Psychedelic Language A graphic designer’s point-of-view. Scott Santoro: Principal, Worksight psychedelic —adjective relating to or denoting drugs (esp. LSD) that produce hallucinations and apparent expansion of consciousness. • relating to or denoting a style of rock music originating in the mid-1960s, characterized by musical experimentation and drug-related lyrics. • denoting or having an intense, vivid color or a swirling abstract pattern : a psychedelic Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 1 T-shirt. —noun a psychedelic drug. “High Society: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury,” was the title of a 2002 exhibit hosted by Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art. Included were a series of lectures, one of which was made by Victore Moscoso who designed some of the most amazing works in this psychedelic genre. I was asked to create a lecture with the point-of-view of a working graphic designer. For me it was really an excuse to listen to lots of Jimi Hendrix. I ended up titling the lecture “psychedelic language” because an entire generation’s spirit was translated through these posters. This is a poster by Victor Moscoso, which he said he designed in only a few days. This was the case with many of the psychedelic posters—there was hardly an money or time to get these pieces completed, and yet, they made due. Moscoso said that this face wasn’t photographed, but simply copied out of a magazine. There was no budget for typesetting, and instead, was quickly rendered by penciling in two curved lines, one for the baseline and one for the cap height, and blocking in letters between. This process gave each poster a unique hand made quality. This intense poster by Bob Schnepf almost seems meant for a blacklight. Color was also an important characteristic in the psychedelic language, but before I go any deeper into the formal qualities, I’d like to examine them from a social and cultural perspective first. Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 2 Besides buying books on the subject of rock posters, I visited antique stores and second hand shops to see what residue I might find from the psychedelic era—approximately 1965 when the Beatles began experimenting with LSD through to 1971. I found this Look magazine from November of 1967 which featured a story about psychedelic body painting. November was only three months after “The Summer of Love” in which young people from across American and the world travel to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, boosting the population from 15,000 to around 100,000. By late ’67, psychedelia had even worked its way through the Iron Curtain finding its way into Polish posters, who were especially keen on visual acts of rebellion through their designs. Someone that we used to read in grad school was French Post-Structuralist Roland Barthe who said that “Style is an organized network of obsessions.” Psychedelia fell under this definition of an organized network of obsessions under the banner of counter-culture, with the hippies of Haight Ashbury as its muse. Their obsessions developed into an organized network, for example, collecting and wearing ornamented stuff that no one else wanted—stuff their parents had thrown out in the ’50s. And they lived in Victorian houses that were considered big and ugly places that no one wanted to live in. This was true in Detroit and Chicago as well. The American downtowns of that era either tore down or removed layers of ornamentation for the sake of appearing “modern.” So the hippy embracing of past styles, and the adopting of an antimodern aesthetic seems to have been an act of defiance. This ad from Look magazine reads “’68 Buick. Now we’re talking your language” and it visualizes what hippies were defying—that the car is a status symbol, that the crew-cut was the way to go, and that complacency was coupled with a surge of economic growth in America fed this kind of Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 3 lifestyle. This magazine also had an article about the Vietnam War adding credence to the counter-culture movement. If you consider the act of growing long hair, then it’s easy to understand how it was a sign of military protest. The same is true of the colorful vocabulary, which contrasted the drab fatigues and gray flannel suits. Flower power was a slogan that symbolized a passive resistance to violence and war, and it found form on dresses, ties, and shirts, which might have helped spawn the back-to-nature movement later in the 1970s. Psychedelic posters truly reflected and reacted to the social and cultural status quo. The word itself, psychedelic, means mind-expanding, and the psychedelic drug, LSD, or acid, was thought to be a way to expand one’s thinking by temporarily remove the user from the world to find some other way. This poster announced a music event, but also symbolically portrayed an escape from reality—a druginduced trip. Let’s take a look at of my favorite posters by Victor Moscoso. It’s impeccably crafted with a bouquet of flowers created out of letter forms. If you look closely at the vase, you’ll see a silhouette of an upside down face. It’s set up for hours of inspection. I translated the poster’s information into something more neutral, but it ended up looking like Russian Constructivism. It has a revolutionary tone, but it lost its surreal quality. No matter how neutral I might have arranged the information, its form still would have communicated something as a visual code to the reader. TICKET OUTLETS: SAN FRANCISCO: MNASIDKA (HAIGHT-ASHBURY), CITY LIGHT BOOKS (NORTH BEACH), THE TOWN SQUIRE (1318 POLK). BERKELEY: DISCOUNT RECORDS. SAUSALITO: TIDE’S BOOKSTORE. Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 4 REDWOOD CITY: REDWOOD HOUSE OF MUSIC (700 WINSLOW). SAN MATEO: TOWN & COUNTRY MUSIC CENTER (4TH & EL CANINO). LA MER CAMERAS & MUSIC (HILLSDALE AT 19TH. MENLO PARK: JEPLER’S BOOKS AND MAGAZINES (825 EL CANINO). SAN JOSE: DISCORAMA (235 SO. FIRST ST). 1967 © FAMILY DOG PRODUCTIONS, 639 GOUGH ST., SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF 04102 Psychedelic poster artists borrowed heavily from other styles and time periods like this direct lift from Alphonse Mucha’s “Job” rolling papers. The lithograph from the Art Nouveau period makes an obvious connection to pot smoking. There’s also a connection between the use of LSD and absinthe that Parisian artists used to drink. But this piracy seems legit. As design critic Steve Heller wrote in his book, “Graphic Wit,” “Psychedelia borrowed from the vernaculars of previous times and places to become the vernacular of its own time and place.” Some forms were even derived from Roman and Gothic sources like this poster by Bonnie Maclean. The psychedelic audience “got it.” It became their imagery too. Psychedelia was grounded in Eastern spirituality, which equated it with the consciousness-raising experience of LSD. The flowing electronic music and colorful light shows supported the break from reality. This must have all seemed like something from another planet, which you can hear in the narrator voice. It reveals Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 5 the generation gap that existed. There were a lot of faces blended in with the typography of the posters like this one announcing a band called The Mindbenders, and The Chocolate WatchBand. Poster artist Wes Wilson embedded a face in a poster for a Van Morrison concert that feels very van Gogh-ish with it’s vibrant brushwork. These posters are unlike anything ever seen. The previous generation’s posters—the early rock and roll singers, they had the look of boxing posters. They were letterpressed with blocky wood type of the sans or slab serif category. And there could be an arguement made that the simplicity of this visual language coordinated with the simple beat of the music, but the process was mechanical—made by the printer. The early psychedelic posters were hand drawn by people that seemed more like fans of the music and the bands, which Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 6 brought them closer to art than to advertising. Here’s another early poster—they look like sketches more than final posters, but their unfinished look appealed to their audience. Also, I think that just like the music, their groove became as much part of the message as the words themselves. As these psychedelic posters were being created, posters by Swiss design greats such as Armin Hofmann were honing something completely different. This poster from 1967 is an example of the International Style, which became the predominant design language in the world. In fact, this approach was to clean up the world. American designers followed suit using this visual language to serve as the voice of corporate America. Here’s a poster from 1968 by New York designer, George Tscherny, for General Dynamics, where ice is reduced and abstracted into pure shapes. Rich Griffin’s illustration for headliner Jimi Hendrix on the right incorporated a lyrical cartoon and it’s funny to see how diametrically opposed it is to the reductivist approach. Here is another by Griffin. His illustrative approach folded Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 7 nicely into the broader psychedelic language. All these posters were hung outside on the street, but it’s hard to imagine. In fact, they only existed for a brief time on the street because 90% of them were gone within an hour’s time— carefully removed and rehung on bedroom walls where there was time for contemplation. The deliberate illegibility required the extra time for reading, and for any additional meaning to be found inside them. This is another Victor Moscoso that looks type inside of a blender. Moscoso is one of the only psychedelic poster artists formally trained in graphic design. Most of the others were fine artists. He arrived in San Francisco with a BFA from the Cooper Union, and an MFA from Yale in graphic design. Moscoso said that he had to unlearn all the rules to make this kind poster. And all the rules he did know, especially in how to use vibrating or ”hot“ colors were learned through intensive study with Josef Albers, chair of Yale’s design department. Albers himself was a student of the Bauhaus school in Weimar where he began his own color studies, specifically opposite colors, and the ambiguities of visual and spatial perception. And Alber’s work had a dramatic influence on the Optical Art movement, which, in 1965, was a full exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art titled “The Responsive Eye.” I have a feeling that hallucinogens were all the rage for op-art museumgoers. I mentioned this lecture to Kathy McCoy who chaired Cranbrook Academy of Art’s design department while I was a student there. She said that one of her first freelance gigs upon graduating from Michigan State University in 1967 was to create psychedelic posters for the Birmingham-Bloomfield Teen Center just outside of Detroit. This is the psychedelic logo Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 8 she designed for the center. And these are some of the posters. Kathy noted that as she silkscreening these posters in the basement of her house, Detroit’s inner city was in the midst of riots, and literally burning, which, as she said, “definitely increased the sense of revolution.” You can see the logo being warped in all of these. There’s the logo top right being reached at with this tough arm. I think these posters also help explain how the language reached across America, in this case, to the Midwest. Kathy also sent me posters she created later for car showrooms in Detroit, which she admits, were very “Yellow Submarine.” Eventually corporation America blended the language in with Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 9 their own promotions. For example, here is a psychedelic commercial for McDonalds. It’s a fairly late arrival—from 1973 I believe, which might define this as psychedelic residue. My own personal library includes a book version of “The Love Bug’ movie. Hollywood tried to make psychedelia palatable to the general public, and the movie did have an affinity with the times in the sense that the idea of being different was becoming acceptable. The book’s introduction states “Of the many millions of small cars that rolled off the assembly lines, it happened that one was different from all the others.” Psychedelia was also produced on the east coast, especially in the work of New York City’s Pushpin Group. The illustrators and designers at Pushpin had an eclectic approach even before psychedelia. This is perhaps the most famous poster that came out of their studio in 1966 by designer, Milton Glaser. As psychedelia became more ubiquitous, psychedelic typefaces became available to the advertising and design fields. This is a photolettering catalog from 1968, and it may have contributed to psychedelia’s demise by turning the psychedelic style into something mechanically done. Here is an inside page showing the various faces available for setting. Psychedelia seemed destined for a burn out or Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 10 overdose. This poster by Wes Wilson in 1966 is considered one of the first psychedelic posters. And this was one of the last posters of the genre by David Singer, commissioned for the unfortunate closing of the Fillmore in 1971. It metaphorically interprets the psychedelic era as a dream state, with a white cat in the center symbolizing a light and playful mind, batting the globe of Saturn, while a black cat sits in the background as one’s mysterious unconscious. This poster showed the growth happening within the psychedelic language by a new generation of designers getting involved. But the posters couldn’t exist without the Fillmore to stay relevant, and by the beginning of the 1970s psychedelia, as a movement, was over. Since I titled this lecture “Psychedelic Language,” I had to ask the question, “Is the psychedelic language a dead language?” Or better yet, can I use it as a stylistic form today? These two framed posters sit next to each other in my studio and they helped me understand the question better. A highly stylized and crafted Fillmore poster is on the left, and on the right, a poster for a beer party (from my Cranbrook days) created by a sculpture student. The beer party poster used photo emulsion as paint to word out in drunken language: “photo department, yes they’re back today...let’s be happy about it...music, beer, 10pm.” The poster is so outside of the accepted design aesthetic that I think I’d have to be drunk Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 11 to reproduce it because I’m so entrenched in the commercial mode of clean lines and mechanical letterforms. The thing about it is that it still feeds me in the way that graffiti does. For example, these graffiti tags, or, signatures of people who all know each other, also read as pure gestures that blend in with the distressed, outdoor urban environment. Their abstraction triggers compositional ideas for me that have to do with color, shape, and contrast. It’s the same with naive vernacular typography. For example, in this photograph of a shop window in Amsterdam, denture repair is advertised, but with vinyl type stuck onto a light box for nighttime illumination, and actual dentures in the foreground. It’s just so odd, to the point of being a bit surreal, but it’s also incredibly resourceful and inventive. Here’s another example: street numbers created with black tape. It’s completely outside of the rules, yet it works in a Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 12 stripped down, Punk kind of way. Since music is a driving force behind these psychedelic posters, I think it’s valuable to explain Punk Rock, which is an antiestablishment genre of music begun in 1974. Energy, and the simple will to play, became more important than what the overproduced crafting of the 1970s, and the fliers and posters like this one from 1978 by Seattle artist Frank Edie, reflected the raw attitude. Graphic designers latched onto this aesthetic direction because the profession itself started to lose its energy and needed some refreshment. David Carson—dubbed the father of grunge—happened onto the scene with perfect timing. Carson was somewhat untrained in graphic design, which was perfect because grunge had a very “I don’t care” attitude and his art direction of magazines like Surfer and RayGun hit a chord. Instead of fliers printed in the hundreds, these magazines were printed in the tens of thousands. Its language still permeates our design culture today. The phrase “whatever” might be the residue of that movement—my seven-year-old uses it on me constantly. When we pair psychedelia next to grunge we see the shared passion for typography, but the highly stylized level of psychedelia puts it at odds with the naive languages like Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 13 distressed grunge. Yet, I see increasing references to the psychedelic, especially involving subjects that have to do with community, rebellion, and the environment. The hand drawn spirit has a quality that confronts the coldness of the computer differently than grungy distress does, for example with this poster designed by the Henderson Bromstead Art Company. And this rebellious, and slightly dangerous music poster was hung at a recent Pratt show, designed by Pratt student, Maggie Ciavarella. Maggie also used the psychedelic language to bring an environmental bend to these postcard design where she integrated of type into natural settings. One of my Pratt seniors, Arianne Schaeffer, used colors more associated with an acid trip in her poster for a personal myth which involved her love of the Girl Scouts—and it just occurred Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 14 to me that there might be a connection between the two. And another of my Pratt seniors, Olivia Chen, used the psychedelic language to create a unique brand identity for Bike Heaven. This was all on her own without my coaching or pushing for the language. And in a poster that includes a sprinkling of psychedelic lettering and distressed punk, Olivia considers herself as a kind of love child caught between confucianism and consumerism—in other words, between the development of moral perfection and the preoccupation with consumer goods. Olivia was able to use both visual languages with confidence because that is what graphic designers do to convey meaning. It’s the real thing. Since Olivia use an image of the real thing to explain her point, I’ll finish with a Coke commercial made in 1971. This is branding language, the premise being that we can all get along if Psychedelic Language • Scott Santoro • 15 we simply buy each other cokes.
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