The life of Saul Bass in design

Posted on by Guy Cookson

There are not many moments in movie history as iconic as the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho.

The masterful editing and screeching soundtrack combine to create a moment of such pure terror that it is often forgotten that very little in the way of graphic violence is actually depicted. The most brutal cuts are all in the mind.

It has been described as Hitchcock’s finest moment on celluloid, and it is probably the first thing you think of when you picture one of the great director’s films.

But the person responsible for storyboarding this pivotal scene, right down to the last detail, was not Hitchcock, but a graphic designer named Saul Bass.

Bass, who died in 1996 at the age of 75, had an extraordinary career.

Born in the Bronx, New York, to Jewish immigrant parents, Bass pursued an interest in the arts by taking night classes at Brooklyn College with the legendary Hungarian-born designer, György Kepes.

After graduating, Bass began work as a freelance commercial artist. He moved to Los Angeles, finding work designing movie posters and then title sequences.

It was the opening sequence for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) that made his name. Bass showed that this previously neglected part of a film could win over an audience before the actors uttered a word.

Many others were to follow, each a mini-movie in their own right, including several for the aforementioned Hitchcock, but also for Stanley Kubrick, Billy Wilder, and, later, Martin Scorsese.

This would have been enough to secure his legacy as a designer. But Bass also had a sideline in designing some of the most memorable logos in history for brands as diverse as Continental Airlines, Kleenex and Quaker Oats.

The logos of Saul Bass

Look at the logos Bass created side by side and it is somehow clear that all were designed by the same hand while each remains utterly distinct.

Bass also designed record sleeves, consulted on films, and wrote a children’s book.

And what inspired him during this 40 year career?

“I want to make beautiful things,” Bass once said simply. “Even if nobody cares.”

Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color (1956) with a sleeve designed by Saul Bass

A page from ‘Henri’s Walk to Paris’ (1962), a children’s book by Saul Bass and Leonore Klein

The iconic poster for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) by Saul Bass

A version of this article was also published as part of a weekly column in the Lancaster Guardian, Lancashire Post, Blackpool Gazette and other titles.

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