Friday, August 22, 2014

Back to Work: Design Still Gives Me Hope

Pioneer Place

The return from our three-week holiday in France and the United Kingdom has been more disorienting than usual. First, we had to give up wine at lunch! Then we gave up wine on school nights. Being self-employed means I can’t travel without internet access at each hotel, house, or apartment we stay in. So we never really get away from the tumult.

Before we left for Europe, the battle for Gaza upset me tremendously. While it is pretty clear to me who is occupying whom, it still means civilian deaths on all sides. It’s hard to see a peaceful resolution, given the violence. Trying to make sense of the conflict practically requires a degree in Mideast history.

We returned home to the tragic news about Bay Area resident Robin Williams, who was universally adored. It seems that everybody here has a story about meeting him, seeing him live, or working with him. Although his politics were always left, he volunteered to perform for U.S. troops overseas. It didn’t matter whether he agreed with the politics of a specific conflict, he empathized with the situation the soldiers found themselves in. They didn’t start the stupid wars; they need support. Of course, they need it when they get home, too, but that’s another story. It is strange how ubiquitous Williams was, and yet none of us knew him or the depth of his struggles. Let’s remember his lesson: compassion.

Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000

The Gas Company

Museum of the African Diaspora

The images from Ferguson are connected to the historic oppression of African American males by largely white male forces. This is old news to black folks, but maybe this time white folks will get it too. I remember years ago attending a reading at Black Oak Books with Walter Mosley. An audience member asked innocently, if naively, whether indeed the situation in America wasn’t better for African Americans than it used to be? And Mosely said something like, “No. Every night in America, a black man is beaten by a white police officer.” Not only has the systemic mistreatment of African Americans been pointed out, we are also seeing how our police have become militarized. Another outcome of the Military Industrial Security Corporate Complex that the Republicans built in the wake of 9/11. The enemy has been misidentified.

1984 Los Angeles Olympics

And then yesterday, in the design industry where many of my friends work, the death of Deborah Sussman, the noted graphic designer. She was 83, though that was hard to believe. She was a protégé of the Eameses and grew to become a brilliant designer in her own right. Her graphics for the Joseph Magnin stores illuminated my childhood and adolescence. What she could do with mall architecture! During the 1990s, she used to come to the ELS office to work on retail projects, and the whole place felt a surge when that little lady came up the stairs. Those spectacles! Her work for the 1984 Olympics not only branded the Olympics, but it also helped rebrand Los Angeles. Although her work was temporary and largely based on color, it had a permanent effect. Los Angeles became a leading global city after the Olympics. Amazing what a bit of colored paper can do. Looking at Sussman’s work cheers me up and helps me get back to work, which means sharing the work!

Deborah Sussman
Photo by Laure Joliet for the NY Times

Other articles to look at:

Monday, August 11, 2014

Postcard from Tucson

Tucson remains the strangest of cities. Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, majestic mountain ranges, pockets of charming neighborhoods, and the most hideous of American boulevards. On this trip, we were encouraged because downtown Tucson is buzzing. The Hotel Congress and the Rialto Theatre have long anchored one side of downtown. There was a good restaurant in the old train station and a few other decent eateries scattered around, but it didn’t seem to hold together.

Hotel Congress from Connect coworking space

Inside the Connect coworking space (CoConnect)
in the Rialto Building (designed by FORSArchitecture)

But now with the new housing complexes (which are rather bland) and several well-designed new restaurants (many created by our pals Miguel and Sonya at FORSarchitecture + interiors), there is a new vibrancy downtown. There was even a pop-up shop outside the FORS office. Folks are out at night despite it being summer and the University not being in session. A handsome large coworking space upstairs at the Rialto just opened. Rather like New York or San Francisco.

While downtown, we stopped in at a party for the magazine Edible Baja Arizona, which comes out six times a year. The publication is beautifully produced and celebrates the emerging food culture near the border. It includes recipes, reviews, and interviews. Weirdly enough, it’s free. We found out about Whiskey Del Bac, which is being produced right in Tucson. Worth a sip! The new Sun Link streetcar will connect downtown to the university. Hopefully, this will mean fewer cars for students. If only the entire town had rail service. I know, one step at a time.

The Arizona Inn remains largely unchanged. They no longer bring a glass of water when you sit down at the pool. That was a nice touch. We miss the free breakfast that used to happen in the summer too, but we still enjoy the free afternoon ice cream, although I wish they served it up a bit earlier than five o’clock.

Arizona Inn

Shortly after we arrived, there was a monsoon, which cooled things down, brought up the humidity, and also brought out that beautiful desert creosote smell. My second cousin, Carolyn Burns, came to visit for a day with her new husband, Raed Haddad. Carolyn met him in Phoenix just after she signed up for a year of teaching in Egypt. Despite this obstacle, their relationship flourished, and they married when she returned to Arizona. Raed hails from Amman, Jordan, and it was fascinating to hear the stories about his homeland and family. For many years, Raed wanted to come to the United States because of educational and career opportunities, and the University of Arizona was one of the only universities here that responded to his inquiries. Although he is a well-paid engineer at Intel, he drove an Uber car for a few months because he wanted to understand the business model. We look forward to seeing them again when they venture out to California at Christmas.

On July 4, we visited Miguel’s sister Anna and climbed up on the roof of her William Wilde–designed midcentury house. We watched the fireworks and, most interestingly, some kind of laser-light show on the Santa Catalina Mountains. A big family BBQ is the best way to celebrate Independence Day.

Pool at Anna's house
Celebrating the 4th

We also drove up to Mount Lemmon, which we had never done before. The hoodoos on the drive were exceptional, as were the views. The town of Summerhaven, at the top, was destroyed by a fire in 2003, but the settlement that has been rebuilt is forgettable. Because of rain, we didn’t go for a hike.

Hodoos on the road to Mount Lemmon

The great discovery this trip was the work of architect Juan Wørner y Bas. He was one of the favored architects of local developers John and Helen Murphey. They found him when they stayed at his Continental Hilton in Mexico City. (Torn down in 1985 after the earthquake). His work in Tucson might be considered critical regionalism in that he combined modernist ideas with the local vernacular, or colonial vernacular. He loved introducing statues into the mix, sometimes atop his buildings! His annex to Josias Joesler’s quaint Broadway Village shopping center is an eclectic masterpiece. Butt-glazed windows, tiled arches, and ceramic statuettes atop the columns. What’s not to love? I just hope it doesn’t get renovated out of existence.

Broadway Village Plaza Annex
by Juan Worner y Bas

One of his best works is the fountain at the entrance to Catalina Foothills Estates No. 7, which reminds me of Barragán’s work. Apparently the water blew all over hell and gone and they turned it off. It feels like a modernist cactus marker. He also designed two condo developments near Campbell and Sunrise. One of them even has plaster longhorns decorating the wall next to the pool. Next to the pool is a koi pond, and in the distance, a view of the Catalinas. Might be a good spot to read books in my retirement.

Catalina Foothills Neighborhood entry fountain
by Juan Worner y Bas

Koi pond and plaster long horns
at Juan Worner y Bas designed condo.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Welcome to Frazierville: Part Two

Q: So much of your work is about distillation. And even though you’ve distilled it really far, there are multiple meanings to be found in the simplest of illustrations. Are they always intended, or are they sometimes a surprise because of your long history of doing this? Do you end up putting in layers even if you don’t know you are?

CF: I may very well do that. I never try to draw a picture of the exact thing.

Q: It’s an idea?

CF: It’s not necessarily an idea. I try to bring an idea to it. There are only a dozen or so repeating messages in corporate business anyway. My job is to symbolize a lot of those things, but leave enough room that everybody can see a little something in there. If it doesn’t communicate a central idea, then you’re getting into that fine art territory again. But I have a job to communicate some central message. The fun is in a lot of those nuances. Why do I draw buckets so much? Why do I draw hoses? I don’t really know. It’s just that some of those articles are the most fundamental tools that everybody understands. We understand how a bucket works. It’s a vessel that holds something. It’s got a handle. If you turn it sideways, something comes out. It’s that simple. It’s a great device for storytelling.

Occasionally, an art director will send me a sketch of something they want me to draw. They have usually studied my work so it looks something like what I might do. But because I didn’t go through the process of solving the problem, I can’t get behind doing the drawing. It’s not ego, it’s ownership of the story and why it’s the right answer to the problem. I have to go through that myself to evaluate whether it will be a good illustration or not. It’s not just a drawing problem. I get as much fun out of the sketching as I do finishing it. So much of my work is based on past work, it’s more than just using the same symbols. Clients have to understand that I want to bring them something they’ve never thought of. I tell them, “I live in this world. I’ve been drawing this for 20 years.”

I’m looking for something that I’ve never seen before, that I really want to draw. It’s just like—a guy who wrote an article on me, he called it Frazierville.

Q: What are those binders over there?

CF: The wall of binders are sketches. They are supposed to be chronological. I return to them from time to time. There are different levels of sketches. There are the real rough ones, and then I ultimately tighten up. Sometimes a drawing will be presented a few times to different clients. It’ll get rejected, and I’ll recycle it.

Q: Just like an architect. What is that image?

CF: It never got it produced. No client ever accepted it. I finished it myself. I do a lot of second rights licensing; I’ll sell something after the fact.

Q: How did they find that?

CF: I have a website, but sometimes a client will come to me and say, “Do you have anything that you’ve done that fits this message? We don’t want to pay for you to do a new one. We want to buy second rights to an illustration.” I also have lots of original illustrations that have never been licensed.

You just want to live in this world and try to improve it. And when I say “improve it,” for me it’s about finding essential elements and—“truths” isn’t quite the right word—but possibilities. It’s only until I’ve drawn something like, say, water a number of times that I get very familiar with it, and I get comfortable with it, and comfortable with rendering it a particular way.

Q: So sometimes you’re doing the practice without knowing the outcome, because you have faith in the process? The client didn’t go for it, but it’s a great idea, so you decide to take it to a level of completion so it advances what you’re doing in the world, even though you may never be paid.

CF: Exactly.

Q: It seems almost Buddhist. I wanted to talk about technology and the production of your work. You withdrew from graphic design about the time it became really automated.

CF: Yeah. We were finishing all the work on computers. Since then it’s only gotten easier. The problem today is everybody’s a graphic designer.

Q: But how do you physically make these illustrations? I see the first part—the first rough sketch—and then you refine it. Then what happens?

CF: Okay, I’m going to show you how primitive my methods are. I draw with a pen, and I draw with the same pen, and I have forever. Although I switched from a Pilot pen to a Micron about six years ago, and I love these Microns. And I draw really small. Part of that is because I can get a lot of things on a paper. I can draw very quickly.

One of the things about solving problems, whether you’re a designer or an illustrator, is you have got to keep yourself from getting frustrated. The hardest part of our job is when we start to feel a sense of failing. When we’re in the process of solving the problem, you’re going, “This is not fucking working. I am shit. I am the worst designer in the world. Oh no, my career is over.”

Q: As in, “Are they going to take back the car, the house?

CF: You cannot let that happen. You have to work quickly and be able to abandon something that is shit and go on. You just to keep drawing and don’t judge it. Do that later. I’ll judge it in an hour. I’ll judge it tomorrow. I’m not going to judge it right now. Just keep drawing little ideas, because that morning-after test is always better than that moment. The name of the game is to invest as little as possible in ideas so it doesn’t hurt that bad when you toss them. But you’ve got to keep moving, which keeps you from stopping, and sitting there, and going, “Is this shit?”

When I started in design at that first job in Palo Alto, my boss had this thing over his desk that said, “You can’t polish a horse turd.” I’ll never forget that. All the work you put into it is not really going to improve it if it’s just not a fundamentally good idea. I’m always looking for an idea that’s worth spending time on, and I’ve learned to see that with a doodle. I could tell you almost by describing it to you.

Now, the other reason to work small is that compositionally I’ve resolved a lot of the issues already. I’ve already built in scale. As you start to draw something big, it’s hard for you to see all those relationships that well. So that starts to also define a vocabulary. Because it’s so small, I’m not going to put many details in it. It’s not interesting to me. Next, I cut this the illustration out of Amberlith—a masking film used originally for silkscreening. Then I scan it. All I need is an orthochromatic form. Because I’m going to color it in the computer.

Q: Where do you still get Amberlith?

CF: It comes in a sheet. I just found the last roll of it in America.

Q: What are you going to do when this material runs out?

CF: I’ll retire. The last roll I got is 30 feet, so I’ve got plenty—I’m good.

Q: You use old and new technologies.

CF: People think I build these illustrations in Adobe Illustrator. I do sometimes, usually not.

Q: God, you must be mad.

CF: What happens is it creates its own vocabulary. I want you to look at it and go, “This was made by hand.” I want happy accidents. I’m interested in that little bit of character that takes place. The other element to this is that it forces me to edit my level of detail. These characters don’t have eyes because they’re too friggin’ small to draw! I don’t want you to care about him that much.

Q: Technology has also changed who you do work for. There are fewer print publications. I hear it’s stabilized somewhat, but it certainly has been on a downward trajectory. There are probably fewer annual reports. How has that affected you?

CF: It used to be when we’d write a contract, it would be for print, and they’d say, “And maybe some additional web usage.” It’s the other way around now. It’s web usage, and maybe a little print.

Q: Do clients hire you for digital projects?

CF: Yes. Ultimately everything will be on a digital platform.

Q: Are there days when there isn’t an assignment and there are ideas that you want to explore?

CF: Of course, that’s the only way to bear those times.

Q: Are you being pulled towards noncommissioned work?

CF: I am being pulled towards trying to create projects for myself. You’re going to back me into this artist thing, I know.

Q: I usually end where I start.

CF: Part of it is trying to invent some things that I can sell. I don’t want to change my style. But I do have some more ideas, and so I’m always trying things in my sketchbooks. I got called to jury duty, and I was doing these “opposite” silhouettes waiting for jury duty. As you know, I have this other venue—children’s books. That’s where I jump to when I’m not doing a commissioned assignment, because I always have a book that’s supposed to be getting done—or I’m developing.

Q: What have you worked on recently?

CF: I did a large design/illustration project for Goodwill, which involved designing their fleet of 50 trucks for the Bay Area. Did a logo for a fine knife maker named Wilburn Forge. I’m wrapping up a new kid’s book about these animals that are contagiously grumpy on the bus. Kind of like riding Muni I suppose, or any other bus in America. It’s full of good lessons for kids and parents and maybe a few laughs on the way.

Oh, and I’m designing a book titled Sketchy that catalogs a lot of my sketches over the past 15 years that will parallel a show of sketches and process at the Savannah School of Art and Design this fall. It's a collaboration with Mohawk Fine Papers and Xerox. It's almost 200 pages and 30 different covers! I’m in the throes of finishing production on both due out in a few weeks. I better get back to work.


For more information:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Welcome to Frazierville: A Conversation with Illustrator and Author Craig Frazier

Craig Frazier: Part One

photo by Kirk Citron

Craig Frazier is an illustrator. Most of his work is by commission. But when you look at his collected work, it feels like the oeuvre of an observant illustrator/writer/artist. You enter what a friend of his calls “Frazierville.” I met Craig at a benefit for Oxbow School and decided immediately that I wanted to find out more about his process. Although I interviewed him shortly thereafter, it took me a while to edit the transcript. But since his work is timeless, I hope the delay isn’t a bad thing. He has a new book coming out entitled “Sketchy.”

Q: I want to talk about this continuum from graphic design—which is generally perceived as a commercial craft—to something called illustration—which is sort of commercial—to art. I interviewed Maira Kalman recently, and she said that she does not call herself an artist. She calls herself an illustrator. In order to work, she needs an assignment.

Craig Frazier: I am not a fine artist; I’m in total agreement with Maira.

Q: But what are you doing up in your studio at Sea Ranch?

CF: I’m upstairs doing the same work I do in my Mill Valley studio (though under very serene conditions), and my wife is downstairs making copperplate etchings. Now, that’s not to say that she won’t let me down there to make prints, but it’s really her studio where she makes her art. I’m a complete novice at printmaking—she, on the other hand, knows what she is doing. I learned about printmaking four years ago up at Oxbow during their summer program. Suz had been doing it for four or five years previous to that.

Copperplate etching is very humbling. I understand the beginning, middle, and end of all my illustration processes, but printmaking is a process that has a mind of its own—and also a beautiful mind if you want to get on board with it and let it take you somewhere. I’m not used to doing that. I’m used to being in charge. And copperplates don’t let you be in charge. The press is going to do what it’s got to do, and the paper’s going to do whatever it wants to do. You might rein that in a little bit, but you better be prepared to accept some errors and some turns in the road. It was in my fourth year that I finally started to surrender to it, and accept mistakes, and appreciate them, and say, “This is OK”—and quit drawing pictures like I do as an illustrator.

The difference between a designer or an illustrator and a fine artist is that a designer or an illustrator has an assignment, and they are supposed to be communicating; they are supposed to be solving a problem for a client within a set of parameters and objectives. That is the job, and the job isn’t done until you’ve done that, and the measure of that job is how well or poorly it communicates.

That’s measurable to some degree, whether you’re branding a company or you’re trying to illustrate an article. Fine artists have personal criteria. They do not have a client. In essence, there are no real assignments. They do whatever they want to do, which I think is a tougher assignment than working against a brief or illustrating a story.

Q: Because the whole world is possible?

CF: When do you know when you’re done? When do you know if you’ve done a good job? How do you know if you like it? With an assignment, I look at it and say, “Well, did I satisfy what I was supposed to do for a client? Did they accept it in the end? Did it go to print.” Job over, done.

You don’t have to sell it later on. It doesn’t have to measure up to public opinion. The hard part of being a designer or an illustrator is getting the assignment. Doing it is just the work that you do. But once you’ve got an assignment, it’s pretty much assured you’re going to get paid. A fine artist does something with no assurance that they’re going to get paid. In terms of a job, that’s a brutal existence. Most of us who have grown up in the working class—we like to get paid for what we do.

I’ve tried to stay clear of using “art” in terms of my definition of what I do. Maybe someday in the end of my life, when these things don’t matter and my income doesn’t matter, I can try to do that. But I think it’s going to be very hard to wring the designer out of me, which is going to make it really hard to be a fine artist, because I am assignment-oriented. The other thing is that I’m really oriented toward communicating. You can always tell an illustrator who has tried to leave that profession to become a fine artist, because you see pictures that look like something. They tend to be expressive.

So in your continuum—the three stages of my career that you were asking about—we’ll go back to the design one. When I was in college, I was studying to be a graphic designer. What I knew about being a graphic designer was that it involved some kind of applied art. I’d drawn all my life, so I thought, maybe I could make a living here.

Q: Where did you go to school?

CF: I went to Chico State, not a fancy art school. I just went up there to go to college and didn’t know what I was going to study.

Q: Did you grow up in the Bay Area?

CF: I was living in Livermore at the time.

Q: So Chico looked good?

CF: Yeah, really good. Unlike my own kids, I chose a college that was pretty close to the town I was living in. I went 200 miles north because many of my friends went there.

In my third year, my mom said, “Hey, have you heard about this thing, graphic design? You’re always drawing.” “No, never even heard of it.” “Well, that’s how logos get made. That’s how brochures are made.” So I took my first class and just fell in love with it. There was an assignment, and it was like something I was trying to fix. My dad was a mechanical engineer in the Air Force, and the one thing that he taught me was how to fix things. I worked on all my bikes, worked on all my cars, and I learned how to fix stuff. He was a designer and designed things he couldn’t really talk about—because he worked for the Department of Defense.

He was always drawing on envelopes and figuring stuff out, and so I probably got a little bit of that genetically, and then it was also just training. It’s like, “Hey, if it’s broken, Craig, we’re not buying a new one. We’re gonna fix it.” If you’re Scottish, you fix, don’t replace!

I declared a graphic design major, and in my second year in the program, I took my first illustration course.

After taking a number of illustration classes, I thought, “I want to be an illustrator. That’s really what I want to do.” I left school with an illustration portfolio. The first two people who looked at my portfolio said, “You shouldn’t be an illustrator. You should be a designer. I said, “Okay.” So I went to Palo Alto. This is 1980. I landed a job right away and was really lucky. Silicon Valley was just starting.

Q: At a graphic design firm?

CF: Yes. I walked in, and the owner said, “We have a position.” They had just started the firm. “The reason I’m going to hire you is because you can draw.” Because in those days, long before we had computers and long before people were swiping stock photos and images, you always drew your prototype designs.

So I became a graphic designer, and learned production, went through the mentoring program. Within two years, I started my own firm, in San Francisco.

Q: Did you have a client?

CF: It was a management consulting firm that launched us. That set us off, and we had an office on Union Square, right across from Neiman Marcus. I started getting work with an ad agency—Saatchi & Saatchi—started to be kind of a ghost designer for them. We eventually moved off to South of Market.

By then Silicon Valley had burst open, and I was driving all the time to Palo Alto or farther to do work for tech companies. I also had the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet as clients. Then we also started doing a lot of work for Steelcase. That got me into the furniture business, and lead to doing work with Herman Miller and with Agnes Bourne.

That was really great work. It was fun because it was design-oriented, and they were smart people. If I could go back to that, I probably would. That was a nice niche. Then we got a lot of technology work. We had this client, Trimble Navigation, which is still around. They were the founders of GPS technology, which was originally developed for the nautical industry. You could get a GPS unit for $3,000. Now it’s on your phone. [Laughter] We took that company public and helped popularize GPS technology.

I was learning how to impact companies and be a part of their communication and help them grow. I was spending most of my time doing proposals, and I’d come back and I’d design at night—and I had four or five employees. But control freak that I am, I always designed everything. I would do sketches, thumbnails, turn them over to an assistant, and she would put it together. I would direct all the photo shoots, and the writing, and do all the selling. I experimented with getting people to help sell for me. It was tough, and that never worked out. They can’t do it. They didn’t care about the same things that I did.

Steelcase Ad

Trimble Ad

Q: It’s got to be the professional. When I talk to architects, I’m always saying, “If you can’t do this, then it’s not gonna work.” Because it comes down to the architect connecting with the client.

CF: Yeah. You’ve got to convince somebody to trust you. Whether they understand what you’re doing or not, they’re going to have to trust you. I kept thinking, “How do I get out of this business? I can’t stand it.” We were doing great work, and had a good reputation, won AIGA Awards and all that stuff. My kids were little, and I’d just come home—I was so tired and cranky, because I was selling all the time. If you have any anxiety—and I do—you go into a meeting and you think, “God, this is going to go one of two ways. It’s going to go really good or it’s going to go really bad.” It never kind of went in between. It’s like, this could explode if the wrong person came in the room.

I remember thinking, “How do I get out of this?” I told my wife, “I’d sure love to be an illustrator. I’d love to work in some little office overlooking a downtown somewhere.” What would that be like, being an illustrator, where you’re just drawing by yourself? You don’t have to do these meetings. You don’t have to put on a suit and tie. So I learned a little more about illustration and who illustrators were. I knew who Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast were, and I had hired a few illustrators.

I was getting burned out in design. I thought, “I need something more personal here.” In those days, with graphic design, you were supposed to be stylistically neutral. You were not supposed to assert a point of view. You could have a point of view about the way you treated a page, but that company’s identity was their identity, not your identity, not your style.

Q: You weren’t really even interpreting it very much, were you?

CF: No. Of course, everybody ends up having their own kind of a thing. Some people are very ornate, and some people only use Helvetica, but you’re supposed to give a client a choice: “We can make things very Swiss, or we can use Garamond.” Those decisions are not just about type, but a company’s image. You owe that to them to try to decide where they land in that spectrum. I always felt like I couldn’t impose myself. Take someone like Michael Vanderbyl, who is a brilliant design stylist, in my opinion. He has marketed his style to companies—much like an illustrator does.

Q: You want it or you don’t.

CF: Exactly. I wasn’t that way as a designer. I look back, and I think I had a great career and did good work. But I didn’t feel that strongly about graphic design. I thought, “Well, how can I get out of this?” I wanted to relieve that stress. The other really important thing was I observed was that whenever we were going to do an annual report, we would hire a photographer, and he would get a lot of the money and the recognition.

I thought, “I want that part of it,” because, in part, I had to sell him. He didn’t have to go to the meetings, I did. “I want to be in those shoes. I want to be sitting in my studio, making my stuff, and people are out there selling me.” So I said, “I’m going to take a swing at this.” And I started doing some drawings in my own projects.

Q: It was for annual reports?

CF: Yes. One was for the Energy Foundation in San Francisco. Another one was for Symantec. And another one was for Oracle. I didn’t tell them who was doing the illustrations.


Energy Foundation

Q: But you put forward the idea that you would do it with illustrations rather than photos?

CF: Exactly. Nobody in the west did that. I was testing the water to see if I could start to make some work. I wanted to eventually get out of the design part of the equation.

So I made a little 16-page booklet of some of my illustrations. Some of it had been published, and some of it was unpublished. I sent out a thousand across the country to designers and to magazines. And the phone began to ring.

Q: Was it a self-published little book?

CF: It cost me $5,000. I got a large project in town for Pac Bell—one of the phone companies. I said, “This is working.” Then I got a cover for Time magazine. Then I got an Atlantic Monthly cover.

So I decided to close the shop down. I felt it could work. It took nine months to make that full transition.

I wrote a letter to my friends in the design community. I said, “Look, no midlife crisis, no divorce, no illness, just changing what I’m doing—no problems here, okay.” I said, “I will be illustrating quietly above Peet’s Coffee in Mill Valley.” It was an enormous relief, to make the change. I really wasn’t that worried about whether it was going to work. I told my wife, “I’m going to make less money.” And she was behind me, because apparently I was pretty cranky at that point! The pressure was clearly killing me.

Just before I closed up shop, one of the first things I did was the Mill Valley Film Festival poster, which was a breakthrough for me. I was asked to do it. I thought, “Okay you’ve got to have a style, Craig, and you’ve got to get known for it.” That’s the name of the game in illustration. It’s all style.

“I’m going to do this graphic thing,” I told myself, because that’s something I could do. I couldn’t paint—still don’t paint. I was learning how to communicate and how to get an idea inside of an illustration—a singular idea.

I asked myself, “What’s the one notion going on here? How pared down can we get it?” For the Mill Valley Film Festival poster, for instance, I put strips of film over Adam and Eve’s privates. That’s the joke. That’s the whole thing. When I started to get a few of those projects under my belt, I started to understand myself—that that’s what was interesting to me—the tone of that joke, how loud, how quiet—and the timing of it. There is timing on paper, believe it or not.

Q: How many sketches do you show a client?

CF: I show them two or three.

Q: If the client is really sweet.

CF: As a designer, I thought much more absolutely about solutions than now. That was just naiveté. But I liberated myself from that by realizing, “Hey, there’s a bunch of ideas.” It doesn’t mean that you show everything, but what if you have two ideas? What if you have three? We all love the privilege of choice.

But with options come conditions. “Here are the rules. I will give you three sketches for every illustration, but there’s no mixing or matching, and you have to pick one. The actual representation of things is not open for discussion. I’m not making the head bigger. I’m not putting eyes on it. You see what my work looks like, and that’s what it is.” I didn’t want clients directing the style I was trying to create—and they probably would if I asked them.

I submit them the same way I do today. I scan them, but they are just black and white, no tone, no color, because the idea is there and they can see it. They can see how I color. There isn’t any discussion about color, because that’s highly subjective. They have to trust me. But for every three sketches I’d show them, I would do a dozen of my own.

In Part Two, Craig talks more about his process.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Postcard from Nassau

Paradise Lost

When you fly over Nassau, just before you land, you see the most spectacular water. Beautifully clear and a tempting assortment of blue and aqua colors. You only need to swim a short distance offshore in calm warm waters to see schools of fish just beneath the surface. Paradise awaits.

The airport has been recently renovated and lines are short. But there is also the sticky residue of a long history of colonialism. All kinds of colonialism have taken place there, including Americans setting up a plantation economy. The Brits had the longest run. While it is an independent commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth is still its reigning monarch. It appears that the future colonialists may turn out to be Chinese.

There are 700 islands that make up the Bahamas. But Nassau is where most Bahamians live and where most tourists visit. Although it is home to thousands of hotel rooms (concentrated in two areas) and hundreds of cruise ships, Nassau is not a place of great efficiency. Fairly soon after arriving, you realize everything is on “island time.” Online maps don’t work, and many buildings are in a state of decay. Humid weather and storms take their toll. Only the wealthy can afford constant maintenance.

We stayed in a hotel that was most recently a Sheraton. It is now part of the Meliá chain. Nobody cared how long the check-in line was, and nobody was in any hurry to speed up the process. When the client (that word has little meaning there) next to me was hysterical about swapping a room, I thought the manager was going to slap her instead of trying to resolve the problem quietly out of earshot.

Although there was a grand driveway for valet parking, it wasn’t used, and guests had to park their cars at some distance in a temporary lot, which required you to cross a vehicular path. Never mind the fact that the concrete walkways and the plaster around the pool were spalling. While the air conditioner in our room worked fine, there was no HVAC going in the glazed single-loaded corridor. And it was being repainted with all sorts of toxic paint and plaster dust on the carpet. The funniest moment was when my travel companion opened our room door and the housepainter fell in.

Nobody pours a full glass of wine, taxi drivers swindle you, and the tourists seem willing to endure it all for the pretty warm water and the modest room rates at the Meliá (compared to the Disneyesque fantasy island known as Atlantis). Atlantis is a monstrosity resort built by a South African and run by Starwood. If you lose a whole world, you can build it any way you want later.… The Atlantis is probably the largest employer of Bahamians in Nassau. Many people think it is the Bahamas, as they arrive at the airport and are shuttled to the resort and never leave. We did not venture there.

Next door to our rundown former Sheraton was the latest transformation of this quiet island. The newly found/built paradise is called Baha Mar. While they will have a zillion rooms, lots of pools, golf courses, and casinos, they are not going to be quite as fantasy-based as Atlantis. One ingenious design touch at the Meliá was that the hotel frosted the glazing in our corridor so we couldn’t see the construction zone next door. Perhaps it will be a surprise when it opens.

Apparently, the Chinese developers of Baha Mar have created a nature preserve across the street, and other public amenities. This is the reason there is a new road from the airport and a new airport. What is curious is that the construction site is almost entirely Chinese. The sign over the gate is in Chinese, and the construction workers are Chinese. My friend said that the developers said there were not enough trained workers in the Bahamas. No doubt the cost of labor might have something to do with it?

We also heard that the target audience is the newly wealthy formerly Communist Chinese. Baha Mar absorbed an earlier Wyndham development that was also out of scale with the early low-rises on beautiful Cable Beach. When it opens later this year (if you believe the banners), a new kind of colonialism will set in with a new set of tourists. I am not sure I will return to witness it.

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