Category Archives: Book

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig


I purchased Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig as a birthday gift to myself last year. While the imagery in this beautifully done artist’s monograph impressed me right away, I didn’t get around to reading Steven Heller’s comprehensive text until this summer (Heller was assisted on this book by Lustig’s widow, Elaine, who wrote the introduction). Although death at the young age of forty snuffed out his career, Alvin Lustig still stands out as a design icon and one of the more outstanding proponents of modernism. It’s revealed not just with his famous, inventive New Directions book covers, but in everything he did. This book delves into all facets of a life that was sadly short-lived, yet brimming with innovation.

While Lustig remains best known for his graphic design, this book goes to great lengths to prove that he was the 20th Century equivalent of a Renaissance Man. Lustig’s devotion to the purest tenets of Modernism extended not just to graphic design, but also interior design, architecture, furniture, education and theory. Following a short biography, Heller structures the book by discipline (print design, three dimensional design, education, and theory). Like most Chronicle books, the text is supplemented with plenty of beautifully reproduced visuals (including dozens of those fabulous book covers) to linger over. What a talent! One definitely gets a sense of Lustig’s passion for design – and an undercurrent of urgency. Lustig accomplished more in twenty years than many get to do in a lifetime.

Born Modern: The Life and Design of Alvin Lustig was published by Chronicle in 2010. Click here to purchase at Amazon.com.

A sampling of Lustig’s many fantastic New Directions book covers, 1947-55.

The modern and primitive blend in his fabric and interior design.

Graphic identity and interiors for Monte Factor, Ltd. clothing store, 1947.

Playful interoffice memo letterhead for Look magazine, 1944.

More iconic book jacket designs for New Directions, 1946-49.

The cool endpapers are based on Lustig’s 1947 Incantation fabric pattern.

Overspray: L.A. Looks Like You

The 2008 coffee table book Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of L.A. Airbrush Art came to my attention while seeking artwork for my Don’t Make Me Over mix. The book delves head-first into a scene that was a red hot confluence of L.A. style and rock ‘n roll-fueled merchandising, as practiced by four of its biggest proponents. Oddly, however, this labor-intensive art style hasn’t enjoyed a resurgence in the same way that other art and design movements of the period have had.

That’s too bad – at the very least, this stuff is very evocative of the ’70s. I can definitely remember digging it as a teen, even though the part I latched onto came at the very tail end of this movement. My first alluring peek was (don’t laugh) in the overstuffed musical classic Xanadu – recall how the Michael Beck character worked as an artist reproducing album covers at billboard size? The brief scene at his workplace showed all these covers done up in that plastic pop-art style, and to me it seemed like the coolest job ever. I later found more art in that style within the pages of a book called Fame 2, which had me hooked. Up to the late ’80s, I’d still see examples of that hyper-slick artwork within the pages of Rolling Stone, or plastered on the free wall calendars they’d hand out at Tower Records every December.

The artists profiled in Overspray – Dave Willardson, Charles White III, Peter Lloyd, and Peter Palombi – all indulged in that style. As the book plainly demonstrates, however, each one put his own stamp on his work. Willardson’s was the most retro-slick and technically accomplished of all (and my favorite), responsible for iconic pieces such as the Rolling Stone cover that literally interpreted Steely Dan’s name and American Graffitti‘s cheerful carhop. White’s stuff was a lot more funky and hallucinatory, where photo-realistic scenes bump up against Maxfield Parrish-inspired fantasy-scapes. Lloyd brought on the weird with his imaginative, spacey LP covers and kinky illustrations for magazines like Oui. Palombi’s nostalgic, irony-drenched scenes astonished with their playfulness and expertly rendered surfaces. Along with absorbing interviews with all four men, the book reprints big and colorful representative samplings of their work. It also has a rather self-indulgent introductory essay, printed in a hard-to-read peach script font, that sets the scene in a smug way (you can easily skip that part and get the jist in the interviews). In the end, I ended up envying these guys for being in there at such a fantastic, creative time, and also admiring the painstaking technique and work ethic required to master the airbrush.

P.S. I still want that Xanadu guy’s job.

Another nifty thing about Overspray is the dust jacket with different designs printed on both sides which enables the book to have four unique covers, one for each artist profiled. The book can be ordered at Amazon.com here.

Dave Willardson LP art for the Spinners, 1978.

Charles White III illustration for National Lampoon, 1972.

Dave Willardson art for American Graffitti soundtrack LP, 1973.

Charles White II art for the Rolling Stones (1973); Star Wars (1977).

Peter Lloyd illustration for Oui magazine, 1975.

Peter Palombi magazine cover illustration, 1975.

Poster Art of the Disney Theme Parks

I have very specific memories connected with the posters at Disneyland – approaching the park, driving into the no-longer-there parking lot, striding towards the gingerbread ticket booths, the first concrete thing I’d see of our adventures ahead would be those iconic posters, affixed to the bases of the Monorail pylons and inside the tunnels leading to Main Street U.S.A. Each poster was a trip in itself – the vine-entrenched intrigue of the Jungle Cruise, the topsy-turvy whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, the hitchhiking ghosts of The Haunted Mansion, the kinetic energy of the PeopleMover’s Superspeed Tunnel – a gallery of future memories waiting to be experienced.

Poster Art of the Disney Parks, a coffee table book published by Disney and written by Danny Handke and Vanessa Hunt, comprehensively explores this angle of that pixie dust-strewn universe. As Tony Baxter’s intro explains, poster art is an integral part of the Disney theme park experience. The book’s 11″x14″ size gives ample space to the best posters, with many getting a full page to themselves (although one of my personal faves, the Columbia sailing ship, gets a mere quarter page). Divided into “lands,” the book includes nearly every poster created not just for Disneyland but for all of the Magic Kingdom theme parks (Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are absent). It’s interesting to note the different ways Disney uses to approach the same attraction in each park, with some intriguing little differences – such as the Euro Disneyland train engine sporting a pair of antlers. The book also contains separate chapters reproducing the Art Noveau influenced designs used for Tokyo DisneySea and the optimistic 1920s to ’50s era throwbacks employed on Disney California Adventure’s recent overhaul.

Two things in particular impressed me about this one. Firstly, they give credit to the unsung artists behind these posters (hooray for that). Secondly, they include lots of fascinating unused poster concept art. Before getting this, I never realized that most of the iconic poster designs from Disneyland’s early years were tied into one talented man – Bjorn Aronson. Aronson’s playful, cleanly modern, eclectic yet unified poster art probably did more to establish Disneyland’s visual identity than anything else. It’s astonishing stuff, and this book reproduces them with vivid clarity.

Poster Art of the Disney Parks can be purchased here at Amazon.com.

Side-by-side poster comparison for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Bjorn Aronson’s illustration skill is evident on this close-up of his fantastic Red Wagon Inn poster.

Casa de Fritos and the Lucky Nugget Saloon (Disneyland Paris) in the Frontierland section.

Not a good photo, but at least it gives you an idea of the chapter openings (using another excellent Aronson poster).

An undeveloped Adventureland poster concept is shown next to a printed one.

A demo of the silk screen color-layering process (that looks familiar).

Oh, how I wish they would have made Aronson’s Candy Palace poster design a reality!

Tomorrowland: all about the primary colors.

Uninked, the Exhibit and Catalog (2007)


Uninked was an exhibit, curated by cartoonist icon Chris Ware, that ran at the Phoenix Art Museum in the Spring of 2007. It was mounted in the basement of the museum’s newly opened North Wing, giant paintings and tiny models somewhat awkwardly placed in an enormous, fluorescent-lit space. It was a little odd, but I enjoyed the exhibit a lot – especially seeing actual pieces by idols of mine like Gary Panter and Kim Deitch. This was the first time I was excited about something PAM did since they teamed up with Keith Haring on a few community-building projects in the late ’80s.

In addition to curating the exhibit, Ware also contributed original art and design to the Uninked catalog, published by Phoenix Art Museum in 2007. I was happy to receive it as a Christmas gift from my spouse, who volunteered at the museum recently (naturally, I dropped a few hints with Christopher about the book being sold at the gift shop). This catalog, a companion piece with the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern Comics issue Ware edited in 2004, is a work of art in itself. Ware seems to genuinely admire the people spotlighted in the exhibit, a cross-section of artists including old-guard guys from the ’60s Comix movement (Deitch, Jerry Moriarty), a ’70s-’80s trailblazer (Panter), and two from the younger generation (Seth and Ron Regé, whose whimsical work was unknown to me prior to this exhibit). In addition to concise bios and reproductions of all the pieces from the exhibit, the book includes extra artwork not on display in 2007. It’s an intriguing peek at what kinds of work commercial artists create purely for their own expression.

The catalog for Uninked: Paintings, Sculptures and Graphic Work from Five Contemporary Cartoonists was printed in just one run, and it’s apparently getting harder to find. It can be ordered from Amazon.com here.

Kim Deitch art from Uninked, 2007.

Jerry Moriarty pages from Uninked, 2007.

Gary Panter – Clog Area, 2004.

Seth pages from Uninked, 2007.

Chris Ware’s back cover art for Uninked catalog, 2007.

It’s Kind of a Cute Story

Within the pages of the colorful, fun It’s Kind of a Cute Story, legendary Disney Imagineer Rolly Crump shares memories of an extraordinary life with the help of MiceChat.com writer Jeff Heimbuch. Since Rolly was heavily involved with the planning of Disneyland landmarks like the Enchanted Tiki Room, it’s a small world, and the Haunted Mansion, I knew I was going to enjoy it (and I wasn’t disappointed). What really makes the book special, however, lies in how it gives a sense of Crump’s enthusiastic personality and eclectic interests – interests that have taken him well beyond the Disney company.

Prior to reading this book, I was vaguely aware that Rolly Crump was one of the more interesting guys at Disney. For proof, one needs to look no further than his interviews on the Disneyland: Secrets, Stories and Magic DVD, where Rolly is seen (presumably in his home) with tasteful framed art of a naked woman hanging in the background. Boobies on a Disney DVD! The artwork in question, a portrait of entertainer Josephine Baker (reproduced in this book), sums up Crump’s funky, laid-back California vibe pretty well. That casual/cool feeling is reflected in the imagery generously spread throughout this book’s pages – and in the chatty, “cute” stories Rolly shares within. And what memories! Whether it’s being a grunt in the Disney animation department in the ’50s or overseeing massive projects for Jacques Cousteau and gambling titan Steve Wynn, he’s had an extraordinary career.

Were I to sum up the Crump aesthetic, I’d say it’s a little bit Disney, a little bit ’60s surf/beatnik culture, a little bit midcentury modern, and a whole lot of charm. One can definitely see the appeal his work had for Walt Disney in developing Disneyland (Disney obviously valued the younger, funkier insights Rolly had over his fellow imagineers). It kind of surprised me to read how much of Crump’s handiwork is around at Disneyland, even today – not just the obvious such as the still awe-inspiring small world façade or the charming statuary in the Tiki Room forecourt, but little things as well like the trash cans (and those themed figures churning the butter in the park’s popcorn machines? Crump’s idea.) Elsewhere, Crump delightully recounts his ideas for the earliest incarnation of the Haunted Mansion (when it was conceived as a walk-through attraction), preparations for the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, and his contributions toward various pavilions at EPCOT. While the Disney stuff is fascinating in itself, Crump also goes into detail on various projects involving other theme parks – and the efforts of his own company, Design 27 (this book is not authorized by the Disney company, which is a huge asset in my opinion).

Although the printing on this book leaves a little to be desired (the paper is thin), I would recommend It’s Kind of a Cute Story not only for Disney fans, but also for those who’d enjoy getting to know a unique guy who marches to his own, propeller-festooned drummer. The book is available here at Amazon.com.

The Happiest Planters on Earth, atop Tomorrowland’s stylish bandstand.

Crump’s layout of the Knott’s Bear-y Tales attraction.

The it’s a small world happy face clock? That’s Rolly’s, too!

Crump’s more recent stuff gets a lot of play here as well.

The funky Crump style in full flower.

A detail from the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room chapter.

Fun chapter headers and page footage mirror the Crump style nicely.