The Daily Heller: Saul Mandel’s Illustrative Design

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American illustrator Saul Mandel (Jan. 21, 1926–Aug. 14, 2011) practiced primarily in the advertising field during the ’50s–’70s, and his light, energetic painterly approach contributed to the aesthetic of a period that was dominated by Push Pin Studio. He studied art at the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan. During World War II he served in the Hawaii-based Art Unit attached to U.S. Army Intelligence, with the task of disseminating important information to an audience scattered throughout the Pacific. In 1945 Mandel began his career in commercial arts designing record album covers from his studio in Manhattan with Sid Maurer for Columbia Records. He branched off and later built a studio in Jericho, NY. Today, some of his posters have been donated to Poster House by his daughter Suzy Mandel-Canter, who is cataloging his fortunately preserved oeuvre. An exhibition of his work is planned for 2023 at the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

Recently, I spoke to Mandel-Canter about his place in the history of illustration.

How did your father become an illustrator and designer?
Honestly, I don’t know. I am working on a documentary and recently discovered footage from an old interview that was done in the 1980s from the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, where he commented that he just knew at 13 years old he wanted to be an artist.

Where did he study?
In high school they did not see my father’s potential as an artist. He still believed enough in himself that he convinced the school to recommend him to the prestigious High School of Industrial Arts. He ended up becoming class president. He went on to study at Pratt Institute but his studies were interrupted by WWII when he was drafted into the Army.

While stationed in Hawaii, he was in charge of the art department that reported directly to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. His duties included creating maps, posters, flyers and other [items]. Years after the war, he was given an Honorary Colonel status by the U.S. Air Force because of the contributions of his artwork.

And what were his initial jobs?
After WWII, my father told me he freelanced as a designer at a few agencies in New York City in the early 1950s, and he mentioned at one job he worked next to Andy Warhol. A few years later, he started his own company that lasted approximately 10 years. His studio was on 57th Street in the city. One of his first accounts was RCA Records, creating record album covers. A short time later, when the company expanded, he partnered with his old friend and schoolmate from the High School of Industrial Arts, Sid Maurar. Sid handled the account for Decca Records, and together they designed album covers for Columbia, RCA, Decca and Apollo.

Saul’s style is reminiscent particularly of some of the French postwar posterists—Andre Francois being one of them. What were his influences?
You are right. Another big influence was French designer Raymond Savignac. He really related to him the most, I think.

As a child you must have spent time in his studio watching him do his jobs. What did you learn and retain from this relationship?
Approach life with love and keep it simple. My father’s sense of humor and his kindness was always there. He was always giving me the encouragement that I can do whatever is presented to me in a positive, powerful loving way.

I remember in his studio he had many cool posters, including the Bob Dylan poster his friend, Milton Glaser, had created. He also had a beautiful poster by Peter Max, whose creative style was one of my big influences. Dad also had photos of himself with other famous people. One of my favorites was a photo of him with Ed Sullivan. My father had all the major design magazines, including PRINT, Communication Arts, annuals, and children’s books lying around in his studio. I used to read all these magazines and books growing up, hanging out in his studio while he was busy creating. 

In the early 1960s, my father had built a large two-story studio to our family home when we lived in Jericho, NY, where I grew up. Upstairs there was a library display of creative material on the wall. The downstairs had a secret door to his darkroom with an old printing press that was later donated to Parson’s School of Design, I believe. One might consider my dad a reclusive artist, constantly working, except coming out for family dinner or if he was traveling to meet various agency heads for meetings to discuss campaigns they wanted him to create. I remember him flying to California quite a bit in the 1970s when he was creating a really great campaign for Bank of America in San Fransisco. Those paintings are some of my favorites today.

I loved looking through all his supplies—paints, papers, you name it, I played with it and it was part of my life. I remember at 11 or 12 years old, I stuffed hundreds of envelopes and did publicity mailings for him. We had a soul connection based in art and were generously collaborative in how we exchanged ideas and techniques. He taught me how to use the lucy; the stat machine; a printing press; a light box; as well as showed me how to use certain watercolor dyes and acrylics with all his many different paint brushes that sat in several coffee bins.

In the 1990s I had a job opportunity where I needed to create a storyboard for a TV commercial for Ogilvy and Mather. I did not know how to do that. My dad helped me and saved the day. I created my first storyboard with his guidance. In 2000, when my parents came to visit when my family and I were living in Hawaii, I taught him how to illustrate on a Mac computer using Photoshop. He became a digital illustrator from that time until he passed away in 2011. 

I have to add that we also collaborated on painting. Not only have I collaborated with my father, but my two sons have, as well. When my older son had won a contest in 2000 designing a stamp for the USPS at the age of 9 called “Stampin the Future,” my father was so proud of him. How ironic is that? My dad created the iconic Puppy Dog LOVE 22 cent stamp in 1986 and my son created the 33 cent Stamping in the Future 2000 stamp.

Lastly, my father taught me how to lay out and design for children’s books; I was fortunate to became published in the children’s market with books and calendars. My father helped me with the layout of my first children’s book before I became a published children’s book illustrator.

Did Saul figure among the popular illustrator-designers of his era? And where, for instance, did he stand along with Push Pin Studios or Tomi Ungerer? 
My father was a big fan of Push Pin Studios. He always regarded them with the utmost respect and admiration. Milton Glaser was a friend of my father’s. They met when my dad’s campaigns for Jolly Green Giant and Lufthansa ran in the New Yorker magazine in the 1960s.

Some of my father’s favorite books were by Tomi Unger and Seymour Chwast. In fact, years later, my dad encouraged me to work as a colorist for Seymour after I had been a student at the Pratt Institute of Graphic Design. Seymour taught me how to master the art of cutting Pantone paper on the thinnest line before computers did that job.

My father was good friends with Al Scaduto, the cartoonist at King Features syndicate. I remember Al and his wife used to come over for cocktail parties at our house when I was a kid. I also remember him being friends with Lou Dorfsman, who lived on Long Island.

Did he devise his own ideas, or was he fed them by a creative director?
My father stated once that “agencies wanted to use the comp as finished art.” He knew he was a natural because of all the calls for his style and approach. He developed the campaign. He had total control over the entire creative process. The copyrighters, art directors, creative directors, would come to him for the concept all the way to finished illustration and campaign. He stated in an interview: “The illustration is the simplest part I do. I enjoy the challenge.”

What is the quality that you most admire in your father’s work?
His sense of humor and his ability to illustrate and design an advertisement, poster or campaign to the simplest form, almost childlike. This, along with his colorful, friendly approach, was absolutely powerful. To me, that was it. His art was so successful with most everything he designed and created that agencies called on him continually throughout his career. The agencies and consumers loved my father’s style, and so do I.