Inspiration: Atari Game Packaging, 1977-1982

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari_SpaceInvadersWhen I was a kid, the Atari 2600 home video game ruled our household. Back then, we just called it “Atari” and all our peers knew what it meant. The primitive graphics may look laughable now, but the very concept of playing video games on your television set kept us enthralled for hours on end. While games like Adventure and Pitfall made excellent use of the small-sized memory and rudimentary 8-bit graphics the unit offered, for me Atari’s attraction went beyond the games and into the cartridge packaging. Yes, I’m talking about those rainbow-colored boxes that got tossed soon after the games were purchased. Unexpectedly, these candy-hued pieces of folded paperboard had a profound influence on me wanting to become a designer. Only recently, I’ve found out that I wasn’t alone!

The marketing folks at Atari were canny. Knowing that they couldn’t rely solely on boxy pixels to sell these games, they decided to entice buyers with boxes sporting a consistent framework design that showcased some of the most evocative illustration of that period. I loved the colors, the funky, curvy font, the tantalizing number that indicated how many games were on the cartridge (112 Space Invaders games – drool!). Mostly what captured my imagination was that artwork, done in styles ranging from cartoony to impressionist. Even when looking at those über-’70s illustrations from today’s perspective, one can tell it was a rare marriage of an open-minded company seeking wild, beautiful images and artists rising to the challenge to meet it. In pieces like Steve Hendricks’ rendering of the game “Defender” from the p.o.v. of people fleeing a city under attack by alien aircraft, you can see they went with an “out of the box” approach and ran with it. The format made even the dullest of games (Pac Man, anyone?) look alluring.

When the home video gaming boom went bust in 1982-83, the golden age of Atari’s box designs followed the same route. The need to compete for home gamers’ ever-dwindling dollars prompted Atari to change its packaging to an impersonal red-and-silver motif which made the games look like bland “home office” software. A bad move, although the writing was on the wall at that point. From then on, old-style Atari became the stuff of geek-nostalgia and in-jokes like the Venture Bros. DVD package shown below.

In researching this post, I’ve actually found out that a coffee table book of this imagery is currently in the works. While The Art of Atari: From Pixels to Paintbrush was slated for publication in 2014, hopefully its delay is due to creator Tim Lapetino ensuring that the final volume is as perfect as the subject demands.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Dodge 'Em box detail, 1980.

Dodge ‘Em box detail, 1980.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Swordquest: Fireworld Atari box with redesigned format, 1982.

Swordquest: FireWorld Atari box with redesigned format, 1983.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

Windup, Pitch and Go

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One of my favorite publishers, Chronicle, is looking for creative Tumblr users to supply book ideas for them. I decided to use The Great Tumblr Book Search to pitch an proposal for them to publish a book version of my daily weblog of Western-kitsch found imagery, 4 Color Cowboy. The full text of the pitch can be seen here. Wish me several horseshoe’s worth of luck.

Although many of the posts at 4 Color Cowboy rely on copyrighted imagery, I think a project like this could be pulled off pretty easily. My pitch envisions it as a small-format book with a simple design that incorporates one image to a page. One of the inspirations behind the pitch is a book coincidentally published by Chronicle back in 2002 – Black & White by Stephen Guarnaccia and Susan Hochbaum. This out-of-print gem compared and contrasted monochromatic images of skeletons, dice, penguins, nuns and other typically black and white subjects in surprising, fascinating ways. Used copies are well worth seeking out.

Fantasy Project: Disney on Criterion, 1937-1950

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Every now and then I like to indulge in “What if?” scenarios, as in “What if the folks at Criterion approached me to design the covers for a series exploring the Disney studio’s earliest feature films?” Hey, it might happen.

What I’d do are the ten hypothetical “Disney on Criterion” releases seen here. The 1937-50 period was a crucial time for the Disney studios. Despite the arrival of World War II and a turbulent studio employees’ strike, Disney produced lots of stuff during that time – some classics, others not no much, all of it risky in some way (try saying that about today’s Disney). The idea of this era done in expertly annotated, lavish Criterion Collection sets makes the animation geek in me drool. Although Walt Disney and the other participants in these films are long gone, there’s enough archival material around to provide for added commentaries, supplementary shorts and interviews. Of course, minor films like The Reluctant Dragon and Victory through Air Power would be included as extras, as well.

This project came about while I was attempting to watch these films, in chronological order. When it came to 1946’s Song of the South, however, I hit a roadblock – Disney hasn’t reissued that one in the U.S. for nearly 30 years (and counting). The attempt to get a decent copy through illegal means proved fruitless, as well. Obviously, a lovingly crafted Criterion disc putting this controversial film in its proper context would be ideal – and I’m sure millions of Disney fans would eagerly snatch it up – but Disney would prefer to keep it locked in the vaults indefinitely.

I just want kids to appreciate these movies as culturally important, as opposed to tinsel-dusted product to be trotted out every seven years.

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DC_02_Pinocchio
DC_03_Fantasia
DC_04_Dumbo
DC_05_Bambi
DC_06_Saludos
DC_07_MakeMineMusic
DC_08_SongOfTheSouth
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DC_10_Cinderella

Long-Playing Fantasies and Dreams

Autopsy: Living Stereo, 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

Autopsy: Living Stereo, 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

This month, some of my art got put on display in a local gallery. When Phoenix’s r. pela contemporary art sent out a call for entries for a juried group exhibition called 33 1/3! Altered Album Cover Art, I was intrigued. This is a show that explores our shared nostalgia/repulsion with vinyl records, musical expression, commerce, what-have-you… I’m in! Having accumulated a lot of otherwise worthless old LPs bought at thrift stores in the ’90s, I momentarily set aside working on LitKids prints and created the two multi-layered collages seen here. Surprisingly, both of them were accepted in the show. One, Autopsy: Living Stereo (above), even sold before the show officially opened on December 5th. How cool is that?

Living Stereo goes into the visual language of ’50s-’60s “Ping Pong Stereo” albums by layering a succession of covers with concentric circles cut out of the centers. Bits of type, human figures and blocks of vivid color peek out of the edges. Although I would have loved to have taken 100 LPs and make it one long, concave, cone-shaped abyss of cardboard edges, the final 14-layer assemblage came out lively and interesting. This piece used albums by Leo Addeo, the Three Suns, David Rose, Buddy Morrow and other forgotten names from the “and His Orchestra” era. In the gallery, the piece got a great presentation atop an easel with a vintage record player and albums strewn underneath.

The second Autopsy piece (below) was based on French chanteuse-turned-accused-murderer Claudine Longet. I love the simplicity and chutzpah of her 1967 debut LP on A&M Records, with just her first name set in Peignot type (a.k.a. the Mary Tyler Moore Show font). For Autopsy: Claudine, I cut around the silhouette of Claudine’s portrait on the LP and layered it with similar ’60s Easy Listening LPs cut with holes that contoured with the shape above. With the albums near the bottom of the stack getting darker, it’s intended to be a poignant, cautionary piece on fame and the predatory music industry (hopefully apparent even for those who don’t know Claudine’s sordid post-musical-career fate). In addition to Claudine, this sculpture uses covers from Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, Burt Bacharach, Lana Cantrell, 101 Strings and a few other “Now Sound of Today” artifacts.

The show runs through December 31st, 2014. I will be on hand at r. pela contemporary art for a few hours on the night of December 19th to try and convince someone to make a wise investment in the Claudine piece.

Autopsy: Claudine, 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

Autopsy: Claudine, 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

Autopsy: Living Stereo, detail from 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

Autopsy: Living Stereo, detail from 2014 sculpture by Matt Hinrichs.

33 1/3! installation view (photo by Robrt Pela).

33 1/3! installation view (photo by Robrt Pela).

I Got You (I Feel Good)


This is my new birthday tradition – starting a month before the big day (October 8th), I gift myself with a bunch of interesting music, movies and books. The results of this spree are pictured above, along with a few other gifts from family. I ended up getting a lot more books this year, which is wonderful. One of them, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé by Saint Etienne musician and writer Bob Stanley, has been on my radar since the author mentioned it on his Croydon Municipal blog last year. Although I’m just a few chapters in, so far it’s fantastic – a detailed, factual yet charmingly idiosyncratic history of Pop music from the ’50s to the dawn of the Napster era in the late ’90s. Stanley doesn’t subscribe to that hoary old Rock Canon thing that all the important music from that period came from white guys playing guitars – he understands that Pop at its essence is a democratic thing (payola and the whims of record labels and deejays played into it, too). Apparently this book was revised for the U.S. edition, nevertheless I’m enjoying Stanley’s insights into less-familiar musical styles such as Skiffle, which was the British take on Rockabilly.

The other book from this pile I’m currently reading is the 1971-72 volume of Fantagraphics’ chronological hardback reprints of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts daily comics. Despite having the lamest-ever celebrity “introduction” (Kristin Chenoweth’s piece is pretty much a brief interview, and a shallow one at that), this volume’s strips are getting more focused (lots of Charlie Brown/Peppermint Patty interplay) and philosophical at this point. This one contains lots of strips with Sally fretting about school – some of my favorites! I’m also looking forward to Victoria Wilson’s giant-sized biography of Barbara Stanwyck, despite the frequent criticism that it needed editing down. This 1,044-page volume only covers the iconic actress’ life up through the year 1940! It looks tantalizing, and besides it should be a breeze compared to Moby Dick. Unless Miss Stanwyck did some whaling in her free time, I don’t see any other comparison between the two.

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Cat Food for Thought is a cute little volume given by my brother and sister-in-law. Those who remember the zippy vintage packaging collected in the authors’ Meet Mr. Product (2003) and Ad Boy (2009) will find the same thing here, with a twist. This and the companion book Dog Food for Thought presents more vintage pet food designs alongside various clever quips about dogs and cats. (Since Christopher also gave some vintage animation cels from a ’70s Good Mews commercial, this will heretofore be officially known as my cat food birthday.)

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The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design is another one that I’d been anticipating for awhile. Todd Polson had a dual purpose in mind when putting this book together. It’s both a visually sumptuous tribute to the background artist and designer behind innumerable classic Warner Bros. cartoons and a handy tutorial for artists and animators seeking practical advice on color theory, composition and movement. Not only is the instructional aspect clearly presented and quite handy (I could definitely use the help on color – and Noble was a master at it), the biographical info and copious reproductions of Noble’s beautiful layouts make it a wonderful tribute. Shown stripped of their usual context with Bugs Bunny and/or Daffy Duck overlaid on top, one can truly see that this stuff is art.

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I also made sure to get myself a great vintage illustrated book – last year it was James Beard’s Fireside Cook Book with art by Alice and Martin Provensen; this year, it’s The Abelard Folk Song Book, a 1958 sheet music and history collection featuring the whimsical art of Abner Graboff. This Ward Jenkins blog entry from 2009 shed some light on this overlooked illustrator, along with several examples of his work. It was actually Ward’s detective work that inspired me to look out for his books! I’m happy to finally have an example of his art in my library.

There’s more. Christopher gave me this neat brochure produced by American Cyanamid, in which a prototypical ’50s housewife character named Mrs. Holliday demonstrates the benefits of Formica, Melmac and other completely unnatural substances. It’s all pretty funny, yet the art of Mrs. Holliday and her family are beautiful examples of the modern, cartoony look so popular back then. I really need to scan all of them (the artist is uncredited, unfortunately), but hopefully this one photo will suffice. C. also surprised me with a copy of Automotive Quarterly, a hardback publication geared towards vintage auto enthusiasts. We already saw this particular 1975 volume at the auto museum in San Diego – the cover story is an illustrated essay speculating on the future of car design from our favorite futuristic concept designer, Syd Mead! I’m gonna have to get the scanner out for this one, too.

I like birthdays.

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C30, C60, C90, Go!

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Here’s a fun find. While doing another attempt at de-cluttering, I came across these neat handmade mini-collage mix tape covers – done back when people did mix tape covers. I believe these date from 1989-90, when I was doing a lot of mixed media/collage work for college art classes. Of course, I was big on the ’50s magazine imagery (speaking as perhaps the only person on Earth to have had a picture of Reddy Kilowatt hanging inside his high school locker), so it made sense at the time to use my mad scissors skillz on these tapes. The TDKs included albums by Erasure, Blancmange, The Cure and Depeche Mode, along with the results of an ambitious plan to do 90-minute mix tapes containing favorite tunes from each year of the ’80s. With the latter, I used the more pricey Denon brand tapes. I only got up to 1982, however – this was back when you had to go to a record store and buy an album in order to listen to your favorite song, kiddoes.

These mix covers go well with Dancing In My Room, a 22-track Spotify playlist of 1984-86 British Pop that I remember enjoying back then (Blancmange is, unfortunately, not on Spotify).

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