One of the originators of California’s ’70s/’80s Postmodern/New Wave aesthetic, Jayme Odgers (born 1939) is best heralded for his crisp photography, surreal montage and illuminating colors—in short, the imagery that helped define the period in which he practiced. Much of his best-known graphic design was in collaboration with April Greiman.
Earlier in his career, as an assistant to Paul Rand, Odgers took a radical detour from classic midcentury Modernism. “The pre-digital commercial work I did between 1962 and 1986 resisted categorization by typical commercial design standards,” he writes on his new website. “The work blurred the boundaries between graphic design, typography, photography, illustration and collage—I refer to them as blendos.”
This interview explores the rational for his new site and Odgers’ place in design history. (You can also read an interview with him about his more recent work here.)
You have a new website that focuses on your lesser-known early Modernist work, and the later iconic Postmodern work (see the Gallery section). Some of the ’80s imagery was in collaboration with April Greiman. Why did you make this site?
Simply put, it’s a legacy site, something to leave behind. This is my first and only website featuring my commercial work from 1960 through 1986.
By 1973, however, I was done with straight graphic design and wanted to broaden my scope. It was around that time I attended a lecture by Manly P. Hall of the Philosophical Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he stated, “Six months of quiet meditation can save an entire life of misdirection.” I took three years off to ponder, what’s next? That was when I began layering graphic design with photography, typography and photo-collage, all of which I referred to as photo-graphy. It was a new vision for me, one that employed a combination of my many interests.
As for the website, I never thought about an online presence strictly regarding my commercial past until recently. Up till now, my online presence was a smattering of work scattered across the internet. When I chronologically organized my work for the website, it was the first time a cohesive throughline appeared, which took me by surprise. I sensed the singularity of a personal vision and it gave me a deep sense of satisfaction, like a job well done. Out of the apparent chaos, I appeared to myself in a way I’d never seen before—a unified whole, complete and even somewhat linear.
What have you added that people do not know about you?
On the About page of my website, I offer an insight into a question I’ve often been asked over the years: Why did you stop doing commercial work in 1986, while seemingly at the top of your game?
By 1986 I’d grown tired of showing the commercial work for which I’d been known. That same year, curator Giorgio Camuffo selected my work for inclusion in an exhibition titled “California Design Pacific Wave,” which was to be mounted at the Museo Fortuny in Venice, Italy. The exhibition included designers such as April Greiman, Michael Manwaring, Deborah Sussman, Michael Vanderbyl and Tomatsu Yagi, among others. I was deeply honored.
In addition to the exhibition, I was given a double-page spread in the accompanying catalog. Unlike the other designers, I used this opportunity to create new work (which was very rebellious) and what I view in hindsight as my swan song. This spread represents an intuitive transition from the commercial world to making personal work. It’s the final work on my website and a preview of personal work yet to come.
Why the epochal change when by all appearances my design career seemed to be going so well? At the time I had no idea. It was just a gut response, but my answer came within weeks.
I needed work, so went to New York and showed my portfolio at Columbia Records. The art director, a nice guy, slowly reviewed my entire portfolio with deafening silence. He then turned to me and said, “So, you’re the one?” I replied, “The one what?” “You’re the guy responsible for this look. I see tons of work like this randomly sprinkled throughout the various portfolios I review, but your portfolio has a consistent vision in every piece from start to finish. You’re the one.” Then, he added, my problem was that he could hire 20 people in New York tomorrow who could do this look at half the price he’d have to pay me. That was the death knell. I knew, then and there, my time in the commercial world had come to a close.
That was a pretty definitive decision to change course. So, where do you see yourself in the continuum of design history?
Honestly, that’s something I’ve never thought about for a minute. I think I’ll have to leave that up to the historians and the record keepers. The best I’ve been able to do is follow my interests, or as Robert Rauschenberg more elegantly put it when he was asked where he gets his ideas: “Ideas? I don’t come up with ideas. I simply do what I can no longer ignore.” That sums it up for me.
There’s a famous photograph of Matisse, old, dying, half-blind, lying in his bed with a long stick, making drawings on huge sheets of paper. That image has been an inspiration from the moment I first saw it. He did brilliant work to the very end. Utterly inspiring.
What do you want to achieve from this public accessibility to your heritage or legacy?
When I switched from commercial work to personal work in 1986, I suspected that would likely exempt me from having a definitive monograph of my work. That said, this legacy website will have to suffice.
Just as I have been inspired by so many who have come before me, I can only hope my work provides inspiration for those who, like me, choose to follow their own interests throughout a lifetime.