A publication art director
—RB, June 2022
AS MUCH FUN as I was having in Houston in 1971 working for Adie Marks, the strong and brilliant head of Gulf State Advertising, I really couldn’t live on my salary without living at home. And if you’ve ever taken acid at your parents’ house, you know what I mean by needing a raise.
Off hours, I had enjoyed collaborating with Nathan Fain on Newspaper. His family owned the daily in Nacogdoches, Texas, and he was thinking about how a weekly could be reinvented in Houston. (Fain was later the first communications director of GMHC, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and was an early victim of AIDS.)
Stephen Mindich had seen Print Project Amerika, the magazine I dropped out of college to produce. Through Gulf State, he hired me to redesign Boston After Dark, including a logo for B. A. D., a new free edition. This got me thinking about the concept “alternative weekly”—in contrast to the underground newspapers of the 60s. Mindich wanted to upgrade the look of the paper to compete with the better designed Boston Phoenix. My ideas were quickly implemented, but before a year was out, Mindich merged the two papers under the Phoenix name and the design was abandoned. My take away: There was a new market for publication art directors.
With the design success of New York and Rolling Stone, publishers outside the small group (including Vogue, Esquire, Holiday, and Town & Country) started pushing for redesigns. I began to hear about art director positions. One day in March 1972, Michael Levy, hopeful publisher of a new state magazine to be called “Texas Cities,” came to see Marks, and I was called in here to hear his pitch. It seemed to Adie like a weak title, and Levy explained that if he based the publication in Dallas, nobody in Houston would be interested, or vice versa. This was not a city but a regional magazine, and there were just a few models like Sunset and Vermont Life.
A few weeks later Levy called me and asked if I would be interested in the art director job at what would launch as Texas Monthly. Around the same time I got call from Karl Fleming, outgoing Newsweek bureau chief in Los Angeles, who was starting a weekly newspaper “like the Village Voice,” he said. “A newspaper, but more like a cross between New York and The New Yorker for Los Angeles.” That sounded pretty good. I had a few slides that I sent off to LA.
Another call came from Florida. The editor of the weekly rotogravure magazine of the St. Peterburg Times was looking for an art director. I had heard of the newspaper, which had a well-known publisher, Nelson Poynter, and a celebrated national editor, Gene Roberts. The paper and was famous for printing color in the daily paper. I sent dupes of the slides out to St. Pete and got an enthusiastic call back. I was not sure about the place and asked about the audience. The editor explained that after a long decline, the city and region were coming back. The challenge was to appeal to an older audience, retirees and aging snow birds, as well as better-heeled newcomers. Maybe approach it with a little irony, I was thinking. “You could call it ‘Wrinkle City,’” I said.
She hung up.
But Fleming called again and said he was sending me an airplane ticket to Los Angeles. I flew out on a Friday morning, and he wanted me to go directly to the interview. “We’ll meet at my in-laws’ house in Santa Monica.” He gave me the address and told me to take a cab from the airport. “It’s only 15 minutes away.”
If he wanted to show the seductive side of LA, he couldn’t have picked a better location. Fleming’s wife was Anne Taylor, whose parents worked in Hollywood. Her father Don Taylor had a successful career as an actor in TV and movies, and then worked on the other side of the camera. He was director of The Island of Dr. Moreau and Return to the Planet of the Apes! Anne had met Karl when she was 16—half his age. They were married after she graduated from UC Santa Cruz.
Around 5:00 pm Pacific, the cab turned off the San Diego Freeway onto Wilshire., and then down San Vicente. Turning north on 26th to Sunset after about five minutes, and then down the Santa Monica Canyon, an arroyo that had been filled with big houses, pulling up at one of them. I carried my bag to the door and was met by a housekeeper who walked me to the back. There, next to a pool lined with palm trees were the Flemings and Bob Sherrill, the managing editor. It looked like they’d been there all day. They offered me a drink, and I asked what they were having in those little glasses. “Margaritas.” I joined them.
They were trying to sell me on the idea of their new weekly, LA. I had spent the previous summer on San Francisco Bay, designing the monthly KPFA program guide, Folio, and living at station manager Al Silbowitz’s brown shingle house in Berkeley, but this was a whole new level of California, and I thought I could get used to it.
The three of them were excited and funny. They described how they wanted to cover all of Los Angeles, the high and the low, the new and the traditional, from Hollywood to City Hall, from the beaches to the mountains. All with good writing. And they wanted a strong and adventurous design.
They took me to dinner at Ted’s Rancho, right on the Pacific. They continued drinking, telling stories, and getting even funnier and more keyed up. I tried to pace myself and think first about what I was going to say. I didn’t want them to hang up on me like the editor in Florida.
I spent the night at a motel in Brentwood, and the next day we talked more. Karl took me on a drive through West LA, from Beverly Hills to Compton, with a running narrative of the city’s life and politics. There was no better tour guide, but I was already sold. I got up early Sunday to get to the airport.
Back in Houston, I waited anxiously to hear their decision. In ten days, Fleming called and made an offer: The art director position at $200 a week.
I was rich!
Waiting a couple of days so as not to seem too eager, I accepted. I wrote a letter to Levy, asking him to take my name out of consideration. I didn’t say that I thought his idea had slim chance of succeeding, which was good since I was completely wrong. His magazine was launched as Texas Monthly, still in business. LA lasted six months. But if I could go back in time, I would make the same decision.
The road to LA
On a bright morning at the end of May, I set out in the Plymouth Fury I, donated by my mother, for Los Angeles. The first day of work was to be Monday, May 1. May Day. I packed some clothes, a few books, and not a lot else; I didn’t have much else. My Chicago furniture I had left in Washington. And I’m not the kind of person who accumulates memorabilia, less then than now. Like my parents, I liked to drive in a clean car, without a lot of stuff rattling around in the back seats. My world possession fit easily in the giant trunk. Uncertain how quickly I could score in LA I acquired a pound of marijuana, which I had put into a big plastic bag, stuffed into the glove compartment.
LA newspaper—we usually added “newspaper” to disambiguate it from the city and from the magazine, Los Angeles—was paying my moving expenses, so I was not worried about the gas, at 35 cents a gallon. I seem to remember the trip cost under $100, with gasoline at about 35 cents a gallon, and the motel $20. It was a 1,500-mile trip, two 12-hour days. I carefully stayed under the speed limit. Although the white Plymouth looked like a lot of unmarked police cars, I was aware that my longish hair would not get me off to a good start with a state trooper, if stopped.
I pushed to get to Las Cruces, New Mexico, the first night, went immediately to bed, and woke up early, excited about the move and the drive. I always enjoyed the road trips with my mother, and now I was in my own car, rolling past the green of East Texas and the Hill Country, to the desert brown which reminded me of Midland. Except, to the north were mountains, and as I headed west, I drove into the Rockies. After stopping for gas outside Tucson, I saw a young, longhaired hitchhiker standing by the interstate on-ramp. Without thinking about it, I picked him up. Later I asked himself, was that a good idea? But in 1972, anyone who looked like a freak looked like a friend. I mean, I had an anonymous car, and was obeying all the traffic laws, and it didn’t occur to me that there might be a risk.
The kid turned out to be 18, and shy. On the other side of Tucson I needed to stop for lunch, and I bought him some tacos. Getting back in the car, I instinctively opened the glove box to get some weed, and he was astonished to see big bag. He said, “Aren’t you paranoid that you’ll get stopped?” I said, no, I wasn’t. And I wasn’t. A combination of natural good humor, optimism, arrogance, and a little naivety was getting me by just fine.
I let the hitchhiker off in Phoenix, his destination. If the encounter were in a movie, it occurred to me later, something horrible would have happened. Or at least we would have had sex. But no, just a straight ride through the Sonoran Desert.
When planning the trip, I thought I would go right to the end of the interstate, in Santa Monica at the Pacific Ocean. But I realized that it would be dark, and after the long drive I pulled off on Overland, near where the LA office had just opened at 1516 Westwood Blvd. They put me up in a 50s motel on Pico, while I looked for a place to live. I was in LA!
The office was in a 30s apartment complex that had been converted to offices. Westwood, home of UCLA, had a cute Spanish colonial shopping area, Westwood Village, including a big movie theater with a deco tower with the letters F, O, X stacked vertically. Premieres were shown there with red carpets and klieg lights. Our building wasn’t “Mediterranean,” but a kind of LA Georgian. There were four two-story cream buildings with gable roofs and exterior stairs running up one corner of each. The newspaper had the second floor of the southwest corner building, and the art department was assigned a living room with French doors and a false balcony looking out on Westwood Blvd.
On arrival, there was no department, just me, but Karl Fleming was confident that I could figure it out in two months. Launch date 4th of July. My own confidence was strengthened by my lack of experience. The first task was to hire a staff, and I knew no designers in LA. I had only been to the city once before the interview for this job. Paul Cheslaw, who worked on Amerika while a student at Antioch Columbia, had enrolled in Cal Arts, an art and design school which had just opened in Valencia, a new subdivision east of the San Fernando Valley. He suggested I come out and meet some design students.
I drove north on the San Diego Freeway (now called the 405) until it joins Interstate 5, and then over the mountains on the Newhall Pass to Valencia. It took half an hour from Westwood in 1972. Leaving the coastal climate behind, it was dry and bare out there in the Antelope Valley, and the landscaping in Valencia was just planted. The school, in a building designed like an office park, seemed like a pretty big deal, with new classrooms and studios filled with equipment. There was art design, photography, music, dance, theater, and more. Walt Disney had underwritten the merger of the local design school, Chouinard, with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. The great man liked it when all the arts collaborated, as on the movie Fantasia, and talked about the 19th century concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, the synthesis of arts. This gave the place the feel of experimentation. But Walt did not live to see the new building, and inside it seemed chaotic, if well-funded.
Cheslaw introduced me to a photographer, Peter Karnig, who became a lifelong friend. Karnig recommended a design student named Tom Ingalls, from Minneapolis. He was the only designer I could find there, but he accepted a job, to start soon after graduation. Karnig’s photographs, which had a steady, laconic quality that reminded me of Robert Frank, found their way into the newspaper, along with many shot by Jed Wilcox, also at Cal Arts.
My experience was limited. I had been the unpaid editor at my student newspaper, the Chicago Maroon. And there was the magazine that lasted one issue. I had designed a couple of “alternative” weeklies, held a junior art director positions at an ad agency for nine months. But I had never been a publication art director. What I knew, I learned from watching Robert Dothard, who had hired me as a summer intern the year before college, and Sam Antupit, whose firm had designed Amerika. I tried to follow their example, channeled my parents, and filled in the gaps with guesses. But I pretended to be in control.
The business manager, Jim Ramo, son of the tycoon, Simon Ramo who put together the giant TRW conglomerate, had found an offset newspaper printer. It was up to me to figure out how to produce the artwork for the pages. The bids I got for typesetting, photostats, and Velox prints for the halftones, were high. And the turnaround was going to be rough. I persuaded Ramos and Fleming that we should go in-house: Buy our own typesetting machines and a stat camera and find room for them. While Compugraphic text setters were more popular and much cheaper, I hated the fonts and got LA to approve the purchase of a Mergenthaler Linotype VIP typesetter—$30,000, the price of a house in the suburbs.
The Mergenthaler salesman was a veteran of the company and regaled me with stories, like the time he brought hot-metal Linotype machines down the Amazon on a barge. To select the fonts, all he had to offer was the metal type specimen book, the softback with the red covers and black cloth spine. For text, I had selected Ionic No. 5, the granddaddy of the company’s newspaper fonts, which I had wanted to use since the Chicago Maroon, which was set in Corona, another font from the Linotype “Legibility Series.” For headlines, I bought a VGC Phototypositor—the machine I had tried to convince Adie Marks to buy at the agency. I picked out 30 fonts that came free with the machine—$3,000.
But how would I lay out 32 pages, and get them to the printer on a weekly schedule? Typically, a small weekly newspaper would have an art director, a designer and a couple of pasteup people. Copy and art would be gathered incrementally, with a quota to close six or eight pages a day. In a rational world, the editors would work a week or two ahead.
Having met the editorial team, I realized there was no way that they would pace their work with a daily quota. No, they would wait till Friday and turn in the copy, and expect the paper to be on the stands by Monday. Fleming came from Newsweek, which had dozens of people in the art department. Sherrill had been associate editor of Esquire in the 60s with Harold Hayes—and Antupit. Bill Cardozo, the number three editor, had been at the Boston Globe, with a composing room that filled a floor of the building. I don’t think any of them had an idea of the scale of production that a small startup would offer, and were vague about the work involved in design, typesetting, composition, and prepress.
I considered forming a traditional, hierarchical art department. Antupit, for example, collaborated with his assistants, but like his processor at Esquire, Henry Wolf—or the great art directors of magazines in 1950s, M. F. Agha (Vogue), Alexei Brodovich (Harper’s Bazaar), or Alan Hurlburt (Look)—worked as the traditional “master.” They had the visual ideas for the publication, and made detailed sketches that they handed out to assistants to execute. This method worked fine for a monthly (and continues to this day), but as confident as I was, I wasn’t sure how I could slap together a complete issue design in a day, never mind make it something that made me happy.
It was a new era: Top-down organization structures began to be challenged. While I learned from the Mayday newspaper experience the previous year that collectives did not produce good design, one thing I learned from my parents was that two heads are usually better than one. Joe had enjoyed collaborating with his designers—challenging them and letting them challenge him. The result was his best work. The Commercial Bank building in Midland, for example was as much the design of Bob Dennis as J. J. Black, and my dad always acknowledged that.
Talking with Ingalls, a designer with some training, I decided that I would make a thumbnail of the issue, working with the editors, and then assign pages to each designer who would be both layout and paste-up artist.
Dave Roberts, now my ex-brother-in-law, was living in LA and showed up hoping to get some writing work. He pitched in to help get the office ready with some carpentry and handyman work. We needed a lot of flat files to hold the photos and type for each page, but we didn’t have room or the budget to buy them. Roberts built plywood cabinets with 32 shelves and hung them on the walls above the drafting tables. We got empty litho film boxes from the photostat house, Fine Arts Software (we called it Fine Arts Softspot) to serve as trays to hold the stats, photo halftone prints (Veloxes), galleys, repro proofs—all the pasteup components of a page.
The designers would get their page assignments early in the week, and then find illustrations and select photos. Layouts would be half size, like I did at the Maroon, based on the copy counts that Sherrill gave us. I would approve these schematics, which indicated which fonts were going to be on the page, and kept a Xerox copy in a folder on my desk. They put their copy in the page bin and started collecting the material.
The Phototypositor arrived at the office quickly, and we all learned how to set headlines on it. I wanted a mix of styles (like you would see in Rolling Stone or Esquire), with typefaces chosen to fit each story. Each designer would set the headlines on his pages.
The VIP photo text machine was on back order, and in the beginning, we had to send out the copy for typesetting. Then, when galley proofs arrived, we’d count the length of each story to make sure it would fit. Sometimes a designer could make a full-size layout, to make sure, using the galleys and stats of the photos. If the headlines were not written, Xeroxes of dummy type were put into place. I offered a deal to the editors: If you write a headline before the layout goes down, we will make it work. If you don’t, and the layout is approved, you’ll have to write the headline to fit. Sherrill, said, “No, no. I will write them in advance.” And he did. But he was the only one.
For the “Guide” and the classifieds, where there would not be many typesetting format issues, the designers could go directly to pasteup.
Talking to Fleming and Sherrill, they felt confident that the copy flow would be managed. Bill Cardoso, not so much. He said, “I’ve done small startups and undergrounds, and we should be prepared for chaos.” But I had no idea how chaotic it would be.
Rather than an assistant art director and two “artists,” I had decided to go for three designers. But I was running out of time. I spoke to Fleming, and he said, “Put an ad in the newspaper.” It wasn’t very expensive, something like three lines for $5 for a week. I placed in the ad, and the phone began to ring. There were dozens of calls, and Jan Harkus, the receptionist, said, “Want me to tell them to bring or mail a resume and some samples.” I said, no, tell them to come in person. On Tuesday afternoon between 2:00 and 5:00. Bring their resume and a portfolio. I figured I get meet 10 or 20 folks in the afternoon. Well, more than 50 showed up, and I realized I was going to look at their stuff outside! They lined up in the little courtyard, and the line went out onto the sidewalk. Cheslaw, now LA’s “minister of propaganda,” saw the young designers on Westwood Blvd said, “Holy shit. I am calling the TV stations!” I met every applicant, and collected their resumes. I looked quickly at the portfolios, finding very little in the way of publication design. If anything looked good, I asked how they produced it, to make sure they could do the production, too.
I hired two designers right out of the line: Jim MacKenzie and Scot Gasnier, two friends from USC. They had taken journalism and photography courses, along with design, and knew a bit about printing production. Perfect.
The editors had found a photographer, Kim Gottlieb, who had experience on a Bay Area underground, and a talent for portraits. For a harder edge, I hired Waldo Nilo, who had a penchant for high contrast pictures—maybe too high contrast—but a good knowledge of LA.
Ingalls couldn’t start until after graduation, but I thought we were in pretty good shape, considering how quickly everything was coming together. The editorial plan was more about defining the city in an almost literary way, rather than cover the police blotter. The editors wrote in an eight-page preview published around Memorial Day: “LA means to give you information that will help you survive and enjoy the city. . . . This paper wants to help people get back in touch with each other—and with things that are real.” The front page of the preview was a staff photo and short bios of each of us.
Roger Black, 23, the Art Director, is from Houston, Texas where he handled the Houston Astrodome and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey accounts for Gulf State Advertising Agency. Previously he edited the Chicago Maroon, while attending the University of Chicago. Black also edited and designed Print Project Amerika, a national student magazine, worked for the Pacifica Foundation as a designer, and studied under Robert Dothard, a prominent American typographer.
On page three, there was a full-page poster style illustration, headed, “Greetings from Los Angeles.” It was an homage to 40s LA, produced by Robert Blue and Joan Nielsen, a young commercial art team. Their work had a little of the Hollywood vibe that I needed to complement my journalistic style. They did several illustrations for the paper in the next few months.
There were two pages of preview editorial focusing on service, including a Q & A column called, “Cabbages & Kings.” Barry Siegel, a staff reporter just out of the Columbia J-school and later a Pultizer-prize winning writer for the Los Angeles Times, reported on the price of prescription drugs in LA drug stores. “‘No, our prices aren’t arbitrary,’ the Super Drug-Pico druggist insisted.” There was a comparison chart, with prices for drugs like Darvon and Valium at eight area drugstores which had a surprising range. The piece ran in the first issue, with a legible update of the chart.
The big picture at the top of page five was a sepia duotone of two fearsome young black men in black hats, captioned “The Baddest. . . . It’s an old story, but there is a new ending.” The photograph is credited, Terry McDonell, who is also a reporter on the masthead. He was the most visual person on the editorial side of LA. After graduating from Berkeley, he had worked for the Associated Press and joined an overseas video unit as a cameraman. We became good friends, worked together on magazines like Outside, where he was managing editor, and then Smart and Esquire, where he was editor-in-chief.
McDonell frequently checked the art department, and he tells the story that he asked me before the launch, “What about a photo editor?” I didn’t have the budget, and at the Maroon I just put all the contact sheets in a folder and went through them quickly, ordering prints. If the photographers wanted to make more, they were welcome to add to the “selects.” Then as the pages took shape, I’d chose the finals.
Sitting on a shelf above my drafting table was a wire basket marked “Photos.” I pointed at the basket, and said, “There’s my photo editor.”
Next: No. 1
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