A lot of tension in the room on live assignment day
One of the pleasures of teaching at Art Center is a class I co-teach with the great Brian Rea called Op-Ed Illustration. A few years ago when Brian told me he was leaving the grind of NYC and his spot as AD of The New York Times Op-Ed page for the equally treacherous streets of Los Feliz, I suggested we plan a class that would be a bridge from school to the real world for illustration students about to graduate.
The concept of creating thoughtful illustrations that communicate an idea is not easy for students to grasp and the only way to get good at it is to make a lot of images. We try to duplicate for our students the procedure that illustrators who work for the Op-Ed page go through. That means we e-mail the article just before the class and expect to see 4-5 smart ideas the next day, we pick one and the final is due the next week. Not exactly the one-day turnaround that Op-Ed demands, but a lot quicker than students are used to working.
Hannah Chi's first NYT illustration
We’ve had the generous support of the ADs at the Times who agreed to assign a live assignment each term. Students get the topic in class and sketch their ideas, we approve one and the final has to be e-mailed to Brian and me the next morning by 9am. We send them all to the paper, they pick one, and someone has their first piece in The New York Times the next day.
This semester we had the pleasure of working with the great AD Nathan Huang who was a student in the first illustration class I ever taught about ten years ago. It was a Letters piece about the controversy surrounding the number of food carts in front of the Met. Brian and I always tell the AD, that if none of the students’ pieces are right, one of us will jump in and do the illustration, so far there has been no risk of that happening.
It was still hot in Los Angeles, the Santa Ana winds were blowing in from the desert. I went up to the studio and opened the windows. The smell of the restaurant downstairs drifted up, the traffic moved slowly on the boulevard and I stood there watching the lights change for a long time.
What this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Sternwood Mansion and Gieger’s bookshop to Union Station and the spot where Romanoff’s used to be, from Puma Point to the Lido Pier where no one is really positive about who killed Carmen’s chauffer.
I called up an old friend, Ben Olins, he works at a place that makes maps and guidebooks. His voice was relaxed and cool. “Herb Lester Associates.”
“Hello Ben, what this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Stern”–
He cut me off, “Yeah, sounds good. How much is this going to cost me?”
“I get $50 a day plus expenses.”
“You don’t put up much of a fight”
“There’s not a lot of money in this business if you’re honest.”
“Are you honest?”
“No.” I lied.
“What about a design that looks like one of those Dell Mapback books from the 1940s?” Ben was on the right track, as usual. He was talking about a series of cheap paperbacks that had a map on the back cover that showed the locations from the story. They had a nice quality to them and the style was a perfect fit for this new map.
“I’ll send you something in a few days.” I hung up.
I went home and started re-reading Chandler’s novels, and making a list of every location in every book. Some were actual buildings that were still standing, others were long-gone, some spots were real places but had fake names; private-eye Philip Marlowe’s office building on Hollywood and Cahuenga is still there, Florian’s Nightclub was a fictional joint down on Central Avenue, Bay City stands in for Santa Monica. I watched every movie made from the novels and also made a list of important locations from Chandler’s life.
I was going to need some help on this job. Someone was going to have to write the text for the back of the map, someone who knows these mean streets but who is not themselves mean, a writer who is not tarnished or afraid. A complete man and a common man, yet maybe someone who is not a man at all. A writer who writes with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.
“Kim Cooper.” She answered her own telephone.
“What this town needs is a good map, one with every location from Raymond Chandler’s books, one that shows everything from the Stern” –
She cut me off, “Yeah, sounds good. Is there any money in it?”
“I think my client can cover your expenses, maybe enough for a couple of gimlets.” She laughed into the phone. “Send me your list of locations and I’ll see what I can do.”
Kim is a historian and novelist, she and her husband Richard Schave run a nice little racket called Esotouric taking people around the city on bus tours of historic and literary locations. She knows some things about Raymond Chandler that nobody else does. She knows that Mike Mazurki, the actor who played Moose Malloy used to run a restaurant in the Elks Building across from MacArthur Park. Jack Smith also knew that, but he’s dead.
The map doesn’t include everything, no map could. We probably missed one or two important spots, we left off some of the joints that are only memories; drive-ins with gaudy neon and the false fronts behind them, sleazy hamburger joints that could poison a toad. Los Angeles has changed a lot since Chandler’s day when it was just a big dry sunny place with ugly houses and no style, when people slept on porches and lots offering at eleven hundred dollars had no takers.
But you can still make the drive down Wilshire all the way to the ocean, you can still poke around the alleys and side streets of Hollywood, and the eucalyptus trees still give off a tomcat smell in warm weather. You can’t get a drink at Victor’s any more but Musso’s is still open. Park out back, only tourists and suckers go in the front door.
The Raymond Chandler Map of Los Angles is available from the legendary Herb Lester Associates.
Map is A2 (16.5 x 23.4 inches) folded to A6
Dell Mapbacks, 1945
Detail,Text side. Written by historian/novelist/Chandler expert Kim Cooper
Mock-paperback covers using spot illustrations from text to promote the map.
We see a lot of talented young artists graduate from Art Center every semester, and every now and then there are some who really stand out and look like they have everything they need to start their careers, smart ideas, good taste, and the skills to make beautiful images. This spring, we saw two like that.
Ellen Surrey and Loris Lora, are fantastic young illustrators that are just starting to show their work around and starting to get assignments.
Ellen and Loris are good friends and I’ve noticed their friendship is made of equal measures of support and competition that has driven each to make their best work.
If I was an art director, I’d be checking out their websites and figuring out an assignment for them soon.
The Arena Stage in Washington DC has been producing beautifully illustrated posters for years. Art director Nicky Lindeman called to see if I’d design a poster to be part of their 2014-5 season, for “Five Guys Named Moe.” a musical revue of Louis Jordan songs written by the great actor Clarke Peters (The Wire and Treme.) Anyone who has listened to Louis Jordan records knows that his music is filled with a lot of energy and humor, and chickens. I tried to bring some of those qualities to this design.
These pieces from the Harlem Renaissance served as inspiration for the style of the poster, Winold Reiss, left, Miguel Covarrubias, right.
I also brought a little Juan Gris to this one.
Rough thumbnail sketches, the story begins when five guys named Moe pop out of a radio to give advice about life, drinking and big-legged women.
I always watched Ben-Hur whenever it showed up on The Million-Dollar-Movie on Saturday afternoon when I was a kid. It’s a sweeping epic that even Charlton Heston’s acting couldn’t spoil.
So when Milan Editions Musique asked me to design the cover of their collection of theme music from great Hollywood epics, I was ready to go. I pictured Mr. Heston arriving at a premiere in his white chariot from the movie drawn in a flat Deco-ish style.
The Kept Girl
posted: February 6, 2014
I was doing the usual double-play with the morning e-mail, inbox to desktop to trash, when I saw her note. She had a story, a novel. It was her first and she needed help. I didn’t believe her, but I kept reading.
She said her name was Kim Cooper, and she runs a nice little outfit called Esotouric that gives bus tours around the city to tourists who are interested in true-life crimes, celebrity deaths, and literary hot spots. I read about her in the papers and bookmarked the company in case I ever had visitors in town and needed something to do that didn’t involve a theme park.
Her mystery novel used Raymond Chandler as one of the main characters. The familiar name Chandler made it seem like she had written about a friend of mine. When someone writes a book about a friend, you’re supposed to do something about it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.
The words “first novel” worried me, but what worried me more were the words “self publishing.” Two words that usually mean trouble, the kind of trouble that starts with multiple sketches and ends in a kill fee and tears. I didn’t have an appetite for any of it. What I had was a drawing table, an airbrush and a bottle of pretty good rye in the bottom drawer of the file cabinet. I wrote her back, it was too early in the day to crack the office bottle.
I told her that I’d take a look at her manuscript and if I thought I could do something about, I’d do it. I warned her that I got a hundred dollars a day, plus expenses. She offered me a thousand, and a seat on her tour bus anytime I liked.
A couple of days later a yellow envelope that was too big for the mailman to shove through the slot was leaning against the studio door. It contained a few hundred typewritten pages, Ms. Cooper’s dreams all wrapped up with a thick rubber band. I took the envelope home, and started reading. Maybe it was the smell of the night-blooming jasmine from the open window or maybe it was the Old Forester, but after about forty pages I knew I was in. Yeah, I’ll design a cover for your book, I’ll even handle all the typography and the spine.
Her story was titled “The Kept Girl” and it mixed up fact and fiction, and was filled with crooked cops, con-men, oil wells, a crazy religious cult, dead bodies, and a lot of ice. It was set in the young but already tarnished city of Los Angeles in 1929.
She could write, and it was my job to give her a cover that did the story justice. I remembered a guy who went by the double-barrelled name E. McKnight-Kauffer. A while back, he designed some handsome covers for paperbacks and I figured he wasn’t going to care if I borrowed his style for this job. He wasn’t using it, he had been dead for fifty years.
A case like this requires a certain amount of finesse. A bunch of sketches could lead to an awful mess that neither Ms. Cooper or I could clean up, so I thought my best bet was to design the whole damn cover and show it to her finished, and see what she thought. In a couple of days, it was done, I sent it over and waited.
I got a reply in a few hours, a short e-mail, the kind of e-mail that makes an illustrator think of a Sunday school picnic. It read “I love it. It’s really everything I hoped you might do, and more. Thank you so much.”
I told you that woman can write.
You can order “The Kept Girl” here.
Sketch, L.A City Hall was completed just before this story takes place, the daily paper was The Evening Express, that's a 1928 Hupmobile, the pipe and glasses are for Chandler.
If you don’t already know about Herb Lester, you should. The company was started by Ben Olins and Jane Smillie in 2010. They started out designing and printing beautifully illustrated and curated city guides to London that are filled with information on spots you wish a wise friend would tell you about, the best pubs, coffee shops, book stores, or places to take a kid if you have one on your hands for a day. Recently they’ve expanded the travel guides to include other cities, stationery, and traveler’s accessories.
A3 folds to A6
I spotted their work in London a few years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since, so it was great to get an e-mail from Jane asking if I’d like to work on a map with them. They had the idea to make a map of the solar system, one that would include must-see spots from popular science fiction books and films combined with hard facts about the environments the intrepid traveler will encounter. The novelist Matthew De Abaitua wrote the text and my job was to fit everything into the map, in the correct spots.
One side is the map to the Solar System
The other side Michael's informative and amusing text.