Design Matters: Lawrence Azerrad

Posted inDebbie Millman
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It’s an overplayed word that we tend to throw around ad infinium in arts profiles, the semantic satiation quickly kicking in to render it meaningless. Our passion for “passion” has admittedly evolved into a literary crutch—but then, every so often, someone like Lawrence Azerrad emerges and redefines the whole thing.

Three things defined Azerrad as a kid: His love of art, his love of music, and his love of Concorde—that supersonic jet of yesteryear.

He first encountered the latter in a 1:72 scale model kit, and was hooked thereafter, though he didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate why yet: design, which he’d discover at California College of the Arts. As he went about collecting as much Concorde memorabilia as he could get his hands on, he switched his major from illustration to graphic design, graduated, and then embarked on that rare career perfectly calibrated between skill and obsession.

His first stop: Warner Bros. Records. He entered the field at the height of the music industry’s heyday in the mid-90s—which meant a half dozen years of transatlantic flights, elaborate photo shoots and production values that seemed without end, until they ended (but not before Azerrad designed the cover of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ blockbuster album Californication, which got his work into the hands of 15 million listeners). Like so many others in the business, in the early 2000s Azerrad woke to find himself laid off—which wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, as he quickly established a solo practice and continued working on the records that were in progress, such as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

And still, he collected his beloved Concorde memorabilia—and, incredibly, even scored a ride on the jet of legend with his frequent flyer miles, as Debbie Millman and Azerrad discuss in this episode of Design Matters. That flight would plant the seed for his book Supersonic, a pinnacle of the synthesis between skill and obsession—a working methodology that has defined Azerrad’s output, imbuing fresh life into dead words.

Here, in his own words from the introduction to Supersonic, is a glimpse into passion.

“It began with a Concorde model kit. Even disassembled, the swept-back delta wings affixed to the kit frame excited my imagination and motivated me to glue all the pieces together as quickly as possible.

“The final 1:72 scale version of the world’s first commercial supersonic jet awed me and stirred nascent thoughts of becoming a designer someday. Posed dynamically on the kit’s accompanying stand, it was the embodiment of pure speed. And not just any speed, but Mach 2—twice the speed of sound. Everything about the shape of Concorde announced FAST.

“It made a lasting impression that deepened over the years into a lifelong obsession—if not devotion. At present my ever-growing collection of Concorde memorabilia encompasses about seven hundred items, including parting gifts informally called ‘prezzies’ that were handed out to the well-fed and well-lubricated passengers who could splurge on the ticket price, which was $12,000 round-trip in 2003. This was swag before swag was a thing. Model kits, stamps, matchbooks, flasks, luggage tags, lighters, and more were given to passengers, while some items were proudly stolen by those besotted with the Concorde lifestyle, such as menus designed by Christian Lacroix (b. 1951) and Jean Boggio (b. 1963), dinnerware by Raymond Loewy (1893–1986), and napkin rings by Sir Terence Conran (b. 1931)—all from the twenty-seven years in which Concorde graced the skies.

“Until its last flight in 2003, the silhouette of Concorde streaking through the clouds inspired a rare sense of wonder. Children cheered when they spotted it in the sky. Devotees who lacked the fortune to actually zip through the stratosphere inside its slender fuselage penned poems to honor its soaring beauty. …

“2019 marks fifty years since Concorde’s first successful test flight on March 2 in 1969. It also marks fifteen years since I experienced my one and only Concorde flight from JFK to Heathrow. What had been earmarked for the ‘someday’ column became an imperative when, just shy of my thirtieth birthday, Concorde announced service would be ending. A native Californian, the 9 a.m. departure out of JFK felt like 6 a.m. to me, and then—in a flash—it was over. In between, I made memories I will never forget: the rapid tranquility of check-in, the quiet elegance of the Concorde room, and the object of fascination, parked and waiting on the tarmac.

“I had a window seat. I remember being surprised at how tiny the windows were. But at takeoff was when the difference could really be felt. Every time Concorde departed from JFK, it had to perform a noise abatement maneuver—a sharp roll, turn, then spring out of the turn, almost instantly. I felt like I was in a fighter jet—with a hundred other people. Breaking the sound barrier was barely noticeable. I heard it because I was watching and listening for it—the sound was like someone popped a balloon in the next room. There was lunch, champagne, and flowers in the lavatory. I got the sense that the crew members took great care, and were the best in the field. Even though the fastest flight I had been on was over too quickly, the end of the flight was the real beginning of the journey that led to this book.

“As a designer, I’m particularly interested in Concorde’s design legacy, from the marvel of its aerodynamic perfection and the refinements of its interior cabin experience to the various and sundry objects designed to support and promote its brand. Some of the most interesting items in my collection are the brochures from the 1970s that contextualize the supersonic jet culture, lifestyle, and fashion. The photography, the graphic language, and the typography are all calibrated to excite an aura of speed, glamour, and progress.

“Concorde was the promise of tomorrow delivered in the here and now. It’s time we fully appreciate the lasting significance of our first—and so far sole—supersonic commercial airliner.”

Excerpted from Supersonic by Lawrence Azerrad, © 2018 Prestel Verlag.

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