Off the Richter Scale: Earthquakes, Mudslides & California Design
Her publisher calls it “dah monstah.” As books go, it is a monster—7 3/4″ x 10 1/4″, 1 5/8″ thick, weighing more than three pounds. But what a wonderful monster it is.
Inside its metallic-stamped, day-glow, yellow-to-magenta gradient covers are 416 eclectic pages stuffed with colorful, exuberant, influential, sometimes weird and wacky examples of graphic design created in California between 1936 and 1986.
The book opens—after its slightly psychedelic California-palm-icon-patterned endpapers—not with a conventional half-title page, but with this image:
The caption reads: “In San Francisco in 1908, printer Henry Tailor decided to have a dinner party. He wrote and printed this poster-size invitation and gave it to seven lucky friends, who are called out in the text. The rainbow roll or split-fountain technique was first used in nineteenth-century type specimen books in France and the United States. But it later became hugely popular in counterculture California, thanks to the underground tabloid The City of San Francisco Oracle in the mid-1960s and the posters that the Colby printing company made in Los Angeles in the 1970s.”
That paragraph tells you a lot about the book and its author, Louise Sandhaus, director of the graphic design program at CalArts from 1998 to 2006 and principal of LSD (Louise Sandhaus Design). She describes herself as “not a design historian, critic, theoretician, or scholar — although at times I wear parts of those costumes.”
Inside the book, you won’t find the elegant 1970s and ’80s annual reports and corporate identity work by firms like Cross Associates and Robert Miles Runyan. Instead, presented and described in gloriously and meticulously researched detail are the rock concert and surf posters, TV commercial animations and album covers, non-mainstream magazines, and The Whole Earth Catalog; dingbats and hand lettering, illegibility and wood type, flow-charts, pattern and color; plus essays by Denise Gonzales Crisp, Lorraine Wild, and Michael Worthington.
Earthquakes, Mudslides covers fifty years, beginning with a 1936 book, Igor Stravinsky, designed by Merle Armitage, and closing with April Greiman’s 1986 “Does It Make Sense” poster for Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly, one of the first pieces for which the Macintosh computer was used as a design tool and likely the first to feature a life-size image of the designer’s nude body.
Looking for contemporary design from the West Coast? Check out the winners of Print’s 2014 Regional Design Annual from the Far West.
“What makes California design deserving of special attention,” asks Sandhaus in the book’s introduction, “and what, in the first place, makes it ‘Californian?’ Here’s my theory,” she puts forth: “California has no terra firma. Earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and the occasional civil uprising cause incessant upheaval and change. California is fluid. It has a sense of humor. It is a place of boundless reinvention and innovation, where the entertainment, aerospace, and high-tech industries found a cozy home. A mecca of consumerism, it is also a place of great creativity, freedom, and social consciousness, where the status quo undergoes constant renovation. Without solid ground, tradition lacks secure footing; old rules go out the door and new motivations rush in, resulting and new and vibrant forms.”
All this insight—and the products that resulted thereof—were introduced to New Yorkers at a February 26 AIGA/NY book launch event at Parsons The New School for Design. I was delighted to see four women on stage: Sandhaus, architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange, and two California transplants, design educators and firm principals Barbara Glauber and Lucille Tenazas.
(I left Los Angeles in 1972, not because of the Watts Rebellion or the Sylmar Quake or the constant threat of forest fires and mudslides, but because as far as I could see, the only women at design offices—except for mini-skirted blondes carrying chilled white wine to clients—were behind reception desks, typing and answering phones.) I should have looked harder. The women whose work is featured in Earthquakes, Mudslides, in addition to April Greiman, include Betty Brader, Grace Richardson Clements, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, Ray Eames, Gere Kavanaugh, Sister Corita Kent, Marget Larsen, Marilyn Neuhart, Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, Deborah Sussman, and Petrula Vrontikis.
“The book is not a compendium or survey meant to cover the entire history of California graphic design,” Sandhaus explained to the Parsons audience. “It’s a highly curated, idiosyncratic collection of work that seems to shout something uniquely California. It covers four dominant themes of California graphic design,” she said, showing works from the book’s four parts.
“The first part, ‘Sunbaked Modernism,’” she said, “is about how environmental characteristics transformed chilly established approaches into handmade, poolside, indoor-outdoor, playful yet purposeful reinvention and production.”
“Part II, ‘Industry & The Indies’ covers motion graphics both for the Industry, meaning Hollywood, and for the screen done independently by Saul Bass, Charles and Ray Eames, Robert Abel, and others.”
“Part III, ‘60s Alt 60s’ shows that there were many more graphic enticements produced during the counterculture era than psychedelic posters.”
“And Part IV is ‘California Girls,’ because California probably had more influential women graphic designers than anywhere else in the world.”
Earthquakes, Mudslides is off the Richter Scale. Way more than a book, it’s building a community. Two Saturdays ago, I was fortunate to be in L.A. in time to experience the California Design Road Show at Machine Project, a storefront event/ educational/ performance space in the Echo Park section of downtown. There, volunteers, mostly CalArts grad students, were documenting and photographing treasured pieces of California design brought in by fans and collectors. Sandhaus and none other than AIGA National president Sean Adams, Lorraine Wild, and Print contributing editor Michael Dooley (who is working on a full-length piece on this subject for Print magazine) sat at the head table, evaluating postcards, business cards, posters, books and other artifacts lovingly preserved by their collectors and now being archived for a website, “Making History,” an online record of California design.
“We received examples from more than 55 people” Sandhaus reports. “I’m guessing well over 100 examples of work. It’s impossible to choose favorites, but I was especially taken by a beautiful small book printed and designed by Ward Ritchie on the work of printmaker Paul Landacre and a probably never-seen-before poster by Sister Corita Kent and her students.”
“The ‘Making History’ website will be a searchable database of stuff that’s out there that’s never been discussed or has been forgotten, memorable, energetic, inventive, remarkable works produced by California graphic designers or others,” Sandhaus explains. The current site is what she calls “a crude version,” but plans are underway to create a platform that will allow for crowdsourced collection so that everyone can provide examples of work, factual data about designers and projects, and their own stories about the work.
“The event was crazy good fun!,” Sandhaus says. “The next one will probably be an informal group gathered around the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new initiative to collect graphic design. I want to bring more experts and historians into this mix.”
At the Machine Project event (below): Table 1—”Start Here, Find Out About Your Artifact.” The “Resident Experts”: (l-r) Lorraine Wild, Sean Adams, Louise Sandhaus, Michael Dooley. Not pictured: Staci Steinberger, assistant curator, decorative arts and design, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
If you have pieces that you’d like to submit for consideration, send a note to info@CaliforniaGraphicDesign.net and you’ll get access to a Dropbox with PDF forms to be completed.
I’m sending them some of my stuff. I just took a fresh look at my early work as UCLA designer and realized that those pieces — even my split-fountain “Research Assistantships in Afro-American Studies” poster — were among the best of my career. In that time and place, there were no identity manuals to follow, no style guides; only supportive bosses and instinct about what might be the best and most fun for each project. Could my experiences growing up in the land of earthquakes and mudslides have contributed to that kind of experimental attitude? Probably so. And it might not be too late to get it back.