Sunday 10 June 2012

Saul Bass A Life In Film and Design

Saul In The Mind

Saul Bass A Life In Film and Design
Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham
Laurence King Publishing. 
ISBN: 1856697525

Okay... this is another one of those articles which I’ve been putting off for a while because I am just in awe of the subject of the review.

Saul Bass is one of my heroes.

He’s right up there, for me, with Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Philip K. Dick, Lester Dent, Kate Bush, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. 

And once, a long time ago in the troubled decade known mostly as “the 1980s”, I saw him give a two or three hour live show... and it was amazing.

I’d known his work before that of course. Everybody has come into contact, whether they know it or not, with some of his famous graphic design campaigns or logos. I personally knew I loved the title sequences he designed for Hitchcock’s Psycho and North By Northwest... so when I won one of only two free tickets from my College to go to a live lecture at the ICOGRADA (International Council of Graphic Design Associations) show in London one morning, I was really curious as to why it was taking place in the ODEON cinema in Leicester Square and then, when I found out it was Saul Bass talking about his career (along with various breaks for projected footage of his works), I was over the moon.

I’d already seen, at that point, his one commercially released feature film, the sinister and unnerving Phase IV (reviewed here) and so I knew I was going to be in for one of the best experiences of my life. I wasn’t wrong. I discovered then, as the lecture commenced, a whole heap of the logos, symbols and design campaigns that Saul Bass had worked on. 

The famous distillation of the Bell Telephone symbol... a blue bell in a little circle? That was Bass. 

That block colour version of the Quaker Oats guy that tagged their cereals and products for goodness knows how many decades? That was Bass.

That brilliant rendition of the old Warner Brothers logo that stripped the W right back to three, diagonally set curved stripes within a block lozenge shape? You remember that one, right? Pure Bass!

The famous airline liveries, the food lines, the company letterheads and product ranges. He very modestly and hurriedly skipped through it all at a rate of knotts during his lecture and, most endearingly, the guy was funny. He really knew how to entertain an audience. Seriously, he had me and the rest of the packed out cinema (and it was a big cinema back then, before it became a multiplex, I believe) laughing out loud at some of his brilliant stories.

And of course, there were the title sequences he’d designed for movies, some of which he projected for us (I loved his little story about how they couldn’t get the cats to fight over the titles of Walk On The Wild Side and so ended up doing everything through the juxtaposition of the edited shots)and the sequences in movies that he’d directed instead of the actual director, like the shower scene from Psycho and the racing sequences from Grand Prix (another great anecdote he told there about how panicked and unprepared he felt on his first day of shooting and the way he distracted the cast and crew to give him time to prepare was just so great to hear). Plus he showed us some of his much lauded documentary/information films... Why Man Creates. 

It was a truly entertaining session and, as importantly, it was an inspiration to me as a graphic designer to continue to imagine and create and think my way around to solutions in the most appropriate, but not always the most obvious, manner. Of course, all that inspiration was beaten out of me not very long after I started actually working as a graphic designer but, hey, at least I was aspiring to be like my hero, even if my work was destined to be whittled down to nothing by a “design-by-committee” attitude towards the job.

It’s always been a bit hard to come by any books on the work of Saul Bass. When I was in my next College, working on my degree, they had the one book on him that it was possible to get... I think the only book ever published on him which included his flat design work before now. It was a thin, soft back volume with some good samples of his work and it was called Saul Bass And Associates. However, it may have been the only book on him but it was written and printed in Japanese so... apart from the gorgeous samples there wasn’t much help on any biographical information at the time (I’ve never been good at languages).

Then, in 2004 at the Design Museum in London, they had what was supposed to be a major retrospective of Saul Bass’ work. To be honest, it wasn’t all that. I don’t think anyone could call it in any way an extensive collection of his work and I remember feeling a teensy bit disappointed by it.  "Less" definitely wasn’t "more" in this case but, there were some nice pieces on display there, including some rather wonderful film promo letterheads that I’d not seen before. 

An extra kick in the teeth, though, was that there was hardly anything “Bass” in the museum shop at all. Practically nothing in fact (not even a catalogue if I remember correctly). Of course, there were no books available on the designer in the shop (not even the chance to purchase that old Japanese edition to call my own) but there was... a strange thing. A promise of a book. 

There was a flyer promoting a massive book project of Saul’s work which was going to come in at something like a three figured retail price. The object of the flyer was to get people to send off a deposit on the price of the book so the production could be completed more quickly. I didn’t send my money in but I was licking my chops at the prospect of saving my money up for a book on “the master” for the estimated publication date in 2005. 

Needless to say the book never, to my knowledge, materialised.

Now I don’t know if this book, Saul Bass: A Life In Film and Design, started off as that other intended publication, but what I do know is this... it’s the only book to date which covers Bass in any great detail and it’s a labour of love for the writers and designers on the project, one of whom is his daughter Jennifer. 

It’s not just the “only real book” on the market celebrating Bass though... it’s also a great book. 

Really great. 

Absolutely filled to the brim with facts and many, many anecdotes (some of them just as I remember from Saul’s own mouth when I heard him tell them at the ICOGRADA all those decades ago). You get a real sense of the man and his work from those who knew and loved him and also, of course, absolutely gazillions of examples of his beautiful work, attractively reproduced in full colour.

The presented work is really useful too because, although it doesn’t go out of its way to highlight all the instances, you can work out where he re-used bits of old projects and reworked them for other jobs. Probably not consciously, is my guess, since he always approached his work with nothing but dedication and never short changed anyone. However, you can see the influences if you flick forward and back from the vast mountains of his output represented in this book. The way an old logo or letterhead, for example, may turn up as a similar element for his animated titles to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or some such, is always interesting to see. Perhaps it’s simply the recognition of a stylistic continuity in his work over the years. Even so, it’s very interesting.

Another great thing about this book is that it doesn’t fail to make known the tremendous importance and design input of his wife, Elaine. Even before they started getting billing as Saul & Elaine Bass, they were a very tight collaborative team and this book makes no bones about the strength of her creative input into Saul’s work. This is something that’s quite important as they were pretty much a team for many decades and it’s another reason why this book is worth its considerable weight in a shiny, metallic substance.

Another thing it brings to light is, un-equivocally the last word about that in/famous shower scene in Psycho. Saul designed and directed it. Sure Hitchcock was on the set but my understanding is that he wasn’t doing too much directing at the time. I was all down to Mr. Bass when it came to it (my understanding is that Hitchcock was generally disappointed in Psycho and was going to cut it down to less than an hour in length for his TV show until he heard Bernard Herrmann’s influential score... suddenly Hitchcock’s publicity brain leapt into action).

Stuff like this definitively revealed is exactly what every fan of this amazing graphic designer’s work want’s to read and there were a few revelations on the directing front which are real jaw droppers. There’s also some very interesting stories about how he dealt with certain clients and dug his heels in on some issues. I wish his techniques would work for me where I do my job.

And there’s probably not too much more I can say about this book, I guess. It’s both a truly excellent read and a beautiful book to own and leave lying around so people can discover this talented designer for themselves. If you’re already a fan of his work, be it his flat art, his title sequences or his direction, you will not want to miss out on reading what is, to date, the most definitive and thorough, if not the only, real book on Bass. A truly epic tome you’ll want to pour through again and again... take a walk on the wild side and give it a go.


  1. Ack I really, really want this book! I asked for it for christmas last year but didn't get it. Might give it another try this year, see if my parents are feeling generous. I love his work and it would be so great to have a comprehensive study of his career. Glad to hear his wife's input is given focus as well!

    Awesome write-up. It's cool you got to see Bass give a talk, it sounds wonderful!

    1. Hi there.

      She's not the main focus but they do keep making the point they were very much a team, which is a good thing.

      Yeah. Time is funny. I can barely remember it after nearly 30 years, just the odd anecdote or two... but it was one of those experiences which makes you try to be something better than yourself, you know?

      Hope you get the book.

      Thanks very much for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  2. Hi There,
    I was at that same lecture… truly amazing. Do you remember the year? I can't find any reference to it anywhere. I've been in touch with ICOGRADA but still waiting to hear back.


    1. Hi there anonymous,

      No. I can't remember the exact year but I'm guessing late 1980s?

      Thanks for reading.