The Daily Heller: The Assistant, Jayme Odgers, Works for Paul Rand

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This installment of The Assistant is a remembrance by designer, photographer and painter Jayme Odgers, whose work helped to define the 1980s California Postmodern style. Odgers grew up in the “cultural black hole of the copper mining town of Butte, MT,” hundreds of miles—and seeming light years away—from anything. He says he was a blank slate when he arrived in Southern California to go to art school. It was at college, circa 1958, that Odgers stumbled across Paul Rand’s work in a library. The first piece he saw was the 1950 film noir movie poster for No Way Out. “I was irrevocably smitten. Instantly, the stable data [of] my mind seemed to explode into pieces—what am I looking at? I’d never seen anything like that poster before. It was unforgettable. It etched itself in my mind.”

Note: Many of the presentations and final iterations below were projects Odgers worked on with Rand (courtesy Jayme Odgers). Also, thanks to Eric Baker.

Here’s Odgers:

A life-changing moment occurred in my life in July of 1964 when I became Paul Rand’s assistant. That time working with Paul was epochal; I recall many events as if they had happened yesterday. Like my very first day at work as his assistant when he asked me why I wanted to work for him. I replied that I wanted to learn.

“You’re here to work, sonny boy, not to learn,” was the answer. Was he ever right. Any learning had to come from observation, innuendo and other intangible means. I’ll describe those intangibles later. On that very first day I began working for Paul, he had a book jacket design due. I watched as he reached into a drawer and chose two sheets of colored paper, much like our Color Aid, but larger Swiss-made printed sheets, a red-orange and a complementary green color. Using scissors, he cut three smallish green shapes and in seemingly random manner glued them onto a square of the red-orange paper. With a circle cutter he cut out a doughnut-like shape about six inches in diameter and one inch wide, which he glued onto a sheet of white paper. It was like watching a magic act. I was mesmerized.

Covering the entire doughnut shape with acetate, he used a rather large nib pen dipped in white ink to deftly draw a linear serpent eating its own tail over the torus shape—an ouroboros appeared as if out of nowhere. Done. No sketches, no indecision; in less than 15 minutes, with minimal material, he had created the cover art for Erich Neumann’s book The Origins and History of Consciousness for Bollingen Publishers. It was done in a stream-of-consciousness style. The whole thing left me spellbound as I witnessed an act of supreme mastery.

Circa 1965, I watched Paul create the poster design for Sources and Resources of 20th Century Design—The International Design Conference in Aspen. First, he cut an egg shape out of a white piece of paper, which he glued on a larger sheet of red Swiss-made colored paper. Covering the entire background with acetate, he dipped a brush into black ink, then, Jackson Pollack–style, he dripped blobs of the ink over the image. Done. Again, no sketches, no hesitation, the simplest of tools, and completed in a matter of minutes. Simply brilliant, brilliantly simple. Note the one black dot on the white left-hand panel. That wasn’t an accident.

Rand’s Philosophy on Ideas
One of the most fascinating aspects of Paul Rand’s thinking is that he didn’t believe in endlessly coming up with idea after idea, exhausting all possibilities, which typically eats up one-third of a design budget. He believed ideas are virtually endless—where does one stop anyway? He told me all you need is one good idea—and not all ideas have to be award-winners. A graphic designer needs only to be a professional and offer a professional solution. Easier said than done.

Rand’s Process
On smaller projects like the Bollingen book jacket and the Aspen poster, Paul simply knocked them out in whiz-bang fashion. With larger projects like creating a logo/mark or branding system, Paul would take that “one decent idea,” then spend the next six months and 100% of the budget refining that single idea to its most perfect visual form and content. There were no sketches, no meetings with the client, no midway reviews, just the most serious investigation, development and design resolution of an idea imaginable.

A branding project would result in a 12″ x 11″ printed booklet (a visual square). The pages were Japanese fold-in style, ranging from roughly 18–40 pages, depending on the size of the project. In each of these individual booklets, Paul would explain his reasoning for his decisions in his typical cogent writing. Fifty copies of the presentation would be printed, one copy would be mailed to the client six months from the initial design date, along with the final bill. During that six months of intense work, there were no discussions with the client, and no final presentation made in person.

Upon hearing about his standard process, a client would sometimes balk and ask, what if he didn’t like the idea Paul was proposing? Paul’s riposte was to tell them they could either hire him again or hire someone else. In other words, when you hired Paul Rand, you got what Paul Rand thought was the best design for the situation. Paul disdained groups of people and refused to make final presentations to clients in person. He believed that everything he needed to say was in the final presentation booklet.

He did, however, make one exception to his rule. The occasion was when he created a logo redesign for the Ford Motor Company, and they demanded that he make the presentation in person. I sense because of the amount of money at stake, he relinquished and flew to the Ford Motor Company Headquarters in Dearborn, MI. As he described it to me, when he entered the boardroom he nearly passed out. The vast room hosted a massive oval table of a scale he’d never seen before, and seated around its perimeter were a legion of dour executives.

Paul looked at the gathering and asked: Which one of the people in the room made the final decision? Everyone nodded to one person at the far end of the oval. Requesting that a chair be put beside the decision-maker, Paul sat down next to the man and reviewed the presentation booklet as if they were the only two people in the room. Once again, Paul Rand had his way.

Regarding Sketches
In the two years I assisted Paul, I can’t recall ever seeing him make a sketch for a project, yet I do know that he did sketches. I assume most of the time he developed ideas in his head until somehow one “decent” idea manifested itself. The only idea sketch I saw by Paul is one he did prior to my working for him. He told me the story of getting the phone call from Westinghouse to redo their very dated-looking “W” logo/mark. As he spoke on the phone with the client he penciled out a sketch of a logo/mark on the edge of a newspaper that was near the phone. He told me he basically solved the idea while he was on the phone call. Paul showed me the snippet of newsprint with a roughly sketched Westinghouse logo/mark. It looked remarkably similar to the mark with which we are familiar. I assume he then spent his requisite six months and the entire budget refining it to perfection. No further idea sketches were done.

Online, I have seen several sheets of Westinghouse logo/mark sketches made on Marion Swannie’s stationery, however, the solitary sketch he showed me on a small snippet of newsprint was the very original sketch done while he was on the phone with the client. Regrettably, I did not take a photo of it. I assume the sketches on Marion Swannie’s stationery were done by Paul later to show her his proposed solution—and to be a little playful with the idea.

Another telling memory from my time as Paul’s assistant happened during the design of one of IBM’s annual reports. He had noticed during the making of the Ford Motor Company presentation that I was skilled with a ruling pen. He wanted to put a .25 pt. hairline rule across the top of each page of the annual report, except such thin lead rules tended to have slight wiggles or wanders, as we termed them. Could I rule 60 consistent .25 pt. hairline rules to complete such a design, he asked? Being young and ambitious, I confidently replied yes. Paul came in the following day and asked to see my .25 rules. I proudly handed him the board as if it were an Olympic trophy. Being nearsighted, he lifted his glasses to carefully study each line. After a very long silence he turned to me and said, “OK, I like this thickness, pointing to one specific ruled line. Make 59 more like this one.”

I was totally stunned. I had been an A+ student at Art Center and was known for my hand skills. His request left me almost speechless. I blurted out that the lines were all the same thickness … aren’t they? “Like hell they are, LOOK!” he yelled. Reaching into his taboret drawer, he took a magnifying loupe that measured in thousandths of an inch and handed it to me. I studied the lines under the loupe. They were all ever so slightly different when seen in terms of thousandths of an inch. Most remarkable, he had seen the minute differences with his bare eyes. I spent the next day making more identical lines using the loupe that matched the one line Paul had selected to the tolerance of .001 of an inch. That was the level of rigor Paul demanded on all things in his office, the highest I’ve ever experienced to this very day.

One of the most memorable days was when Paul walked into the studio and said that the IBM logo looked tired and needed to be updated. I was shocked, it looked fine to me. He claimed it should look more electronic, more like the lines on a TV screen when there’s no picture. I really didn’t know what he was getting at. I sat down, and using the City Medium typeface, I calculated that the width of the slab serifs were self-determining—there could only be eight or 13 lines, there were no other possibilities.

We spent months getting the ideal balance between the weight of the lines to the space between the lines. Ever since, I see the eight-line version almost every day on television or in an ad. That linear IBM logo was conceived over a half century ago, yet still looks as fresh and contemporary today as it did then. Yet another memento of the genius that was Paul Rand.

Learning By Entanglements
When hired by Paul to be his assistant, my wife and I had to move from California to Connecticut. Paul’s studio/home was in Weston, CT, one of the wealthiest counties in America at that time. After three months of living in motels, my wife and I found a home we could afford, a tiny A-frame house 40 miles away in the West Reading, CT, woods.

When I gave him the good news that we’d found a house, the first thing he did was ask I draw him a map from my new home to the studio. I naively made a diagram of the route so he could see the various roads I had to drive. He studied it intently, then he remarked, “That’s a good map. It’s simple, clear, only showing the most salient landmarks along the way. It’s even a nice design. OK, you can work for me.” That was an acid test! He was serious. Believe me, if I had made an incoherent map, my tenure there would have been precarious. So many things about Paul simply amazed me when they revealed how he thought.

Another thing about Paul that always left me marveling was his studio floor. Being Meisian in design, the house/studio meant that the studio area had large Modernist windows on two sides and a long wall of bookcases with very little open interior wall space. The smooth tiled floor was perfectly flat, a gorgeous, neutral gray color against which anything would look good. That floor was also heated, so during the winter months it was heavenly to move about in stocking feet. I loved the neutral gray color so much I immediately commented on it. He told me the reason he chose that color was so he could view the work by placing it on the floor and studying it against the neutrality of the grey background.

I soon discovered this was how Paul liked to view his work. If we needed to get further away from a piece of work he would haul out a ladder and we’d climb up to get a longer view. We could view any number of things from any angle, walk around it, view it upside down, which we did often, view multiple things together for comparison, and never have to clean out an area, or rearrange anything in the studio. Just place it on the floor, study it, make our decisions and get back to work. Again, another prime example of how design permeated Paul’s world.

One thing that intrigued Paul was to place a line of type or a shape on a page by eye until he was satisfied. Then we’d study it to see if it fell on a some proportional relationship like The Golden Section (1 : 1.618, or .618 : 1), the square root of 2 (1 : 1.414), or some other internal proportional relationship. We spent considerable time sleuthing why certain things worked and others didn’t. It was an obsession of Paul’s; the mathematical part of my mind loved the search. When we found why something worked, the joy was palpable. So much was about relationships. Another helpful idea was every time we specified body copy, a proof would be saved in a notebook. I would mark it up with all the specific information—the size, the leading, the fonts, the indent, every critical note of information. Whenever we’d get a new job, Paul would look at the various samples and say, “Let’s make it like this one,” and off we’d go. We’d instantly have all the details to hand and knew exactly how any copy would look. In other words, why keep inventing the wheel? So simple, so good. When I had my own design business I used this technique endlessly.

Out of the blue one day, Paul asked if I knew he had changed his name. I told him that I knew that originally he was named Peretz Rosenbaum. “But do you know why I chose the name Paul Rand,” he asked? I replied that I did not. The story he told me was that he liked the name Paul because, as I recall, he had an uncle he liked named Paul. Then how did he choose Rand? He took out a piece of paper and made a pencil sketch in lowercase Bauhaus typeface.

He loved how the two words looked together. The ‘d’ echoed the ‘p,’ the ‘u’ echoed the ‘n,’ two identical ‘a’s … a sublime piece of typography. What’s not to like? How many people choose their name based on how it looks in a particular typeface? Again, another example of how graphic design was an integral part of Paul Rand’s entire life, including his very name.

During my early days working for Paul, he came into the studio one day around lunchtime and asked what I had brought for lunch. I mentioned I had a sandwich. He said great, set the table—“I’ll make a sandwich and we’ll have lunch together.” I set the table with napkins, plates, forks, knives and spoons for each of us. The instant he settled down with his sandwich he looked at me and said, “I thought you said you were having a sandwich?” Sheepishly, I replied, “yes, I am.” “Then why the spoons?” he asked. Paul didn’t see having lunch any different from designing a book jacket or creating a logo/mark. Also, it’s a wonderful example of what I found is called The Golden Rule of Design.

A most revelatory moment for me of how Paul was obsessed with graphic design was on a day he asked me to drive him to a carpentry shop in my Volkswagen van to pick up some furniture he’d designed for the studio. I’m not sure where we went, maybe New Canaan (?). He simply said “turn here,” “now go left here,” etc. As we approached the small town, we drove down its main street. As I drove, Paul critiqued every sign in sight. And I mean every sign. It was a remarkable series of moments to experience. Clearly, not a single sign passed his approval. It was akin to the obsession Paul had over other people’s logo/marks. Whenever he bought a new piece of equipment, whether it be a toaster or a table, the very first thing he would do was remove any and all logo/marks. He’d hack them off with pliers or a screwdriver, sometimes leaving not only holes but ugly scrapes and scratches. I pointed out that what was left looked pretty bad. He’d bark back, “Well, it’s better than have to stare at someone else’s piece of crap for the rest of my life.”

Posted inHistory The Daily Heller