Saul Bass, a life in pictures

Google results are not the subtlest way of assessing significance, but the numbers are certainly some kind of guideline. So who, if we use this admittedly crude instrument, is the most famous graphic designer?

We might guess Paul Rand or perhaps, even today, David Carson. We’d be wrong on both counts. While both designers are, relatively speaking, huge, the most often repeated graphic designer’s name – by a giant margin, according to Google – is Saul Bass.

Perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. Bass is a special case among graphic designers, with a massive foot planted in two highly visible fields. He is both a filmmaker of great originality, still regarded by many as the finest designer of film titles in the history of the movies, and a master of corporate identity responsible for some of America’s most familiar and effortlessly accomplished trademarks and logos. Bass died in 1996 and the real surprise is that we have had to wait so long for a monograph covering every aspect of his career. Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by his daughter Jennifer Bass and design historian Pat Kirkham runs to 424 big pages and has endnotes the size of small essays. At last the man receives his due. The quality of Bass’s work in either sphere would be enough to maintain his reputation as one of the 20th century’s greatest graphic designers. But at a time when graphic designers routinely talk about design’s ‘expanded’ role and their ability, or at least desire, to move freely between disciplines, Bass stands before us as one of graphic design’s most remarkably versatile talents – and he was operating half a century ago. Great filmmakers took Bass seriously as an artist in his own right. Hitchcock, an autocrat of the film set, allowed him to direct the famous shower scene in Psycho (though later, perhaps out of jealousy, Hitch fudged the issue of authorship). In the 1990s, Martin Scorsese ceded his control as auteur and gave Saul and Elaine Bass complete freedom for the four title sequences they produced for his films, showing exceptional trust in his illustrious collaborators.

How did Bass accomplish all this? Like other successful designers, he was blessed with some essential professional skills. “Many people simply couldn’t believe that all the creativity stemmed from one person,” says Art Goodman, Bass’s right-hand man at Saul Bass & Associates in Los Angeles. “They saw how prolific he was and thought it had to be coming from others. What they didn’t realise was just how well organised he was; he had that office buttoned down so tight precisely so that he could concentrate on designing and making films.”

Bass was also brilliant at handling other people. Between 1954 and 1979 he worked on 13 title sequences for Otto Preminger, an intimidating director with a strong understanding of design. Bass had been brought up to behave politely, but soon realised that, “with a guy like Otto I had to learn how to fight. I walked into every meeting prepared to quit – I had to.” In another war story, Bass described how in a client meeting he told Stanton Avery, boss of Avery International, that he was mistaken about a trademark proposal – “Stan, you are wrong.” After a moment of silence, Avery deferred to this professional advice, though he was clearly not satisfied. A week later, he admitted to Bass that the design was growing on him.

Lou Dorfsman, creator of the CBS eye logo, recalled that Bass’s presentations were “second to none – the finest I ever witnessed in half a century in the design profession”. On one occasion, recovering from hip surgery, Bass invited advertising agency personnel to a presentation in his hospital room. Everyone wore masks and gowns and Bass delivered his latest ideas for a beer commercial as though this set-up was entirely normal and they were meeting in his office.

Graphic design meets film

The popular view of Bass’s titles tends to be dominated by sequences with highly reduced graphic shapes: the moving white bars of The Man With The Golden Arm (1955); the coloured spirals of Vertigo (1958); the iconic body outline of Anatomy of a Murder (1959); the torn paper that reveals the titles of Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). But Bass, often working with his wife Elaine – “the only person whose artistic judgments and sense of appropriateness I completely trust” – was just as imaginative in titles based on graphically conceived live action. The slinking cat and final catfight in the Walk On The Wild Side titles (1962), for Edward Dmytryk, made such an impression on a teenage Steven Spielberg that he tried to shoot his own version with the family dog. The Cardinal (1963), one of Preminger’s less well-known films, has a superbly shot and edited sequence following the isolated figure of the central character as he passes columns, climbs steps and crosses empty plazas.

In 1969, Print magazine asked Bass what aspects of graphic design were useful in film-making. “The designer’s general visual awareness is unquestionably helpful,” Bass replied, “this plus the kind of understanding he has about the particular problem he is dealing with from a content point of view. But the qualities that make a graphic designer a good filmmaker really haven’t got to do with the specific aesthetics of design. They have more to do with his sense of story, his inventiveness and his visual/aural sensitivity.”

By that time, Bass, working with Elaine, was well into a second phase as a filmmaker, with short films for United Airlines (From Here to There, 1964), Eastman Kodak (The Searching Eye, 1964) and Kaiser Aluminum (Why Man Creates, 1968). Why Man Creates, which can be found online, is one of the Basses’ masterpieces. The film won an Oscar in 1968 for best documentary short and in 2002 it was selected for the National Film Registry of significant films. Its opening sequence, titled The Edifice, is particularly memorable. The camera ascends a towering cartoon building – drawn by Art Goodman [shown with Bass, right] – encapsulating key moments in history, accompanied by snatches of humorous dialogue.

In 1974, Bass directed his most ambitious film and his only feature, Phase IV. This isn’t currently available in the UK, but the American DVD is worth tracking down. The film takes a standard B-movie science fiction theme – what if the ants started to take over? – but interprets this in the style of an enigmatic art film, leading to box-office failure when it was wrongly marketed as a horror movie. Phase IV has some spellbinding images and special effects – smooth-sided ant skyscrapers in the desert; close-ups of ants with ingeniously tinted bodies – and it is impossible to watch this haunting film conceived with Bass’s brilliant eye without wishing he had been able to make more feature films. Although it works as it stands, Phase IV is missing an extended epilogue, Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained. To judge by the seven storyboards shown in the new book, this hallucinatory sequence of images would have lifted the film to another level.

But Bass, a mobile powerhouse of ideas and invention, had so much going on that he doesn’t seem to have minded these unexplored avenues. He was entirely sanguine about moving away from titles in the mid-1960s – the dry phase was to last until the late 1980s – because this was the period when opportunities in corporate identity came thick and fast. Bass brought the same sensitivity to interpreting the needs of companies and their CEOs that he had brought to films and their directors. His design credits form an era-defining roll call of corporate America: Bell Telephone System, United Airlines, Continental Airlines, AT&T, Warner Communications, Exxon. He also designed identities for Girl Scouts of America, Boys Clubs of America, and the YWCA.

Pat Kirkham suggests that because Bass’s film work generated so much popular attention, his impact (with a few other designers) on the development of a rationalist approach to corporate identity might have been overlooked. “In sheer volume as well as the quality of the work,” she argues, “Saul was possibly the most prolific designer in this field over the period 1960-96, and one of the most influential.” If there is an oversight, it’s probably more likely to be found among the public than designers, who revere Bass’s identity work. In Japan, he was held in such high esteem that in 1989 United Airlines ran a magazine ad with a picture of him holding up a model of a United jet with the line, “Good designs have wings”. The copy went on to describe him as “a God of corporate identity”.

If that sounds way too ponderous, we might consider the case of Quaker Oats. Other designers had proposed throwing out the famous Quaker Man in the hat and replacing him with an abstract letter ‘Q’.

Bass thought this would be a serious error. He simplified the image and suggested calling the company just Quaker. It was exactly the right thing to do. “I like the hand of the designer to show,” he said later.

“I like it to be powerful. I like to have some humanity in it.” That’s why his body of work still speaks to us decades later. It has humanity.

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham is published by Laurence King; £48. More details at laurenceking.com

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