“[They] wanna bring the Eighties back. That’s okay with me, that’s where they made me at.” —Jay Z (Blue Magic)

1980s fashions channeled the 1940s

The 1980s was a nostalgic decade. Fashion was a fun house mirror reflection of the 1940s. The Norma Kamali-inspired wide-padded shoulder, cinch-waisted ensembles (modeled by Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, 1987) were dead ringers for World War II fashions—only more extreme. Men’s suits designed by Giorgio Armani (worn by Richard Gere in American Gigolo, 1980) were cut loose, also with broad shoulders, low-gorge lapels, and a low-slung button stance that referenced “The Bold Look” of the immediate post-war period. A well-tailored Forties movie actor, Ronald Reagan, led the free world. The era's Post-Modern towers reinterpreted architectural forms of the past. And within those buildings there were fortunes to be made. “Greed is… good!” proclaimed Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) in Wall Street, 1987.

BIG PICTURES

The Internet was but a little-known novelty used by universities in the Eighties. Cross-platform marketing was still an analog affair; feature films were advertised with theatrical trailers, TV spots, outdoor media and through newspaper and magazine ads. Designer/provocateur David Carson wouldn’t proclaim “The End of Print” until the next decade. And measuring 27" x 40”, movie posters (the subject of this article) were at the top of the print advertising pantheon.

Best Picture Oscar® poster designed by author

I recently took another look at at the 80 Years of Oscar poster I designed for the Motion Picture Academy. Comprised of key art (the image that provides the foundation on which a movie’s marketing campaign is based) representing all the movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture up to that time, it’s essentially a poster about posters. Focusing on the section commemorating the Eighties, it's clear that all of the key art representing those Best Picture winners aren't necessarily the best posters—although some are outstanding. I wondered if those old one-sheets had anything to teach us—apart from providing a visual record of our pre-digital recent past. If you’re interested in movies, marketing, design, or just missing the pleasures and pursuits lost to the pandemic, read on for a guided tour of American advertising ephemera which promoted that gilded decade’s award-winning films, with an occasional detour for artistic merit. I’ve attempted to credit the creatives involved and apologize for any errors or omissions.

Template design—big heads in the sky

STARS, STORIES, AND CONCEPTS

A studio marketing executive once said to me, “A lot of the movies are crap. At least we can make a good poster!” The good and not so-good movie posters of the Eighties mostly fit into one of three compositional schemes dating back to the silent film era: (1) the story sell illustrated as a montage or scene from the movie, (2) the concept sell consisting of juxtapositions that form a new idea, and (3) the star sell characterized by big heads in the sky, often with a small cityscape, landscape, or seascape placed in the lower quarter of the poster. Some designers sardonically called the latter format “The Warner Bros. Template” regardless of the studio or setting; whether depicting Manhattan (Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990, and the aforementioned Wall Street, 1987) or Manhattan Beach, California (Tequila Sunrise, 1988). It was a durable visual trope. The most organic use of the head in the sky convention—Darth Vader’s head in outer space, to be specific—was designed by Seiniger Advertising for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980. More on that boutique agency later.


Pictures within posters symbolizing families falling apart

TASTE AND RESTRAINT

On the poster for the decade's first Best Picture winner, Ordinary People, 1980, photos divided by hinged picture frames represent a family separated by grief. It’s a more nuanced execution than the snapshot of a family about to separate for the previous year’s Best Picture winner, the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.


Key art for Best Picture winners based on real-life events.

The Chariots of Fire one-sheet, 1981 Oscar winner, is striking for its vast amount of negative space which underscores a long telephoto shot of the British 1924 Olympic track and field hopefuls running across the top of the composition. This image of athletes in training suggests the long odds they would face in competition. The one-sheet for the 1982 Best Picture winner, Gandhi, created by Kaiser Creative, conveys even greater scope. A diminutive Ben Kingsley portrays the movie’s namesake in what appears to be a frame taken from the movie. He is surrounded by a cropped-off crowd which implies—as spelled out by the body copy—that a “nation of 350 million people” continues just beyond the frame.


Key art in (mostly) black and white

The 1983 poster for Terms of Endearment, 1983 Best Picture winner, uses a grayscale snapshot of a mother (Shirley MacLaine) and her adult daughter (Debra Winger). The casual image is formally framed by somber black to foreshadow family tragedy. A more striking black and white poster that same year promoted the remake of the gangster film Scarface. Its strong vertical configuration is still a brain worm for designers.

Best (illustrated) Pictures of 1984 and 1985

MID-DECADE REFRESH

Illustration was often used to attract Eighties audiences to promote comedy and action/ adventure films, and occasionally for prestige pictures. Painted with a horror genre palette of red and black, a masked specter of (presumably) Salieri looms over the Amadeus one-sheet, 1984, whom the Best Picture-winning movie implicates as the cause of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s untimely death. As a silent visual, the key art can only hint at the sonic brilliance of the film’s Mozartian score.

In 1985, illustration was also deployed for the Best Picture winner Platoon. The hi-con, agitprop graphic of an upside down helmet is adorned with a peace symbol and a soldier's dog tags which cleverly form letters within the title treatment. Like a passage from the film's elegiac score (Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings), Mike Kaiser's copy achieves an appropriately somber tone for this anti-war film, “The first casualty of war is innocence.”


PRINCES OF PRINT

Movie studio marketing departments had long since moved from New York to Los Angeles by the mid-Eighties and were outsourcing print creative to a number of boutique advertising agencies specializing in entertainment, also located in the City of Angels. For big-budget films, they included Bacon O’Brien, B.D. Fox & Friends, Frankfurt/Gips/Balkind, and Spiros. The agencies that arguably dominated Eighties key art were led by Anthony Goldschmidt and Tony Seiniger, two advertising designers (Seiniger’s preferred term) with vastly different temperaments and artistic styles. Founded by the tall, urbane Yale-educated Goldschmidt, Intralink Film & Graphic Design, located on La Peer Drive in Beverly Hills, was distinguished by its understated gray and white Georgian façade. The firm was known for restrained designs such as the aforementioned Chariots of Fire poster.


Seiniger Advertising was helmed by its hard-driving namesake whose idea of weekend relaxation was racing vintage Formula 1 cars [full disclosure: I worked there]. The always busy shop (ad-speak for agency) was located in Los Angeles at the intersection of Third Street and La Jolla Avenue, equidistant to the major movie studios. The diagonally wood-sided complex (since demolished) had narrow stairways leading to aeries that served as improvised ateliers, an octagonal production room, a serene courtyard, and a subterranean-feeling trailer department was, depending on where one sat, an eagles’ nest or rabbit warren of creativity (both Seiniger and Goldschmidt fielded successful trailer departments).


Most Eighties one-sheets for mainstream movies weren’t overtly designed. One reason may be that studio marketers often employed focus groups to test comps (facsimiles of posters); the lowest common denominator biases of these groups may have obliviated creative risk-taking. Another explanation is that a lack of a distinctive style make Eighties key art seem less contrived, and thus a more convincing vehicle of mass communication. It sure didn’t discourage the sale of movie tickets.


The polished conservative look of the Eighties, consisting of serif typography (Garamond, anyone?) and representational imagery, matched the political climate in the United States. Ronald Reagan (POTUS, 1980-1988), whose avuncular persona was first established in Warner Bros. movies and later polished on television’s GE Theater, is credited with revitalizing conservatism; moreover, the successive Republican administration of George H.W. Bush (1988-1992) was called the preppie Presidency due to the president's Ivy League style.


Indie key art for Island Pictures' releases

INDIE SPIRIT

Independent films required a different mentality to reach audiences; big heads in sky wouldn't cut it with “art” film aficionados. But the lack of big-name stars left space for high-concept graphic design and edgier style. Key art for indie pictures were created by boutique agencies that included Rod Dyer & Associates and Mark Matsuno. For the Oscar-nominated Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985, Matsuno's use of Art Deco typography (Newport Land) with a silhouetted image of a woman in a tropical setting hinted at the suppressed glamour of the film's mysterious protagonist. The agency that consistently expressed the indie spirit was Concept Arts, led by Lucinda Cowell and Ron Michaelson. For example, an unlikely Mondrian color scheme and distressed surface texture skins their poster for River’s Edge, 1986, a deftly cropped image of a young woman asleep in a field. On closer inspection, the viewer realizes the woman is dead.



Seiniger's sentimental side

NOSTALGIA IS GOLDEN

The enhanced photo-assembly for the 1986 Best Picture-winner Out of Africa was more in-sync with the Eighties penchant for nostalgia. A serifed typeface replete with a swash spells out the title. In this bucolic Seiniger poster, two lovers played by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are bathed in a golden light. However, on second glance all is not as it appears. While Streep gazes at Redford, his body is turned away from her, indicating that their relationship is ill-fated.


The power of symmetry

Symmetry conveys power—think of the aesthetics of authoritarian regimes throughout history. For a while, I avoided symmetrical design because I thought it was inherently fascist. Seiniger wasn't constrained by such naive notions. His imperial red and amber-hued one-sheet for the Best Picture winner The Last Emperor, 1987, conveys the existential absurdity of China’s last royal sovereign—a child—whose pouty face is commandingly centered in front of the Forbidden City. That same year Seiniger’s team—led by Senior Art Director Olga Kaljakin, whose elegant aesthetic shaped much of the firm's work in the mid-Eighties—also utilized symmetry for The Untouchables key art. The poster for this crime film is dominated by a looming Robert De Niro as Al Capone presiding over his city. The visual message is reinforced by the copy, “He ruled Chicago with absolute power.”

The invisible design of Intralink

The following year’s Best Picture key art for Rain Man, created at Intralink, consisted of an understated photographic image of the film’s stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, sauntering through an allée. The diagonal perspective of the background indicates the ambling stars may have been stripped into the composition. An effortless look that took practiced effort to achieve, all before Photoshop.

Almost 3 decades separate these cinematic road trips through the Jim Crow-era South

DOWN SOUTH

For the decade's last Best Picture-winner Driving Miss Daisy, 1989, Dave Christiansen (an impressive talent with an equally impressive handlebar mustache) working in-house at Seiniger had channeled Norman Rockwell to paint a rearview mirror reflection of Morgan Freeman chauffeuring Jessica Tandy. Its impact is intensified by a liberal use of negative space. Christiansen's illustration represented the story of a cross-racial friendship and journey through the Jim Crow-era South—the composition would have worked equally well for the 2018 winner, Green Book.


Poster and a frame from trailer for Glory

Advertising for another Best Picture contender from 1989, Glory, handled racial themes differently. TriStar's poster for the Civil War epic was a hybrid of photography and illustration. It inexplicably obscured the identity of a group of Union soldiers within a grainy silhouette hand-tinted with patriotic hues; thereby sidestepping the central point of the movie—that Black men also fought to end slavery. Conversely, Seiniger’s Glory trailer intersperses close-ups of its Black stars Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman with shots of combat and superimposed words, “they fought for freedom” cut to the glorious sounds of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.


BACK TO TO OUR FUTURE

Fast-forward to now. For the amateur designer, apps can select appropriate fonts and achieve rudimentary montage effects. Yet despite digital advances and the terminal condition of print, the voracious appetite of streaming platforms for content still provide opportunities for creative professionals. Back to the earlier question—does Eighties key art have anything to teach us? The small insets of those once-large movie posters reprinted on my Oscar compilation make it easier to look beyond the surface design elements and other fashionable enthusiasms of the Eighties and focus on the overall compositions. How little has changed—the star sells, story sells, and concept sells used to promote movies back in the day are still utilized. They’ve just been simplified for a Netflix queue. On any platform, when these selling conventions are communicated through superlative execution and, better yet, contrasted with creative inventions, they attract the attention of audiences.


©2020 Alex Swart • All rights reserved

Working from home during the Pandemic allows more time to reflect. And my mind has drifted back to early childhood experiences that inadvertently led to a life-long interest in design. This includes a fascination with automobiles which began as a small boy walking through the New Hampshire woods with my father, where we came across the rusting hulk of a Model A Ford—a relic of a more romantic time. Indoors, my mother and I watched old black and white movies; I was influenced by those images of film sets, clothing and cars and would draw them. Now, working as an advertising designer and creative director, I often look beyond my field—to cinema, the built environment, and fine art—for inspiration when sketching ideas for campaigns.


Zeitgeist sums up the spirit of an era, including the applied arts. I think that more than once there was a time when architecture, industrial design, fashion, and related fields intersected to express an identifiable ethos—a year when the synchronicity evident in cinema occurred across discrete design disciplines. While acknowledging that there were other countervailing directions in design, to this idiosyncratic observer it all came together in 1961 with a style we can call Classical Modernism. A clean, unadorned look inspired by antiquity; the following American designs highlight that aesthetic consensus:


1. The Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, designed by Edward Durrell Stone (1961).

2. Ford Motor Company’s 1961 Lincoln Continental luxury car, designed by Elwood Engel.

3. The gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy at the 1961 Presidential Inaugural Gala, designed by her personal couturier Oleg Cassini.

CLASSIC AND MODERN

Edward Durrell Stone designed several distinguished peripteral buildings (surrounded on four sides by colonnades), seemingly pared-down versions of Greek temples. Flat roofs reference modernist International Style structures, but also the Parthenon in its ruined, roofless state. And the marble aggregate cladding of Stone’s buildings recalls their ancient forbearers. This connection to classical design is evident in the architect’s colonnaded Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, dedicated in 1961. Yet the triangular undulations of its walls and hexagonal skylights also distinguish it as a modern temple for the arts.

Stuart Building, Pasadena.

As lead-times from concept to completion are longer in architecture than other design fields, some of Stone’s earlier and later buildings may be considered episodes in a 1961-ish series. In June 1959, he was selected as the architect of what was eventually named the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, though the building officially opened eleven years later. Between 1958 and 1971, Stone realized classical allusions expressing a slender lightness, a style he called New Formalism: the rectilinear Stuart Building in Pasadena (c. 1958), the related American Embassy in New Delhi (c. 1959), and the Kennedy Center all feature golden pencil-like columns sharpened at both ends. New Formalism is a variation on a theme, an architectural impulse representative of a broader cultural movement—Classical Modernism. There is a sense of optimism in this architecture compared with the fortress-like American Embassy in Baghdad (completed in 2009). The airy mid-Century embassy in New Delhi was commissioned by a confident country still flush from its victory over fascism. It is a metaphor for transparent democracy and social justice—an ideal the nation has never fully realized at home. The reckoning over civil rights denied to BIPOC would come later.



SCULPTURED STEEL

The headline in a print ad proclaimed the “classic beauty” of the new 1961 Lincoln Continental; the body copy described the vehicle as “a new concept in sculptured steel.” Designed by Elwood Engel, the slab sides of this long, low luxury car recall the rectilinear horizontality of Stone’s museum in Puerto Rico. From a frontal view the car’s planar surfaces become delicate blades, akin to Stone’s slender columns. The mesh-pattern of its wide grille is reminiscent of the screen block expanses set back behind colonnades at Stone’s New Delhi and Pasadena projects.

Indeed, its white convertible iteration owned by Jacqueline Kennedy is a stunning departure from the curvaceous, ostentatious tail-finned Cadillacs of the preceding decade. Its midnight blue fraternal twin provides an even starker contrastthe infamous open-topped limousine that carried President Kennedy to a tragic end in Dallas.

FASHION FORWARD FROCK

On a happier occasion thirty-four months earlier, the First Lady personified a look both classical and modern. Her personal couturier, Oleg Cassini, created the satin silk gown she wore to the 1961 Inaugural Gala. It was named by London’s Design Museum among “50 Dresses That Changed The World.” So different from the curve-enhancing frocks of the 1950s, the wardrobe Cassini designed for Mrs. Kennedy has been described as “architecturally clean.” The champagne colored silk of the inaugural gown is akin to Stone’s beige travertine expanses. The straight lines of the gown, gently flared at the hip, is analogous to the Lincoln Continental’s rectilinearity. The car is similarly interrupted by a slight rise in its beltline just ahead of the rear wheel cutout. Cassini’s clothing manifests a formal elegance filtered through mid-Century modern allure, a through-line connecting fashion, cars, and buildings.

CONSENSUS AND CROSS-POLLINATION

Whether conscious or unconscious, it appears that Stone, Cassini, and Elwood were responding to the spirit of their time. Did they influence each other? Research didn’t yield evidence to support that notion, other than a kind of six degrees of separation. But all three designers were within the Kennedy nexus. Stone had been recommended to President Kennedy by his staunch political ally, Senator J. William Fulbright (a childhood chum of the architect). Cassini, known as the Secretary of Style, and Mrs. Kennedy, the First Lady of Fashion, were close collaborators. And Engel had presented his Lincoln Continental ideas to Robert McNamara, President of Ford Motor Company, who left his post in Detroit to become Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy Administration.

As a young immigrant family, we were inspired by the new president and his young family. Perhaps the Kennedys brought diverse design disciplines together through the sheer power of their taste and personalities. It helped that Mrs. Kennedy had an avid interest in design. She spearheaded the interior refurbishment of the White House and had also asked famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy to redesign the livery of Air Force One. Loewy’s response was a modern, linear blue and gold color scheme with classical Caslon typography spelling out UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. President Trump intends to replace the iconic design and its “Jackie Kennedy color”.

President and Mrs. Kennedy exit Air Force One, November 22, 1963

Apparently optimistic leadership inspired a cultural consensus, which was also expressed through popular entertainment in 1961. On the television series The Dick Van Dyke Show, chic protagonists Rob and Laura Petrie (Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore) served as comedic doppelgängers for the President and Mrs. Kennedy—Moore wearing trim Capri pants and Van Dyke attired in a sleek Botany 500 suit and taking pratfalls over an ottoman. And much has been written about the classically modern wardrobe Hubert de Givenchy designed for Audrey Hepburn’s character, Holly Golightly, in the dramatic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


En route to Emerald City.

STYLE ON THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD

But that kind of interdisciplinary agreement is rare, even within specific fields. Exceptions have been schools with a unified aesthetic such as the Bauhaus, or art and design movements like De Stijl. As theorist Witold Rybczynski explains in The Look of Architecture, inconsistency is more common than alignment. Other than the short-lived Kennedy era, stylistic agreement also coalesced across design disciplines during other years—when the applied arts really became, well, the allied arts. In 1939, for example, Streamline Modernea style that evolved from Art Decopermeated design culture. Streamlined aircraft—like the Lockheed P-38 fighter designed by Kelly Johnson—was already a functional given, as were the sleek trains designed by Raymond Loewy.



On roads, the fencing-mask prow of the 1937-1941 Lincoln-Zephyr automobiles (designed by Eugene Gregorie and John Tjaarda) rolled with this streamlined look. In fact, all the new American cars for 1939 presented a wind-cheating face, if only stylistically. Wind tunnels were not part of automotive development then; streamlining just expressed a stylistic idea—one that still makes an appearance here and there. Recently, I saw it in the aerodynamic profile of a determined motorist who passed me on the 405—the oblique angle of his nose and forehead, trimmed mustache and slicked-back hair was as streamlined as the powerful ’41 Cadillac fastback he drove. After all, some people resemble their pets—why not vintage cars?


Greta Garbo wearing silly hat. Ninotchka, 1939.

Architecture was also streamlined; styled with curved corners and minimal surface decoration that imbued stationary buildings with an aerodynamic aspect. You can still see it on screen in the sparkling towers of Emerald City beyond the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz (designed by Bill Horning). Even the silly hat worn by Greta Garbo (designed by Adrian) in the 1939 film Ninotchka was streamlined. In real life, the Thirties live on in the curved, golden-tiled corner entrance of the former May Company building, still standing on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, (designed by Albert C. Martin, 1939)—soon to open as the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

This futuristic style consensus was ratified by the exhibits and attractions of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and distilled in the event’s signature structures, Trylon and Perisphere (designed by Wallace Harrison and J. André Fouilhoux). But why Streamline Moderne? Perhaps after almost a decade of the Great Depression, people were more than ready for what the Fair billed as “The World of Tomorrow.”


Trylon and Perisphere, 1939 New York World's Fair.

The Thirties notwithstanding, Rybczynski points out that architects are usually wary of any linkage to fashion because, “suspicion of style is a heritage of the modern movement, which preached against the arbitrary dictates of style and fashion, while maintaining an unspoken but rigid stylistic consistency.” They prefer the rigor of systems. But Rybczynski warns that a building must be sympathetic to how people dress, or it looks irrelevant, and concludes, “Like it or not, architecture cannot escape fashion.” And one might also add, other design fields aren’t immune to the influence of architecture either. To paraphrase the motto of the design-centric proponents of De Stijl, “the object of humankind is style”—at least in reference to the applied arts.

HARMONIC CONVERGENCE

So why did designers across discrete fields come to an apparent de facto stylistic agreement in 1939 and 1961? Was there something in the air, or were the similarities coincidental? In those pre-Pinterest times, it’s unlikely that an automotive designer in Detroit would have been influenced by Paris, or even New York, fashion. I think it’s because creative people tire of what’s happening sooner than everybody else, and sometimes they come independently to similar conclusions. Their resulting designs embody a kind of harmonic convergence. Maybe that’s why the thick curves of the Thirties were eventually replaced by the slender rectilinearity of the Sixties.


A lack of diversity in American applied arts probably contributed to the singular looks of the pre and post-war eras. California-based Paul Williams, for example, was the most prominent Black architect whose prolific career spanned both time periods. But his work transcends any specific style and does not easily fit within the parameters covered herein. Noted women designers, such as Dorothy Draper and Sister Parish, were consigned primarily to interior design. Even fashion at the highest level was largely led by white men. As for LBGTQIA+ contributions, it’s hard to know. Other than former movie star turned interior designer William Haines, people were understandably more circumspect about sexual orientation and gender identity in 1939 and 1961.

Hadid/Pharrell design for Adidas trainer

LOOKING BACK, OUT, AND FORWARD

Technology can also engender consensus. Computer modeling is one reason Frank Gehry’s undulating steel-skinned buildings, such as the Guggenheim Bilbao, have a commonality with the angular concave shapes of Chris Bangle’s flame-surfaced BMWs. And sometimes aesthetic agreement is intentional, such as when music and fashion icon Pharrell Williams and architect Zaha Hadid collaborated on the design of prefab houses and Adidas trainers.


To mix metaphors, staying in your lane may be necessary—for a while—to achieve proficiency in a design discipline; conversely, staying isolated in a professional silo limits your vision—silos lack windows. As Pharrell Williams says, “I have never believed in boundaries.”


This stroll through the past has touched on the superficial appearance of things, which may seem, well, superficial. Yet the look of buildings, vehicles, and apparel can serve as symbolic markers of an era. Streamline Moderne presented a vision of an imagined future in 1939. The Classical Modernism of 1961 reinterpreted the past in a fresh way. Both movements transcended parochial design boundaries to define the style of their respective eras.


I believe in looking out and looking back, as well as forward. Although perspective makes it easier to recognize patterns and through-lines when looking at the past, the style of the future may defy prediction. It's rare when the various design disciplines express universal affinities. It's more likely that urgent social, environmental, and economic concerns will be a catalyst for diversity in design with a multiplicity of expression. As in previous eras, style will help these new ideas and forms resonate.


In the summer of 1996 before #WFH was a thing, our one-year-old twin girls were crawling underneath my legs, their four-year-old brother was running laps around the dinner table, and Ellen Considine and I were busily launching an ad agency from our dining room armoire. Ellen would handle the account side and I was to concentrate on creative. This was not entirely ludicrous to us; artists, designers, and writers often start with a blank page and imagine something that only feels inevitable once it’s completed. That can also apply to business.


By design, the Swart Advertising logo (based on a commemorative postage stamp) implied that our nascent firm had been around for years — the mark portrayed a 17th Century Dutch ship entering New Amsterdam Harbor, with the great metropolis the settlement would become looming in the background. This image resonated because I was born in Holland and New York International Airport was the point of entry to my adopted country. Our journey, symbolized by the old sailing ship, had just begun.


With a shared background in entertainment advertising, our goal was to imbue tune-in ads with movie poster production value; initially for shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. We called it “key art for television.”

Instead of bosses, we now had clients who depended on us. And thankfully, more work followed. We moved the business out of our home and into a building designed by Eric Lloyd Wright — yes, that architectural family! This unique pyramidal building inspired the creativity of the many talented art directors, designers and writers with whom we've worked.

Sophomore Success

At the start of the Millennium we rebranded as SwartAd with a simplified logo better suited to online. Our campaigns were often recognized for contributing to the success of brands and properties. By balancing evocative copy with elegant visuals, we won an unprecedented two Promax World Class Awards — for Universal Horror and The Alfred Hitchcock Centennial film collections — in the same competition. And I designed four more Oscar® posters and outdoor for the Academy. It was a heady time.

We said farewell to Xena on the cover of Variety and said hello to Jack Bauer with an award-winning campaign for 24. We also created advertising for other genres including the Western with a campaign for the TNT film Monte Walsh (starring Tom Selleck), which set a record for cable viewership.

Besides fiction, we designed key art for the feature documentary Steal a Pencil For Me, a true story of the Holocaust. Working with the filmmakers, we developed motifs from the poster to create the film’s main title sequence.

Seemingly unscathed by the dot-com bust earlier in the decade, I had been quoted in the Los Angeles Times, “LA is a great town for a creative person.” But a successful entrepreneur had gently warned me when we started the business that there would be good and bad times — I didn’t hear him. Then came the Great Recession.

Just Don't Go Away

In the challenging economic climate of the early 2010s, many entertainment advertising agencies closed their doors. Our unofficial slogan became “Just don’t go away.” Ellen expanded our digital capabilities. Leveraging experience telling stories through deft pairings of words and images, we designed websites across a range of industries, as well as weekly online ads for CBS ­— the brevity of our OOH messaging proved to be a good model.

Building on previous experience with CNN, SwartAd continued working in the news and information space with campaigns for the Southern California News Group. Informed by a hyper-local strategy, these print, outdoor, and radio ads expressed our belief in a vital, independent press — some earned Addy Awards.

Branding became more important to us, starting by freshening our own mark with an orange/gray color scheme and tagging it with a new mantra, “Creative. Thinking.” We created logos for national TV shows and a variety of businesses.

A side-hustle continues to be writing and teaching classes including “Entertainment Advertising Design” and “Design Thinking” at California State University, Northridge.

The classes are configured to help designers become better thinkers, and help non-designers effectively leverage design and conceptual communication in their professions.


Ellen (a former teacher) and I passionately believe in public education, so we enthusiastically developed a multi-platform campaign that positioned Los Angeles City College as “The City’s College.” LACC president Dr. Mary Gallagher kindly said, “SwartAd made us visible across the city.” Our LACC campaign is documented in a short film, Words & Pictures.

Back to the Future

Just as the pandemic was coming into focus, we were surprised to receive an Educational Advertising Award for last summer’s “My LACC” campaign, which spanned an entire city block. But the gold statuette already seemed like a souvenir of a distant time — the students depicted in our ads can’t be on campus now.


Ellen and I miss in-person contact with the talented people we work with. We miss being with clients and our adult children (who have all worked in our design studio at various times). Now the demarcations between personal and professional lives — always blurry for entrepreneurs — have been erased. Like so many across the planet, we’re rethinking our business model.

Navigating this uncharted territory requires a new approach. And also a renewed spirit, or rather, an old one. At SwartAd, that’s the start up spirit that launched the agency from our dining room in the first place. And while we’re not rebranding, we’re now thinking of the company as Swart Up. It's been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I thought that by looking back I might discover a path forward. I’ll let you know where it leads.

contact

t: 818.553.1820

e: ellen@swartad.com

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