Everything vibrant: Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots

Fifty years of Californian graphic design is brought together in an energetic and image-rich new study from Louise Sandhaus

Books that look in depth at the history of graphic design in particular countries are far from common. Even for the US, there is currently no monograph in print dealing with the nation’s remarkable graphic legacy. So the arrival of a 400-page investigation devoted to 50 years of Californian graphic design – from 1936 to 1986 – is excellent news. Regional studies of this kind are vanishingly rare.

Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots by Louise Sandhaus, a designer and teacher at California Institute of the Arts, has been a decade in the making. In an earlier proposal I heard about, it was a multi-volume production of seemingly impossible ambition. I’m glad that Sandhaus has found a way to slim the massive project down into a publishable book, which is guaranteed the widest possible distribution. In both its exciting content and multicoloured page design, this attractively bound hardback, with an imposing debossed title-piece, is a gorgeously uninhibited piece of work.

While the half-century time span naturally suggests a history, this overview is not exactly that. Sandhaus confides early on that she isn’t a design historian and that her book doesn’t provide a comprehensive survey of graphic design in California: “This is a heavily curated selection based on little more than the way the heart quickens when the eye encounters something radiant, wonderful, and new.” That’s a slightly disarming admission because it is tantamount to saying that in essence – despite the presence of some history, criticism and “a bit of theory” – this is a book where the author’s instincts and preferences call the shots.

My introduction to Californian graphic design came in the late 1980s with April Greiman, New Wave design, Emigre magazine and the experimental work produced at CalArts. There was always a strong sense that these designers saw themselves as marginalised out there on the West Coast. They seemed to view New York graphic design and the even more distant design culture of Europe as a repressive and controlling influence that had to be resisted. This feeling of being slightly beleaguered, even though the work looks, and often is, magnificently free persists in the book. Sandhaus, who moved to the Golden State in 1990, reports how Gere (pronounced Jerry) Kavanaugh was dismayed, several decades ago, to find that a New York publisher stripped her design work down “to its modernist bones” and extracted “everything vibrant and meaningful and delicious” before printing it. “Bad” Californian design was simply not acceptable to the East Coast hardliners.

Sandhaus divides the book into four sections, covering what she calls “sunbaked modernism” (the early years), motion graphics, the 1960s, and women designers. Her spirited and perceptive introductions – I would have liked more – lead to essays by three guest writers, Lorraine Wild and Michael Worthington (both colleagues at CalArts) and Denise Gonzales Crisp, also an educator.

Wild is an exceptionally insightful commentator on graphic design and her second essay in particular, titled Orange, on the use of colour and its relation to Californian light, is superb. Worthington’s contribution, presented as decade-by-decade advice to the would-be filmmaker, is cleverly conceived and composed, but sidesteps the manifest need to provide a thoroughly researched narrative history of motion graphics. The sense of a missed opportunity is even more acute with Gonzales Crisp’s imaginary encounter in 1980 between women design luminaries. ‘Design fiction’ may have its applications, but in this context, where there is so much new ground to survey, it feels far too whimsical. When readers consult this volume in ten years’ time, they won’t find much they can learn from here.

Each essay is followed by reprinted pages from original magazines and books, giving access to essential source texts, such as the 1947 essay California Modern by Alvin Lustig (“We, who live and work in California, share the sense of exhilaration and growth that charges the very air”); an extract from Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema (1970), and a 1976 profile from Print magazine of the feminist designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. This unusual device is simple, evocatively textured and a timely reminder that libraries remain an essential port of call for anyone seriously interested in the history of graphic design. Much of the most revealing early documentation is not available online and won’t be any time soon.

The heart of Earthquakes lies in the illustrated pages that conclude each chapter. Sandhaus has gone to town here, giving every introductory text its own colour treatment and decorative border. It’s the kind of thing a sunlight-shunning, crazy-colour-hating modernist might want to eliminate, yet it melds perfectly with the work. Sandhaus gives us the page designs of the self-trained Merle Armitage, the innovative symbolist book covers of Lustig, and John Follis’s delightfully casual drawings and abstractions for Arts & Architecture magazine.

The motion graphics section, featuring work by Oskar Fischinger, John Whitney, Robert Abel and the collective Single Wing Turquoise Bird (yes, it must be the 1960s), is a particularly valuable piece of archaeology. However disparaged Californian designers may sometimes have felt, the region was home to many big names – Charles and Ray Eames, Louis Danziger, John and Marilyn Neuhart, Victor Moscoso, Emory Douglas, Sister Corita Kent, Deborah Sussman – and they are all here. Where a figure is more familiar, as with Saul Bass, we see something less obvious, such as his titles for The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957.

The captions are the most historical part of the project, revealing the full scope of Sandhaus’s research, and extensive endnotes provide sources to follow up. It’s hard to know how seriously to take her when she says that the book doesn’t set out to show the “highlights” of Californian graphic design, as though a definitive list is already lodged in the reader’s mind. The field is so vast and there are so many possible edits that any claim to be definitive would look dubious. From an outsider’s point of view, though, it would certainly be good to read a more fully integrated history of the subject, even if that meant assigning parts of the task to different specialists. Until such a study arrives, this is a spectacular collection presented with great energy and panache. As Sandhaus herself would say: wow.

Rick Poynor blogs at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 by Louise Sandhaus is published by Thames & Hudson on January 12; £39.95. The book includes essays by Lorraine Wild, Denise Gonzales Crisp and Michael Worthington

Flatt & Scruggs Avalon Ballroom concert poster – Rhino Entertainment Company; The Wanderer cover – 1953 by Alvin Lustig; CalArts poster used with permission of California Institute of the Arts; Si Zentner album cover used with permission from Universal Music Enterprises; Sea Ranch photograph courtesy of Barbara Stauffacher Solomon/Adrian Shaughnessy; Corita poster photographed by Joshua White; Apples and Oranges stills courtesy of Academy Film Archive, used with permission of CBS; Gelvatex ad by permission of Louis Danziger; Second Los Angeles Film-Makers festival poster – The Estate of Wallace Berman; Bananaman in Switerzalnd image courtesy of Frances Butler; The Who concert poster used with permission from John Van Hamersveld and Victor Moscoso

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