Bloomsbury Design Library - Saul Bass
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The Banham Lectures
The Banham Lectures

Jeremy Aynsley

Jeremy Aynsley is Professor of History of Design at the Royal College of Art, London and author of Graphic Design in Germany 1890-1945 and Designing Modern Germany. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Harriet Atkinson

Harriet Atkinson is a historian and Research Fellow based at the Royal College of Art. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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(eds)

Berg, 2009

Subjects

Content Type:

Book Chapter

Objects and Materials:

Signs and Symbols

The Design Industry:

Codesign, Creativity Techniques

Related Content

Saul Bass

A Life in Design and Film; Saul and Elaine Bass: a Collaboration in Film and Life

DOI: 10.5040/9781350036109.ch-010
Page Range: 143–156

Banham, Bass And Me

It has become customary for those giving this lecture to say something of their encounters with Reyner Banham.[1] I only heard him once – at a conference in the early 1970s. He leaped to his feet after a speaker had thoroughly dismissed the Modern Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, urging us all to imagine ourselves back in the period as progressive Leftists and forcing us to make the choices before them in a world of huge inequalities and substandard workers’ housing. To experience his passion and his bringing of history to life by projecting himself and his listeners into the past was a special moment that has stayed with me.

My second formative encounter was with his Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, 1971. His validation therein of the so-called ‘commonplace’, an aspect of design history and material culture that has been for me both sustaining and immensely pleasurable, puts him right up there with William Morris and William Lethaby. What Banham most validated, however, was my love affair with Los Angeles, which started when I spent three months there in 1971, after completing my first year in what was probably the first design history job in Britain (though the term ‘design history’ was not then coined). I sold my suede coat, rush matting and a blue Corona typewriter that Banham would have loved and bought a plane ticket.

I am not sure what month Four Ecologies was published but I did not discover it before my trip. I used Winter and Gebhard’s splendid architectural guide but was always stopping off to photograph other things, from freeway junctions and Disneyland to hamburger joints and plastic ‘Spanish Revival’ furniture in the local supermarket. When I saw Banham’s book, there was my LA, complete with photograph of the area where I had lived (Figure 10.1). Here was a kindred spirit. To state that seeing therein the types of design that chimed with me more personally than those I was then studying, and helped to validate interests too long in the academic closet, does not do justice to my sense of ‘coming home’. Like so many of us who now think of ourselves as historians of design and material culture, I’m very grateful.

10.1 Postcard of intersecting Los Angeles highways.

I returned to LA in 1983, to interview the designer and film-maker Ray Eames (1912–88), in the hope of better understanding her contribution to, and the gender politics of, the thirty-seven-year partnership with her husband Charles (1907–78). That marked the beginning of a long research project and more trips to LA.[2] Banham, of course, wrote perceptively about the Eameses, particularly the Eames House (1945–49) that was part of the same Case Study house programme as the Bass House (1958).[3] During my research about short films made by the Eameses, another husband and wife team kept cropping up: Saul and Elaine Bass (Figure 10.2). Saul I knew as a famous graphic designer and creator of title sequences for films, such as Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), but I could find little information about Elaine. I came to know them both in the early 1990s when writing about the title sequences the Basses were creating for films by Martin Scorsese.[4] By the time Saul died in 1996, I counted them as friends.

That tells you something about my connections to Banham, the Eameses and the Basses, but what about Banham/ Bass connections? Firstly, Saul Bass and Reyner Banham each made significant contributions to the Aspen International Design Conferences where they got to know each other. Secondly, Mary Banham, a great promoter of the types of history and objects covered by these lectures, has told me how much Reyner Banham admired Saul Bass’s work.[5] She also told me that she and her husband once had dinner with both Saul Bass and Charles Eames. How I wish I had been there!

10.2 Photograph of Elaine and Saul Bass in their editing suite, circa 1990.

Becoming Saul Bass

By the time Saul and Elaine Bass began collaborating in 1960, Saul’s extension of graphic design to film symbols and his title sequences of reductive and evocative intensity had made him world famous. And it is to his story that I turn first. My aims are to illustrate his versatility, map out the main fields in which he worked and suggest differences, as well as connections, between them. Today he is best known as the person who, in the mid-1950s, brought modernist sensibilities to mood-setting movie title sequences – some animated, some live action – and changed the way people thought about symbolizing and opening movies. He also worked as a visual consultant on Psycho (1960), Spartacus (1960, Anthony Mann; Stanley Kubrick), West Side Story (1961, Jerome Robbins; Robert Wise), Grand Prix (1966, John Frankenheimer) and Not With My Wife You Don’t (1966, Norman Panama). Those consultancies included creating sequences within movies: for example, he visualized and storyboarded the now (in)famous shower scene in Psycho, frequently voted one of the most memorable scenes in cinema (Figure 10.3).

Saul also created opening sequences for television programmes, made TV commercials, directed a feature film, Phase IV (1974) and made short films with Elaine. Much of his work outside the film industry was corporate identity design: ‘identities’ of his that remain in use include AT&T, United Airlines, Avery, Minolta, and The Getty. He also designed album covers, retail displays, toys, tiles, modular hi-fi cabinets, a postage stamp, and illustrated a children’s book and magazine articles. With Herb Rosenthal, he designed buildings, play environments and, at the 1968 Milan Triennale, an installation about modern urban life, one of the few things admired by the protesting students who closed down the event. Contemporaries remarked upon this versatility and also upon his searching mind, keen eye, drawing skills, humour and humanity.

10.3 Storyboard for the shower scene in Psycho (1960, directed Alfred Hitchcock). Saul Bass, 1960.

Early Years

How did this boy born in The Bronx to Jewish immigrants in 1920 become ‘Saul Bass’? Keen to work in commercial art, as graphic design was then called, he left school in 1936, during the Depression. The Bronx was then a hotbed of radicalism and Saul thrived on the intense intellectual and political debates. By 1937 he was working in a small agency that supplied United Artists with trade advertisements: the ‘ass end’ of movie advertising, according to Saul.[6] Whereas many of his generation studied commercial art at college, Saul learned on the job and through evening classes. As he read Marx and Freud, campaigned for Roosevelt and supported anti-fascist causes, he spent one night a week for three and a half years at the Art Students League, Manhattan, in the class of Howard Trafton, a well-respected commercial artist who taught his students both fine art and graphics. Echoes of Trafton’s freely brushed letters and crisp modern typography are found in Saul’s later work.

Saul’s excellence at lettering helped his early career, as did the popularity of movies during the Depression. By 1938 he was earning a good salary working for Warner Brothers as a ‘lettering and paste-up’ man; by 1940 he was at Twentieth Century Fox as a ‘layout man’ with more say in designing campaigns. Frustrated because his best work was constantly rejected, the gulf between the modernist design he admired and studio executives demanding posters highlighting Betty Grable’s legs became too much. In about 1944, he took a fifty per cent wage cut to work at the Blaine Thompson agency: the only proviso was that he would never again have to design movie advertising.

A major influence was György Kepes (1906–2001), the Hungarian artist-designer who had worked in the German studio of László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) and helped him establish the New Bauhaus in Chicago (see Plate 19). Kepes joined the staff at Brooklyn College and Saul enrolled in an evening class (1944–45). Through Kepes, Saul became steeped in European modernism, adopting a rationalist problem-solving approach to design and thinking more consistently about such things as abstraction, montage, spatial forces, inter-penetration of line and plane, advancing and receding forms and colours, the physical modulation of light, montage and the expressive qualities of lettering and type. Much of this was reflected in his work thereafter as, for example, the types of forms he used in the Vertigo title sequence and posters (1958; see Plate 20).

Today Kepes’s notion of a universal language of vision seems somewhat formulaic and lacking cultural specificity, and his faith in holistic social reformation through graphics and motion pictures somewhat naive. Many former students, including Saul, confessed to finding his ideas, as opposed to design exercises, somewhat obtuse, but all found him an inspirational teacher. Kepes’s ideas about the transformative nature of the new media appealed to Saul’s politics and validated his way of making a living. Kepes was one of many who took a liking to, and recognized the talents of, this young man, inviting him to collaborate on an exhibition and introducing him to his design ‘heroes’ including Herbert Bayer (1900–85), who had taught at the Bauhaus, Paul Rand (1914–96) and others. Just as Saul seemed poised to become a ‘player’ in what later came to be known as the New York School of Graphic Design, however, his employers hauled him back to trade ads for movies.

Hollywood

Saul moved to Los Angeles in 1946 to work for the Buchanan agency. Most film advertising was done in New York, the centre of the advertising industry, but the head of Buchanan wanted people on the spot in Hollywood to deal with the new ‘independent’ producers and directors. The latter were making new types of films, often referred to as ‘new wave’ or ‘adult theme’ movies, with new types of actors such as Marlon Brando, Jack Palance, Richard Conte and Neville Brand. They called out for new types of advertising. Saul ended up running the Buchanan office but wanted to devote his time solely to design and moved in 1950 to Foote, Cone & Belding to work on their RKO Pictures account. He certainly had more time for design but little creative freedom. RKO’s owner, eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, was not interested in Saul’s ambition to create sophisticated unified advertising campaigns, and Saul’s frustration with Hughes’s insistence upon sensationalist advertising was the catalyst for Saul setting up on his own in 1952.

He had made quite a name for himself with trade ads for the Stanley Kramer ‘independent’ production Champion (1949, Mark Robson), in which he reversed conventions by minimizing images of the stars, and other films by the ‘red’ team of independents Kramer (producer), Carl Foreman (writer) and George Glass (advertising), including The Men (1950, Fred Zinnemann), a film dealing with issues of masculinity. In 1950, Jonas Rosenfeld, head of advertising at Twentieth Century Fox, commissioned Saul to conceive a campaign for No Way Out (1950, Joseph Mankiewicz), a controversial film about racism in the USA, after not only the studio’s in-house designers but also leading graphic designers Paul Rand and Erik Nitsche (1908–88) had failed to come up with a campaign that Rosenfeld considered sufficiently compelling.[7] Saul’s campaign centred around three symbols – handcuffs, an iron bedpost and the arrows found on prison uniforms – and he, Rand and Nitsche then designed advertisements related to them.[8] He had not yet arrived at the single reductive symbol that would become a ‘signature’ from the mid-1950s, but it was close.

Commissions outside the film industry came mainly from younger entrepreneurs or executives of relatively young companies seeking to market new types of products and services; Samsonite and the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation were among his early clients. His logo for Lightcraft (1952–53) was probably his first corporate logo and the one he produced in the following year for Frank Holmes Laboratories, a colour photographic laboratory, ingeniously indicated the nature of the company by incorporating colour-processing principles into the symbol. That symbol then became the centre of an identity campaign, much in the way Saul’s symbols for movies would provide the basis for wider advertising and identity campaigns.

His designs were changing to bolder, simpler, more symbolic forms as he forged a personal style with greater emphasis on narrative and emotional content and less on European modernism. He stood back from searching for universally applicable formulae and trusted more his own preferences for simplicity, ambiguity and metaphor. Traces of earlier influences resurfaced as he moved toward economic and dramatically simplified forms, often single images with little or no text, qualities he had long admired in early twentieth-century German posters. Fellow designers Will Burtin (1909–72), William Golden (1911–59), Alvin Lustig (1915–55), Leo Lionni (1910–99), Rand and others who, like Saul, were creating more distinctly American modern modes of graphic expression, continued to inspire him, as did the visual directness and moral commitment of artists such as Ben Shahn (1898–1969). Saul understood more deeply than many modernists of his generation that many things were simply not ‘knowable’. This dated back to his adolescent interest in artefacts from cultures about which little was known except for evidence from physical remains, and also related to his increasing discomfort with overarching theories, from Marxism and psychoanalysis to European modernism.

There is no definitive ‘Bass aesthetic’, partly because he drew from such a wide variety of visual and cultural references to ‘solve’ each commission. But there are recurrent elements, from reduction, distillation and economy, features associated with modernism, to fragmentation, addition, ambiguity and metaphor, features more often associated with postmodernism but which were much in evidence at mid-century. Wit and the seeing of things in new ways are often present, along with finely honed hand lettering and typography, always appropriate to the visual and emotional loads carried. When used symbolically, similar images represented different things: flames in Carmen Jones (1954, Otto Preminger), for example, represented passion while those in Exodus (1960, also Otto Preminger) represented ‘eternal light’ and freedom, and those in Storm Center (1956, Daniel Taradash) stood for evil and destruction. Human bodies, or parts of them, are evident throughout, particularly the eyes (the organ Saul considered the most vulnerable).

Symbols And Moving Images

When, in 1954, Saul made a flame flicker while enveloping a black rose in the opening credits for Carmen Jones, a film about love and passion with an entirely black cast, Saul entered the world of moving images. A year later, his animated title sequence for The Man With the Golden Arm caused a sensation when, against a jazz-like score, abstract forms came together to form the petrified disjointed arm of a junkie (Figure 10.4). I wish I had a pound for every time someone has told me how they will never forget first seeing it, including would-be young designers who sneaked off school or college to see it, from Charlie Watts in London, to Lella and Massimo Vignelli in Italy and Katsui Asaba in Japan. Young Martin Scorsese was so impressed that he began creating Bass-style storyboards. As films got longer, many credits began to be placed at the end: for Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, Michael Anderson), Saul rolled them against a witty cartoon reprise of the movie and conveyed them through graffiti for West Side Story (1961).

10.4 Storyboard for title sequence for The Man With The Golden Arm (1956, directed by Otto Preminger). Saul Bass, 1955.

Much-admired film symbols that also featured in opening sequences included the haiku-like eye and tear set within a woman’s face ( Bonjour Tristesse,1957) and the dissected body in Anatomy of a Murder (1958), both films by Preminger, the only director/ producer to consistently press for the fully integrated advertising campaigns offered by Saul to film studios, from titles, trademark, and trailer to main posters, trade ads and album cover. Even with the main posters for The Man With the Golden Arm, Saul and Preminger had to accept some versions with faces of the stars added. Furthermore, Saul’s posters for Vertigo were ordered to be withdrawn a week after the film’s release because studio executives blamed their ‘artiness’ for the film flopping at the box office (the alternatives apparently produced no better results). Saul’s posters, with minimal text and devoid of images of film stars, were anathema to studio publicity executives. With huge amounts of money at stake, they were reluctant to break with conventions concerning posters, a crucial interface with the public. Although highly respected for his graphics outside the industry, and for trade ads within it, Saul found it easier to get Hollywood commissions for title sequences and montages with films than for posters. Even when he was paid for advertising campaigns, they were sometimes so messed around with by studio designers that he disclaimed them.

Art Goodman

Saul was the sole creative head of the design office that bore his name from 1952 until his death in 1996.[9] Of all the designers who worked for him over the years, there is no doubt that Art Goodman (1926–2008), Saul’s ‘right-hand man’ for over thirty years, was the most important. Louis Dorfsman (1926–2008), former creative director of advertising and design at CBS, described Goodman to me as ‘every designer’s dream’: highly talented, witty and inventive but prepared to remain within Saul’s parameters, working up sketches and ideas, encouraging and stimulating without challenging basic ideas or art direction.[10] Saul always praised the abilities of this ‘wonderfully talented, funny, shy and self-effacing man’, but Goodman insisted the creativity stemmed from Saul, telling me that most people simply could not believe that such a huge amount of highly creative work could emanate from one man.[11] According to Goodman, Saul managed to achieve so much because he was extremely well organized:

he had that office buttoned down so tightly precisely so he could concentrate on designing and making films. I reported to him every day. Even after twenty years I’d feel guilty if I let a small thing through without his ‘OK’. The business was Saul. Everything flowed from him and from his huge energy. He took on so much yet never saw himself as overworked.[12]

Elaine Bass

When Elaine Makatura (b.1927) became Saul’s assistant in 1956, she was looking for a more challenging job. Little did she realize it would lead to a long creative and personal partnership. Her route to working in design and film was even more circuitous than his. The child of Hungarian immigrants living in New York, she came from a poor but musically gifted family. She showed early promise at art and exercised her cinematic imagination by drawing stories, frame by frame, on the sidewalk. From the age of twelve she sang professionally with her three older sisters as the ‘Belmont Sisters’. Although the youngest, Elaine was lead singer and soloist. During the Second World War, they sang in service clubs and enjoyed a regular radio spot, but the group disbanded soon after the war when the older sisters married. Had she been less shy and modest, Elaine could easily have had a solo career: recordings made when she was about fifteen reveal a surprisingly mature voice singing ‘swing’ with touches of Billie Holiday.

She found work in the New York ready-to-wear fashion industry, producing renderings, sketches and working up design ideas for several fashion houses. She first moved to Los Angeles in 1947, settling permanently in 1954. While working in the design department at Capitol Records, someone told her that Saul Bass was looking for an assistant. It was immediately apparent that she and Saul shared similar aesthetic sensibilities. Those sensibilities underpinned their partnership, as did their extremely disciplined approaches to work, strong organizational skills and profound respect for process. Saul described her as ‘exceptionally creative’, an ‘ideas person who also comes up with imaginative ways of making those ideas happen’.[13] He admired and relied upon her sense of what was and was not appropriate, visually as well as musically. Like Saul, Elaine could cut decisively through extraneous matter and, from 1960, she joined him in his quest for finding ‘the simple idea’, usually with a touch of ambiguity or metaphor, and thinking of ways to express and realize it. The more her ideas proved successful and were appreciated, the more confident she became at proposing them and devising creative ways of achieving visual effects. Everything was open for discussion between them, with ideas constantly tested and contested.

When Saul attended the ‘World Design’ conference in Japan in 1960, Elaine was left to direct the Spartacus title sequence for which she had devised an ingenious method of achieving the main special effect. Having decided that the crumbling away of statues was to be a metaphor for the break-up of the Roman Empire, Saul and Elaine were having problems making it look convincing on screen. Recalling Japanese Bunraki theatre, in which puppeteers dress in black to be ‘invisible’, Elaine draped herself accordingly on a black set, slowly and carefully pulling away parts of the statues in front of the camera.

Elaine and Saul were married in 1961. Elaine continued to collaborate on film titles and, from 1963, short films – her input into which ranged from design concepts, choice of music and special effects ideas and resolutions to co-directing, co-editing, co-writing and producing. Their first two short films were completed shortly before their first child was born in 1964. Thereafter Elaine managed to combine looking after children and home with working on titles and short films, mainly because in each case they were sufficiently short and discrete for both her and Saul to be able to make time within busy schedules. There were no models for this intermittent and part-time type of partnership: the Eameses, for example, jointly headed a design office and worked together full time on the wide range of commissions undertaken therein. Saul and Elaine likened their collaboration to a ‘cottage industry’, often working at home or in the otherwise empty office at weekends, with children playing nearby. Goodman often worked with them after the development stage but they always edited alone. Professional camera crews were brought in only when necessary: the trial footage for the title sequence of Walk on the Wild Side (1962, Edward Dmytryk), wherein a prowling tom cat provides a metaphor for a story set amidst New Orleans brothels, for example, was shot in the back yard of the Bass office, using the family cat.

Other memorable openings on which Saul and Elaine worked together include the lyrical overture for West Side Story, wherein intentionally ambiguous imagery becomes the Manhattan skyline, lifting the Capitol’s dome to signify lifting the lid off American politics in Advise and Consent (1962, Preminger), and the shape of a child torn out of a newspaper, suggesting both a missing child and a child who may not have existed, for Bunny Lake Is Missing, (1965, Preminger). In 1966 came split-screen multiple images of the start of a race in Grand Prix and a distorted bandaged face in Seconds, a story about a company offering new identities through surgery – both for films directed by John Frankenheimer. Title commissions fell away in the mid-1960s (some directors wanted ‘tap dancing’ graphics, some to create their own openings and some simply could not afford a Bass opener), but by then Saul and Elaine were making short films and Saul was engrossed in corporate identity campaigns.

Short Films And Phase IV

When asked what a graphic designer brought to film-making, Saul stated that visual awareness and a problem-solving approach were useful but good film-making owed more to a sense of story, inventiveness and visual/aural sensitivity.[14] Made for a variety of sponsors, the short films differ in length, content and form. Humour is frequently invoked. Sometimes images are reductive, sometimes not. Some films have a fantasy science fiction feel and make considerable use of special effects, while some draw more on narrative traditions and yet others have the abstract lyricism and technical virtuosity associated with experimental films. Not surprisingly, for people skilled at title sequences, their short films often have non-sequential structures: Saul and Elaine adeptly fashioned impressionistic films out of individual sequences and an accumulation of images, mood and ideas. Even with a strong narrative, their tendency was to let images ‘speak’ and audiences experience the close connections between image and sound. They used a range of cinematic techniques, including animation, live-action, fast cutting, split-screen, wide-screen, zoom and underwater photography, but believed that the medium had to serve the message. So economical were their ways of working and so magical the effects produced on low budgets with ‘low-tech’ equipment, that director George Lucas (a former student of Saul’s at University of Southern California) showed footage to his staff at Industrial Light and Magic, the company responsible for special effects in a host of motion pictures including the Star Wars trilogy, as an exemplar of what could be achieved on a low budget without digital aids.[15]

The Basses’ first sponsored films, From Here To There (for United Airlines) and The Searching Eye (for Kodak), were ‘soft sell’ advertising. Shown at the 1964–65 World’s Fair, these visual essays were seen by about 35,000 people a day over two seasons. Also seen by thousands, probably millions over the years, was the Academy Award-winning Why Man Creates (1968, Kaiser Aluminum). Widely used by educators and companies seeking to encourage creativity, it was one of the most successful short sponsored films, commercially and critically. Elaine was less involved with Why Man Creates, because their second child was born in 1967, but was back in full partnership for the Oscar-nominated The Solar Film (1980), with Robert Redford as executive producer on behalf of Consumer Action Now. It mixes animation and live-action in sequences that vary in tone from lyricism to humour. Each section makes its point effectively, from the creation of the Earth and the sun’s influence on plant and animal life, to fossil fuel shortages and the effectiveness of contemporary solar technology. The segments meld into a continuous whole and viewers absorb a wider message about the power of the sun.

The Basses’ fascination with the mysterious and healing qualities of light is best seen in Quest (1983) (see Plate 21). Made for the Japanese-based Mokichi Okada Association that calls for holistic regeneration, it tells of a search for life-giving light. Elaine spoke of their belief that ‘we are, each of us, a walking bundle of energy to be spent productively’ and the film is imbued with her Zen-like spirituality. Much of the visual power comes from images of pure form and the illusion of an ominous, light-starved world achieved through shifting the colour balance of the film towards the blue end of the spectrum. Viewers, like the hero, experience light deprivation and yearn for a warmth that comes only at the end.

Saul viewed the chance to direct the low-budget Phase IV (1974), a science-fiction-cumsurrealistic ecological suspense story about the apportionment and control of the resources of Earth, as an opportunity to develop his interest in storytelling, characterization and visual effects in greater depth than titles, montages or short films allowed (see Plate 22). The film would undoubtedly have benefited from a wonderful epilogue about ‘Paradise Lost’, storyboarded by Saul, but the project fell foul of changes in personnel and budget cuts and was never well promoted by Paramount. Today it enjoys a cult following, not least for its stupendous imagery that more than compensates for the wooden script and acting.

Corporate Identity

Corporate identity, not film-making, occupied most of Saul’s time from the mid-1960s. Among the bigger campaigns of that decade were Alcoa (1960), Continental Airlines (1967), Bell Telephone (1968) and Quaker (1969), while those of the 1970s and 1980s included United Airlines (1974), Avery (1978), Girl Scouts (1978), Minolta (1980), AT&T (1981), the J. Paul Getty Trust (1983), and Kose (1988, Japan). The 1990s saw campaigns for Minami (1990), Maeda (1990) and JOMO (1993), all companies based in Japan, where Saul’s ability to express poetics within corporate imagery was much admired. The following story, which Saul loved to tell, is indicative of his ability to think ‘on his feet’ (see Plate 23). In 1980, after Saul had finished pitching a concept to Minolta, the retired but revered company founder, whose son then ran the company, expressed his reservations about the need to change the company identity. He picked up a tiny camera and demanded to know how Saul could possibly add a symbol to Minolta’s smallest miniature camera without it looking ridiculous. Taken aback, Saul glanced at his financial partner, Herb Yager, who sat smoking his Dunhill pipe. The famous Dunhill trademark, a white spot on the pipe, triggered a new idea. Quick as a flash, Saul replied that he would create the new trademark inside the ‘O’ of MINOLTA. Fortunately, the ‘old lion’, as Saul referred to the founder, liked the reply and gave the new corporate identity project his blessing.

When Saul died in 1996, he was still working on corporate identity and other graphic projects, including lettering and signage for The Getty Center, Los Angeles and, together with Elaine, on title sequences. Titles resumed when fans of the early titles, who had since become film directors, contacted Saul. He and Elaine made eight sequences between 1987 and 1995, the first for films with James Brooks as director (Broadcast News, 1987) or as producer (Big, 1988, Penny Marshall, and The War of the Roses, 1989, Danny DeVito). These were fairly modest projects, as were those for Doc Hollywood (1991, Michael Caton Jones) and Higher Learning (1995, John Singleton). Grander in scale and more lyrical and poetic was the title-sequence-cum-prologue for Juno Sato’s Tonko/ Dun Huang/The Silk Road (1988), an action-packed romantic melodrama that opens with the 1900 ‘discovery’ of eleventh-century scrolls sealed in caves near the ancient city of Dun Huang. Elaine’s concept for this sequence, which invites contemplation on the passage of history, was triggered by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s thoughts on the evanescence of power in his poem ‘Ozymandias’, 1818 .By contrast, for Mr Saturday Night (1992, Billy Crystal), the story of an old Jewish comedian reminiscing about the past, Saul dug into personal memories of Jewish life in the 1940s after they decided to evoke nostalgia for the past through food.

The titles for Martin Scorsese, for Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Age of Innocence (1993) and Casino (1995), are among their very best. Writer Nick Pileggi, who collaborated with Scorsese on the first and last films, told me: ‘For a director such as Scorsese who is totally committed to every last inch of the film, there is no greater tribute than to hand over the opening of your film to them’.[16] For Goodfellas, Scorsese already had a placement for the credits and the music, but not the right lettering or mood. To the powerful opening, with its cold-blooded murder, Saul and Elaine added mesmerizing credits rushing across the screen. The credits recalled those for Psycho, but blurred like a car passing at high speed, similar to the one in which the ‘Goodfellas’ themselves were travelling. Before the murder, the typography is white on black; afterwards red.

For Cape Fear, a tale of revenge centring on a psychotic rapist stalking a girl, the Basses created a stunning noir sequence based on the notion of submerged emotions and the black potential of the psyche. Pleasing and disturbing images play against each other, as does the idea of surfaces and what lurks beneath them. The lusciously sensual, yet gently restrained, sequence for The Age of Innocence alludes to the suppressed desire at the heart of Edith Wharton’s novel about life and manners in late nineteenth-century New York. Elaine suggested time-lapse photography of flowers sensually unfolding and dissolving, one into another, and overlaying the flowers with lace and calligraphy from period etiquette books.

I want to close with Saul and Elaine’s final project together, the powerful title sequence for Casino (see Plate 24). ‘Think Dante’s Inferno and Hieronymus Bosch, set against Bach’s St Matthew Passion’, Saul told me, ‘and you’ll get an impression of what we’re after’.[17] Scorsese opens the film with the Robert De Niro character leaving a casino, turning on the car ignition and the car blowing up. Only then does the title sequence begin. After a body catapulting heavenwards in a fiery mass, there is a disconcerting, yet mesmerizingly seductive, mini-film of shimmering lights in abstract forms; of hyper-reality distorted and made lyrical, not unlike ‘the strip’ itself. It ends with the same character descending into hell. Pileggi, who wrote the script with Scorsese, stated:

Their opening is simply brilliant. I was so touched that they had understood the writing; that they knew what the film was trying to do. There must have been a hundred Hollywood films about Las Vegas, certainly endless titles which have tried to capture the essence of that city, but none quite like this . . . Elaine and Saul found the perfect metaphor for the film as a whole – for Las Vegas in the 1970s and for descent of the Mafia into Hell.[18]

I offer it as a fitting finale to this lecture about the work of Saul Bass, including that undertaken with his beloved Elaine.



[1] My lecture was dedicated to Saul Bass (1920–1996). This published version is dedicated to him and to Art Goodman (1926–2008). My lecture, delivered in 2004, was based upon my forthcoming book on Saul Bass that includes his work with Elaine Bass (London: Laurence King Publishing, forthcoming). I want to thank Jennifer Bass, Elaine Bass, Anne Coco, Kristine Krueger, Brad Roberts, Harriet Atkinson and Jeremy Aynsley for their help with this published version of my lecture. My thanks also to everyone who has spoken to me about Saul, Elaine and their work over the years.

[2] See Pat Kirkham, Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).

[3] Reyner Banham, ‘Klarheit, Ehrlichkeit, Einfachkeit . . . and Wit Too!: The Case Study Houses in the World’s Eyes’, in Elizabeth Smith (ed.), Blueprints For Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), pp.183–95. For the Bass House see Esther McCoy, Case Study Houses 1945–1962 (Los Angeles: Hennessey and Ingalls, 1977), pp.142–53.

[4] See Pat Kirkham, ‘Looking for the Simple Idea’, Sight & Sound , 4, February 1994, pp.16–20 , ‘Saul Bass and Billy Wilder in Conversation’, Sight & Sound , 5, May 1995, pp.18–21 , ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, Sight & Sound , 6, January 1996, pp.12–13 , and ‘The Jeweller’s Eye’, Sight & Sound , 7, April 1996, pp.18–19.

[5] Mary Banham to Pat Kirkham, 2004. An ‘anonymous’ advertisement for On the Threshold of Space (1956, Robert Webb) illustrated in Lawrence Alloway, ‘Symbols Wanting’, Design , vol. 113, May 1958: 24 ( ‘The Arts and Mass Media’, Architectural Design , February 1958: 84–85 ), for example, turns out to have been designed by Saul Bass. Design and art direction: Saul Bass; illustration: Al Kallis (Kallis Collection).

[6] Much of this text is taken from interviews with Saul Bass and Elaine Bass, and with people who knew and/ or worked with them. My main interviews and conversations with Saul Bass were conducted in 1993, 1994 and 1995 (Los Angeles and London); those with Elaine in 1994, 1995 and 2003 (Los Angeles and London) and, intermittently, ever since.

[7] I am grateful to Joe Morgenstern (who interviewed Rosenfeld in 1996) for this information.

[8] Saul Bass’s name is not on the poster he designed, probably because he was working for Buchanan at the time, but it was published under his name after he went freelance two years later.

[9] Elaine went to work for Saul in December 1956. Shortly afterwards, Morris Marsh became a business partner, taking on responsibility for sales and workflow, and the office became known as Saul Bass & Associates (SB/A). In 1960, Saul hired Art Goodman (who had been freelancing for him since about 1957) to help with the realization of design concepts. Goodman’s assistant, George Araki, was hired at the same time, as was Nancy von Lauderbach (production manager). Marsh stayed for twenty years, Goodman for over thirty and Araki and von Lauderbach until Saul’s death in 1996. In 1978, Saul brought in a new business partner to ensure he could focus on design. Thereafter the firm was known as Bass/Yager & Associates (BY/A).

[10] Kirkham/Dorfsman interview, 2003 (New York).

[11] Kirkham/Saul Bass interview, 1995 (London) and Kirkham/ Goodman interview, 2003 (Los Angeles).

[12] Kirkham/Goodman interview, 2003 (Los Angeles). See also Art Goodman on Saul Bass, untitled notes, nd. Bass Archive.

[13] Kirkham/Saul Bass interview, 1994 (Los Angeles).

[14] Everett Aison, ‘Saul Bass: The Designer as Film-Maker’, Print , January 1969, p.94.

[15] Kirkham/Saul Bass interview, 1994 (Los Angeles) and Marsha Jeffer, Guide to Quest, Pyramid Film & Video, Los Angeles, n.d.

[16] Kirkham/Pileggi (telephone) interview, 1994.

[17] Kirkham/Saul Bass (telephone) interview, 1994.

[18] Kirkham/Pileggi (telephone) interview, 1994.