Louise Sandhaus explores California graphic design in the 20th century in her book Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots.

What Makes California’s Graphic Design So Distinct?

What Makes California’s Graphic Design So Distinct?

The Eye
Slate’s design blog.
Feb. 3 2015 1:04 PM

How Earthquakes, Consumerism, and Social Upheaval Drive California’s Offbeat Design Legacy

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Nicolas Sidjakov’s symbol for Continental Airlines's “Celebration” ad campaign, late 1960s. Sidjakov employs bright color and groovy typographic stylization to express the hipness and glamour of air travel at the time.

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

The recently published Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires, and Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986, edited and designed by Louise Sandhaus, is a spirited, subjective, willfully undefinitive book that highlights some 250 examples of groundbreaking, offbeat 20th-century design from the Golden State.

In the book’s introduction, Sandhaus writes that California’s graphic design hasn’t received much attention, despite a body of work that “confirms all the stereotypes and expectations of a freewheeling West Coast culture where anything goes and everyone does her or his own thing.”

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John Van Hamersveld was still a student in 1964 when he was paid $150 to design a poster for his friend Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing documentary, The Endless Summer. “If there is a single popular image of California graphic design, this must be it,” Sandhaus writes.

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

So what makes design Californian?

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Sandhaus theorizes that California’s fluidity and sense of humor drives its design. “California has no terra firma—earthquakes, mudslides, fires, and the occasional civil uprising cause incessant upheaval and change,” she writes. Home to entertainment and technology industries and often defined by its consumerism, California “is a place of boundless reinvention and innovation … a place of great creativity, freedom, and social consciousness, where the status quo undergoes constant renovation. Without solid ground, tradition lacks secure footing; old rules go out the door and new motivations rush in, resulting in new and vibrant forms.”

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The psychedelic poster artist with the most formal training, Victor Moscoso, studied art at Yale with legendary colorist Josef Albers. Neon Rose #12—titled with a number like all the company’s posters—advertised an event featuring the Chambers Brothers. It remains Neon Rose’s most popular image.

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

Sandhaus, an award-winning designer and a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, is careful to point out that she is not a design scholar and that her book is not a comprehensive survey of California’s design history. It’s less a definitive guide, she says, than “a dinner party that serves only desserts. …  The sugary offerings within these pages range from the obvious to the obscure. This is a heavily curated selection based on little more than the way the heart quickens when the eye encounters something radiant, wonderful, and new.”

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Prolific LP record cover designers Bill Pate and Gene Howard’s The Swingin' Eye!!!!!!!! album cover, for Si Zentner and His Orchestra, 1960.

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

The vibrantly designed book explores the transformation of European traditions in California; the culture of screen graphics, from film titles to video games; the influential women who shaped 20th-century design in California; and 1960s California graphic design.

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This image for presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy marked a rare foray into politics and poster making for Sätty (Wilfred Podreich). The 1968 Democratic candidate’s eyes seem to merge with the dove, a design move that reflects the politician’s anti-war platform amid the heated rhetoric and violence of Vietnam.

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

“In the popular imagination, California graphic design of the sixties tends to conjure visions of posters, and posters of a very specific kind: those with Art Nouveau–inspired lettering and undulating colors that would come alive when viewed under the influence of marijuana, acid, or ’shrooms,” Sandhaus writes.

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Earl Newman’s Hiroshima, 1966. “The split-fountain rainbow so associated with sixties graphics suggests radiation and forms a backdrop for flowers, a primary symbol of the peace movement,” Sandhaus writes, making the poster “an appealing yet tense recollection of the consequences of politically sanctioned violence.”

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

But she points out that those familiar images are only part of the story.

Variety would be the defining word for sixties California graphics,” she writes. The graphics were characterized by a range of colors, flavors, and voices, including Beats, hippies, and political activists. “If there was a common theme, be it conscious, subconscious, or unconscious, it lies someplace within the desire and commitment to remake the look of the world.”

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“Featuring the first photograph of our planet,” Sandhaus writes, this 1970 Whole Earth Catalog cover “telegraphed hopes for a vast, interconnected audience.”

Courtesy of Metropolis Books

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.