Remembering Saul

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Although I had met him before, I really first came to know Saul Bass by way of an interview published in ID Magazine in 1958.  Having just been named editor, I had selfishly assigned the interview to myself.  Recently I pulled the piece out of an ancient files folder and was astonished by how much of the essential Saul Bass revealed in this book was telegraphed more than 50 years ago in that article, not in anything I wrote but in what Saul said. The interview took place in my Greenwich Village apartment, and before I asked the first question, Saul broke in:

May I interrupt ?

What, already?

Yes, I have a request … I’ve been interviewed before and generally I find that when I’m quoted, or paraphrased, there’s a certain “echo-chamber sound” that leaves me aghast at my pomposity.  I beg you, please don’t reveal me to myself once again.

That was typical Saul.  In both his life and his work he combined the cerebral with the playful,  and the former — the seriousness and idealism he brought to so much of what he did—could, he knew, be mistaken for pretentiousness.

An exchange later in the interview brought us back to the same issue.

SB: The challenge in design is always to establish communication with human warmth—to create an emotional identification between the subject and the audience.

RC: Well, that’s the challenge in any art.  But isn’t design often concerned with things that don’t lend themselves to such grand concepts? For example, you recently designed some tuna fish labels.  Isn’t it pretentious to say in this connection that you are trying to do anything about human warmth?  All you’re trying to do is sell tuna fish.

SB: Ouch.  That’s a good point.  Well, at least I didn’t get sucked into the intellectual research trap of graphically translating classics like “rounded shapes have a more feminine connotation.” I just made it a nice bright little fish.  That seems to me to have more juice—human or otherwise—that lettering or shapes.  However there was a mountain of research behind the project.

The remark encapsulated what was going on in design at the time and Bass’s attitude towards it.  In the fifties market research had begun to take on the look, if not the methods, of science and Saul was acknowledging the attendant hype, while careful not to dismiss the importance of research itself.

This comprehensive account, of Saul Bass’s career is an incomparably valuable resource for graphic designers, students, film makers and film buffs, and in fact general readers, who will find in it much that they recognize and were familiar with without ever suspecting the rich story of how they came about.  Jennifer Bass’s design, like her father’s, packs each page with both information and delight. But although the work speaks for itself, it doesn’t really say enough.  Fortunately it doesn’t have to.  Recognizing that Saul was the clearest explainer of his own work, Pat Kirkham has written a book in which she has chosen to lodge the principle insights in Saul’s description of what he did and why and how.

Design is usually practiced as both a profession that serves users and a business that serves clients. For designers this has frequently raised the question of what to do if their two roles come into conflict. Saul didn’t see it as a problem, believing that the answer lay in the designer’s own interests and priorities. He loved living in California, which had long been a magnet for designers and architects. While Bass thought the climate and ambience of creativity were enough to account for the region’s attractiveness, he once shrewdly observed, “Everyone comes out here thinking they want to be Alvin and Charlie, but they really want to be Gordon and Walter.”

Today that comment requires some explanation. “Alvin and Charlie” were Alvin Lustig and Charles Eames, designers whom other designers hoped, or said they hoped, to emulate for the artistry inherent in their work.  Gordon Lippincott and Walter Margulies were the principals in the firm that bore their names, a large, hugely successful New York design office that was took pride in having modeled the organization of their firm on an advertising agency. Their work, supported by massive market research, was generally well regarded, but the firm was perceived as exemplifying the business of design as opposed to design as a transformative profession.

Like Eames, Bass himself had achieved success in both the aesthetic and business aspects of design and was acutely aware of the delicate balance between them.  The trajectory of his career depicted here is pretty much a steady ascent, but Kirkham shows that, unsurprisingly, not every project came out as envisioned. Saul took particular pride in being asked to design the United States Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and particular disappointment after months of intense work when President Kenned was persuaded to pull the plug on it for political reasons, albeit reluctantly, for he liked the design.

Encouraged to develop a narrative that faced some of the nation’s most sensitive problems, Saul was frustrated by the political climate that militated against his effort to do just that. Generally comfortable with accepting failure as an occasional given in any creative pursuit, Saul was nevertheless depressed by this experience, not from giving up the commission, but because he and Elaine had put so much of themselves into the concept.  His response—characteristic of the seriousness with which he took all assignments—was indicative of the special weight he applied to this one. “We really wrestled with trying to express what it means to be an American,” he said.

Of course, as this book amply demonstrates, he was no stranger to bureaucracy, although rarely of the Federal, variety. Saul was a superb corporate designer, and in creating logos and marketing strategies for some of the world’s largest corporations, proved to be a master at one of the professional designer’s most challenging tasks: being understood by clients.   He knew that being understood by clients entails understanding clients, and that the burden of proof usually falls to the designer.  Probably his skill with film contributed to his ability to make visual ideas clear. The following pages carry myriad examples of his effectiveness in working with industry. Saul was a graphic designer who became phenomenally successful in moving between media and, in the process, substantially transformed for all of us the experience of watching a movie.  But the process transformed him too, provoking a passionate lifetime involvement in film.  As Bass’s graphic design prowess grew, his firm continued to create logos and identity systems for prestigious companies.  Saul was justly proud of the corporate work.  But I am convinced that, once he began working with film, corporate success took second (or at least not first) place in his heart.

Over the years Saul and I talked several times about working together, but never did.  The first time was when Saul was preparing to do a film for United Airlines to be shown at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  I had breakfast with Saul and Elaine in their room at the Plaza Hotel and we talked about ways to make air travel exciting, which was what it had already ceased to be. Once an adventure, flying had become nothing more than a fast but tedious way to get where you were going.  How could a film counteract the tedium of commercial flight?

We didn’t solve the problem then, but I left with the satisfaction of knowing that we had a little time to sit on it.  We sat.  At some point I got a note from Saul saying that it seemed more practical to have all elements of the production done in Los Angeles.  It made sense I supposed, but I was disappointed.  I was even more disappointed when, a day or two before the Fair opened, Saul showed me the finished film and I saw how good it was. The solution was ingenious. Called “From Here to There,” the film was not about flying but about coming and going, the emotional charge of saying goodbye upon leaving and in being met upon arrival.

For many years Saul and I were both on the board of the International Design Conference in Aspen. An impassioned advocate of design values, he was one of the most effective contributors to board meetings and to the content of the yearly conferences. The Design Conference offered opportunities for me to collaborate with Saul on numerous panels and once in an admittedly hokey impromptu performance. One year board members were invited to participate in a design conference in Japan. Already tired from jet lag, we took a long bus ride from Tokyo to Nagano led by a serious young woman, armed with a microphone, who delivered a running narrative covering places we passed and events that had occurred at or near them.  Her account may have been accurate but it was, in the manner of tour guides the world over, gratuitous and therefore boring.

Humor was always a major component of Saul’s life and work.  The IDCA designers were a tough audience for any tour guide and when fatigue and impatience approached hostility, Saul walked to the front to the bus and politely borrowed the microphone.  He asked me, “Do you know the words to ‘Sonny Boy?’”

“I think so.”

“Let’s do it.”

“Saul, you asked if I know the words.  I may know them.   But I can’t sing.”

“We’ll do it as a Q&A.  I’ll sing my part, you speak yours.”  Speaking into the mike, he gave a brief intro: “Ralph and I have been rehearsing a number we think you might like, and now we’re ready to audition.”  Saul, who had an excellent voice (as an adolescent he had flirted with the idea of training to be a cantor), then broke into song.

“Climb upon my knee”

I broke into speech, asking tonelessly: “What’s my name?”

Saul sang “Sonny Boy!”

“How old am I?” I asked.

“Though you’re only three…” he sang.

“What’s my name?”

“Sonny boy.”

And so it went, with Saul doing Al Jolson and me as straight man.  Was it as funny as we thought? Well, as they say of so many memories, you had to be there.  And as with so many experiences involving Saul Bass, I’ll always be glad I was.

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