EVEN IF YOU HAVEN'T HEARD of Saul Bass, you know his work. From the poster for Hitchcock's Vertigo and the shower scene in Psycho to the logos for AT&T and Quaker Oats to the humble, cheerful Dixie cup, Bass's designs have become emblems of midcentury style and a ubiquitous part of our visual culture. A new hefty, lushly illustrated book is the first to look at Bass's prolific career in graphic design, his pioneering impact on film title sequences, and his own films and philosophies of creativity. What emerges through essays, Bass's compelling firsthand narration, and a survey of hundreds of notable projects, is a rich portrait of a stunningly talented, original, and playful mind.
Just two of hundreds of examples of his nimble methods: on one page, Bass recalls how he stumbled across a book in New York that included spiraling designs by nineteenth-century French mathematician Jules Antoine Lissajous. He studied how Lissajous made his helix-like patterns and replicated his process by building two connected, free-swinging pendulums attached to ink brushes. He made several drawings with the device and put them away for years. In 1958, when Alfred Hitchcock asked him to work on the title sequence for Vertigo, these drawings immediately came to mind and formed the basis for some of the most memorable graphic imagery in film: two silhouettes falling into the vortex of spinning white lines against a saturated red background. This omnivorous curiosity and enthusiasm for the vast possibilities of visual communication pushed Bass to produce fresh and allusive designs for the whole of his career.
The second, in 1953, was a print ad design for Q-test, a new one-hour pregnancy test manufactured by General Pharmacal Corporation. At the time, pregnancy was a taboo topic — not something an upstanding magazine would want to allude to in its pages — so the ad proved a delicate challenge. Bass created a campaign called "a series on the human meaning of great discoveries," featuring print ads about momentous inventions, from the concept of zero, to coins, to the calendar. Images of these early inventions formed the background of the ads, with text about their discovery. At the bottom, in small italic script were two lines about the Q-test. No female silhouette, no allusions to birth or anything deemed feminine, just a canny connection to other leaps in human progress. The result was cleverly discreet, intellectual, and a prime example of Bass's ability to use surprising, yet simple means to deliver a much larger idea.
Bass (1920-1996) was born into a Yiddish-speaking family in the Bronx and showed an early interest in art, studying at the Art Students League. From the beginning, Bass straddled a clear-eyed embrace of a career as a commercial artist and an interest in the avant-garde. During the Depression he worked for a Manhattan company that designed trade ads for film, describing their limited scope as the "See, See, See" approach, i.e., "See the missionaries boiled alive! See the virgins dance in the Temple of Doom!" He wanted to raise film ads to a higher plane, later recalling, "I was sufficiently young enough, cocky enough, and naïve enough to believe I could elevate movie advertising to the standards set by Man Ray's Rayographs and Jean Cocteau's films and illustrations."