Great Gift Idea: This Is the Holiday Present We’re Sure Steve Jobs Would Have Liked Getting. It’s the Story of Someone With a Scientist’s Brain, a Poet’s Heart and a Painter’s Eyes. Simplifying to Get to the Essence

Dec 6, 2011

One of the great accomplishments Steve Jobs achieved was bringing the world the Apple design aesthetic.

In Walter Isaacson’s splendid, compulsively page-turning best-selling biography “Steve Jobs,” he quotes Jobs as saying early on in his career, “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple, really simple.”

Part of Jobs’ interest in design, Isaacson writes, came from the man who raised him, Paul Jobs, and his love for the styling of certain cars that he shared with Steve.

Jobs’ sense of design was further refined when Jobs was in his mid-20s and started attending the International Design Conference in Aspen.

Isaacson writes, “In Aspen [Jobs] was exposed to the spare and functional design philosophy of the Bauhaus movement, which was enshrined by Hebert Bayer in the buildings, living suites, sans serif font typography, and furniture on the Aspen Institute campus. … The modernist International Style championed by the Bauhaus taught that design should be simple, yet have an expressive spirit. It emphasized rationality and functionality by employing clean lines and forms. Among the maxims preached … were ‘God is in the details’ and ‘Less is more.’ “

Flash back now some 37 years earlier to the mid-1940s. An immigrant from Hungary who was an artist and a designer was teaching design at Brooklyn College. His name was Gyorgy Kepes. He had been part of the Bauhaus movement in Europe. A student enrolled in one of his classes said that the course literally changed his life. That 24-year-old student was Saul Bass.

Bass, who died in 1996, is my favorite graphic designer. He’s a towering figure in his field, who was quite influential in the last half of the 20th century.

For reasons I have never been able to figure out, there has never been a really comprehensive book written about Bass.

Over the years there had been rumors that one of his daughters, Jennifer, was working on such a project, but nothing materialized.

Until last month. “Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design,” by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, with a foreword by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, has now been published by London-based Laurence King Publishing. This magnificent 424-page coffee table book should be on everyone’s must-give list for the holidays. It carries a suggested retail price of $75 but can currently be found online at places like Amazon and barnesandnoble.com for about $47.

I don’t know if Jobs ever met Bass, but I’m sure, knowing Jobs’ interest in design, that he would have liked this book a lot. Clearly, Jobs and Bass were on the same wavelength about design.

Gyorgy Kepes, the designer who so inspired Bass when Bass took his class at Brooklyn College, once said that he saw himself striving to solve the riddle of man’s place in the cosmos by looking at the world “with a scientists brain, a poet’s heart and a painter’s eyes,” according to a piece about Kepes on the website of the Ad Directors Club of New York.

It’s clearly how Bass looked at the world as well.

In the same article Bass said of Kepes, "He changed my life. He turned me around and I became a designer because of him. He opened the door for me that caused me to understand design and art in another way. He is a truly inspired teacher. It is rare that a man can be both an artist and a teacher and perform superbly as both."

What’s so splendid about this new book about Bass is that co-author Pat Kirkham has done such a good job in communicating the evolution of Bass’s career. Combined with that there are hundreds of illustrated examples of Bass’s work in the book.

Bass himself actually started working on this book back in 1993. Given that we’ve waited almost 20 years for its arrival, the one item the book should have and does not is a DVD with myriad examples of Bass’s work in movie title design. Stills are fine, but one really needs to see those works in full motion.

Back in the 1950s Bass reinvented title sequences in movies, He was able to reduce a movie’s essence to images that would be shown integrated with a film’s credits, usually right before the movie began. For many of these title sequences he was able to work with first-rate composers.

Here’s one of my favorites. It’s Bass’s title sequence for “The Big Country,” which was released back in 1958. The great music Bass has to work with in this sequence is by Jerome Moross.

 

Besides doing title sequences, Bass designed many movie posters. Sometimes the studios liked ‘em, and sometimes they didn’t. Here’s an example of both. Paramount did indeed use Bass’s poster for “Vertigo.” However, MGM passed on using Bass’s poster for “Grand Prix,” though Bass did the title sequence and was a visual consultant for that movie.

 

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Bass did not design the logo for Apple, but he did design lots of logos that are as simple, clean and memorable as Apple’s.

These are as varied as his logo for Lawry’s restaurants and its Seasoned Salt and his logo for Kleenex (though the latter was unfortunately slightly altered in 2008).

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If you have the resources, besides giving “Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design” as a gift, you might want to give yourself a copy. And perhaps donate one to your local library.

Great design is thought-provoking, spiritually uplifting, and, surpise, surprise, good for business.

Thank goodness for people such as Jobs and Bass who realized the value and importance of design to our everyday lives.

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One Comment

  1. What a coincidence you should mention this book. I happened to be browsing at a Barnes & Noble yesterday and spotted it on the counter across from the Steve Jobs bio. My first thought was that these two books belong side by side! Thanks for the insightful essay!

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