mits: the coolest

by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)

CA (Communication Arts), Vol. 1, No. 2, September 1959 issue
Design and Illustration: Mits Katayama
Art Director: Richard Coyne

I startling and joyous find amidst a pile of misc. design magazines bought online for about $5, the second issue of Communication Arts (“ca” back then) back when that most corporate of corporate design magazines was still a journal of “commercial art” with all of the quirkiness and handicraft built into its mid-century Modern esthetic. Communication Arts still has an aspect of this publication’s early attitude, but it’s less obvious nowadays (say, compared to competitor Print magazine). But in 1959, its more wide-ranging tastes (including a cartoon section) was in full effect.

Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design

Though based in Palo Alto, “ca” had editorial influences coming not just from big-time media center New York City, but such out-of-the-way places (think of the media landscape back then) as Denver, Honolulu, Dallas, and Chicago—and Seattle! Seattle was about as podunk an outpost as one could imagine back in the late-’50s. Granted, there was talent stalking the north woods, but it was hardly the cosmopolitan-wannabe, Pacific Rim strategic location, chock-a-block with new-fangled software cash, over-caffeinated yuppie paradise that is it now—that anyone in the “big” media centers would normally seek out or even care about. Hell, Seattle hadn’t even had their World’s Fair yet (though its nascent preparations were documented in this very issue—so now I know who designed the “Century 21″ World’s Fair logo!). In articles titled, “Seattle is a Beauty,” “Boeing: A Market Within a Market,” and “personality profiles” on two, appropriately enough, future-Seattle legends, the illustrator and painter Ted Rand (1915-2005), and designer/cartoonist/illustrator Mits Katayama (b. 1929). Indeed, Seattle’s talent pool was worthy of documentation in the days before the groundbreaking and influential Rainier Beer ad campaign of the early-1970s and the career of the most famous of Seattle designers—and underground design godhead—Art Chantry. Who knew?

When I was a snot-nosed punk at Seattle Central Community College’s art school, all of our school faculty had been working professionals in the Seattle commercial art scene. All of our part-time instructors—our teacher’s colleagues—were still working in the business. One of them, former New Yorker cartoonist Irwin Caplan, was the humor editor of “ca” in the above issue, and was a member (when he was my teacher) of Associate Artists—one of Seattle’s earliest, loosely affiliated “design groups.” Members included among others, Caplan, Art Brown, adman Bob Cram, and Mits Katayama.

Caplan took our class down to Associate Artists as a “field trip.” During a long-winded explanation of what all happens in a design studio, I vividly recall Katayama showing up to his office. Sauntering in wearing a leather jacket (the soul of coolness!), giving us a curious glance before disappearing behind his door. That he didn’t hang around convinced me he must be the coolest designer in the group (I was right)! Years later, after turning pro and getting to know my way around the industry, I got to know Katayama and had confirmation of my initial impression (though for different reasons). Katayama was a consummate professional, as adept at graphic design as he was at illustration. He bemoaned the practice in advertising (for many years) of hiring artists to mimic the work of more famous illustrators to use in local or regional advertising. Ironically, he had had his own illustration style “ripped off” by artists in other markets, while often being asked to emulate R. O. Blechman, Seymour Chwast, and other notables (though he amusingly noted an art director asking him to mimic the art in an ad the art director had found, done by Mits himself in his OWN style). With both of us drawing roots from Seattle’s Asian American community, we had common ground even though we were generationally separated. All the while I thought to myself that I was hanging out with and learning from the same guy who designed the spectacular signage system installed in Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, with colorful, beautifully abstracted animal forms—as if something out of Yellow Submarine—that I had delighted in as a child throughout the 1960s and early-1970s.

…And the cover you see posted here. Mits Katayama IS the coolest.

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