There are few graphic designers who are as influential as Saul Bass. A newly compiled collection of his work, the Saul Bass Archive, proves this in particular, consisting of a multitude of rarities from the designer’s personal collection; from original silkscreen posters to less well-known, non-film posters. The graphic design legend is known for his exemplary film poster design, creating the seminal poster work for The Shining, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and The Man with the Golden Arm. By the turn of the century, the typical film poster of two film stars’ heads collaged together at different angles became a tiresome aesthetic. Pioneering designers like Saul Bass offered a revolutionary, illustrative alternative to Hollywood’s blockbusters, stripping back the visuals into a concise artwork. Saul famously described the design process as “thinking made visible”, emphasising the conceptual nature of design rather than the contractual demands of movie stars and production studios.
Matthew McCarthy started The Saul Bass Archive three years ago with a call from Jennifer Bass; Saul’s daughter. Having worked at LA’s Film/Art Gallery for a number of years, Matthew was invited to catalogue Saul’s remaining items in his office with the goal of exhibiting the work for the public. In conversation with It’s Nice That, Matthew relays how he “could write a book” on the subject of Saul Bass’ contribution to film poster design. On the universality of Saul’s work, the archivist explains: “I think the timelessness of the work comes down to an ability to distill a film’s story, message and atmosphere into a single, powerful image.”
In a book Jennifer Bass co-authored with Pat Kirkham titled Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, Saul’s methodical creative process is made apparent through the numerous drafts where the designer explores the semiotic vernacular of an idea. Saul’s visually intense poster designs operate on two levels, “they ‘sell’ the film as well as function as a timeless work of art”, says Matthew. The posters are “uncluttered with images of movie stars and devoid of the extraneous, hard-selling text and taglines” that commercial movie posters usually include. Saul’s designs remained “unaffected by the prevailing trends in arts commerce of the time” which meant that his designs were often unused or severely altered by the film’s marketing teams. Today however, Saul’s original body of work is universally appreciated as ground-breaking graphic design that appeals not only to design buffs, but also to the general public.
The Saul Bass Archive is also home to the original silkscreen print for the 1966 film Seconds directed by a friend of Saul’s, John Frankenheimer. Saul also provides a beautifully disorienting title sequence for the film but unfortunately, the poster design was rejected by the studio in favour of a more traditional design. The film follows the physical transformation of the protagonist who is given a new identity and life with “disastrous results”. Saul skilfully depicts this concept through a deconstructed graphic cube that imprints the silhouette of the protagonist across two sides, echoing the story of transformation. Bold, bright red type pops out of monochrome imagery with an effect of stark futurism. The Seconds poster is a brilliant example of Saul’s design confidence to effortlessly distill the whole story of a film, into a single image that consists of only two colours and minimal visual elements. In the pre-digital era, Saul’s designs conduct graphic statements that emphasise the beauty of hand drawn graphic design which is further implied through the unique process silkscreen printing meaning each print has its own textural idiosyncrasies.
In another poster for the 1977 film, Bass on Titles, Saul “combines his love of cinema, film and movies with his love of design”, says Matthew. The poster design sees the original film of Saul’s title sequence frame by frame in strips running down the poster. The fluorescent colours nuance together in the beautiful 21” x 31” poster, expressing “the evolution of the title sequence and its thematic relevance to how they open and close great movies which has inspired an entire generation of film makers”. The hand drawn type adds an element of personalisation to the otherwise rigid design that adheres to the structure of the grid, further demonstrating Saul’s ability to add intimacy to design for the masses.
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