[Editor's note: This is the first of two interviews with AIGA/LA's newest Fellow recipients. The second, with Jeri Heiden, is here.]
Lee Clow was reinventing advertising. R/Greenberg Associates was inventing motion graphics. April Greiman was inventing PostModernism while running CalArts’s Visual Communications program and getting naked for Design Quarterly. And April and Sussman/Prejza were branding the Summer Olympics. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles.
And in 1983, AIGA’s L.A. chapter opened for business, and provided a unifying resource for local designers. Among the founders were Deborah Sussman, Saul Bass, and John Coy, of Coy LA. John was also the chapter’s first president.
Over the decades John has designed print material for LACMA, the Getty Center, Gemini G.E.L., UCLA, and CalArts. He’s produced identity and promotional advertising for a number of national and local clients. For further biographical details, see AIGA/LA’s recent profile story, here.
Last Thursday, John, along with Jeri Heiden, was named AIGA/LA Fellow in a celebration at West Hollywood’s Palihouse. This honor is given “In recognition of significant personal and professional contributions to raising the standards of excellence within the design community.” John and Jeri join a number of esteemed designers including – alphabetically – Sean Adams, Archie Boston, Margo Chase, and on through April G. and Deborah S. to Doyald Young.
In the spirit of good fellowship, John and I discussed some of the significant people – and places and philosophies – that have shaped his career.
On L.A. Living
I am a sun loving person. I like the warmth and the color and the palm trees and the ocean, and at the same time being in a world center.
I like that I can ride a bike or go rollerblading with my six year old daughter pretty much any time of the year, and be in a sophisticated art and business environment at the same time. I like wearing t-shirts and not wearing ties. I don’t know if my work looks like California, but it certainly is influenced by all of this. The colors of L.A. definitely affect my palette.
I feel free in California because I feel at home here.
It was exciting to launch this program in L.A. It just happened because we wanted to explore what might be fun and informative for the community, and what was personally exciting for us. I had no idea of how to be president, but had all kinds of help from the other board members, and a gifted and dedicated wife who helped me manage.
The design community was like family to me. I always liked being around other designers and socializing with them, so it was easy and enjoyable to spend time and energy working on events and projects. I loved being connected to the other founders, who were inspirational and fun and had a sincere appreciation for the craft and for the people in the community.
On Fellow L.A. Designers
Saul Bass had a huge influence when I was in high school. I was very drawn to what he did with his movie images, and I know that they influenced me to pursue graphics. And it was such an honor and pleasure to serve on the same AIGA/LA board with him.
Doyald Young was my teacher at Art Center. I think his classes were the most meaningful ones I took. They were where I first grew significantly in my awareness of form, elegance, and refinement, which eventually extended far beyond lettering.
Deborah Sussman’s work is smart and fun and colorful, and I am sure she influenced me. I just had, and still do have, a lot of respect for her vision. She extended the Eames tradition and sensibility of artful invention, and set high standards for the L.A. design community.
April Greiman’s hip and stylish work influenced a lot of designers’ work. She surely stimulated my interest in typography. She exposed me to Wolfgang Weingart and the whole typographic metamorphosis that was happening in the 1970s. Watching what she was doing was a constant stimulus to have fun and do bold things.
Ken Parkhurst was a great influence. I worked for him, and of all the designers of the time I was around him the most. He is, and always was, a great artist as well as a wonderful designer and a master typographer. I tried to emulate his work. And I know some of it rubbed off on me, mostly his refinement of form and great color sense.
Lou Danziger was a father figure and educator and good thinker. He always knew so much. And he sent me good people to work in my studio, including Maryl Lavelle and Tracey Shiffman, who are both wonderful designers who educated me while they worked for me.
All of these influences educated me and delighted me. I guess that I picked up the parts of their work that stimulated a similar part in me that I recognized.
On Fine Artists
I think I am closest in spirit to Robert Rauschenberg. He gave me permission to be loose, and to let things take on their own significance and meaning. To allow the unconscious to design the piece. Don’t “think” it too much; be more visceral. Rauschenberg was a very generous man, and I have to say that was very inspiring. Jasper Johns, the same thing. I just love these artists’ work.
I’d have to add Jonathan Borofsky, for educating me about being my own person, and doing what is within me. Richard Serra, because he is so powerful, smart, educated, and productive. Ellsworth Kelly, for being able to reduce things down to their essence. Each of them speak from their heart and soul. They have their own unique sophistication. And they are all good designers. Design is fundamental in their work. Interacting with them has been both inspirational and influential. It’s like sitting next to a burning log. You will definitely burn brighter as a result.
At first it was an interesting toy that I couldn’t really operate, and I had to rely on others to do the work. It was a good influence on me because I realized that others who were younger knew way more than I did, and I needed them to educate me. This was enlightening.
We are spiritual beings in physical bodies. Our spirituality is within us but it may not find full expression until we tune to it. When I began to wake up to this, I began to learn that I could dialog with the Xerox machine, and it would design for me.
Tuning to the spiritual has changed the way I relate to doing work, and how I work with people. I realize that I am here to be of service, and I’m less and less interested in being in “total control” of things. It’s opened my eyes and my heart, and that’s probably a good thing for a visual artist.
On Mentors, and Youngsters
We all need mentors. I would say to young people today, “Find people who exemplify wisdom that you recognize. You will know them. Trust yourself. Put yourself in the hands of people who can help you to discover yourself, and learn what your soul is asking of you.”
Kids today are not the same as in previous generations. And each new generation will emphasize this more and more. These kids will be teaching us as much as we will be teaching them… probably way more, if the truth be told. This is a time of huge transformation, and fortunately it isn’t up to us old farts to fix it all. This will be the way of the future. These young ones will define what is possible. And it won’t have anything to do with what we thought was possible.