Designed for Impact
By Lyra KilstonMay 8, 2012
Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham
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."
European modernism reached Bass in the early 1940s, when he took a class in Brooklyn with György Kepes, who had studied with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and cofounded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Bass's work was transformed by this mentorship, which gave him a new understanding of images, montage and typography. Although Bauhaus dictums reshaped his visual vocabulary, Bass's emotional sense drifted from the school's staunch moral futurism. Years later, at a World Design Conference in Tokyo in 1960, Bass addressed his fellow designers with a plea that their work "must have a warm humanity." This goal is widely apparent in Bass's work, which needed to affect mass audiences in order to succeed.
In 1946, Bass came to Los Angeles to work as an art director and pitchman. He quickly met other like-minded commercial artists, like Charles and Ray Eames and Alvin Lustig — whose book cover designs for New Directions Press had a graphic strength similar to Bass's work — and with whom he founded the Society of Contemporary Designers. It was an opportune time to be in the West; Los Angeles modernism was crystallizing into an influential style, and the city was home to five theaters devoted to experimental film. Bass also admired, and then designed covers and layouts for, the apex of midcentury West Coast aesthetics: Arts & Architecture magazine. Arts & Architecture had launched its celebrated Case Study House program in 1945, and Case Study house #20 was built for Bass by the firm Buff, Straub and Hensman. Looking at Julius Shulman's photographs of the Bass house at the Getty Research Institute's library recently, I was struck by how the sleek geometries of the house and use of curves and natural materials seemed a perfect complement to Bass's designs — pared down and strong, yet always embodying that "warm humanity."
Bass's most celebrated medium was the film title sequence — many of which, fortunately for us, can today be viewed on YouTube. Bass reinvented the form with his bold, abstract title sequences, as in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), in which minimal white bands unfurl across a black background. Before Bass, title sequences were typically forgettable placards that revealed nothing of the content of the film except for a theme song or some curly lettering. Working as director, editor, and designer, Bass sought to encapsulate the mood of the film from the first frame onward. In the opening credits of Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), a hand tears back dark paper to reveal the titles, ending with an ominous torn silhouette of a child. As design historian Pat Kirkham writes here, "[Bass's] designs shaped complex ideas into radically simple forms that offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie."
Martin Scorsese, for whom Bass and his wife produced several title sequences, says in his foreword, "putting it simply, Saul was a great filmmaker." Credited as a "visual consultant," Bass was the first person to use the opening titles as a narrative vehicle. His ability was so renowned that he was hired to complete sequences within the films themselves, among them, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The famous series of shots in which Janet Leigh (as hotel guest Marion Crane) is stabbed while taking a shower is included in the book along with Bass's hand drawn storyboards for the scene: the hand with the knife, the water radiating from the showerhead, the silhouette of repeated stabbing. These combine to reveal his focus on the potency of discrete flashes.
It was a natural progression for Bass to move into making his own short films, which he created in close collaboration with his second wife and creative partner, Elaine. Corporations usually commissioned the films, and the creative freedom he wielded seems astonishing from today's vantage point. Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical company commissioned Why Man Creates (1968), which won an Oscar for best documentary short. The film takes an omnivorous and exhilarating look at the history of ideas. When a voice asks "Where do ideas come from?" the answer is: "from looking at one thing and seeing another," which Kirkham points out is a recurrent theme in the work of the Basses. It's a remarkably simple answer, yet it underpins the essence of both creativity and effective design.
In the 1950s, Bass was involved in the newly-formed annual International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, where designers such as Herbert Bayer, Leo Lionni, and others joined with businessmen from firms like IBM and CBS to assert that "Good Design is Good Business." (While Steve Jobs' embrace of the same concept has been celebrated in a thousand recent articles since his passing, let's not allow history to credit him with that idea.) Bass recalled that it was a heady time, when "we believed that once all business embraced the notion of design [...] all of us would be employed to produce beautiful products and communications for a hungry public who, in turn, would be transformed by this experience and create 'a new civilization.'" Such revolutionary optimism was indeed betrayed. "Sure enough," Bass continued, "Big Business embraced design, and promptly turned it into a commodity." He was surprised that he had once thought it could be any different. "It was a naïve point of view but very sweet," he notes. "We lived through a wonderful moment." Although he accepted the reality of the industry, he maintained admirable integrity, rejecting projects on moral grounds, taking on pro bono assignments for causes he supported, and refusing to sell himself or his audience short by using easy tactics like sex or snobbery to entice.
Bass started this book in 1993 and worked on it until his death in 1996, when his daughter Jennifer took over, also acting as the designer. She writes in the preface that her aim was "for the reader to feel as though they have just had a visit with Saul Bass." The book succeeds in that. Offering a window into his creative process and infectious ardor for his work, one of the book's many delights is how much of Bass's voice is in it; nearly every project includes his first-person commentary, and several pages are devoted to his quotes on subjects like humor, integrating work and family life, clients, and criticism. The synthesis of Bass's recollections with Kirkham's deft contextualization offers an engaging background on hundreds of his projects, from ads to films to corporate branding. Yet Bass's images contain such strong narratives that the book's sequenced spreads often speak for themselves — as they were meant to.
Lyra Kilston is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Icon, Time, Wired, Next City, and KCET’s Artbound, among other publications.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.