Love Letters: Sean Adams on Michael Vanderbyl

Marina Willer, Sebastian Padilla and Dana Arnett are ready to see your design firm’s entries in HOW’s International Design Awards. Enter by Oct. 2.


by Sean Adams

Beauty is a bad word in design. It is dismissed as shallow and irrelevant. It is about veneer and artifice. Beauty talks about the way a thing looks rather than what it means. A serious designer will reject elegance, harmony and beauty in favor of dystopia and acceptance of the repellent.

This was the philosophy I was taught as a young designer. I attempted to embrace this and incorporated hideous shades of green, distressed typography and unattractive imagery into my work. But there was that inner sense of living a charade. In my world, CalArts in the 1980s, I thought I was the only one who thought design didn’t need to be ugly.

It is rare that people experience epiphanic moments in life as if in a novel. That sudden burst of knowledge while sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, or instantly recognizing that you are in love under a tree in the rain, is not common. I can pinpoint, however, the moment and place when I realized that dystopia and chaos was not the only way. I was sitting on the floor of the library at school between the stacks in the graphic design section. I recall the smell of old books and the scratchy wool carpet. I found a book, Seven, and opened to a page of Michael Vanderbyl’s work. The experience was the same we all share when we find something wonderful—it was that sense of excitement, discovery, envy and longing.

To spend a concentrated amount of time looking at Michael’s work is to feel that beauty, harmony and precision cannot be separated from content. The work seduces and remains in the viewer’s mind. But this is not beauty in the sense of an elaborate wedding cake or a baroque cathedral. Michael strips the form to its essence and allows the simple and honest to convey the message. The result is a body of work that embraces the best and unapologetically demands excellence. The closest example is that of a chef using the best and highest-quality ingredients to make a seemingly simple but remarkable meal.

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

As designers, we all practice a form of hero worship. We make those we admire larger than life and untouchable. “Is that Saul Bass over there? I can’t say hello; I’m too scared,” or “Can you believe Milton Glaser signed his book for me?” The reality is that this is flattering to the person in question, but usually awkward and uncomfortable. After all, being a famous designer is the same as being a famous accountant. This story would work best if I talked about meeting Michael for the first time, nervous and voice shaking as I introduced myself. But that would be a lie. Before I had the chance to be anxious, Michael introduced himself to me as if we were old friends, and immediately complimented a recent project. Flattery may be the devil’s tool, but I’m all for it.

For over two decades, Michael has been a friend*, champion, mentor and great dinner partner. I think of him first when faced with a professional dilemma. I turn to his work when I need inspiration, and when I need to know which Aston Martin model is best.

Last year, I was at a crossroads in my career. I had spent two decades working with Noreen Morioka to build AdamsMorioka. I took three months off and went to Berlin with a group of Art Center students. While there, I came to recognize that I could use the second half of my career continuing to do what I had been doing for 30 years, or take a different path. The other path was to leave AdamsMorioka and focus my energies as a full-time professor at Art Center, continue to serve AIGA, work with Lynda.com to reach people without access to design education, and design work I enjoyed. The core of this path was to help others reach their fullest potential. And this concept would never have entered my frame of reference without Michael.

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Michael has committed his career to design, education, AIGA and service. He continues to create remarkable work that advances the profession. If he could do this, so could I. Michael proves that it is possible to be a graphic, furniture and environmental designer, AIGA president, educator and whatever one aspires to. He doesn’t accept that there is only one path.

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

He gave me the advice, as I faced this mid-life crisis, to do what made me happy. “If you think about doing something every day,” he told me, “like playing the piano professionally, then you should do it.” Fortunately, I didn’t want to play the piano. But every day I regretted that I didn’t give enough time to a student, young designer or anyone else who needed some help. I didn’t regret not working more on the most recent newsletter for a medical client. Michael gave me the permission to make a course change and do what I loved, ignoring others who lived by hard rules and single definitions.

Graphic design has been good to me. Or more specifically, graphic designers have been good to me, especially Michael. He helped launch my career, and has gone to great effort to help me and champion my work. These things, though, are minor compared to the example he has shown. Through Michael, I learned to aspire to be gracious, humble, generous and honest. I cannot repay his endless kindness and friendship. I can only do my best to emulate this and pass the concept of beauty and generosity on to the next generation.

*There is, of course, a downside to being Michael’s friend. Michael’s house is spectacular. The design is sublime and restrained. The symmetrical layout and forms are unexpected and, at the same time, feel exactly right. On my last visit, John Bielenberg and I counted 20 different shades of white paint on the walls and ceilings. The space is calm, casual and flawless. The problem is going home. It is then that you realize, Oh my God, I live like a wild animal. Instead of harmony and simplicity—one beautiful Audubon print in the dining room—I have coral and sea-foam walls, surfing posters, a million pillows from around the world, and a sailfish. When I return home, I pare everything down and put the Mexican folk art in plastic bins in the garage. But after a week, they’re back, and then I find a miniature rocket that I must have.

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Work by Michael Vanderbyl

Sean Adams is a professor at Art Center College of Design, founder of Burning Settlers Cabin website and studio, and the only two-term AIGA national president. Adams was a founding partner at AdamsMorioka, and in 2014 he was awarded the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the profession.

Michael Vanderbyl has gained international prominence in the design field as a practitioner, educator, critic and advocate. His firm Vanderbyl Design, established in San Francisco in 1973, has evolved into a truly multidisciplinary studio. In 1987 Vanderbyl was elected a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale. In addition to serving three terms on the board of directors of AIGA national, he led as president for the 2003–2005 term. He is a member of the International Interior Design Association, and has also been honored with the AIGA Medal.


9781440333279_300dpi_2Graphic Content eBook
By Brian Singer

You’ll love this book of design stories if:

You admire graphic designers and other creative types, and would love a glimpse into their personal experiences

You enjoy reading true stories from real people

You want to learn about some of the experiences that helped shape various prominent designers, like Debbie Millman, Jessica Hische, and Sean Adams.

COMMENT