Complexity and Contradiction in Los Angeles

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. Also, Julie Christie drives a beautiful Pagoda Roof Mercedes, but that’s not why I like the film. There is something so specifically Los Angeles in the 1970s 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. What begins as a seemingly light sex farce soon transforms into actual feelings and complexity that intrude on the carefully constructed lives of the characters. None of the characters seem to have any control over their individual fates. They make plans that are thwarted, are unable to effect any forward momentum, and seemingly let life carry them along.

The film opens dialogue spoken in a dark bedroom by Lee Grant. The audience is led to understand that this is a funny, yet naughty film.

Felicia:
The headboard. The headboard, honey.
You know it makes me nervous. Could you put your hand up there... ...and hold it?
That's right, because... That's... That's... Jesus! Oh!
That's right. Jesus Christ!

It ends with a conversation with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, a dramatically different tone than the start of the film.

Jackie: Lester's at the house.
George: Don't go, honey. Please don't.
Jackie: I have to go. I can't just leave him standing there. I have to go. The puppies are in the car.

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 artifice, hedonism, contradictions and of course groovy hair. I like that.

 

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.

I bless the rains down in Africa

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, humid, and oppressive. 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 yet 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 the pervasive story of man taming, or not taming, nature is beautiful. 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 (yeah, that sounds kind of snooty). 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 on the “time travel” vehicle. The snapshot taken automatically at the end of the ride captures a car of happy laughing people, and someone who looks like he is having a seizure.

Actual safari in Africa, Sean Adams and Marian Bantjes

 

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.

You're as Cold as Ice

I’ve been accused of being a shut-in. I like staying home, working in the yard, and eating gumbo. I’m not the type of person who would love to eat at fancy restaurants every night. However, for someone who supposedly is a shut-in, I’ve been to every continent on earth except Antarctica. This is one of my goals. I’ve seen documentaries about exploration cruises to Antarctica, but everyone looks like they are over 65. They all have orange coats, and I wonder if that’s coincidence, or a cruise gift.

Herbert Ponting was the photographer on Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition in 1910. Illustration had been the art form used to document scientific expeditions for centuries. Ponting and Scott were determined to use photography as this resource. Ponting’s work, especially his film work, is the basis for every wildlife documentary we see now. After 14 months with the expedition, Ponting returned to England to catalogue the photographs. The Scott expedition, unfortunately, ended tragically with Scott and the other expedition members died from exposure, malnutrition, and exhaustion. While it may seem gruesome, he was buried inside the Ross Ice Shelf. His body will slowly move toward the sea, and eventually be set adrift inside an iceberg. This seems remarkably fitting for the polar explorer.

Ponting’s images were too sharp and clear for an Edwardian audience who preferred photographs soft and painterly. But this technique was a precursor to modernist photography and the sharp focus of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke.

 

Schralped Fetus Donut Shop Siren

A good friend said to me, “You? You? Why would they ask you? You’re so square.” My friend may know what she is talking about. She knows every cool band with odd names such as Thumbtack Attack and what hidden bars are groovy in Silverlake. I don’t know these things. I’m not that cool.

Since I’m square, I don’t need to worry about doing something groovy. I love skate slang. I don’t use it in meetings, as in, “Dude, that logo is so off the hook. Gnarly.” But, working on a skate deck for a charity event in Colorado this gave me the perfect opportunity to combine my love of skate slang, and late 60s chain restaurant typography ala Farrell’s. For entertainment at the auction, I suggested adding people in red Victorian vests running around with the skateboard decks while a siren wailed, but the kind people at AIGA Colorado politely said no.

 

Let's try that once more

A few years ago, I filmed Fundamentals of Layout: Marketing Collateral. I wrote the course, did the read throughs, and created the visual assets. I was ready for the shoot.

For this course, we relied mostly on visual references and text slides. This meant I spent less time in front of the camera and more in the sound booth recording the voice-over. But, I needed to film the introductions and conclusions to each movie. This all seemed like no problem until I realized that I couldn't use a teleprompter for these. I needed to memorize each of the sections of the scripts that had live action. Now this doesn't sound too hard. I wrote them, I know what I'm talking about. But it was one of the most harrowing days of my life. It was like a 12 hour day having a root canal.

Take after take, I would stumble through, getting 25 % right, or 75%, but never perfect. I had that disembodied feeling like my mouth kept moving and making odd sounds that seemed like words but made no sense. The more I goofed up, the more freaked out I was. My producer, Susan, was beyond patient and encouraging, telling me in my headset, "No problem, we'll get there," and, "That was great." But I'm sure she wanted to blow her brains out sitting in the production room. I kept thinking about the scene in Inside Daisy Clover when Daisy (Natalie Wood) freaks out doing a dubbing. I stopped short of clawing at the window screaming.

 

The Still Room of Quiet

I like to think of the 1950s and early 60s as some kind of wonderful “Pleasantville” experience. I imagine I’d wear my letterman’s jacket, do well in school, and come home in time for cookies, milk, and an early bedtime. It would all be so well ordered and clear. Recently, I found a box of slides at my grandparents’ house. I sent it out to be digitized and was rather alarmed when I looked at them on screen. They must have been taken around 1963. There is an image of President Kennedy’s funeral on the television. Some of the photos are at my great grandparents’ anniversary party. Others are at an unknown social event.

The upside is the television tray usage. I still have those TV trays. I use them at home, but didn’t realize they were appropriate for a party. Now I see how handy they can be. The downside is the subtext in every image of restrained frustration. Nobody looks comfortable. Everyone looks like they could use a stiff martini. I imagine the polite chatter, “Bob, how’s your golf game these days,” “Betty, I loved the coffee cake,” “Could you be more proud of Sherman, valedictorian?” But I’ve seen enough movies to know that everyone goes home drinks too much, cries, and screams. I hope. Otherwise there’s a whole lot o’ suppressed issues here.

This is a glimpse into the reality of the late 1950s. There was no room for differences or individuality. God forbid someone was African-American, Asian, gay, or just a little odd. Somehow this seems obvious on an episode of American Experience, but these slides made it real for me. It clarified why, several years later, my parents dropped out and moved to the Haight. And why there was so much tension between my parents and my grandparents, and I was somewhere in the middle.

 

Going to the Dogs

I recently discovered the American Memory section of the Library of Congress. I was looking for an image of a wire-haired fox terrier and came upon an image of this ugly dog (above). I love this photo. It’s a horrible snarling little animal. As it happens, this dog Peachy, belonged to distant cousins, Mabel and Edith Taliaferro. Now, the even more shocking part; they were both actresses. Yes, I admit this. You may all recoil in horror and shame. Mabel was known as “America’s sweetheart” until Mary Pickford yanked that title from her hands. Edith was noted for her performance in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

This image was made in 1908. At that time, being an actress was one step above prostitution. I can’t imagine how this played out in my family. First, two actresses, then, they did film, not theater, and worse of all sins, they worked for a living. But the most important part of this discovery is the dog Peachy. Peachy is named after a distant grandmother, Susanna Peachey, who married Thomas Walker (father of Dr. Walker) around 1700. Since then, there have been may Peachy’s: Peachy Ridgeway Gilmer, Peachy Ridgeway Taliaferro, Peachy Walker Speed, Susan Peachy Bullitt, Susan Peachy Fry, and it goes on like that for a long time. Obviously, creative naming wasn’t a talent. This lack of ingenuity with naming talent extended to the dog here also.

For the sake of fairness, my family has a penchant for British sounding dog names: Winston, Dudley, George, Basil, Flynn, and Drusilla. We can't judge the past.

From the Ashes of History

wALT Five, Design: Sean Adams and Peter Grant, 1984

I found this issue while cleaning the bookcase. wALT was the student publication at CalArts in the 1980s. It included contributions from students in all majors including essays, poetry, and visual arts. Peter Grant and I designed this issue using the Macintosh 128K that Apple recently sent to the department. It was the one that required a floppy disk to run and had limited software such as MacPaint and MacWrite. There was no scanner. Apple included a set of typefaces named after cities, such as Monaco, Geneva, Chicago, and San Francisco. The typeface New York was the stand-in for Times Roman (but I called it Times Roman because I could).

To produce the publication, we set the Times Roman on the Mac and printed out “galleys” on the low resolution image-writer (no Laser-writer yet). We set the headlines in Gill Sans, a typeface on the Mergenthaler VIP typesetting machine. The whole thing was pasted-up as mechanicals and sent to the printer (see video below). We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a first step toward digital design production. It was a wacky hybrid that required endless typing and rubber cement. But it was fun.

Apple Macintosh 128K, 1984


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.

Not a Prostitute on the Ground

I was talking with a friend yesterday who told me he was tired and depressed. He felt like he was in a rut, getting older, wasn't in a relationship, and just felt crummy. I tried to help by pointing out that he had a new orange shirt which was nice and a new pair of gym shorts. I told him that getting older wasn't bad; it’s better than being hit by a bus. And I suggested he should be glad he wasn't in a relationship. What if he were, and went home to be beaten every night. "See," I said, "You're lucky. You have a new shirt, aren't dead, and nobody is beating you at home every night."

This advice wasn't particularly helpful. Even I could tell that the "Glad Game" wasn't working. So I told him to go home and watch any Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland movie. Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway are especially cheerful. You know the standard plot: The orphanage is about to be sold and the poor urchins will be put on the street, so the local kids get together and decide to put a show on in the barn or street to raise money. Mickey and Judy round everyone up and their friends are all incredibly talented and hammy. They put on giant production numbers at the drop of a hat. A powerful show business executive discovers them. They raise money and the orphanage is saved.

God's Country, in Babes in Arms, has a rousing finale with lots of American flags. But my favorite is Hoe Down from Babes on Broadway. It's fresh and wholesome. It's good American farm life with a snappy rhythm. Of course, these were made right before and at the beginning of World War II. So there is a fair amount of patriotism, nostalgia for simple values, and innocent teenagers. These are a perfect antidote to those days when anyone is feeling sad.

And if that's not enough, there's always Polyanna. Don't worry, I've been told to not pursue therapy as a career.

On Bad Decisions

For many years, I have warned others that using that uber-mondo-groovy typeface may impress others at first, but then will become an embarrassment, like a bad high school haircut. I used this reasoning with a certain authority, often described as “smugness” by others. I had large hair in high school, but it was basically a bigger version of my hair today.

Then I found a series of episodes of American Bandstand on YouTube that included me. These make the bad type choice seem laughable. Not only did I choose excessively trendy clothes; I wore them on national television. I’m sure at the time, I thought my yellow Ton Sur Ton shirt from Paris and red Vans were so totally on track. I added my paint splattered Swatch watch to show that I was creative. It was a train-wreck of 1980s Southern California style. Fortunately, it was a detour. As evidenced below, a photograph from my pre-school on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Far left, I am wearing close to my current everyday clothes.

 
Sean, far left: in madras, khakis, and Converse sneakers

Sean, far left: in madras, khakis, and Converse sneakers

The choice to be on American Bandstand may seem odd. It started with an idea my best friend Erica and I had to go on a local dance show aired on public access in the Valley. We thought it would be fun and Ironic (remember, in Art School, one thinks this way). Erica’s dad suggested we think bigger and do Bandstand. Why not? It was even more ironic. Erica, her cousin Tina, my friend Peter and I sent photos and a note explaining why we wanted to be on Bandstand to Dick Clark Productions. A couple of weeks later, we received letters asking us to join the next taping of six episodes.

It began as an ironic conceptual art project, but quickly became a serious issue once we realized that we needed six different outfits. I could pull off one or two groovy looks, but six was excessive. Somehow we managed, although some of the choices were far more disturbing as seen by the examples posted below.

The lesson here:

  1. Don’t use trendy typefaces

  2. Stay away from groovy clothing choices

  3. Get a haircut if your hair is giant

  4. Don’t go on a dance program and dance in a listless and “art school I don’t care about anything” way.

 

For those young people who have no idea what American bandstand is:

American Bandstand is an iconic audio-visual time capsule encompassing four decades worth of dances, performances, fashions and fads in popular music. The show, hosted by Dick Clark from 1956 to 1989, introduced new musical acts to generations of Americans. (https://www.dickclark.com/shows/american-bandstand)

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.

Something Hit Us

"Something hit us...the crew is dead...help us, please, please help us!"

I like helping people. Often, another designer somewhere in the world will send me a note requesting advice on a color issue. This could be attributed to three books I’ve written about color, or the fact that I typically wear a bright pink or blue golf shirt while everyone else is in their summer black. I appreciate the compliment that I might be of some help or expertise.

I could say I spend hours deconstructing Josef Albers’ work in the 1930s or tirelessly mix gouache paint for the perfect combination to create a palette. Both of these would be half truths. Like my dining palette, I have rather plebeian tastes. Last weekend, while changing channels I stumbled onto one of my primary color inspirations, Airport 1975 (see, low-rent taste).

Twenty years ago I had two back to back epiphanic experiences. The first was watching David Hockney paint in his studio with confident and broad strokes. The second, was, of course the genius that is the palette in Airport 1975. Who cares about the plot with the standard issue of Love Boat guest stars in peril after their 747 is struck by another plane. The number one flight attendant is required to fly the plane. There is a singing nun, played by Helen Reddy. She spends time and songs with a dying girl, suspiciously cast with Linda Blair after her film, The Exorcist, when she was possessed.

 

Not Airport 1975, Linda Blair possessed and flying

The wall shag carpet

And the glorious palette

The colors are completely wrong and go against every tenet of good taste: fuchsia and brown, purple and ochre, red and avocado green. But it’s a marvelous mash-up. How wonderful to be so bad. While I have not spent days studying the late career geometry and color paintings by Herbert Bayer. I did spend an eccentric amount of time on the strange shag carpet wall colors.

 

The full palette

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.