The Arena Stage in Washington DC has been producing beautifully illustrated posters for years. Art director Nicky Lindeman called to see if I’d design a poster to be part of their 2014-5 season, for “Five Guys Named Moe.” a musical revue of Louis Jordan songs written by the great actor Clarke Peters (The Wire and Treme.) Anyone who has listened to Louis Jordan records knows that his music is filled with a lot of energy and humor, and chickens. I tried to bring some of those qualities to this design.
These pieces from the Harlem Renaissance served as inspiration for the style of the poster, Winold Reiss, left, Miguel Covarrubias, right.
I also brought a little Juan Gris to this one.
Rough thumbnail sketches, the story begins when five guys named Moe pop out of a radio to give advice about life, drinking and big-legged women.
Last week I get an email from Shanti Marlar, Creative Director at The Hollywood Reporter that says they have a cover that she thinks I’d be perfect for, it’s about Hitler, would I be interested? That’s the kind of e-mail you read twice.
Turns out the cover story is a book excerpt from the forthcoming ‘The Collaboration, Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler’ by Ben Urwand. It’s a shocking story about how Hitler actually affected the movies in America. Before World War II the US studios were very concerned about losing the German export market for their films and worked closely with the Nazis to gain approval on finished films and scripts. Shanti had seen a piece I did for The New York Times that was in the style of the Stenberg Bros. Russian film posters and thought a combination of Hitler’s face and Hollywood imagery in that avant-garde style would make a good cover.
Round 1 sketches
OK, so a cover illustration that features the worst human being in the history of the planet. I start by getting myself on a few NSA Hate-Group-Watch-Lists by Googling photos of Hitler and Nazi propaganda and begin working on sketches. I had my doubts about the Stenberg Bros. concept since they were busy in Russia in the late 1920s and we were talking Nazis and late 1930s, but the overall propaganda vibe seemed to work, and only Steven Heller would think I didn’t know my poster history. Shamelessly lifting one of Vladamir and Georgii’s most famous images that has a camera lens replacing the eye of a man, I worked up six designs and sent the sketches to Shanti, but I was thinking ‘This will never fly, Hitler’s not appearing on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.
Round 2 sketches
Cool heads prevailed at The Reporter offices. Maybe it was actually seeing sketches of Hitler right next to their famous masthead, or maybe it was the recent dust-up over the Boston Bomber’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone, or maybe it was something else all together, Shanti and her editor decided we should try some other approaches. So the next day, I send over five ideas that utilized a combination of Nazi propaganda and 1930s Hollywood imagery with a fairly wide range of emotional impact. Nazis are tricky, even when you’re dealing with a scholarly piece of history an illustrator has to be careful.
The backlot water tower with a swastika replacing a studio logo was chosen. This idea seemed to strike the delicate balancing act required for the cover, Nazi imagery hasn’t lost it’s power to shock or offend, but it’s a tough book about some tough decisions made by studio heads in the turbulent years just before the war. Anyway, it’s online now and soon to be cluttering up the newsstand outside Book Soup.
The Obama campaign has decided to run a poster contest. Some artists see this as a high form of irony, considering the posters are intended to promote jobs in America. Some artists see it as a volunteer opportunity to give something to a cause they believe in. I don't like contests or spec work for artists; especially contests like this that require the artist to give up the copyright to the image by submitting the work. How about giving the poster assignment to twenty great artists and offering them a fair fee for their work? Create twenty freelance jobs. Shovel-ready. Get twenty great designs, sell prints online, and raise awareness of the President's Jobs Plan.
It doesn’t happen every day that you meet one of your heroes. When that meeting turns into a friendship and then a collaboration, you know you’ve been blessed.
Wynton and I met almost twenty years ago, for a poster project that we both signed. Since then I designed a poster for The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that depicted him in his Crescent City hometown, we’ve worked together on two books, and I spent a week out on the road with him and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra making sketchbook drawings.
Wynton has won a Pulitzer, nine Grammys and numerous other citations and honors, he has been an inspiration to many, many musicians and people who are making their way in the world as artists. Whenever we meet, he always acknowledges the accomplishment of survival with the words “So, we’re still out here.”
I’ve admired so much about him, the way he leads fifteen of the greatest jazz musicians of any era in the JALC Orchestra, the way he sits with young musicians who bring their instruments to a concert hoping for advice from the maestro, and his thoughtful writing and lectures on the important place that jazz music holds in our history and culture. I’ve seen him working on a symphony in a hotel room with no piano, and I’ve seen him stay late after a gig talking to fans until it’s just him and the guy locking the place up.
Tuesday is Wynton’s 50th birthday. There has been a week-long series of concerts at JALC’s Rose Theater featuring special guests and some serious swing. I wish I was there acknowledging the accomplishment.
Sketches for New Orleans Jazz & Hertiage Festival, 2002
Colored-pencil sketch for poster
Seventeen color silk-screen poster
Wynton at soundcheck in Atlanta
Here's a preview of our second book for Candlewick Press, our first book, Jazz ABZ is still in print, (turns out kids love books with Coleman Hawkins in them.) The new book is a picture book for young readers about sounds titled Squeak, Rumble, Whomp Whomp Whomp! We're trying to get it finished while we're still on this earth. It's scheduled for Fall 2012.
This weekend is the official opening of the new West Hollywood Library. The city asked me to design a poster for the event and also for the 10th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair. They are very proud of the new building designed by Culver City architects Johnson Favaro, it’s been praised as one of the best pieces of public architecture in LA in a decade.
I worked with my friend Rikki Poulos and the Director of Public Information for West Hollywood, Helen Goss. Right from the start, we knew the main image of the poster would be the new building, these four comps show some possible approaches. The top left design with echoes of Matisse and Le Corbusier was chosen.
I added a stack of books with a mix of typographic styles for the Book Fair poster.
Surprisingly, there are people walking the earth that can’t name the four Beatles,and who don’t know about Randy Newman’s music except for his songs for Pixar and Disney pictures. He’s one of my favorite songwriters,so when Center Theatre Group called about a poster for a new musical based on Newman’s songs, I said yes immediately. The challenge was to make a poster for a show that was in the process of being written and cast. The musical is based on Newman’s album “Harps and Angels” and a number of his other songs from through the years. Directed by Broadway veteran Jerry Zaks, the production is described as a compelling, honest and humorous commentary on what it is like to be born, grow up, fall in love, and live and die in America. The cast includes Michael McKean and Katey Sagal, and it will have its world premeire at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center in Los Angeles on November 10. Charity Capili was the art director on this one and she managed to get this approved by everyone involved without any drama.
Some sketches from the first round that weren't chosen.
Everyone liked the idea of Randy's silhouette with the titles inside. Here's a few color options we tried.
Carluccio’s, a wonderful chain of Italian restaurants in the UK, called for a poster with a vintage travel feel to promote their olive oil from Puglia. It’s part of a summer campaign to promote food from different regions of Italy. I’ve admired the level of attention given to their graphics and packaging, and I was happy to lay this one on them. They still owe me a meal next time I’m in London.
Posters by Karen Murray, Lucia Gaggiotta and Adrian Johnson
The City of West Hollywood is celebrating their 25th year of cityhood and my friend Rikki Poulos called for a poster to commemorate the event. The problem was to create an image that would communicate the city’s diversity and core ideals. I laid these four ideas on them and Helen Goss, the City’s Director of Public Information, decided to print them all.
Last spring, Nicky Lindeman from SpotCo called for a poster for Seattle’s The 5th Avenue Theatre production of ‘On the Town.’ The classic musical tells the story of three sailors on the loose in NYC, “three sailors as they try to cram a lifetime of romance and excitement into a day-long adventure in the city that never sleeps!” No tigers, no lost teeth, no roofies. SpotCo wanted the look of a classic Broadway show poster, they sent me a rough sketch, and I offered to include the typography in the illustration in order to get the right feeling for the poster.
Here's SpotCo's sketch, my first sketch and a couple of color comps.
Nicky and everyone at SpotCo are total pros, and they were a pleasure to work with on this one. The production will be staged April 13- May 2, 2010.
I’ve been working on an on-going seriesof illustrations for The Los Angeles Metro Transit Authority. These images depict mass transit and future projects that Metro is undertaking. It’s true that nobody walks in Los Angeles, but we’re finally getting together a workable system for moving around the city without a car. Metro Design Studio Creative Director Michael Lejeune called me a few years ago to create some images that would show the various projects in an updated WPA-poster style that glamorizes the idea of mass transit. One of the places we looked for inspiration was the original attraction posters from the early years of Disneyland
I enjoy working with the imagery of trains, buses, freeways and construction workers and Lejeune along with Melissa Rosen at Metro have managed to smooth out the bumps along the way. There’s a lot of applications for these illustrations, the first batch of posters we did kept getting stolen out of the train cars and the new pieces are starting to show up around town now.
I designed the US Open Tennis Championship Theme Art for 2009. The artwork will be used on posters, banners, tickets, programs, t-shirts, and every kind of souvenir you can think of. Marc Jacobson of the Silverman Group called this winter to see if I’d submit some designs to the USTA. Every year they pay a few artists to produce a couple of ideas for presentation, the USTA picks one, and that’s the theme-art for the tournament.
Here are the sketches I sent to Marc to start talking about some ideas I had. The brief for the project laid out a few very clear requirements that had to be addressed in the design; if a player was depicted, the figure had to be generic enough to be either male or female; New York City is a key element, and the flaming ball logo for the US Open had to appear in the final art. Other key words from the brief were “Entertainment Spectacle, Toughest Tennis, and High Energy”
Marc liked a number of the sketches and I developed six color images for presentation to the USTA. On a project like this I tend to over-produce these “concept sketches” because I don’t want to lose the project because I delivered half-hearted execution of an idea. This process is always a gamble, and having more cards on the table sometimes produces a winner. During the pencil-stage I thought I could successfully execute a strong treatment of a player that would be generic enough to be either male or female. But as I tightened up the image, the figure kept tipping one way or the other, or it just looked like a dude in a skirt.
This is the design that I most wanted to be chosen. It makes reference to the classic Joseph Binder poster for the 1939 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadow in Queens, the current site of the US Open. Clearly, no one got that reference but me.
Everyone liked the bridge/tennis net idea. The Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t exactly lead to Queens, so we looked at some other bridge options. In the end we kept Brooklyn as the strongest symbol of NYC.
Merchandise and souvenirs are starting to show up now. There’s a crazy amount of applications for the image.
Only 335 days until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Faber and Faber in London called for a book jacket design for the updated “Story of the World Cup” by the legendary English football writer Brian Glanville. Art Director Alex Kirby asked for a vintage poster vibe that integrated the lettering into the image. This piece owes a lot to the great Joseph Binder.
It was an honor to work on a project for The National Infantry Museum in Ft. Benning Georgia. The new museum tells the story of America’s ground soldiers from the colonial period to the present day, and had their Grand Opening on June 19. The exhibit design and museum planning firm, Christopher Chadbourne & Associates asked me to design six posters that would be used as large entry graphics for each of the main galleries. The idea was to give the pieces a twentieth century war poster vibe that would set the tone for each segment of the story, and would work well with the wealth of information and artifacts in the museum. These images required a serious level of research to be sure that the details were correct.
The Ahmanson Theatre in downtown LA is staging a revival of the Fats Waller musical revue ‘Ain’t Misbehavin.’ Theater posters can be a nightmare because there are so many cooks in the kitchen, everyone involved in the production gets to voice an opinion, Also, there are many different formats that the art has to be used in and sometimes the poster gets compromised and doesn’t really work well in any of the applications.
This one went very smoothly thanks to Center Theatre Group’s gracious art director Charity Capili. I let her know that I’d be happy to design separate pieces to fit the important applications, and we worked together on light pole banners, program covers and a large 19-foot banner for the Music Center plaza. She does owe me a drink at the bar.
light pole banners
Background art for misc usages
Of course, Fats Waller was a legendary songwriter, stride piano player and character of the Harlem Renaissance. I borrowed heavily from another cat who spent a lot of his time in Harlem, the great Miguel Covarrubias.
I’ve been teaching at Art Center College of Design for the last few years, and we’ve had some fantastic guest speakers. Ann Field, Chair of the Illustration Dept. asked me if I’d design some posters to announce these lectures. It’s always good to work with the great imagery these artists have created, and some students have told me that they’ve started tearing them off the walls after the event to save them.
This first one was done for Jeff Smith, I think he has been on the faculty since the end of the Korean War. This was for a talk he gave in Seattle. The rest are all for Art Center.