disposable great design

by Art Chantry ( art@artchantry.com)

I spend a lot of time digging around in bins of garbage. i love it. i love going to goodwill stores, junk stores, church rummage sales, flea markets, antique malls and even the dump (but they don’t let you dig around there anymore.) it’s the best place to research real graphic design. i find the most famous and wonderful things in those places.

the problem comes when you decide to want to find out more. for instance, i discovered the wonders of richard m. powers and his almost forgotten accomplishments while digging up old sci-fi paperbacks (initially, just for the covers.) i would never have known that he was the guy who changed our collective ideas about science fiction from buck rogers/space guns to surreal alien landscapes and swirling prismatic colors. in fact, it wasn’t until i lined up my collection to think about them that i noticed that they all had the same signature.

AC:this isn't a 'font' (that word is a pet peeve). it's actually a piece of calligraphy. the calligraphic approach to book cover design dominated that era - largely because it was taught in school and it was cheaper that having type created (in lead.) imagine kearning big chunks of lead type with the tools available (aka - a razor blade). big book cover type was too expensive. the budgets really couldn't afford the labor-intensive craftsmanship that lead type demanded at that point size....and the colors are simple process colors. much cheaper - no serious screen work in the dark room. solid pigments. much brighter that way, too.

He was the illustrator of choice among the new wave of science fiction artists like blish, bradbury, dick, heinlein, asimov, clarke, etc. etc. when their book came out in paperback, it was considered a badge of honor to have the cover done up by powers. those old paperbacks are almost forgotten now, by seemingly everybody except the insider geek collectors. but, he almost single-handedly changed our perspective on wonderment and how it looked. and he executed literally THOUSANDS of covers.

However, when i tried to research more info about him and his fabulous career, there was almost nothing out there. he had been ignored by the “design culture”. after all, he did that tacky sci-fi stuff. not high-brow enough (for literature) back then. i ended up learning more about his career by actually tracking him down and talking to him (then i hired him to do a record cover illustration for me. but that’s another story)

Another great artist i re-discovered in thrift stores was reid miles, the genius designer behind blue note records. granted, he’s ultra-famous now among the hipoisie of the designer chic set. but, back in the 70′s, he was only known by jazz record collectors, virtually forgotten by the mainstream design world.

Reid miles may not ring a bell to some of you out there, but he’s the guy who designed what contemporary jazz LOOKS like. prior to his work on blue note, the way jazz “looked” was defined by the illustration style of david stone martin (whose ragged line drawings influenced a several generations of artists including everybody from ben shahn to the young andy warhol to ed fotheringham).

Then reid miles started literally “knocking out” those cool minimal, exquisitely photographed (largely by francis wolf), geometric abstracted covers. the style is still the dominant look of the cult of cool. it’s the official jazz “corporate graphic standard.”

When i researched reid miles (through talking to people who knew him). i learned that reid miles never listened to jazz – he didn’t like it. he never listened to any of the records he designed the covers for!!! he did them for the money (and precious little of that). he would slam the things together overnight and collect his paycheck. he preferred country western. he was a flamboyant gay man who loved to country two-step. people have told me hilarious stories of reid miles pounding on the door of type shops late at ni

wearing a feathered boa and screaming for typesetting (“immediately!”) this was not the picture of the jazz hipster (wearing shades and a beret) i imagined.

reid miles later abandoned the ‘blue note’ style entirely and became a photographer/designer. among his later works were the cover for kenny rogers’ “the gambler” LP and a cover for the band “chicago” (the one with the sign painter motif). go figger, eh?

so, these were a couple of the cool american designers i learned about through combing thrift stores. the mainstream academic thought of “design culture” rarely mentions people like these, largely because they are working in cultural arenas that are dismissed as “unimportant” or (that awful word) “vernacular”. science fiction? jazz? excuse me?

the problem with academia is that it is isolated from the real larger culture. it feeds off it’s own ideas to the point where the thought becomes narrowly defined. i think that world (and the resulting ‘professionally trained” world of ‘design culture’) needs to open it’s eyes and it’s minds to the idea that there are very lively, very large and hugely influential arenas of design language spoken out there besides the material written up in the official design histories (written by other academics).

most of all they need to stop lumping this langauge into an insulting artifical caltegory currently labeled “vernacular”. that category assumes there is no dialog, no thought, no authorship, no inherent CULTURE worth recognizing in the work so labeled. it assumes that this “lowbrow” language grew on a tree, isolated and ‘folkish’ in conception and execution. it dismisses with damning praise.

the academics couldn’t be more wrong. there are beautiful dialogs here that span centuries, producing major practitioners and stunning bodies of work rivaling the biggest and most famous names in design. the contributions of these excluded artists far surpass the fevered imaginings of many (if not most) of the ‘famous men’ of design culture. why we pray at the alter of paul rand and studiously ignore (and even sniff derisively) at von dutch totally confuses me. i mean, be honest, whose contributions and magnificent visions made the larger impact on our lives?

maybe those academics need to spend more time at school in the junk stores…

i found this book cover (dust jacket, actually) in a bin of discarded books this weekend. it’s wonderful. it apparently it was printed before chandler wrote his final (and in my opinion greatest) novel, “the long goodbye”. so, this was produced during his lifetime. i assume he had to ok it as well.

it’s a simple elegant design, almost a throw-away concept, beautifully executed by an unknown master (anybody out there know who “C.W.B.” was?) it’s also interesting to notice that the fella knew his guns. each silhouette is a popular model actually in use in the relative era of each novel collected in this anthology. smart guy. good designer.

AC:i find stuff like this every time i go look in the crap out there. we toss away great design like it was nothing. we sell it in k-mart. we offer a disposable artform….jaime clay sent me this message. i’m sharing it here because it’s so good.

“”David Stone Martin was mentored by Ben Shahn. Although they were contemporaries. DSM took the lines Shahn used and made them more freeform, obviously to match the content of the music inside his covers. And he did love jazz. In fact, he had several amorous relationships with the musicians, including Billie Holiday and mary lou williams.”

thanks for that correction, sir. i hope you don’t mind my posting it here. i thought it was great. …

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