The great designer Saul Bass was born in the East Bronx in 1920, studied at the Art Students League in the 1930s, and came to Los Angeles in the 1940s, finding a city ripe with potential and ready for transformation. He eventually opened an office at Highland and Franklin in the 1950s, and then, in 1956, created a more permanent space at 1778 Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Over his career, which lasted until his death in 1996, Bass would revolutionize the art of movie title design, reinvent the ways in which advertising campaigns were conceived and carried out, and basically change the foundations of visual communication in American popular culture.
Design historian Pat Kirkham, who teaches at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, joined Saul Bass' daughter Jennifer Bass, a graphic designer based in Venice, to create the voluminous, dazzling book Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, published last month by Laurence King Publishers. The 424-page large-format book is both a visual treat and a critical achievement, generously illustrating the often stunning work created by Bass while grounding it historically across multiple industries and histories. Indeed, Bass moved with seeming ease from traditional print-based graphic design to what we now call motion graphics, from advertising to the film industry, and cheerfully explored entirely new genres of design with an expansive, creative vision that can only inspire awe the more you comprehend it.
The book includes seven chapters that chart the designer's career mostly chronologically, moving from his start when he had the good fortune to work with Hungarian-born artist and designer Gyorgy Kepes, who wrote Language of Vision and taught Bass that "the basis of every living process is an inner contradiction." It charts Bass' often amusing early days in Hollywood, and then describes the long list of movie title sequences. Until the 1950s, movie titles were not generally considered significant or particularly creative additions to a film or its story. Bass, along with several other designers, changed that forever. Kirkham writes, "Saul believed that a film, like a symphony, deserved a mood-setting overture, and used ambiguity, layering and texture as well as startlingly compact imagery to reshape the time before the film proper began."
Early on, Bass collaborated with the great filmmaker Otto Preminger, and they would co-design 13 title sequences between 1954 and 1979. Perhaps the most famous of these was for The Man With the Golden Arm, which featured a groundbreaking campaign centered on a graphic symbol of an arm to gesture enigmatically toward drug addiction. Bass was delighted with the reductive image, with its metaphorical quality, and with its sense of nuance. Studio executives and exhibitors were not so delighted; instead, they were panicky, but Bass and Preminger managed to keep the arm and its provocative message at the core of the campaign, with Bass insisting that his interest was not in selling the film, but in announcing it.
Bass went on to create dozens of other title sequences, finally working with Martin Scorsese in the 1990s on films such as Casino, The Age of Innocence and Cape Fear. Images from all of these sequences are displayed on a large fold-out page at the back of the book. After reading this rich, detailed section, it seems as if the book must be close to its end. However four more sections follow, capturing Bass' incredible work in logo design, both nationally and internationally, as well as his own work as a filmmaker, often working in collaboration with his wife Elaine.
The book brings together a massive amount of information, factual and more personal, and it frequently isolates and synthesizes fundamental characteristics of Bass's work. It's a pleasure to peruse, with its visual design and generous attention to a mix of the critical, anecdotal and personal. Indeed, reading the book allows you to understand Bass' immense contribution to Los Angeles, to Hollywood and to the world through design, but it also lets you get to know a man who, with his daughter, frequently stopped to buy flowers for his wife at a small shop on La Brea Avenue. This melding of kinds of information and writing is no easy feat, but Kirkham and Bass manage beautifully, and the book is a remarkable contribution.
Kirkham will visit the Hammer Museum on Tuesday, December 13 at 7:00 p.m. to talk about the book, and to sign copies.