Capturing Saul Bass: A life in film & design

[Tom Biederbeck] The dimensions of Saul Bass’ achievements — in movies, marketing, identity, publications, all of graphic design — are on display in Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, the new book by Pat Kirkham (text) and Jennifer Bass (design). With its wealth of biographical detail and lavish images, over 1400, many never before published, it’s that rare design book that deserves a place on the shelf of anyone interested in the subject. We spoke with Kirkham about Bass, his wife Elaine, their work … and how to portray a giant in 20th-century visual communication.

Identities Bass designed are still in use, instantly recognizable. United Airlines felt so strongly about his logo that the company ran a full-spread newspaper ad in Japan. The headline: “Good designs have wings.” It goes on to say that some regard Bass as “a god of CI [corporate identity].”

In your book’s foreword, Martin Scorsese writes, “… before we worked together, he was a legend in my eyes. His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era.” Saul Bass’ career was wide and long — more than 50 years. On top of that, you knew him. Were you concerned you about information overload?
Well, there’s quite a lot of information in the book! I’m trained as a historian, but I also like to write in a way that’s accessible. In terms of information overload: One of the things about having a lot of illustrations is that it changes the pace.

I knew Elaine before the book and became closer with her during the process. His daughter Jennifer Bass and I became very good friends as well. It was a wonderful collaboration, and we all felt we wanted to do the very best we could for Saul. There were a lot of personal obligations involved in this project.

It comes down to two things: one, a very patient and generous publisher, which was Laurence King. The other was Jennifer, who was discovering more and more visual material. Laurence very much wanted to do a book about Saul Bass, and he allowed us a lot of leeway. That was quite amazing.

Saul Bass was among the first designers to move into album covers, here for Elmer Berstein and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra admired Bass and said, “An album’s cover art is as important in setting the mood of a music recording as are lyrics and music.”

The first part of the book is biographical. Why did you take this approach?
Biography is becoming respectable again in academia! What seem like simple stories are actually important to how people are formed, and add to the complexity of history rather than simplifying it. And Saul wanted to do this. He always wanted to know how people were formed, where they grew up, how their experiences were different. He would often tell how both he and Elaine had grown up in New York, she was only seven years younger, both from immigrant families … but their experiences were different, though they had other things in common. That always fascinated him, and it fascinated me.

People really did like his company. They liked his earnestness. It wasn’t something he courted. As Jennifer and I talked with people who knew him, we had the sense of them taking him under their wing … partly because of his talent, but partly because he was an interesting person to be with. That kept cropping up — recognizing his talent, then finding a person they wanted to be around. It was the case with [film director Otto] Preminger, and also with Alfred Hitchcock.

When I talked with Martin Scorsese, the first thing he asked me was, “How long did you know him?” I said about five years. He said, “The same as me. It’s not enough.”

Film and publication work by Saul Bass

The influence of Saul Bass through film was enormous. Other title designers adopted some of his tropes, but the look is utterly distinctive — when you see his titles, you instantly know it. Why?
I think it’s a combination of a fine mind and a fine aesthetic sensibility. The idea is often extremely powerful, then there’s this unique way of expressing it. This isn’t just someone who can find the good visual, or someone who can find the good idea. His intelligence was just brimming all the time, even in his jokes. Design is a very intellectual process, but people don’t always realize that.

Bass had long relationships with legendary film directors like Billy Wilder.

At one point Bass seemed to be headed toward a new phase in filmmaking. He accomplished a lot — including, famously, the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho — but he made only one feature, the sci-fi film Phase IV. Why didn’t he go further?
It wasn’t the most successful movie, he would say, but some of the imagery is quite remarkable. At the time it was thought of as an ecological parable. It’s a curious film — a sort of warning of what can happen if you don’t look after your Earth.

The studio didn’t promote it well — they thought it was too arty for a science fiction or horror movie. It certainly wasn’t acclaimed, whereas Why Man Creates, a short film he and Elaine did in 1968, won an Oscar. The Academy is finishing a new print of that, so that film is going to be getting a lot of new attention.

I think Saul was content with the work he had. He was a graphic designer first and foremost. From the time he was making his first short films with Elaine in ’63, he was also beginning to do corporate identity work. Some of those would be 18-month projects. He loved doing all the research.

Identity work for Lawry’s (still in use)

Many of the corporate identities Bass designed are employed today. Why such longevity?
I think partly because they have very simple and recognizable elements. One of the things I remember is that within 18 months or two years of the introduction of the new Bell symbol, more people recognized it than knew the name of the president of the United States!

The identities seemed to very quickly take on this “authority of existence,” which was the phrase Saul used. That was his aim.

Identity work for Fuller Paints

A discovery to me was how important Elaine was to to the work associated with Saul. How would you characterize their relationship?
The first time I wrote about them, I had to summarize this in a few paragraphs. The next time I saw Elaine, she told me how much her daughter Jennifer loved what I wrote … because Jennifer was conscious that most people ignored her mother’s input in the work.

Professionally, Elaine worked with him on title sequences and short films. She had a background in design, but she didn’t have film training. Like Saul, she learned on the job. By the time they were doing Spartacus, she directed the title sequence. She told me, “I would keep pushing if I felt an idea had merit, and Saul would listen. Even if at first he would say, ‘We’ll never be able to do that.’”

Saul always said the best way he could express it was he trusted her judgment more than anybody’s.

Purchase Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design here, at Laurence King Publishing or from your local bookseller.

Pat Kirkham is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture in New York. She has written and edited a number of books, including Charles and Ray Eames and Women Designers in the USA 1900–2000.

Jennifer Bass is a graphic designer and artist who has worked at CBS Television in New York and at Sussman/Prejza & Company in Los Angeles. In 1994 she and her husband Lance Glover opened their studio, Treehouse Design Partnership in Los Angeles, working in environmental graphics, identity and book design.

All images courtesy Laurence King Publishing

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