Saul Bass. Before I ever met him, before we worked together, he was a legend in my eyes. His designs, for film titles and company logos and record albums and posters, defined an era. In essence, they found and distilled the poetry of the modern, industrialized world. They gave us a series of crystallized images, expressions of who and where we were and of the future ahead of us. They were images you could dream on. They still are.For instance, I look at Saul’s design for the album Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color, and I’m immediately drawn into a shared sense of the world at that moment, 1956. There was a vision of progress then, of hope, of a newer, better world. And there was an idea that everything could be streamlined, and that we would all benefit. Now, how is the future as we imagined it in 1956 contained in this beautiful album cover design? It’s a series of rectangular color bars (resembling the Cuisenaire rods they used to use to teach math to children), in hues suggesting an array of moods, from warm to cool, from contentment to thoughtful melancholy. It has something to do with the economical beauty and elegance of the design, and the range of feeling it contains. In a way, it describes a mental space we all share.
I’m speaking in the present tense here because Saul’s designs, the ones he executed on his own and then with his wife and creative partner Elaine, speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when or where you were born. When I was leafing through the section of this book devoted to the trademarks Saul designed (for Alcoa, Fuller Paints, Continental and United Airlines, the updates of Bull Telephone and Quaker Oats, and Getty and AT&T and Minolta…it boggles the mind), I came across this quote below the chapter heading: "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." To me, that encompasses Saul’s genius, because that’s the way we take in reality a lot of the time: feelings push perceptions to the limits of abstraction and ambiguity, but the world around us stays readable, somehow. Thinking made visible.
The simplicity of what they did with those titles astonished me, because they could only have been done by someone with a refined understanding of what we were trying to do. But then, I was equally astonished each time we worked together, all over again — by the sinuous reflections in the Cape Fear sequence, the blooming flowers, again and again, under layers of lace for The Age of Innocence, the silhouetted man tumbling through a neon hell for Casino. I always became caught up in the wonder of Saul and Elaine’s work, all over again.
Reprinted with permission from Laurence King Publishing.
Saul Bass: A Life In Film & Design, by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham, is available for $45 on Amazon.