Catching a Bass, That’s Not a Bass

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Everyone I know assumes that Saul Bass designed the poster for West Side Story because he designed the title sequence. But I was surprised to learn recently that he did not. I was directed to read page 107 in the excellent Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, in which Kirkham states that Bass definitely did not do the poster, which accounts for why Bass’ signature did not appear. But neither did any other signature or credit.

poster of West Side Story
West Side Story - starring natalie wood

After an hour of digging, however, I learned it was designed by Joseph Caroff, who apprenticed with French poster maestro Jean Carlu, worked in the Office of War Information (with Charles Coiner) during World War II, formed an eponymous design studio in 1965 and designed the famous 007 logo. All this in addition to scads of marks, film titles, record album covers and packaging before retiring in 1980 when he turned full time to painting. I had never heard of or saw a mention of Mr. Caroff.

west side story 50th birthday poster

That the wrong attributions have continued uncorrected (even though it was noted in the Bass monograph), and Mr. Caroff’s contribution has been ostensibly overlooked, shows how imperfect the scholarship of graphic design history can be. And watch out for Google, etc. Virtually all top-tier database searches for the West Side Story poster and campaign result in either Saul Bass as designer or there is no attribution at all. As Pat Kirkham told me, “the most likely thing that might have been by Bass or that resembled a design he might have created is the logo/trademark of the small stylized figures with the outline of a building.” One mistaken credit can have a snowball effect.

The Lesson: More close reading and never assume anything. I learned the hard way when, as one of my books was going to press, the editor questioned the validity of the caption and we immediately changed gears. Whew!

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →