The Ever-Shifting Consensus

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, #24)

“So many films, so little time… ” Recently, I discovered The 1,000 Greatest Films. Coupled with our access to the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, this is a potentially dangerous thing. A carefully curated database of critically lauded cinema, this annually updated project comes from the laudable efforts of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?. The films’ rankings are determined from 1,900-plus “Best Of” lists from critics, filmmakers, and scholars. Being aware that taste in anything is entirely subjective, you can arguably approach a project like this with a grain of salt – what it tells me is that film experts overwhelmingly prefer their themes heavy, their running times lengthy, their languages non-English, and their directors auteurist. Despite all that, it’s stimulated me to go back to the biggies (in the top 100) to review as many as I can.

While a good half of the films in the TSPDT top 100 I’d already seen (in several instances, much too long ago), it also contained a number of bona fide classic Classics which got an overdue first viewing. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (#24) was as jaw-dropping as I’d always heard, an unforgettable and beautifully performed work of art. By my definition, the truly great films are ones that linger in your thoughts for days and weeks afterward. Persona fits that description, as does Robert Bresson’s devastating religious allegory Au Hasard Balthazar (#35). Bresson took a deceptively simple story – about a donkey who passes through several owners – and made it into a carefully constructed, dry yet oddly touching statement on humankind’s innate cruelty. We also streamed the proto-realist 1934 comedy L’Atalante from Jean Vigo, the acclaimed French auteur who died at a young age. Quite a charming little film, although its ranking at #17 seems awfully high. Hulu lacked Jean Renoir’s stately pacifist statement Grand Illusion (#39), although I managed to snag a copy of the out-of-print DVD from the local library. That was another heartfelt, stunningly constructed masterpiece, although it loses a bit once the main characters leave the prisoner-of-war camp. Andrei Tarkovsky’s non-linear, deliberately obtuse Mirrors (#26) seems more like what you’d expect from a list like this. While it didn’t wow me like the others, I admired Tarkovsky’s impeccable craftsmanship – his attention to detail shows in the nuanced performances and the gorgeous photography. I’m currently halfway through Federico Fellini’s excellent La Strada (Giulietta Masina must be the greatest silent comedienne never to appear in a silent movie). Once that is finished, I will have seen seventy of the top 100 – what a joyful learning experience.

By the way, I’ve also started logging my movie viewing habits at Letterboxd, a site that allows film fans to catalog and compare their viewing habits. It’s fun. C’mon and join me!

Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, #39)

Mirrors (Andrei Tarkovsky, #26)

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, #35)

Louise Fili’s Perfetto Pencils

I’ve long been an admirer of the Deco-inspired, sinuous work of designer Louise Fili – so it was especially delightful to hear that she was available for interviews in connection with her latest venture, Perfetto Pencils. For this boxed set of 12 double-tipped pencils, Fili applied her usual panache with playful typography, polka dots, and a striking color palette. Like her other products, they’re almost too lovely to use up (I’m gonna need the red parts for tracing over my illustrations, however!). Even better, they provide the opportunity for our first interview at Scrubbles.net.

Following the chat, I’ve selected a few of my favorite Fili designs throughout the years. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, the Perfetto pencils are available at Amazon.com.

Your design and typography are characterized by a pared-down elegance and flair, reminiscent of vintage design while avoiding looking aggressively Retro. It takes a lot of discipline to have that aesthetic, but I imagine it also takes a lot of compromising to maintain your high standards – even with clients who are expecting a “Louise Fili” look. How do you convince a client that simpler is better?
Since many of my clients are in the food industry, I can simply explain that good design, like fine cuisine, is about using the best ingredients.

I read that your love of all things Italian extends to listening to their film soundtracks while working. Who are your favorite composers (mine’s Stelvio Cipriani)? Any specific albums you enjoy?
I like to listen to Nino Rota soundtracks for Fellini films, and anything sung by Anna Magnani or Vittorio De Sica.

How did the Perfetto Pencils (Princeton Architectural Press) come about? It looks like this particular project is inspired by the pencil boxes pictured in Italian Art Deco (Chronicle, 1993).
I love my collection of 1930s Italian pencil boxes.  My most preferred are the two-color, double-sided pencils, commonly in red and blue, for teachers to correct homework. (“Errore lieve, segno rosso; errore grave, segno blu”: red for a minor infringement, blue for a serious offense.) When Princeton Architectural Press invited me to come up with a line of gift products, the two-tone pencils seemed perfect—thus the name. Steering clear of blue, my least favorite color, we opted for our signature red and black. 

Finally, one last question – what’s the coolest piece of vintage design ephemera you’ve ever found?
I found a series of pasticceria papers when I was researching the Italian Art Deco book in Milano years ago. That’s what made me want to become a package designer.

Polaner wine labels, 2013.

Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age book cover (Thames & Hudson, 2012)

Streamline book cover (Chronicle, 1995)

Good Housekeeping seal redesign, 2009.

Daily Drop Cap contribution, 2011.

Sunset Years


Don’t you love this May 1938 cover of Sunset magazine? It heralded the venerable Western Living mag’s 40th anniversary, hence the nostalgic image of a 19th-century train engine. The clean typography and bright colors actually give it quite the contemporary feel – which was definitely in line with what Sunset has always been about. Enough with the memories, it says, let’s go out into the sunshine – and build a patio! From this particular cover, I get a distinct, forward-looking Disneyland Frontierland/Main Street U.S.A./Americana vibe. That’s the main reason why it was posted today at 4 Color Cowboy.

Since my mom had a Sunset subscription in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I grew up with some pleasant times browsing through the mag’s staid yet comfortable images of flowers, cacti, salads, and blissed-out people lounging around on their groovy outdoor, multi-tiered wooden decks. Looking at the covers from that period now, I’m astonished by the color and the simple, restrained layouts (AND they use my all-time fave font, Clarendon). Sunset has had a pretty amazing history – their main office even survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to rebuild anew. What a metaphor for Western perseverance! Although it’s still hanging in there – as a watered-down, Martha Stewartish lifestyle publication owned by Time Warner – Sunset‘s 1932-83 period is where it truly excelled as a primer on casual Western living. The covers shown below demonstrate just a part of what made it such a unique icon in publishing history.

Sunset, August 1932.

Sunset, October 1935.

Sunset, April 1937.

Sunset, May 1941.

Sunset, October 1949.

Sunset, October 1957.

Sunset, February 1966.

Sunset, February 1970.

Sunset, February 1972.

Sunset, June 1974.

Sunset, March 1983.

The Beautiful World of 1981


Whaddaya think about 1981? I created an 8-hour long Spotify playlist exploring the music of that year, to go along with my previous exercises listening to 1968, 2003, and 2013. Like the others, 1981 is a combination of longtime favorites and new finds across a wide variety of genres. This was a year when Arena Rock ruled, the British were doing amazing stuff, R&B shimmered with the fumes of Funk and Disco, and Hip-Hop still had a scrappy, urban aesthetic. Personally, it came as a surprise how much of the playlist evoked a visceral, “riding in mom’s car on the way to the mall” reaction.

In 1981, I was thirteen – an age when many kids transition from passively enjoying something to becoming more deeply involved. That year, I had my own little clock radio in my bedroom. The radio was undoubtedly tuned into a lot of safe local Pop/Rock stations then, although the thing I enjoyed the most was tuning into Dr. Demento every Sunday night with a portable tape recorder on hand. A lot of the hits included here – “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Rapture,” “Queen of Hearts,” “Urgent,” “Private Eyes,” “Physical,” “I Love A Rainy Night” – are the aural equivalent of chocolate chip cookies. It kind of astonished me how much fantastic music came from that year (or, in a few instances, late in the previous year). There’s a few silly things in there as well, such as “Hooked On Classics” – a tune I forever associate with the campy fashion sequence from the TV special Night of 100 Stars. I suppose you don’t have to have been a youngster in 1981 to appreciate this, but it sure helps.

The Places You’ll Go

Paths of the Northwest Explorers, illustrated map by Lloyd P. Pierce for Ford Times magazine, 1962.

In digging around for some interesting stuff to put on 4 Color Cowboy (now at 500+ posts!), I came across these wonderful vintage map graphics from Flickr user matthunterross. The colors, the diagrams, the repackaged history – so much to enjoy. And, further proof that Ford Times was one of the greatest magazines ever printed.

This is a definitive case where one needs to click on the images to see the full details!

“A Hysterical Map of Death Valley” illustrated by Jolly Lindgren, 1948.

Guide to Disneyland Hotel, Map & Special Services, 1973.

Battlefields and Historic Shrines 1861-1865, Edwin Fulwider for Ford Times magazine, 1961.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom map, 1977.

Ford Times Guide to Sightseeing in Detroit map by Adele Bichan, 1962.

Guide map of Busch Garden in Tampa, Florida, 1985.

The Drew Struzan Effect

Boris Karloff as the Mummy, 2012.

Being a person who avidly looks forward to any and all documentaries on artists and illustrators, the DVD release Drew: The Man Behind the Poster came as a welcome sight. Erik Sharkey’s flawed but very interesting 2012 doc acquaints us with the iconic ’80s movie artist Drew Struzan. If you see that name and think “Drew who?,” perhaps a list of his most memorable posters will ring a bell – Star Wars. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Muppet Movie. The Goonies. The Thing. Blade Runner. Police Academy!

While Drew: The Man Behind the Poster tends to get too superficial at times, it’s a worthwhile and admiring portrait. Director Erik P. Sharkey got an impressive array of Hollywood types to sing Struzan’s praises, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Guillermo Del Toro, Thomas Jane, and Frank Darabont. The film opens with a documentary cliché that I particularly loathe – the endless montage of people fawning over the subject – a sequence which would undoubtedly make the laid-back Struzan cringe. The following 90 minutes, however, establish Struzan as an unassuming regular-guy with an extraordinary gift for rendering movie stars with the right balance of painterly expression and fairy dust.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was made from the point of view of a movie fan wanting to dig deeper into the guy behind moviedom’s most iconic posters – from an artist’s perspective, it’s something of a letdown. The best sequences have Struzan discussing his start in the funky ’70s L.A. art scene, including his early album covers for Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and others. Another good sequence has Struzan and Charles White III gabbing about their collaboration on the famous Star Wars retro-look poster (I also loved the part with Struzan and an obviously grateful Lucas together, perusing the Star Wars art). One amazing thing that comes across is how prolific he was, often re-doing completed artwork from scratch without breaking a sweat (the adding of Mary Steenburgen to the Back to the Future Part III poster is the standout in that regard). As is befitting a film that climaxes at San Diego Comic Con, however, you have to wade through a lot of puffery to get to the meat. This blog post by illustrator Jed Alexander explains that frustration pretty well, along with providing some primo examples of work from Struzan and his contemporaries.

While The Man Behind the Poster never strays far from being a simple celebration of Drew and his art, there is a little bitterness around the edges. The subtext of this movie is basically “Why did they stop making posters like Drew’s?” Sadly, even in the case of an über-talented artist like Struzan, Hollywood has moved on from using illustrators (by and large) for marketing their stuff. After all, it’s easier for a studio to exert control over a Photoshopped montage of movie star heads floating in the sky. If that turn of events affected the mellow Struzan, it doesn’t show as he’s seen in the film having a comfortable semi-retirement – painting his own subjects and enjoying quality time with his family.

For this write-up, a review copy of Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was supplied by the folks at Kino Lorber. You can buy a copy of this DVD at Kino’s site, or at Amazon.com.

Blade Runner re-release poster art, 2003.

Adventures in Babysitting poster detail, 1987.

Ladyhawke limited-release poster art, 1985.

Sahara poster art detail, 1983.

Sketch for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade poster concept, 1989.

Hellboy special edition art, 2004.

The Goonies poster art detail, 1985.