By Pat Kirkham
I believe that there are very few artists in our time who have created as memorable a series of designs and objects. Saul Bass truly shaped the vision of our time. (Milton Glaser)
Great people like Saul Bass should be immortal...The incredible wit of Saul, his intelligent ability of reaching the essence of things, to grab form and content in powerful meaningful ways. (Massimo Vignelli)
When Saul Bass (1920-1996) died these tributes were among the many sent to his wife Elaine with whom he collaborated from 1960 onward on film titles and on a series of short films. I knew him in the last five years of his life and came to greatly admire both him and Elaine as I wrote articles about the film title sequences they were then creating for Martin Scorsese. Before he died, Saul was working on a book about his work, including that with Elaine, and since 2003 I have been working with their daughter, Jennifer Bass, on a book (to be published this coming October) about all the main areas touched by his enormous talent and creativity.
One of the most famous, influential and versatile visual communicators of the twentieth century, Saul worked as both graphic designer and film-maker. During a sixty years working life he produced a body of work that is as diverse as it is powerful. He set up his own design office in 1952 and one of the joys of my research has been to unearth many of Saul’s advertisements from the 1950s. They show him developing identities for companies and products just as he did from 1954 onwards for film when the flame around a rose was made to move at the opening of Carmen Jones. It was in the mid-to-late 1950s that he expanded the boundaries of graphic design to include film title sequences, a genre that he transformed.
He made his name with title sequences, posters, and trademarks of reductive and evocative intensity created for films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Otto Preminiger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Circulated worldwide, they provided some of the most compelling images of American postwar visual culture. By the late 1950s, Saul was probably the best-known graphic designer in the world. He went on to serve as visual consultant on five feature films (Spartacus, 1960; Psycho, 1960; West Side Story, 1961; Grand Prix, 1966; Not With My Wife You Don’t, 1966) and direct the now cult feature film, Phase IV (1974). From the 1960s Saul also became known as a leading designer of corporate identity programs, for companies and institutions as diverse as Quaker, Continental Airlines, United Airlines, Bell Telephone, AT&T, Minolta, the Girl Scouts and United Way and further enhanced his international reputation.
Elaine joined the office in 1956 and together they created an impressive series of award winning short films, including the Oscar-winning Why Man Creates (1968), Notes on the Popular Arts (1977) and The Solar Film (1981), and an equally impressive series of film titles - from Stanley Kramer’s Spartacus (1960 – Elaine directed it while Saul was at the World Design conference in Japan) to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence and Casino in the 1990s.
Besides the areas already mentioned, Saul also designed packaging, retail displays, a modular hi-fi cabinet system, album covers, book covers, sculpture, lettering, typefaces, tiles, toys and a postage stamp. He illustrated a children’s book and, in collaboration with architects, designed play environments, a proposed pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair and a series of service stations. His versatility was often remarked upon, as was his problem-solving approach to design. In 1954 American Artist attributed the ‘underlying logic’ of his work to a ‘searching mind...always inquiring into the reason for things’. Forty years later Scorsese referred to his ‘searching eye’. Both mind and eye are central to an understanding of this versatile man who made a distinctive contribution to the visual vocabulary of postwar America.
Saul received many prestigious awards, including Art Director of the Year (1957) and the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA, 1981). He took pride in recognition by his peers and gave back a great deal to the professions and institutions with which he was associated. He was active in the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) as well as the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and poured his prodigious energies into the Aspen International Design Conferences and helped establish the Sundance Institute.
Liberal by outlook and disposition, he had a strong moral backbone. He disapproved of advertising that used snobbery, social status or gratuitous sex to sell goods and refused assignments that offended his ‘conscience or sense of fitness’. He cared about things and gave his services free when asked to design posters, logos and invitations for not-for-profit causes in which he believed. His friends and colleagues described him to me as “A man who speaks up to the world”. “An artist with a soul”, “A person with a conscience” and “An artist with a capital A”. He was all of those things, and more. Most people commented upon his warmth and generosity. Robert Redford talked of “a spiritual energy. One that comes from the soul...an energy born out of talent, generosity, curiosity, wisdom, experience, joy”.
A born communicator (in later years he preferred the term visual communicator to that of designer), his large expressive hands painted their own pictures as he talked. He taught from time to time, mentoring many would-be designers and film-makers including USC student George Lucas. The number of people with whom Saul kept in touch after first meeting them when they were fledglings in their field is remarkable. It can be explained in part by his sociability, but he was also conscious of the importance of mentors in his own life, especially Howard Trafton Gyorgy Kepes who helped him transform from a talented designer into a contender.
Never happier than with an audience of young people, his last public appearance, in March 1996 (a month before his death), was a ‘master class’ presentation and discussion at the School of Visual Arts, New York, where a retrospective exhibition of his work had just opened. Those lucky enough to get a seat, squeeze into the aisles or stand in the stage wings, will never forget that tour de force, his humor or his humanity. Visibly ill, and present against doctor’s orders, he gave his all (as always), insisting on the primacy of integrity and curiosity and conveying his love of process in design and film-making. He made the audience laugh while he made us think. Afterward, he showed infinite patience with each and every question and remained behind with students until the janitors closed the hall around him.
Saul was a master of the dialectic of content and form. He went straight to the kernel of a design problem and then transform it into compelling pictorial signs. There is no definitive Bass aesthetic but recurrent elements include a strong tendency towards a single strong image, reduction, distillation, economy and minimalism – features associated with Modernism – and a concern with fragmentation, layering, addition, ambiguity, montage and metaphor – features more associated with post-Modernism, but which were much in evidence by the 1950s. Wit and humor is never far away. Nor is finely-honed lettering, a passion since his boyhood.
Not too long before he dies he told me:
In the final analysis, content is the key and I’ve always looked for the simple idea. That is what I did in the ’50s and that is what Elaine and I do now. We have a very reductive point of view … We see the challenge in getting things down to something totally simple, and yet doing something with it, which provokes;… a simplicity, which has a certain ambiguity and a certain metaphorical implication … the idea that is so simple that it will make you think – and rethink. … It’s a risky business: we’re improvising and never know if it will work out.