Step Magazine by Sean Adams
For the last 20+ years, Jennifer Morla has been one of the profession’s most visible designers. Her merging of form and concept with an explosion of color and energy changed the landscape of design, inspiring designers internationally. She is a doyenne of design in san francisco amidst a sea of “michaels.” she has created visual landmark icons that have significantly changed our definitions of right and wrong, good, and bad. Her work for clients ranging from levi’s, to the mexican museum to apple computer incorporates our cultural preconceptions and rearranges them. Recently she became the Creative Director at Design Within Reach.
SA: So, back to the beginning. How did you end up in design? Not a dentist or a flight attendant?
JM: Although being a secret agent held the promise of excitement for an 11-year-old girl in the mid ’60s, one of the many advantages to growing up in Manhattan was my early exposure to the design and architecture wing at the Museum of Modern Art. It was there that I became familiar with graphic, product, and architectural design. More importantly, I became aware of the history and origin of design—the sensual beauty of a Bang and Olufsen turntable, the shocking geometry and color of the Rietveld chair, the typographic and photographic collages of the Russian constructivist posters. I also loved to draw and did so since I was a young child. My mother let me attend the Art Students League at around the same time I was considering being a secret agent. It was at that point that she knew I was going to be an artist and, perhaps because I was a girl, I was allowed to pursue my artistic sensibilities. Drawing was easy and natural for me and has served me well in being able to communicate ideas quickly to both my staff and clients. It also allowed me to quickly consider any number of solutions based on conceptual intent without the hindrance of stylistic tools that I find distracting when working on the computer at the beginning stages of the design process.
I must say that the political climate of the late ’60s, the Johnson/ Nixon administrations, the Vietnam War, and the cultural institutions that reflected this new radicalism were all extremely influential in my decision to become a designer. Design could communicate dissent, provide a discourse, and attract the public to new ideas through the beauty of type and imagery. The posters of Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast, as well as random posters plastered on city barricades, were all extremely influential in determining my career path.
SA: You’re very identified with San Francisco; people would probably be surprised to know you’re from Manhattan. You moved to San Francisco in 1977. What drew you there?
JM: I was attracted to San Francisco for many reasons, the first being the multidisciplinary approach to design that was embraced by San Francisco design studios and fostered by entrepreneurial clients. I was attracted to the nonconformity of Bay Area design. San Francisco seemed to embrace, on both a cultural and visual level, a verve akin to those formative years in NYC.
New technology was also booming in San Francisco and I wanted to be a part of this. Prior to being the art director at Levi’s, I was senior designer at the San Francisco PBS station, where in 1980, the Quantel Paintbox system was being developed for television —a platform that allowed the designer to move type, create graphics, and integrate live action. It opened up a new world of design possibilities beyond a 000 Rapidograph! And finally, Chez Panisse. Before moving to San Francisco, I met with a handful of Bay Area designers that had studios at that time—John Casado, Marget Larsen, and David Lance Goins, who illustrated exquisite posters and letterpressed them himself. He was a friend of Alice Waters’ and designed the menus for [her] new restaurant called Chez Panisse. I ordered a salad and, suffice it to say, East Coast iceberg lettuce was a thing of my past.
SA: When you first came to San Francisco, the market was very male dominated. I remember stories about Marget Larsen in the 1970s, and how hard it was for her as the only woman art director at the time. Was that an obstacle, or a nonissue?
JM: Marget’s studio is a perfect example of that multidisciplinary approach. I was taken by her bold environmental signage that created a destination, elegant print collateral, and sharp wit.
I visited her in 1977—she was engaging, funny, and extremely talented. Although I only met with her for a couple of hours, her influence stayed with me. I can’t say that being a woman was an obstacle. A bigger obstacle was being only 28 when I opened my studio in 1984. I had a couple of extremely large jobs that seemed unusual for a person my age to be handling from start to finish.
SA: Anyone starting out in this business could always use a little help. It’s unusual to start with as big of a bang as you did. How did you get some of those early clients?
JM: At Levi Strauss & Co., I had worked with all of the division presidents. They were familiar with my design approach and professionalism. They also knew that I took an unorthodox approach to marketing their product. While at Levi’s in 1981, I proposed having famous artists depict the 501 classic, which, up until then, had been shown only in a western imagery context. I contacted David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol. Warhol started the series, and I had the privilege of spending a couple of days with him while he worked on the final canvas.
Early clients and jobs were a result of these professional relationships. And working on fashion is wonderful in that it provided an opportunity for me to explore all areas of design: high-end trade brochures, photo art direction, branding and creating brand extensions, store design, furniture and fixture design, book design, and multimedia.
SA: I’ve always wondered if you ever sleep. You make amazing things in every medium, raise a family, travel, teach, and now run a corporate design department. Is it huge amounts of coffee? Crack? How do you maintain this level of energy?
JM: One makes time for the things one loves to do. A morning latte and afternoon espresso keep the creative juices flowing.
SA: Whenever we speak, it seems like you’ve just returned from a trip somewhere exciting. You have a rare ability to handle cultures like paint on a palette. Does that come from travel? How does it impact your work?
JM: Being interested is the foundation of inspiration.
SA: What place was the most inspirational for you?
JM: Some remembrances of things past: Thailand’s temples covered in broken porcelain with massive reclining Buddhas made me rethink scale and the repurposing of materials; Barcelona for its vibrant design vision back in 1982; Japan for the retail inventiveness; Rio for the sensuality of the curving terrazzo boardwalk that parallels Ipanema beach; Buenos Aires for the architectural wonderland in the Recoleta cemetery; Siena, Italy, for the graphics of the Palio; London for Vivienne Westwood; France for the colors of Giverny; and Tanzania for the sheer beauty of the zebras.
SA: One of my favorite pieces of yours is the Mexican Museum poster. The color is remarkable. There’s fearlessness with color—a willingness to let color be unexpected like a Fillmore poster or a Picasso during the blue period. Where does that sensibility come from? Where are you looking to create these amazing palettes?
JM: That’s hard to identify. Some is intuitive, some is based on appropriateness to subject matter. I can say that growing up in the ’60s exposed me to how color could be used as a primary design element. Yet surprisingly, I always investigate if the solution could be clearly communicated in black and white. The Mexican Museum poster needed color both as a point of cultural reference and to reflect the nature of the programming, while the posters for the CCAC Institute benefited from the typography forms best expressed in black and white.
SA: Your work navigates a variety of cultural concepts, producing solutions that are clearly appropriate for the client’s specific culture. None of the work ever feels like it is a veneer. It all seems to grow organically from within the project’s origin and criteria. Is that one of your priorities for significant design?
JM: It is the priority. I always strive to find the appropriate narrative so that the solution doesn’t turn into a stylistic conceit.
SA: Last month, when I was in San Francisco for an AIGA lecture, you were very gracious and asked me over for dinner at 10 p.m. on a school night. The house you and Nilus (Nilus De Matran, Jennifer’s husband) designed is another example of your sensibility. I’ve heard that graphic designers make the worst clients for architects. Spouses come in second. You had both. What was the idea behind the house? How did your work influence the space?
JM: It was a wonderful collaboration. Nilus can work on a limited budget and make it look extraordinary. The interior is a juxtaposition of modern elements (floor to ceiling windows, concrete walls) with classical details (stone fireplace, maple floors), and the unexpected (roses taped on the living room wall). I had the roses created for a photo shoot I did with Matthew Rolston. I brought the roses home, had a dinner party the following night, broke out the Scotch tape, and had my guests tape the roses to the wall.
SA: Tell me about something you’ve done recently that really excites you. Remember children may be reading this.
JM: As you know, I had wanted to change the focus of Morla Design for a while and concentrate on creating work for arts organizations and educational institutions. When Design Within Reach offered me the creative director position, I knew this opportunity would allow me to implement this change. My studio also recently finished a large-format poster series for the postgraduate literature department at Stanford University. This was a perfect project—or more specifically, a perfect client—that gave us the opportunity to formulate a conceptual solution that communicates the essence of a literature lecture series.
SA: How did the creative director position at DWR come to you?
JM: Rob Forbes, the founder of Design Within Reach, and I have been business associates for many years. We love to talk design and have enjoyed previous working relationships based on our design interests. A few years back he asked me to design a tabloid targeted to the architectural design community. It was a great experience. DWR is one of the few design-driven companies I know of. Strategic marketing goals are based on design education and communication. What attracted me to their offer was the potential of the job—to create a design language for DWR’s over 50 stores, make that language a dynamic web experience, and enhance the catalog by infusing it with authorship and design history. In addition, I am involved in product development and the launch of all new brands. But my quintessential “kid in the candy store” moment is having access to the archives of Le Corbusier, Eames, and Nelson.
SA: How are the challenges of being an in-house department different from running a design firm?
JM: The challenge is to make an in-house department run like a design firm. Instituting primary contacts, sign-off procedures, production schedules, you know the drill. But most importantly, creating a system that allows enough time for designers to design.
SA: Seeing that you have so much free time, are you still teaching?
JM: I have been teaching Senior Design Thesis for the past decade at California College of the Arts (CCA). I also serve on the Thesis Committee. Why am I still at the school? The talent of our students consistently humbles me. I learn from them perhaps more than they learn from me. And because I hope that I can let them discover how design can tell a story.
SA: What’s been your proudest achievement professionally?
JM: There are many: Teaching for 12 years at CCA, being included in the upcoming edition of The History of Graphic Design, being a part of the permanent collections of MoMA and SFMoMA, and having a solo exhibition at SFMoMA and DDD Gallery in Japan.
SA: And this is a tricky one to pinpoint, but do you have a favorite piece?
JM: I am perhaps most proud of the work I did for Levi’s.
SA: Community has always been one of your special interests. We first met when I asked you to come to Los Angeles to do a lecture. You’ve been one of the best supporters of AIGA for years. Why does community matter to you? Does it really help anyone professionally?
JM: Community is our collective voice. It provides a forum for the discourse of ideas and the avenues to share those ideas outside of our community. My involvement with AIGA has been, and continues to be, one of the most enriching aspects of my professional life.
SA: Are you involved with any other organizations?
JM: I am on the Board of SFMoMA: Architecture and Design, as well as New Langton Arts, a progressive art venue that promotes both emerging and more established conceptual artists. By being involved in promoting architecture and design at the Museum, I hope that future generations will have the opportunity to experience their own design epiphany. My support of art organizations is more selfish. I get thoroughly inspired by the intersection of art and design mediums.
SA: How do you stay inspired and keep from burning out?
JM: I go to conceptual art galleries and performances to keep from burning out—Peter Brooks Mahabarata at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), Zaha Hadid’s architecture, John Baldassari’s art are forms of inspiration. All make the ordinary extraordinary.
SA: What’s your favorite cocktail?
JM: As a Northern California girl, a good glass of Pinot. Being an East Coast girl … there’s nothing like a gin and tonic on a warm summer evening.
SA: Favorite book?
JM: I tend to like fiction laced with a touch of the existential. Ian McEwan is a current fave, while Joan Didion did it for me back in the early ’70s. Orlando by Virginia Wolfe is exquisite. But if you’re looking for a good dose of pure existential melancholy, read Kobo Abe’s Woman in the Dunes.
SA: Favorite shoes?
JM: Any shoe that gives good toe cleavage.