Bass, Saul

SAUL BASS (1929-2006)

The 1950s in America are widely regarded as an era of dull conformity, but in fact this was a period of considerable liveliness and innovation. The books that fueled the revolution of the 1960's – The Organization Man, The Power Elite, The Hidden Persuaders, The Affluent Society – appeared in this decade, as did Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On The Road. In the visual arts the Modern Movement achieved serious popular acceptance, spreading out from the galleries into everyday life through the work of graphic designers and the power of Madison Avenue. Among the most notable of the these designers was the prolific Saul Bass, who became famous, influential and a source of universal acclaim through what was essentially a sideline: His groundbreaking credit titles and posters for Hollywood movies, starting in 1954 with Otto Preminger's Carmen Jones. During his 40-year career Bass worked for some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, and Martin Scorsese. He became well-known in the film industry after creating the title sequence for Otto Preminger’s The Man With The Golden Arm in 1955. For Alfred Hitchcock, Bass designed effective and memorable title sequences and movie posters, inventing a new type of kinetic typography for North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho.

Bass was born in the largely Jewish New York borough of the Bronx in 1920 to working-class Russian-Jewish immigrants, who encouraged his early interest in and flair for the arts. Growing up in the Great Depression, he was forced to leave school at 16 to work in an advertising agency, attending art classes in the evening. One of his early assignments was churning out posters for Warner Brothers movies; 36 years later he designed the new worldwide logo for Warner Communications. His most decisive influence came in 1944, when the great Hungarian émigré designer, theorist and Bauhaus devotee György Kepes, then teaching in Brooklyn, became his mentor. Kepes focused Bass's ideas about modernism, psychology and the social responsibility of designers. He was to become one of the most articulate members of his profession, a man who did pro bono work for organizations such as the Girl Scouts of America, Human Rights Watch and the Special Olympics, and was later to say:

"The ideal trademark is one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable. Trademarks are usually metaphors of one kind or another. And are, in a certain sense, thinking made visible."  — SAUL BASS

In 1946 Bass was invited to join a major advertising agency in Los Angeles whose accounts included TWA and Paramount. His career rapidly took off in a city that was emerging as a vital centre of modernism in architecture and design, awash with rich clients and sponsors. Soon he was doing chevrons for aircraft tails, posters for Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux, covers for Art & Architecture and LP sleeves such as the classic Tone Poems of Color for Frank Sinatra. He became a regular participant in conferences on design, expounding his beliefs, orignally inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus, about the way society could be transformed ethically by the aesthetic improvement of the environment. In photographs from the 1950s the cheerfully serious Bass, with his open moon face and horn-rimmed spectacles, looks like his Bronx contempoary, the playwright Neil Simon. He was obviously looking for a more creative outlet for his talents than the lucrative commissions for trademarks, corporate logos, letterheads, TV commercials and packaging for which he was in constant demand.

The answer proved to be film-making: imaginative documentaries, a single feature film (the rarely seen SF picture Phase IV, made in Britain in 1974), and pre-eminently title sequences for other directors' work on which he sometimes received the credit of "visual consultant." Bass also designed some of the most iconic corporate logos in North America, including the original AT&T “bell” logo in 1969, as well as their later “globe” logo in 1983. He also designed Continental Airlines’ 1968 “jetstream” logo and United Airlines’ 1974 “tulip” logo which have become some of the most recognized logos of the era. His hand could be discerned virtually everywhere – opening titles, epilogues, advertising, posters, trailers, the accompanying record sleeves, and as with his other work, he captured summed up and expressed the essence of the picture in resonant images. As his biographers put it: "In all his work Saul said that he 'looked for the simple idea'. But Saul's work in film was about more than just simplicity. His designs shaped complex ideas into radically simple forms that offered audiences a set of clues, a sort of hermeneutic key to deeper meanings under the surface of the movie."

His collaborator was to become his second wife, Elaine, a fellow New Yorker seven years his junior who had sung in an Andrews Sisters-style group with her older sisters before turning to commercial art and relocating to Hollywood. She met Saul around the time he created Saul Bass & Associates in 1956, married him in 1961 and worked with him until his death in 1996. From the mid-60s to the late 1980s, Saul and Elaine moved away from main titles to focus on filmmaking and their children. “Elaine and I feel we are there to serve the film and to approach the task with a sense of responsibility. We saw a lot of pyrotechnics and fun and games and I suppose we lost interest. At the same time, an increasing number of directors now sought to open their own films in ambitious ways rather than hire someone else to do it. Whatever the reasons, the result was Fade Out. We did not worry about it: we had too many other interesting projects to get on with. Equally, because we still loved the process of making titles, we were happy to take it up again when asked." Toward the end of his career, Bass was “rediscovered” by James L. Brooks and Martin Scorsese, who urged the Basses to return to main title design. For Scorsese, they created title sequences for Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino, their last title sequence together. In a sense, all modern opening title sequences that introduce the mood or theme of a film are a legacy of the Basses’ work.

I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares, as opposed to ugly things. That’s my intent. — SAUL BASS

To view Saul Bass works from the Jim Hughes Collection click here