The Yarn House

Originally published on DesignObserver, April 14, 2018

Forms and Surfaces, Bronze Doors, 1973

“You know, you’re really nobody in Los Angeles unless you live in a house with a really big door,”—Steve Martin
 

Oddly, my life recently intersected with the big door issue. A friend directed me to the sale of a set of doors designed for Forms and Surfaces in 1973. They are magnificent examples of the post-war west coast craft and style movement. Unfortunately, my front door is a standard size and a 6-foot wide set of doors will not fit. I also can’t spend the equivalent of a small house on two doors. 

Jackson and Ellamarie Wooley, 1962

The West Coast Craft and Style movement led to the publication of a series of exhibitions and thirteen books, California Design. The content is not a collection of Santa Claus figures made with felt and a toilet paper roll. It represented a movement that started after World War II when artists and designers, working in California, explored new materials and techniques. Taking the concepts of modernism and optimism, artists crafted functional objects, furniture, pottery, and textiles using natural materials. Tupperware, pastel-colored plastic radios, faux wood chairs, and Naugahyde spoke to technologies and materials developed during the war. The craft movement turned toward nature as a response to the industrial mechanization of production and proliferation of new synthetic materials. 

The environment and history of California also informed the work. Natural materials alluded to the redwood forests, Sierra Nevada mountains, and endless beaches. There was a historical connection to the Arts and Crafts movement and Greene and Greene’s architecture using handmade and unique doors, cabinets, and dinnerware. The environment and history inspired the colors. Orange came from the California Poppy and oranges grown since the early mission period. The 1859 Gold Rush inspired ochre and gold. And the natural world created palettes of brown, rust, avocado, and burnt red

Barbara Shawcroft, Arizona Inner Space, 1971

The movement evolved, and by the 1970s, artists and designers created increasingly fanciful and provocative work led by the counter-culture attitude. Barbara Shawcroft’s Arizona Inner Space (1971) is, perhaps, the most miraculous house made with textiles ever. Evelyn Ackerman’s Animal Block Series (1971) is a musical narrative. Elsie Crawford and Douglas Deeds addressed the public sphere and urban experience with experimental fiberglass benches and seating.

The sleek aesthetic of the late 1970s and appropriation of the synthetic in the 1980s drove the movement to the backburner. Many California art and design schools have the myth of a kiln that once serviced a ceramics major. In the past decade, the artifacts represented in the California Design books have found homes in high-end stores that previously focused on mid-century furniture and art. The technological and easily disposable manufactured world today has rekindled the drive to use natural materials and actual human hands to create. I may not be able to build Saarinen Womb Chair, but I can learn to macramé a hanging house. 

LEFT: John Marko, 1962. RIGHT: Architectural Pottery, 1965.

LEFT: Jean Ray Laury, Scarlet Garden, 1962. RIGHT: Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman, 1971

Douglas Deeds, Architectural Fiberglass, 1968

Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Big

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When faced with a composition that is not working, or an idea that is not communicating, I typically make the parts giant or tiny. Design that is polite, medium, and “meh,” is just plain dull. Remarkable large scale environmental graphics (supergraphics) are a testament to the power of big. To promote these concepts, I wrote a book that celebrates environmental graphics that change culture, affect behavior, and improve pedestrian experience. 

 

There are clear masterpieces of supergraphics such as Lance Wyman’s Mexico City Olympics(1968), Deborah Sussman’s Los Angeles Olympics (1984), Barbara Stauffacher-Solomon’s Sea Ranch (1965). I wanted to find the best examples of the next generation of designers and artists in the field. The end product is The Field Guide to Supergraphics: Big Graphics in the Urban Landscape. The best part of writing a book is learning about a new approach, or discovering incredible designers. This book did both. And for those concerned about the size, it’s much thicker than I expected. It has 384 pages. 

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Bad Color

There are many ways to be sent to hell. Some involve disobeying the Ten Commandments. As a designer, however, temptation looms at every corner, telling us, “It’s ok. Go ahead and use the Oil Paint filter in Photoshop. Don’t worry about using the fake handwriting rather than using your own hands. Why make your palette when a program can do it for you? So easy; then you can have time to be lazy.” 

Now, everyone has a different concept of hell. Mine is being stuck at a party when someone pulls out a guitar to play songs about a broken heart. To avoid ending up at an endless amateur guitar playing party with people who share issues, I resist the temptation of software-generated color palettes. I make my own. 

 

I’ve met many designers who are uncomfortable with color. At some point along the path, a well-meaning art teacher or parent said, “Oh no. Those colors don’t go together. They clash.” We are given the message: You can’t be trusted with your own color choices. There are right colors, wrong colors, good combinations, and bad combinations. But this is wrong. There are no bad colors or bad combinations. The only wrong choices (and not in a good John Bielenberg ThinkWrong way), are to use the default palette, work without color conviction, and let Adobe make the palette decisions. As long as a designer works with color aggressively, everything is good. Can you use rust and violet, or avocado green and yellow, or pink and red? Why not?

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Strange Case of the Designer

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What makes a graphic designer strange? Is it the obsessive attention to kerning on street signs, arguing whether PMS 172 is orange or red, or collecting odd scraps of paper on every European vacation? These may seem strange activities to civilians but they are some of the many quirks that define us. Our ability to find wonder in almost anything, however, is the truly rare skill. There are few subjects for a project that don’t elicit first interest, and then the need to know everything. A sound designer can take drill bits, ducks, polyester shirts, or viral infections and make something incredible and compelling. Contrast that with a non-designer guest at a dinner party. When I ask, “Did you know that a tungsten carbide drill bit can penetrate almost any material?” my dinner partner may look confused and then bored. 

Tobias Frere-Jones recently released a new typeface based on Bulgarian Lotto tickets from the 1930s. This inspiration may seem somewhat oblique to an investment banker but is entirely in line with the way designers see the world. Bulgarian lottery tickets? Why not?

Fere-Jones discovered the typography while researching a project for letterforms as security devices. The numerals are an example of self-verifying numbers. The name of each digit is spelled out beneath. Eighteen months passed and Frere-Jones began to question what sort of alphabet might go along with these monolithic, theatrical numerals?

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

The Design of Comfort

Several years ago, the organizers at TypeCon asked me to do a presentation on the typography of Disneyland. I assumed that the research would lead to a collection of novelty typefaces. What I found, however, was an incredibly dense design solution beyond typography with intentional choices to create a specific experience. The typography, color, scale, point of view, sounds, and smells worked as a whole communicating energy, invention, American ingenuity, mid-western values, and reassurance.

Main Street, USA, is the entry point at Disneyland, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and other Disney parks globally. It is a representation of small-town America at the turn of the twentieth century. Main Street is not a perfect recreation of a town in 1890. There are no garbage filled doorways, telephone poles, muddy streets, and rather unpleasant drunk people carrying guns. Main Street is a representation of the idea of a mythical small town.

Disneyland’s original designers came from a film background. They designed every element to work cohesively to convey a narrative. Main Street is not a cute and saccharine mini-mall of false fronts. It is a well-considered and detailed construction.

The park’s guests are not spectators in the environment. They are actors on a stage. The designers created the experience of entering the park to simulate the beginning of a motion picture theater experience. The guest passes through a dark tunnel below the railroad tracks in the same way that theater lights dim as a film starts. 

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Blinded By The Light

I found the world of black light posters in late 1978, when I was in middle school. Every day, after school, we rode our bikes to a friend’s parents’ motel in downtown Reno. Frank’s parents owned one of those cookie cutter motels surrounding the main strip with names like The Pioneer, Thunderbird, and Stardust. We used quarters from a lobby slot machine to play video games at Pizza Hut. While everyone was excited about Centipede and Asteroids, I wanted to go back to the motel where Frank’s older brother lived in the room behind the office. He covered the walls with black light posters, kept the blinds drawn, and lit the room with a black fluorescent lamp and with a lamp with statue surrounded by simulated rain.

My world at home had nothing as remarkable. We had old family photographs in frames, paintings of ships, and models of ships. Boring. When one is fifteen, it is far groovier to have unicorn and Viking posters and a waterbed. Now, Frank’s brother was indeed a pot-head, had dropped out of high school, and spent his days listening to Led Zepplin. He was not particularly motivated. But, he had the coolest room I’d ever seen.

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.

Smiley Smile

LEFT: Close To You (1970) Art Direction: Tom Wilkes. Photography: Kessel/Brehm Photography. RIGHT: The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers(1971) Art Direction: Craig Braun. Photography: Billy Name.

At a recent conference, one of the audience members asked me, “Are you always this cheerful and upbeat?” My first thought was, “Are you mad? I’m mostly unpleasant.” The question should not be surprising to me, however. For twenty-five years I have been described with these words: friendly, clean, all-American, and Southern California. I've never contradicted this message. In fact, I reinforced it. But I now find it odd that regardless of age, what I do, and how my work evolves, those words still follow me. I’ll just look on the bright side. 

As designers, we strive for a well-communicated, pure message. Our goal being to reinforce the brand and create proprietary value. Consider the Carpenters. Now some of you may be thinking, "Oh, I love them." and others, "Really, the Carpenters? Really?" But the Carpenters were packaged and branded with a clear and specific message, one that, at times, was contrary to reality.
 

From 1970 through 1976, every Carpenters single was a number one or two on the charts. They had five top ten albums and sixteen consecutive top twenty hit singles. The Carpenters are one of the most successful musical brands of the second half of the twentieth-century. Their image was relentlessly upbeat, clean, and sweet. The press described them as Pepsodent-smiling, sticky-sweet, and pleasant. These are valuable attributes for your son or daughter’s prom date but minimized the Carpenters musical talent or success.

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Sean Adams

Sean Adams is the Acting Chair of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at ArtCenter, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin studio, and on-screen author for lynda.com/Linked In. He is the only two term AIGA national president in AIGA’s 100 year history. In 2014, Adams was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession. He is an AIGA Fellow, and Aspen Design Fellow. He has been recognized by every major competition and publication including; How, Print, Step, Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA, The Type Directors Club, The British Art Director’s Club, and the Art Director’s Club. Adams has been exhibited often, including a solo exhibition at The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Adams is an author of multiple magazine columns, and several best-selling books. He has been cited as one of the forty most important people shaping design internationally, and one of the top ten influential designers in the United States. Previously, Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, whose clients included The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney, Mohawk Fine Papers, The Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Richard Meier & Partners, Sundance, and the University of Southern California.