L.A. Designer: Louise Sandhaus’ New Book Shows California Graphic Design As Riot of Creativity

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Louise Sandhaus’s new book is an eye-popping history of California graphic design.

Earthquakes_CoverFCropLouise Sandhaus is a graphic designer and teacher at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts), and she has a design office known as LSD (Louise Sandhaus Design). Over ten years ago, she started work on an opus about California graphic design from the interwar years through to the mid-eighties, a time period she felt produced visuals that were essentially “Californian” in spirit. Now the book has been completed and published. It is called Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design 1936-1986 .

It features a blaze of imagery in its over 400 eye-popping pages by known and lesser-known California designers (including Merle Armitage, Alvin Lustig, Herbert Matter, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, April Greiman and Deborah Sussman) under the headings Sunbaked Modernism, Industry & The Indies, Sixties alt Sixties and California Girls; essays by Sandhaus and fellow designers Michael Worthington, Lorraine Wild and Denise Gonzales Crisp; “maps” of the relationships between friends, teachers, clients and influencers in the graphic design world, and it’s all packaged within a riotous cover whose most prominent shade is orange, a color that, writes Lorraine Wild, “40 years ago. . . was rarely utilized by serious graphic designers east of the Rockies.”

DnA spoke to Louise about the book, the surprises it contains, and why graphic designers have to write their own histories.

Louise Sandhaus. Photo by Mike Dooley

DnA: This book has been a true labor of love. Tell us how it came about.

LS: I worked on the big millennial exhibition “Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity 1900-2000” for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That and some subsequent exhibitions that I worked on as an exhibition designer made me look at what was unique about art that was made in California. And from there I went, “well wait a minute, they had a really particular voice here,” and it was the moment when they seemed to break from what was going on in New York and what was going on in Europe and really developed an independence of thought about what California art was about. So I began to look at that within California graphic design, and that’s where it all started.

DnA: But you’ve got some very specific dates, 1936 to 1986. Why do those dates frame your book?

LS: When I was working on an exhibition that followed the “Made in California” exhibition, I saw a book by Merle Armitage. Now Merle Armitage was a music impresario who came to Los Angeles in the 1920’s and found some incredible art and artists like Edward Weston and Martha Graham. He wanted to share those with a larger community so he did a book on Martha Graham and a book on Igor Stravinsky. But he had no experience with book design, and the one that I saw for Stravinsky done in 1936 began with a polemic about art on the cover and then went into eight portraits of Stravinsky shot by Edward Weston. So it was this hyperbole of images and it almost seemed like he was referencing the celebrity portrait, it became so self-conscious. Merle wasn’t just interested in the visual design, he was interested in the entire reading experience. It was so distinctive and so different from what I had seen particularly in that era that I thought, “Wow, okay here’s where it starts, here’s where something that breaks from tradition and has a really idiosyncratic voice and is really distinctive begins.”

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“Does it Make Sense,” by April Greiman

DnA: And why does it end at 1986?

Ls: In 1986  something else that happened that was big in my life and it was earth-shattering on many different levels within the graphic design community. And that was “Does it Make Sense” the poster/magazine designed by (LA-based) graphic designer April Greiman. This was an edition of the Walker Art Center’s Design Quarterly and it was this huge magazine that unfolded into this gigantic poster of April Greiman, two sides of her.

It was this digital image, a body scan of her, and it was an entirely different aesthetic; it was embracing the aesthetic that was produced by the computer. It was also about her, and this was not something that graphic design was about. Before that  you had a client and you responded to the client’s needs. Graphic design wasn’t about the personal, and so April Greiman just really turned graphic design, the aesthetic, what it was about on its head.

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Henry Taylor, 1908

DnA: Another piece of your book that of course jumps out is the reference in the title to earthquakes, mudslides, fires and riots. What do they have to do with California and graphic design?

LS: Well some people call those the four seasons of California. I really wanted to try and identify what it is about California that’s different from any other place. So if we look at this psychologically we can say that without a stable ground how could a tradition get established?

There had to be within our consciousness the sense that anything could and would change at any moment and so there was a sense of constant renovation and innovation of looking for what could be at any given moment instead of what would always be.

So, the works in the book are really departures in many respects from the expectations of what we see or what’s been categorized as graphic design. It was meant to be fun, it was meant to be playful, it was meant to be suggestive on so many different levels.

DnA: And then the other aspect of the cover is that it clearly looks like it has an LA sun. It’s got this bleed of pink through red into orange into yellow. Presumably, that’s a piece of the story.

LS: That suggests potentially also the sort of ominousness of the sky, because it’s both beautiful but it also can suggest a tragedy just because there’s a kind of lurid nature to those colors. Those colors also reference this rainbow effect (in graphics) which has happened throughout the past century and has gotten a lot of association with California.

The book opens with a poster which is actually an invitation that was done in 1908 and this was done by a printer in San Francisco named Henry Taylor. This was an invitation to seven of his friends to attend a dinner party. It’s 42” long by about 18” wide and it was the first occurrence I found of what’s called a “rainbow roll” or “split fountain” effect. Now that effect was popularized by a publication called The Oracle that came out in the 1960s and they sort of went all out using these split sound techniques on the press and that rainbow effect developed as an icon of California and the hippie movement and the counter-culture that was going on here. And of course we’re seeing it again today.

But I also think that that rainbow effect also has these amazing associations with California skies, just in the way that you saw that cover as a sunset. So the merge of that graphic technique with the fact that has to do with the light and the sunsets that occur here just seems like a perfect way to represent California.

DnA: And specifically we’re talking California, not Southern California, correct?

LS: We are. Yes, we are talking about the whole of California although there were two major locations of course; San Francisco and then Los Angeles.

Now, I want to make clear that it’s not an historical survey or a complete compendium. It really is intended to widen what has been understood as California graphic design and to point the way towards what is yet to have been acknowledged and discovered.

DnA: And it has a very particular voice which is mostly your voice. This is, in a way, Louise’s take on California. But you’ve also brought in some wonderful essays by some contemporary Los Angeles designers…. I was particularly struck by Michael Worthington’s essay about movie titles because he sort of walks you through the different technological phases that graphic designers have worked through in terms of doing movie titles. Can you talk a bit about that?

LS: First of all, in terms of the voices that are there, you’re absolutely correct that this is highly curated, it is my take on this work, it is semi-scholarly, it is footnoted and I hope it will be of value to scholars in the future. But it also points out that every history that’s been done is a subjective gathering of what has been done.

What I’ve done with this book is that I’ve tried to include what I want to call, maybe it’s not quite 360 degrees, but that we’re able to refract the subject matter through different lenses. So, the primary lens being the work itself, the work has to make its own argument that there’s something distinctive about it aesthetically that seems California.

Then there’s the factual information. So there is the who, what, where, when and some of the why, and that’s what I call the sort of extended captions about the projects and about the creators.

Then there is an introduction to each section to kind of contextualize the work, and then there are essays by Lorraine Wild, Denise Gonzales-Crisp and Michael Worthington, and then for each section I excerpted works that were printed in the period of time in which the book takes place, ’36-’86, that talk about this work in its own time.

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Bill Ham , “spontaneous painting of projected imagery”. Circa 1932

DnA: So you’ve got four main sections. Why don’t you single out one of those chapters and just tell us what a newcomer to the book might find that would deliver some surprises?

LS: I think that the biggest surprise is going to be in the “Industry & the Indies” section. This is work for the screen that has been done both independently and for the industry, meaning Hollywood, and it’s an important story, I believe, for a field that has emerged over the last couple of years known as motion graphics.

So in California we begin with Oscar Fischinger who was an artist who was also an émigré who came here in the ‘30s and he was a fine artist but he also worked doing commercial projects for the studios. He becomes very influential and now I’m going to jump over to a man name John Whitney who also worked with his brother James. After WWII they started fooling around with some equipment, some old equipment, and they began to turn it into an early kind of analog computer for animation. Now they were both artists but they started a company called Motion Graphics and they did a reel called Catalog and you can see images from that in the book, and you’ll recognize some of those images. Images, for instance, used by Saul Bass for the film Vertigo and you will also see a link later on when John Whitney worked for Eames and did that amazing multi-screen project that Eames did that took place in Russia and shared what was going on in American life,  called Glimpses of the U.S.A. (1959.)

So this very inventive artist not only is doing work for the screen himself but influencing others. The other influence in California on work for the screen is the liquid light shows. And that is not something that people usually associate with the kind of commercial work that happens later but you have Richard Taylor, who was trained as an artist, but he was hired as a graphic designer at Robert Abel & Associates, a production house.

And he had come from a background of doing these liquid light shows for people like The Grateful Dead, and he had developed some techniques, techniques that we ended up seeing in the legendary “bubble 7-Up commercial” which, when I saw it as a girl, I thought, “Oh, my God, TV! I’m just gonna start watching TV for the commercials if this is what they’re producing!”.  So this commercial was so different from anything else that was on TV and it was so colorful and so psychedelic and so exciting that it was a thrill for me, now, to go back and understand that its origins was this very inventive creator Richard Taylor working with the team that included Robert Abel at Robert Abel & Associates.

DnA: Just as an aside, were you inspired to become a graphic designer by seeing some of this Californian work?

LS: Oh that’s such an interesting question. Well, my father was a graphic designer, in those days though the term wasn’t as well understood as it is today. It was either commercial art or applied art or practical art or maybe advertising design but, that’s funny, because when I think back at what a thrill I got out of that commercial, I’m sure it must have stuck with me in some way and it’s interesting to see it now.

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“Map” for “Sixties Alt Sixties” design influencers

DnA: Now you have a chapter called California Girls and the introduction is called View from the Broads. I must say, that really jumps out at me because I remember, when I first moved to LA, walking into a room full of women architects and cheerfully saying, “Hello, girls!” and I thought I was going to be stoned for having used that term “girls.” So I was happy that you got away with it. Did anyone raise an eyebrow at that definition or did they see the intended warmth?

LS: Well nobody has said to me, “we’re not girls, we’re adult women!” I think “girls” infers a community, an us-ness, we belong together, we’re gonna root for each other, we’re gonna take things down to a level of comfort, we’re not going to be mature.  We are going to be in that time of our lives of imagination and playfulness and camaraderie; that camaraderie we experienced when we were growing up of our girlfriends and the secrets that we shared; I think these were incredibly meaningful relationships.

And when I came to Los Angeles around 1990, the first two women that I met here were Lorraine Wild and April Greiman and pretty quickly I began to feel a sense of bonding and community. I met Deborah Sussman shortly after that and I just felt like I joined some sort of very special club, that they were going to look out for me and that we were going to have this enduring bond. And that was quite unique and quite special and to be in this place where so many women have made a mark, not just locally and not just nationally but internationally, is pretty particular and pretty special.

DnA: But the point of this chapter is not just personal camaraderie, it’s to talk about the power of female graphic designers in California relative to other parts of the country, isn’t it?

LS: Yes. The female designers in California have been influential beyond California, and I’m positing they’ve been more influential — relative to women in other graphic design communities — than any group of women anywhere else in the world.

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Merle Armitage’s 1936 design of publicity materials for Igor Stravinsky.

DnA: I’m intrigued that you put the bulk of the copy in sans serif typeface which, purely as a reader, I find less easy on the eye for long passages than serif faces, and yet I see this widely done in graphic design and architectural texts. Why is this? I was especially intrigued because the essays reproduced in the book from the past that were about very forward thinking graphic designers of the period, say Alvin Lustig, that were originally printed in a traditional, Roman-style typeface.

LS: I have no idea! You know, since post-modernism, I hadn’t really given it a thought. This typeface was designed by Jens Gehlhaar and it’s called CIA Compendium. He had created this when he was a graduate student in the graphic design program at CalArts; he’s now a very successful director.

DnA: Then the concluding question, based on what you just said, is: is this book aimed primarily at graphic designers who will get that typeface design story, or is it aimed at the amateur enthusiast for design who might just want to know more about what’s going on in California?

LS: I would say that this book will delight all sorts of audiences. I never wanted this book to be exclusively for graphic designers, I wanted to spread the love for graphic design to those who just appreciate aesthetic things.

But for those who are graphic designers, I hope that it is showing that there is a wider history, and that there is a lot of work yet to be done to produce a history of graphic design since there are very few institutions that offer an education in graphic design history and so we’ve had to do it ourselves. There’s still much to be done.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.