lie, and do a poster on something disturbing, like furries. But I don't let them do that. Why? Because I'm the teacher. Call me Professor Sir Mr. Adams.
The students need to delve into their own psyche and determine what drives them, what are they passionate about, what do they think about all the time? It’s difficult for many of them to be willing to expose anything personal. But I don’t believe the solution will have any connection if it is not authentic. Of course, there are solutions that will not go beyond safe and benign obsessions like kittens (although kitten obsession is kind of creepy). The most successful solutions come from an honest solution with excellent form. What is amazing to me is the high level of skill exhibited by students in their first year. They’re certainly braver than I was at 18.
Often I get frustrated when things don’t get done. It drives me nuts when a student has a week to do 20 concepts and comes in with 10, or when I ask if we’ve completed a task in the office and I’m met with whistling. It’s been pointed out to me that I’m a little manic. I don’t do well sitting still. I think sleep is remarkably unproductive. If something needs to be done, there’s no time like the present. I get this from my grandmother (of MJB peacock fame). I never saw her rest. Even weeks before she passed away, she would try to get up and make me soup. It’s from her that I think relaxing is lazy, lazy, lazy.
Over the years, my grandmother made things. Some of the objects like the birdhouses from 7-Up bottles were questionable. Most, however, are works of art. She made hundreds of Christmas items to be sold at the church bizarre, or Shriner’s craft sale. We forbid her from selling her ornaments. They took hours to create, and she designed each one from scratch. Most families begin the arguing after a death when it’s time to divide funds or real estate. That came easily. The ornament division, though, was tense and took all of our patience. Some may discount the ornaments as “bored house-wife crafts.” To me, they are beautiful and intricate artifacts made with love.
When we started AdamsMorioka, the first phone call on that first day came from Saul Bass. He called to congratulate us and offer any help. I asked Saul to only give me some good advice. He answered, “Hire a business person more expensive than you think you can afford,” and. “Never talk to a client about design.” I’ve used both of these for the last 16 years.
The year before Saul died, we spoke at the Aspen Design Conference. One of the speakers before us went over-schedule 30 minutes. This designer was well known for temper tantrums, so the organizers didn’t pull him off stage. By the end of his mini-series length lecture, most of the audience left wearily. This left us and the next speaker, Lorraine Wild, with a very empty theater. Once on stage, I looked out and saw a sea of empty seats, and Saul and Elaine Bass. They sat through the long lecture and stayed to support us. That is the mark of a true hero. You’ll see Saul’s work here often, the color palettes alone are genius. He was a remarkable designer and a true mensch.
In the last two weeks, several people who don’t know each other told me I should meditate. Perhaps it was my clenched fists or violent outbursts. I don’t know. It’s a nice idea, and I went online to learn how to do it. I learned that it takes time, and I don’t have enough to meditate. So, I went to Amoeba Music in Hollywood to buy easy listening records. You know you’re wound too tight when you think Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are just a bit too raucous. There is no easy listening section at Amoeba. Obviously, people who shop there are very hip and buy vinyl to spin at their DJ gigs. This is good for me, because all the records I want are in the $1.00 Clearance section.
Within 15 minutes, I’d only made my way through the first four rows of records and I had to stop. At this point, I had 40 records. Clearly, this could go very wrong without some self-control. I hope that my love for easy listening doesn’t spark a trend. I seem to be the only person in Los Angeles looking for these records, probably for good reason. Now, you may say, “Sean, no, bad, stop.” I admit the music is remarkably schmaltzy. It’s amazing that someone could beat all the life out of every song on a record. But it is relaxing to me and takes less effort than meditation.
The covers all share the feeling of heavy sedative addiction. The women tend to look like they’ve been slipped a roofie, and the men tend to look neutered and stunned. There’s no room for excitement, passion, or anger in this world. Even the typography goes out of its way to be “nice”. And, of course, you knew that The Lawrence Welk Show was destined to end up here at Burning Settlers Cabin. If you can manage, you must watch this clip until the terrifying people in yellow sweaters pop into the screen and demand that you, the viewer, be happy and nice and pleasant. I mean it, be happy dammit! But not overly happy.
One of my favorite films is Shampoo with Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, and Goldie Hawn. You might think I like it because there are groovy hairstyles and Carrie Fisher plays a spoiled and promiscuous Beverly Hills teenager. Julie Christie drives a beautiful Pagoda Roof Mercedes, but that’s not why I like the film. There is something so specifically Los Angeles about it. On the surface, it couldn’t be shallower. There are beautiful models and fabulous parties at houses in the Hollywood Hills. The women are obsessed with their hair, clothes, and the main character played by Warren Beatty.
But like the reality of everyone’s life here, there is a sense of desperation and isolation that permeates everyone’s actions. Actual feelings and complexity intrude on the carefully constructed lives of the characters. The final scene is set on an empty lot at the top of a hill in Beverly Hills. The hill is shrouded in that ever-present fog (not smog) that we call June gloom. This and Paul Simon’s score are unforgettable. It is a film about contradictions and artifice. I like that.
My grandmother had many rules about proper behavior, and what made people “good people” or “trash.” Here are a few:
1. Hang your blinds straight, only trash have crooked blinds.
2. A gentleman always removes his hat indoors, or in the presence of a lady, trash insists on rudely wearing their baseball caps inside.
3. A gentleman always wears a belt, or braces (suspenders).
4. A gentleman knows how to mix a good martini.
5. Young ladies do not pierce their ears. Bad girls do.
I try to abide by these rules and many of her others, although the ear-piercing rule is probably out of date. Unfortunately, I think I might fall out of line when it comes to Fresca.
Each year, we take a trip to Kona Village in Hawaii. Typically, we’ll make a run to Safeway to buy rum and mixers. The idea is to mix my own simple Mai Tai cocktails and save some money as opposed to buying them at the bar. At the beginning of the trip, I’ll stick to the plan, mixing pineapple and orange juice, and adding some lime. After a couple of days, this is typically too much trouble, and I switch to simply mixing the rum with Fresca. I know it sounds seriously trailer trash, but trust me, the “rumescas” are very good. You can also mix Fresca with gin (Tanqueray of Bombay, not the cheap brands that make you hungover). I call this the Ginesca. And for those who prefer vodka, it’s a perfect refreshing mixer. I'm calling this a Ruskie-esca.
I’d add recipes here, but there’s no need. Simply fill the highball glass ½ way with the liquor over ice then add the Fresca. Some may say this is too strong, but no, no, no, they’ll get used to it.
Designers are obsessive. We tend to not do things halfway. If we collect thimbles, we must have every kind ever made. If we like Trade Gothic, we’ll defend it to the death. When we travel, we are the odd people seen taking pictures of a doorknob, or every manhole in Amsterdam. I’m no different. While other people are busy taking photos of their families in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, I’m shooting the typography on the sign in front of Frontierland. I have a special love for western type, and there’s no shortage of it at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. For your viewing pleasure I have collected much of this typography for you.
As an aside to those guests taking the family castle photo, for the love of God bring your subject closer and let the castle be in the background. Unless you need to see your subject’s shoes, they will be tiny people in the distance and you will wait forever for everyone to pass. This is my insane pet peeve. I want the job that allows me to kindly suggest to guests that this is a bad thing to do.
The other day I was told, "You have Cape Cod politician hair." I think this was a compliment, unless you hate Cape Cod and politicians. But, we always want what we can't have. In high school, I was desperate for cool Keith Partridge hair. I wanted the feathered, easy, and groovy look. My hair is, unfortunately, big. It doesn't grow long like Keith Partridge's hair, it just gets bigger like Sideshow Bob. I tried endlessly, but my attempts ended with enormous hair that gets wavy. It is not fun to be asked if you use a curling iron when you are in the 9th grade.
We make our own prisons. For years, it bothered me when someone would meet me and say, “I love your work, you guys do that funny bright stuff.” The “I love your work” part was good, but the rest felt so small. In our minds, we play with ideas of pastiche, appropriation, irony, and media manipulation. The end product may incorporate complex theory, but it often appears bright and funny. So I’ve had to accept that we built this house. It’s like Marilyn Monroe wanting to be considered a serious actress, or The Beach Boys wanting serious consideration. Marilyn might have been a serious actress, but people wanted her to be what she appeared to be. Brian Wilson is an amazing and revolutionary musician, but the Beach Boys will always be fun and bubble-gum.
Years ago, Appleton Paper asked us to design a piece for their line, Utopia. The assignment was this: ask a hairstylist what his or her idea of a perfect life is. Then design a piece that reflects this. The answer we received was fairly expected, “I’d hang out by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel and have drinks,” or something along those lines. This seemed dull and expected to us. But if you dig a little deeper, the entire Hollywood myth is buried in that statement.
The Hollywood myth that we all know is this: a young innocent leaves the farm in Kansas and heads to Hollywood to become a star. She is soon discovered at the soda fountain at Schwabs and becomes a huge star. Awards follow, and then the diva-esque behavior sets in. Of course it all ends badly with substance abuse and rehab. This is a far more fun story to tell. In fact, it is the plot of Valley of the Dolls. We decided to tell the narrative visually. Budget constraints and a nod to Cindy Sherman, not excessive ego, thrust Noreen into the starring role. Of course, in the end, it's the bright and funny stuff.
Earlier this year, Noreen and I spoke at Design Indaba in South Africa. Marian Bantjes was on of the other speakers and we all went on safari together. Marian is a perfect travel companion. I’ve always been a huge fan of Marian’s work. I’ve known Marian for a long time, but am guilty, like most people, of pre-judging her. I assumed that since she was Marian, and an internationally famous designer that she would barely deign to speak to me. But, if you know her, you know she is nothing like that.
After flying across the world, spending a week on safari, and worrying about being the opening speakers at a huge conference, I was exhausted. One night in the midst of a cocktail party, I realized I couldn’t be friendly to one more person, and hit a wall. I excused myself and went back to my hotel room to decompress. Five minutes later, Marian knocked on my door and insisted on having a quiet dinner with me. She spent the rest of the evening with me and we had dinner and watched a DVD on my computer. She could have stayed at the cocktail party, and then gone on to a fancy dinner, where she was the belle of the ball. This is the mark of a true friend and good to the core person. Marian may be one of the most amazing talents of our time, but to me she is a remarkable and rare person.
P.S., look for a big announcement from Marian soon.
I love Mexico City. On my last visit, I was speaking at a conference and had remarkable hosts who took us to the best restaurants, out of the way shops, Museo Estudio Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo’s house, La Casa Azul, and Teotihuacan. It is easily one of my favorite speaking engagement experiences. Somehow, I expected Mexico City to look like photos taken during the 1968 Olympics. As wonderful as the trip was, I hoped to find some remnant of that graphic program. However, it was no longer 1968, and the Olympics were over.
Mexico City knew that it couldn’t compete with the architecture and budget of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. So, they turned to Lance Wyman and Peter Murdoch to design a graphic program that would act as a visual fiesta. The logo is a mix of 1960s Op Art and Huichol idioms. The color palette makes no apologies and is clearly a party and a half. The forms are integrated to create a system that is joyful and exuberant. It is so easy to be earnest and take design too seriously. This system is a serious program with gravity, but it never loses a sense of delight.
My grandparents passed away two years ago, and I think about them every day. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we still honor them in some way. My grandmother was like me. She was unable to sit still, and was constantly doing something productive. She had a remarkable talent visually and put that talent to good use, making amazing objects. Being a product of her time and place, she didn’t consider being a designer, which is unfortunate. Her sense of color was unique and always worked.
This peacock is one of two. My brother, Ian, has the other one at his house. At first glance, it seems like a nice piece of metal sculpture from the mid 1960s. That’s what it is. But it’s more. My grandmother made it from MJB coffee tins. The damned thing has tons of sharp edges, and I always cut myself when I move it. So I don’t know how she managed to cut and twist the coffee cans to make this without slicing off a finger. This goes far beyond felt animals with sequins.
I had a well-known editor of a major design magazine at my house for a dinner party a few years ago. When she saw my grandmother’s peacock on the wall, she looked at it condescendingly, and said, “Sean, what a remarkable collection of kitsch you have.” She has not been invited back.
My family never had a Cadillac. My grandparents always had a beige or brown Mercedes, and the Wagoneer, "Old Blue," at the ranch. My father stuck with the Mercedes thing except for a detour in the late 1960s and the requisite VW bus. Other friends' families had Cadillacs. I coveted them and was deeply jealous. The Mercedes was nice and staid, and said, "Please. We're not flashy." But a yellow Cadillac said, "What the hell, let's have drinks and get into trouble." When you're 13, this sounds far better. Now the unfortunate part of this is that by the time I could buy a Cadillac they were, forgive me, ugly. For awhile I considered buying a vintage one and researched every year and make. Like most of us, I've been conditioned too well. It sounds like a swell plan, but when the time came to head to the vintage car auction, I thought, "well, they really are kind of flashy."
For me, 1964 was the pinnacle year. The fins were still in place, but had lost the trashy factor of the 1959 model. The profile is clean and almost a perfect rectangle. It's sleek and clean. It's probably a good thing that I'm not the CEO at GM. If I were, I'd be retooling and pumping out 1964 Cadillac Eldorados. If they worked like a new car and had all the features we now want, like seat belts, who wouldn't want one? And if they were all over the road, I wouldn't feel too flashy in mine.
I may have suspect taste in some things. My food tastes are rather plebian, I’m not so keen on subtle beiges, and I have no issue with Melmac. But I am a type snob. I try to be open minded, but I’m rigid and uptight. I mentioned at the AIGA Conference in Memphis, “Pretend there is no such thing as a bold serif and life will be better.” Ok, back off, I’m not including slab serifs. And for those who disagree, I don’t think Claude Garamond spent years in the middle of the 16th century slaving over the letterforms, hoping that someone would make them fat someday. For the same reason, ITC Garamond isn’t at the top of my list. Type should not be cute. I advise my students to stay away from anything too hip and groovy. These fonts that are all the rage will be like senior class photo from high school and your hair style. “What in God’s name was I thinking?” you’ll ask years later.
When I first started working as a designer I was at The New York Public Library. Many of my projects were for Library trustees or donors. We know money doesn’t buy good taste, and this is especially true with typography. Tiffany (the typeface, not the store) seemed to be all the rage on the upper east side of Manhattan in the mid 1980s. I don’t know why, but it was a disease. I would present an invitation or book design set in Bembo, and someone would pull out something with Tiffany and suggest we use it because it was “classy”. I learned the best response was to explain that these kinds of typefaces were like green shag carpeting. Good people really don’t use that.
Like most designers, I like going to other cities and observing the interesting vernacular typography of a region. I take my camera and intend to photograph the odd hand-painted signs in whatever city I’m visiting. I notice the closed sign at a barber shop in Omaha, or a truck with a hand-painted cow in Tulsa, or the sign on the side of a barbeque restaurant in Charlotte. When I am on the plane flying home, I find that I forgot to shoot these, and usually have only one or two images. They are not images of the interesting typography, but are usually the odd sign posted on a wall or in a window. I’d love to tie them together with an intellectual theme such as non-designer accidental design, or typographic mismanagement, but I can’t. They are just things I found that I liked.