Friday, May 8, 2020

The 100th Birthday of Saul Bass

It was 100 years ago today that graphic designer Saul Bass was born in the Bronx, New York. He become internationally famous for his title sequences for movies, although he also designed movie posters and corporate logos. To this day he is one of the few title sequence designers whose name may be recognizable to the average person. Perhaps more than any other graphic designer, he revolutionized the title sequences in movies.

Saul Bass graduated from James Monroe High School in the Bronx. He studied at the Art Students League in Manhattan for a time before taking night classes at Brooklyn College. There he studied under painter, photographer, and designer György Kepes. Mr. Bass then apprenticed at Manhattan design firms. Chafing under the constraints of the design firms, Sam Bass moved to Los Angeles in 1947 and opened his own studio.

Saul Bass soon found himself creating print advertisements and posters for the Hollywood studios. Among his earliest work in movie posters was the poster for Champion (1949). In may ways it was a stark contrast to other movie posters of the time. It combined the style of American pulp magazine covers with European minimalism. Over the years Saul Bass would create several movie posters, many of which utilized his "cut paper," minimalist style. Among his movie posters were posters for such films as Carmen Jones (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Love in the Afternoon (1957), Bonjour tristesse (1958), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), One, Two, Three (1961), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), and The Shining (1980).

It was Saul Bass's work in movie posters that would lead to his work in title sequences. Otto Preminger was so taken with Saul Bass's poster for Carmen Jones that he asked him to design the movie's title sequence as well. The title sequence for Carmen Jones launched Saul Bass on a career in title design that would last for over forty years. Through the years he designed some of the most recognizable and lauded title sequences of all time, including the titles sequences for such movies as The Man with a Golden Arm (1955), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), Vertigo (1958), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), North by Northwest (1960),Psycho (1960), Spartacus (1960), Ocean's 11 (1960), West Side Story (1961), It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), In Harm's Way (1965), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Seconds (1966), Such Good Friends (1971), Broadcast News (1987), Goodfellas (1990), and The Age of Innocence (1993). In addition to his work in film, Mr. Bass also designed the title sequence for the television series Alcoa Premiere.

Saul Bass's title sequences were truly revolutionary. Prior to Saul Bass, title sequences of films often tended to be static, with a few exceptions Saul Bass's title sequences included movement. He utilized both animation and kinetic typography. And while many of his title sequences bore the "cut paper," minimalist style of his early movie posters, they could as often include sophisticated artwork or photography. Indeed, the title sequences for The Man with the Golden Arm, West Side Story, and Seconds are all recognizably from the same artist, and yet they are quite different from each other save in that all of them use good deal of movement.

Saul Bass's work in title sequences would also lead to him becoming a filmmaker of his own accord. He was hired as a "visual consultant" or "pictorial consultant" for the films Spartacus (1960), Psycho (1960), West Side Story (1961), and Grand Prix (1966). Mr. Bass also directed the short films "The Searching Eye," "From Here to There," "Why Man Creates," "Notes on Popular Subjects," "The Solar Film," and "Quest." He directed one feature film, the sci-fi/horror movie Phase IV (1974).

While Saul Bass is best known for his work related to film, he also did a good deal of work in corporate design. Some of the best known corporate logos were created by Sam Bass. Among them are such logos as Lawry's Foods (1959), Fuller Paints (1962), Alcoa (1963), Wesson Oil (1964), Dixie (1969), Bell Telephone (1969), United Way (1972), Warner Communications (1974), Girl Scouts of the USA (1978), Minolta (1981), AT&T (1983), General Foods (1984), and J. Paul Getty Trust (1993). Saul Bass's corporate logos are not only known for their recognizability, but their longevity. In 2011 web designer Christian Annyas did a study of the logos designed by Saul Bass and discovered their average lifespan was 34 years. Often when a Saul Bass designed logo ceased to be used, it was simply because of the demise of a corporation or a merger.

Saul Bass also designed some album covers. The 1956 album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems Of Color  featured a cover designed by Mr. Bass. Saul Bass also designed the album covers for Stomu Yamash'ta's 1973 album Freedom is Frightening and 1984 album Sea and Sky, and The Smithereens' 1991 album Blow Up.

Saul Bass would have an immediate impact on title sequences in the Fifties and Sixties. The impact of Saul Bass's title sequences can even be seen in more recent films, such as Monsters Inc. (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Mission: Impossible--Ghost Protocol (2011). The influence of Saul Bass is obvious in the title sequence of the TV series Mad Men. Various movie posters have also been influenced by Saul Bass's work, including posters for Burn After Reading (2008) and  Precious (2009). Saul Bass's influence on graphic design is pervasive, and can be seen in everything from movie posters to album covers.

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that Saul Bass has had on graphic design. He took both movie posters and title sequences from the early 20th Century to the mid-20th Century. And while Saul Bass's work is apt to make most people think of the Fifties and Sixties, there is a timeless quality to them. His use of symbolism, basic geometric shapes, and minimalism allows his work to be as appreciated in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th Century. Saul Bass revolutionized movie posters and raised the movie title sequence to an artform.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've long ranked Saul Bass among the best artists of the 20th century, every bit as impactful as Pablo Picasso. If you've not watche his short, "Why Man Creates, I'd highly recommend it.