Wrap Up Your Troubles

I’m sure everyone has different holiday gift traditions. Whether it’s Christmas or Chanukah, gifts are wrapped, and as they are opened, we watch for expressions of happiness. In our house, everyone patiently took turns unwrapping a gift. This was followed by any of the following statements, “It’s perfect. Thank you so much,” or “You have such a talent for finding the exact right thing,” or “Of course this multi-colored sweater is what the other boys are wearing. Thank you.” I once went to a friend’s house when they opened gifts and it was a mad free-for-all. After our civilized and polite Christmas mornings, this was like anarchy. If you’ve seen those old silent movies about ancient Rome with the orgies, then you know what I mean.

We’re also careful about unwrapping. I haven’t solved the problem of asking someone outside of the family to be more careful, and give me back the wrapping paper. It’s not about being cheap; it’s about the paper. Here is the issue: if I buy ugly new paper, I don’t care if it’s destroyed. But my friends and family deserve the good stuff, the vintage paper. So I am doomed to watch in terror with a frozen smile as a child tears through the delicate paisley paper from 1968.

Tootsie Wootsie Hoochee Koochee

I can't say I really dig Christmas movies. The whole Elf, Tim Allen Santa thing just makes me cranky. I will, however, watch Meet Me in St. Louis. It's not particularly Christmas themed, but it has nifty titles, technicolor, and a happy turn of the century setting. I don't quite understand the plot. It's a family, and the world's fair, St. Louis, and a possible move to New York. This is the part that I don't understand: The father gets a better job in New York, so the family needs to move. But everyone is so whiny and spoiled that he decides to forgo this amazing opportunity and stay in St. Louis.

That's not going to end well. They're all happy at the end of the movie, but a few years later when teenage rebellion kicks in there are going to be screaming matches. "I gave up the biggest chance of my life for you girls!" says the father, "F#*k You! F#*kface" screams the teenage daughter. The titles are nice though.

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.

A Generous and Compassionate Country

For the last couple of days, I’ve been putting together the gallery space at Art Center. But that’s another story. I stopped the insane measuring and rearranging to go down to the theater and see Lynda.com’s new documentary on Doyald Young. Yes, I put completion of the gallery before graduation at risk. But, there was no question. Doyald, Lynda Weinman, a great film: uh, yeah I’m going to that.

It’s a challenge to make what we do seem interesting to civilians. Hmm, I have a choice of watching car chases and steamy love scenes, or a documentary on someone who works with letterforms. Typically, the 3d explosions win. In this instance though, the letterform film is the right choice. I could carry on about Doyald for hours: he’s one of my great friends and mentors, has a salty sense of humor and the best jokes, is an inspiration to teach and truly help young designers, and, yes, talented as heck. But you can find all of that on the AIGA Medalist page, except the dirty joke part.

At Saturday’s commencement ceremony, he will receive Art Center’s Alumnus of the Year Award for his dedicated work as an educator and lifetime of legendary work in typography, logotypes and alphabets. At Saturday’s commencement, he’ll receive an honorary degree from Art Center, where he studied Advertising in the ’50s, and where he has taught lettering and logotype design in the Graphic Design Department for decades.

This is what made the evening so remarkable: the 2010 graduating class was in the theater also. While Doyald made a few closing remarks, they looked on with mixtures of awe, delight, gratitude, and excitement. In school, they learn how to make beautiful form and combine this with conceptual thinking. This short time in the theater is, perhaps, one of he most valuable hours of their education. This generation of designers is shown first-hand, what it means to be a “good” designer with dignity and magnanimity by one of the great masters. Fifty years from now, when they sit where Doyald is now, they will know that talent is nothing compared to kindness and generosity.

Coats and Cars

Unlike many men, I am able to think about more than one thing at a time. Well, not really at the same time, but one thought quickly follows another. Unfortunately, my dual thinking ability frequently puts the wrong things together. For example, I was explaining Sonia Delauney’s work recently, and I immediately jumped to Madeline Kahn’s car in High Anxiety. If you haven’t seen High Anxiety, Madeline Kahn’s Cadillac matches her Louis Vuitton jumpsuit. The car is covered in the same Louis Vuitton pattern. Of course it’s a sight gag. But why was Sonia Delauney’s matching coat and Citroen not funny? I know it’s not supposed to be funny because I was asked to stop laughing in Modern Art when I saw the Delauney Citroen at school.

Perhaps Delauney planned her matching coat and car as a sight gag, also. She expected great outbursts of laughter and applause, but was met with serious contemplation and intellectual deconstruction. We all need to feel the sorrow and tragedy of Delauney’s failed career as a comedian.

The Eyes of Colin Forbes

Most articles about Colin Forbes focus on the founding of Pentagram. Which he did. So if you want the full story about that, there is a website surprisingly devoted just to Pentagram. But, I am surprised how quickly that story takes the lead. For me, his work is the big story. It’s smart. Period. It’s not clever in a “isn’t that cute and clever,” way. It’s intelligent and connects with viewer on many levels. This isn’t easy. I can make something that’s clever: it’s an “I” and an exclamation point at the same time. I can make something smart: chart 1 leads to the text determining a desired response. And I can make something beautiful: Oooh, those orange poppies in a mass on a purple background look great.

It’s hard to do all three things at once. Forbes’ work doesn’t fall back on hackneyed clichés or overly rational, yet dull, presentations. It connects with us emotionally, and provides a pay-off of understanding combined with joy.

Forbes changed the business of a design practice, and was a successful and lauded AIGA President. However, his most important contribution is his ability to make great design look effortless and provide delight. There is a wall at the AIGA National Design Center that has portraits of all AIGA Presidents. When I first saw my photo up there I had two reactions. First, do my eyes look cross-eyed in that photo? And second, how in the hell did I end up on the same wall as Colin Forbes. His eyes don’t look cross-eyed.

Blue Christmas

A couple of weeks ago, I posed the question about Christmas tree color. There were many opinions, but blue was the winner. So last Sunday, we went to Stats in Pasadena and purchased a blue Christmas tree. This is brave. Not the blue tree, that’s just bad taste. Going to Stats is scary. At Christmas Stats is inhabited by happy Christmas enthusiasts. These are the people with the reindeer sweaters who have seizures of joy in the wreath aisle. I like Christmas as much as the next guy, but I really don’t understand the frenetic obsessive behavior over fake holly. It makes sense if you’re incredibly devout and put yourself into an ecstatic trance at Christmas, or at least, flog yourself. But they’re just ornaments that get put back in a box.

I admit this isn’t the “gosh, golly, I can’t wait to decorate the tree and sing carols,” attitude that I should have. And for that, I’m sorry. Constance Ford says on the previous post, “He comes from a good family, but is a drunkard.” For me, she would add, “and has remarkably plebian holiday taste.”

Free Love and the Swedes

I’m usually on the wrong side when it comes to choosing villains in a movie. For example, if you’ve ever seen Mommie Dearest, you may think Joan Crawford is a brutal monster. But, if you ask me, that little girl was willful and defiant. And just how did she get the wire hangers? Clearly, she intentionally brought them home as a passive aggressive act.

I feel the same way about A Summer Place. The storyline follows Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as they find love. It’s all quite romantic, and I know Sandra Dee’s mother is supposed to be a terrible and cold person. But, she isn’t too far off. Sandra Dee insists on walking in front of open windows knowing that Troy Donahue is watching. That’s exhibitionism and is wrong. She does let him kiss her within moments of meeting. The Swedish do engage in communal bathing. There is nothing wrong with insisting your daughter have a complete physical examination after a date. You can never be too sure. And, finally, I have an artificial tree, and it will last for at least ten years. In this instance, Constance Ford is decades ahead with her concern for deforestation.

And, by the way, to prove my point, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue sneak away one evening and let their teenage passions run rampant. Guess what? She gets pregnant. All the hard work her mother did to keep her from her wanton ways, and she still ends up an unwed teenage mother. What can one do? It seems that a harsher approach was necessary. Perhaps a Carrie closet.

New Discoveries

I love working with clients who are smart. Duh. They know what they want, their business, audience, and how a design job happens. Cedars-Sinai is one of those for us. We’ve worked on several projects for them and each project continues to be challenging and rewarding intellectually and aesthetically. We recently completed the Cedars-Sinai magazine, Discoveries. Now I can boast about it, because I had only a part in its creation. Everyone in the office from Nathan, Monica, Chris, Terry, and Noreen worked to make a fantastic publication. Monica said it best when I asked her why she was happy with the final project, “This project was one of those wonderful examples of transcending the designer/client boundary and really working together as a team. We collaborated directly with Laura Grunberger at Cedars-Sinai and her staff; sharing ideas, refining concepts, and determining the vision for the magazine as a whole.” Monica clearly has a far better talent for articulation than I.

When someone asks me if print is dead, Discoveries is a great response. There is something about holding a physical artifact and spending time reading it, as opposed to looking at an article and reading a paragraph on screen. Colorgraphics printed almost 150,000 copies. And we used Mohawk 50/10, of course.

In the end, this project had a million moving parts, but the team worked together so flawlessly that it came together and looked effortless. That’s good design for me: work that looks easy not desperate. As I’ve said before, desperation is bad on a date, and in design.

Pocket Pal

If you want to write a best seller in the graphic design market, write 100,000 Business Cards. My books sell well, but they are pussies next to the business card books. Why? I don’t know. At most, I give out 10 business cards a year. And the ones I like end up in a box marked “favorite business cards”. The one in the front is not by anyone famous or avant-garde or even a designer. It’s a business card from Hi-Speed Advertising Typography. Hi-Speed went away along with all the other type houses, but their card lives on.

I’m a sucker for type cases. I worked in the metal type shop at school, and learned the California case like the back of my hand. As you can imagine, that’s come in real handy over the years. I’d like to have a type case that I could use to hang on the wall, and organize little objects. Perhaps these would be pieces of wood type, rocks, or shells. The Hi-Speed card is a tiny representation of a type case. I know it’s not accurate, but so what? It has a cool big hand and row of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. That is why it is currently the favorite of favorites in the business card box.

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 Color of Fear

Many of you have written and asked, “Sean, I find your color sense excellent. How can I acquire this skill?” This is not an easy question to answer. As far as I can tell, any color works with any other color. All that information about primary, complementary, and tertiary colors is nonsense. Although you should know it, so buy my color book.

To prove this point, look at the color palette in Airport 1975. Fuchsia and brown: why not? Lavender and magenta: of course! Butter yellow and violet: go for it. Why can’t airplanes look like this anymore? Everything is so “business professional” with navy blue and gray.

I want flight attendants in violet, and wall hangings made of carpet in intense colors. I want that groovy first class lounge upstairs on a 747 with an “autumnal” palette of browns and oranges. Alexander Girard did a fantastic job on Braniff (to be covered on another post), but he wasn’t brave enough to throw brights, pastels, and earth tones together in a crazy jumble. And finally, all airline companies should stop with the boarding music or Gershwin, or the American Airlines soundtrack. They should play Helen Reddy’s rendition of “Best Friend” repeatedly. This alone will make anyone who is frightened to fly desperate for the plane to take off and stop the music.

A Contextual and Theoretical Christmas

Traditionally, we’ve always put a tree up right after Thanksgiving. This year, I need to buy a new one. The previous tree was white and had yellowed to a urine tone. In the past, I was forced to buy either a “lifelike” traditional tree, or a white one. But if a tree is artificial, shouldn’t it look artificial? Isn’t that a tenet of modernism, truth in materials? Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, this points toward a colored Christmas tree.

Fortunately, today, companies like treetopia sell colored Christmas trees. If you want a pink tree, you are now not forced to buy just a sad two-foot Barbie tree. This is disturbing to guests, or to use in the office, unless you have a young daughter. Like a visitor from the Soviet Union walking into a supermarket for the first time, I’m overwhelmed by the choices. Pink, blue, orange, or seafoam: which color is best? With the magic of Photoshop, I simulated the tree in its environment. I’ve found this to be a good tool for picturing possible furniture, landscaping, and hair color. Some of you are probably screaming at your monitor, “No you idiot! None of the above! Bad taste! Bad taste!” But I counter with my adherence to modernist theory.

Small Treasures

I spend most of my Mondays at Art Center directing students to designers or artifacts that might be inspirational. Last week, Ladislav Sutnar was the designer du jour. The week before, I relentlessly shoved Josef Müller Brockmann down everyone’s throats. This is great to help someone see another way of making or seeing.

But, I treasure the artifacts that are rarely designed by a historically recognized designer. For example, I love my father’s Class of 1963 Directory for Wesleyan University, and an old hangover remedy pack from Harold’s Club. I love this Story of Walt Disney World book. The design is clumsy and has a remarkably odd composition, but it’s optimistic. I love the vignettes and detail images.

This Commemorative Edition booklet was created soon after Walt Disney World opened in 1971. I love the map. There is an attraction in Frontierland, Thunder Mesa and Western River Expedition, meant to take the place of Pirates of the Caribbean. Since the actual Caribbean was so close, there was a concern that Pirates would seem redundant in Florida. In the end, Pirates was added to WDW, and Thunder Mesa was replaced with Big Thunder Mountain.

I’ve owned this booklet for fifteen years, only yesterday, did I notice it made the shape of the “D” in the old Walt Disney World logo. Oh yeah, I’m observant.

A Story of One

It’s the old story, 500 channels and there is nothing to watch. But, back in the olden days, sonny, it was much worse. When I went to the family ranch back in the 1970s, we had one television that received transmissions from an antenna mounted on the tallest pine tree. This allowed us to get one station sporadically. That one station seemed to endlessly play cop shows, or Emergency. I don’t think I ever understood the premise of The Streets of San Francisco, but there were many scenes of cars flying over a hill and bottoming out. There probably wasn’t much of a premise, i.e. no “high concept”. All shows had a grizzled old cop/editor/pizza shop owner, but with a big heart, and a young rookie and brash cop/reporter/single girl. The title sequence for Streets of San Francisco makes up for any lack of concept. It’s not as good as Hawaii 5-0, but close. And there is that voice over that you can never forget, “a Quinn Martin Production.”

Unwholesome Desires

Whenever someone suggests the idea of a reality show of a design firm, I roll my eyes. It sounds exciting, and Mad Men is kind of that, but it would be like watching paint dry, or the NASA channel. Let me give you an example. Last week, Nathan and I were talking about photo-type and some of the lost display fonts. Exciting, huh? This discussion led me to the Art Center Library and I checked out a book on ITC fonts from 1980. When I was in school, I was told that Herb Lubalin, one of ITC’s founders, was rotting in hell for ITC Garamond. And I’ve walked around with a snobby disdain for all ITC fonts since then. Like this, “Well, I’m sure they work for some people, but I could never.”

Something, however, has gone horribly wrong. I look at Lubalin and Tom Carnase's work and find myself loving the flamboyant thicks and thins, swashes, and extreme x-height. I have a strong desire to use ITC Firenze on everything, including body copy. Is that so wrong? What's next, green shag carpeting, plaid polyester suits, and mauve?

I don’t know what is happening, but I remind myself that life is a journey, and I should allow this to happen. Was this desire for hideous overwrought typefaces always in me? Did I repress it and do bad things without my knowledge? Was I overly zealous in my hatred for ITC Caslon X-Bold No 223 Italic, and those people who engaged in its usage? Was it simply a case of self-hate? I’m facing a difficult time when I will clearly need to re-examine everything I believed.

Here, I expose my new unwholesome desires.


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.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Cliff May ranch house

When we bought our first house, I told the realtor that we wanted a nice 1950s ranch style house. “Are you sure,” she asked several times. I was shown a great house with a knotty pine den, and kitchen that had won an award in 1955. But, we were also shown several 1930s Spanish Mission style houses. “Everyone loves these,” I was told. Nevertheless, we bought the ranch house. Now, ranch houses seem to be a sought after style. Today, it’s called mid-century modern. When I was 12, I spent hours drawing floor plans of ranch houses. Yes, it’s odd, and I’m sure points to a strange neurosis. They were all based on a book of Cliff May floor plans.

Cliff May was one of the most influential residential architects of the 20th century. He pioneered the ranch style house based on early California Spanish houses. These houses took advantage of the climate with an emphasis on the relationship between the indoors and outdoors. May described it clearly, “The early Californians had the right idea. They built for the seclusion and comfort of their families, for the enjoyment of relaxation in their homes. We want to perpetuate these ideas of home building.” Volume in San Francisco designed an incredible book on May. The book itself is worth having even if you despise ranch style houses.

In the hands of someone like May, these houses are remarkable, warm, and inviting. In other hands, you can end up with E.T. or Poltergeist -ville.

What a Fool Believes

Every 20 years or so, I come back into fashion. I consider my style to be classic, which allows me to buy the same items year after year regardless of current trends. Typically, if I like something, I’ll buy several. I don’t want to be stuck if khakis change and become more “European”. Recently, I’ve seen some articles about the return of “Preppy”. Some may argue, but I’m not preppy, I think I’m just stuck in 1962.

This leads me to some of the atrocities I’ve seen made in the name of “Preppy”. Today, I’ll rant about the embroidered motif articles. I admit I have some motif belts from J. Press. There’s nothing wrong with a nice anchor, American flag, nautical flag, or whale belt. But that’s where it should stop. And I make a point of wearing my belts under an un-tucked shirt. Like my nautical print boxers, only I know I’m wearing them. Let me be blunt here, and I know some will be hopping mad about this; embroidered motif pants on men are bad. You don’t look funny, preppy, or classic. You look like a raging fool.

As for women, classic is good. Grace Kelly, Babe Paley, Slim Aarons, C.Z. Guest classic is correct. As my mother has pointed out, the whale motif skirts, or strawberry motif wrap dresses, simply de-sexualizes a woman. And, yes, you also look like a raging fool.

So my advice is to stop the madness. I don’t care how hip you think the green whale print pants are. Moderation is good in eating and fashion. However, I must point out in fairness, that moderation and drinking is bad for a cocktail party.