In this crazy mixed-up media world, can a company be involved in programming and content one day, consult on corporate identity the next and crank out ad campaigns the day after that? For some, shifting seamlessly between such seemingly disparate disciplines is not just a daydream. Here's a look at three New York-based firms-all with links, spiritual and otherwise, to the daddy of cross-culturalism, M & Co.'s Tibor Kalman-that have settled into a generalist's mode in these increasingly specialized times
DANNY ABELSON IS THE FIRST TO ADMIT THAT THE SORT of thing that used to get him yelled at has turned out to serve him quite well in his adult life. What are we talking about here, bad table manners? No, no, the fidgety 44-year-old writer and creative director says, it's "never being able to concentrate on one thing at a time and talking too fast and being equally interested in 50 different things and focusing on one."
Of course, it wasn't until years later-after he'd had a chance to toke his way through college and work for the National Lampoon and help produce shows for Children's Television Workshop and pal around with Tibor Kalman and end up at Frankfurt Gips Balkind (now Frankfurt Balkind Partners) working for big corporate clients that he discovered "having a wide variety of tastes and interests, and a knowledge base that was highly fragmented, to put it politely, was actually very helpful."
What he learned, and Abelson says he's always learning, is that "in this wonderful world, you can make a living on your passion, if it's connected to craft. And the craft of being a writer was very helpful to me in that regard."
These days Abelson is making a nice living indeed, although this isn't really a comment about his income. It's more an observation that
Abelson seems to have found a nirvana of sorts: after a career spent in creative wanderlust, he now has a corporate dune buggy capable of taking him anywhere. When asked to describe what his year-and-a-half-old The Abelson Company does, he responds, "What we are is a design firm that does a wide variety of projects without prejudice." This runs the gamut from corporate identity work to annual reports to strategic consulting to brainstorming program ideas for cable networks to real honest-to-goodness ad campaigns.
According to Abelson, the only trouble with being all over the lot, so to speak, comes when prospects want to take this freewheeling firm and typecast it-or worse, "when three of our clients come together and realize we do absolutely different things for each of them.
"Even though people haven't quite figured out what we do, they first of all have a sense from meeting us that we have, in some vague way, combined creativity and some form of intelligence," Abelson says. "That seems to be good enough to get you in the door, and then the portfolio begins to speak for itself."
The portfolio of The Abelson Co.-altogether a tight group of 12 or so full-timers working out of sublet space at Tribeca's Chelsea Pictures-reflects the passions, interests and expertise of Dan the Man himself. For MTV Networks they did a zany ad campaign that ran in media trades strengthening the link between the MTV and VH1 brands for potential advertisers; this off the wall effort contrasts nicely with contemporary but nevertheless much more corporate-looking work for Seagram, for which it has designed and produced a quarterly employee magazine and annual reports, and Chase Manhattan.
Abelson's gang has also worked for Comedy Central (as with Seagram and Chase, yet another client he handled while a creative director at FGB), helped Macy's develop the look for TV Macy's, its shelved shopping channel, and is currently helping MTV Networks flesh out its own test of electronic retailing.
The peripatetic Abelson gave up years of freelancing on a veritable mood swing of projects when he took the CD job at FGB about three years ago; prior to this he had spent years in loose collaboration with Kalman, describing their relationship as one of "good friends and sort of office mates who were never formally connected but always worked together."
Born and raised in South Africa, Abelson emigrated with his family to Philadelphia in the late '60s and enrolled at Penn, where, he recalls, "I landed in an atmo- sphere of such freedom I was drunk from it for four years." This carried over to his academic pursuits, he adds, explaining, "I got a wonderful education because I wasn't worried about my major, so I took great courses." When it came time to graduate he looked back on his transcripts and declared himself a student of "social theory and communications," then promptly moved to New York to be a writer, where he met a young couple named Maira and Tibor and got hired by the late Lampoon editor Doug Kenney.
While getting involved in an increasingly diverse number of projects, Abelson says he's trying to resist the temptation to grow. "One of the things I'm learning is that you have to have fewer people doing things in your office and more of the people managing those who do," he says. As a result, he's steering his company into a position of creative partnering; instead of becoming bigger they're simply collaborating more with other people, many of whom they gleefully credit in their brochure. This list includes director Elena Colombo, who worked on the TV Macy's project, D-Zine, a New York design group that has worked on the Seagram magazine and designer John Duffy, another New Yorker who has helped the company with its own list of programming and publishing projects.
This network of psychic friends extends beyond the U.S. as well: the firm also works with Scott Stowell, a designer working on Colors in Rome (whom Abelson met while he was over there working on an issue), with whom they've done projects for Nickelodeon and MTV Interactive, and Siobhan Keaney, a London designer who created a city guide for Comedy Central to distribute at a trade show.
"It's hard enough to be good at one thing, but to be good at a few of them you have to have something very special," Abelson says, "and sometimes what that is isn't so much genius by the pound but the ability to work with people in interesting and new ways."
WHEN DIRECTOR MARK PELLING-ton finished filming more than 60 poets around the country for the public TV series "The United States of Poetry," he embarked on an equally ambitious task: finding a way to weave the disparate performances into five cohesive shows. Working through Washington Square Films, Pellington pored through print and video portfolios looking for type designers. "I wanted to graphically frame each poem," he says, adding that he needed someone who was fluent in both film and print.
Enter Number Seventeen, a year-old New York design firm run by Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler. For Oberman, a former senior designer at M & Co. who helped lead the firm into TV type terrain, and Siegler, former design director at VH1, print and broadcast are inexorably linked; they are part of a new breed of designers straddling both media. Their "clean and uncluttered" style, Pellington says, "always supports the poem."
The title for "United States of Poetry," for instance, borrows the typeface from a greenback and pairs it with a flopped map of the U.S. containing an image of a blinking eye, another symbolic twist on the eye that appears atop the pyramid on the back of the dollar bill. "We were looking at the country from a different perspective," says Siegler, "from the inside out."
The text/photo compositions of Barbara Kruger are dissected and animated; Wanda Coleman recites a poem about money, framed within a screen that looks to be straight off a home shopping channel, while a clock in the corner counts off the seconds and another box flashes text like "U-Crave Opportunity" and "U-Need Education," which seconds later are underscored with a flickering "Sold out."
"We look at everything skeptically," Oberman says. "At the same time we embrace things with a complete love. The cynicism balances things out."
Consider a commercials parody the five-designer firm produced for "Saturday Night Live," poking fun at a Crystal Pepsi spot that had copied a type-driven Van Halen video. Promoting a revolting product called Crystal Gravy, written by Dave Mandel and shot by Jim Signorelli, the spot is cluttered with absurd vignettes like a woman who is gleefully dipping a drumstick into a jarful of the goo and grinning ecstatically. A VH1 bus poster, which earned them the moniker "Catholic bashers" by The New York Post, juxtaposed images of Madonna and the Virgin Mary along with the headline, "The difference between you and your parents." Even its name is meant to be a funnel for ideas. "We wanted something that wasn't about design and doesn't pigeonhole us," explains Oberman. "It's way futuristic," adds Siegler. "It's about being identified as a number, which we all are."
Oberman and Siegler, both 32, became best friends after they met at a small New York design firm nine years ago. About a year later they went their separate ways, with Siegler purveying her print book into a job at VH1, and Oberman landing at M & Co. But they still kept in touch, teaming on broadcast and print projects, including the look and concept for VH1's "Pop Quiz" series, MTV IDs and on-air promos, and more recently a visual identity for On Q, the hip sibling of QVC, which never got off the ground. Collaborating with Scott Burns at then Berlin Cameron Doyle, they produced a commercial for Conde Nast of which they are particularly proud. Co-directed by Mark Coppos and Buddy Cone, it positions the publishing giant as committed to preserving editorial integrity in an era of uncertain electronic media ventures.
An overriding philosophy at Number 17 is a combination of M & Co.'s Kalman and the style of pioneering CBS on-air and print designer William Golden. "He's one of our heroes," says Oberman of the latter. "He took every aspect of the channel and made it consistent through the design."
Both New York natives, Siegler grew up on Long Island and studied design at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, while Oberman was raised in Westchester, and studied film and design at Cooper Union.
And while the two seem well on their way to carving their own niche as a design studio, traces of their former careers still follow them. At M & Co. Oberman worked on several of Maira Kalman's whimsically watercolored children's books and is currently designing "Swami on Rye," which is part of a series about an adorable Francophile beagle named Max whose travels in this book take him through India.
They're also "dying to do" film titles and product design, although Oberman is quick to add, "I never want to do a watch-because watches belong to M & Co."
Patricia A. Riedman
THERE ARE NO COWS AND THERE ISN'T EVEN A SHAPIRO at New York's Holstein Hereford Guernsey & Shapiro, but, hey, what's in a name? "A name is not as critical as people make it out to be, because you eventually become the name," insists Andy Jacobson, whose year-old video and print design firm offered b&w spotted faux cowhide yarmulkes as a '94 holiday gift.
Certainly humor is a common ingredient at HHG&S; that wise-guy wit seeps into many of the type-driven tags and spots that HHG&S has cranked out in the last year, most notably for Ikea and Volvo. It was even on track to create the first TV spot for fellow bovine lovers Ben & Jerry's until Spike Lee offered his services.
Two Deutsch spots for Ikea, which aired in California, rely only on HHG&S's animated type and a VO to tell wry stories about a guy who turns down a chance to win the lottery or inherit millions from an uncle because he'd rather attend the store's semiannual sale. For instance, in one :30, he's getting his fortune read: "She sees you buying your ticket Monday at 3 p.m. in a Quickie Mart," reads the type that fades into focus, like words revealed inside a murky crystal ball. When he declares that he'll blow off the lottery for the sale, "Not gonna happen sister" flashes rapidly in giant letters.
"The way Andy handled the spots gave it an aura of sophistication without making it seem that we had our heads in the clouds," says copywriter Pete Kearney, explaining that the client was concerned that an all-type campaign would appear too snooty.
"It shouldn't be see and say," Jacobson says of the type treatment. "It should be sometimes more playful, sometimes more powerful or very magical, like, 'Wow, you get my attention and you got me saying something in my head. I enjoyed that I and wasn't manipulated.'*"
The influence of M & Co. is apparent in Jacobson's work.After spending several years in the film and commercials production business, Jacobson put in four years at M & Co. as a general manager and producer, a position, he says, that evolved into a creative role as the studio embarked on film and video projects. While HHG&S's staff numbers only four, it relies on a regular supply of freelance talent, including art director and frequent Jacobson collaborator Paul Ritter, another M & Co. alum who helped design Benetton's Colors magazine.
For instance, a media promotion launching Times Mirror's This Old House, a landscaping and how-to magazine based on the popular TV show, looks as stylish as a Benetton catalogue, with oversized photos of tools interwoven with elegant type that is all artfully arranged. "I wanted it to have an asexual look to it," says Jacobson.
Isolde Motley, editor of This Old House, says that Ritter and Jacobson's media promotion clearly nailed their strategy. "We were looking for something that would make this absolutely clear that this wasn't your run of the mill how-to magazine," she says.
HHG&S often finds itself recruited as consultants to create a corporate identity or develop ads for test products. It's nice to be able to reach outside and get a fresh perspective, Jacobson says. Quoting Kalman, he adds, "It's hard to give yourself a haircut."
Jacobson grew up outside Boston and attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he studied art history, economics and political science. Shortly after enrolling in a graduate business program at Columbia University, Jacobson dropped out to become a PA on the film "The Pope of Greenwich Village," a job that led to work on Francis Coppola's "The Cotton Club." He eventually wound up as an assistant producer on the "Tales from the Dark Side" series for almost two years. Observing the "bizarre scenics" that made this low-budget series look "over the top," Jacobson says, sparked his earliest interest in video design.
That interest carried him into production positions with Bob Giraldi at Giraldi Suarez Productions in New York and later with Ridley Scott at RSA/USA, where he straddled sales and production posts. That hybrid experience, he says, is why Kalman hired him. "I don't think I could have gone to Cooper Union at this time in my life, so instead I went to M & Co. college for four years," he says. "To be essentially attached to Tibor for 12 hours a day, six days a week, was an incredible learning experience for me. "
And while Jacobson is following in Kalman's footsteps, diversifying with packaging projects for TDK and movie titles for an upcoming film called "The Perez Family," it seems as if the shop is slipping into a TV type specialty. "Graphic design is not just type," Jacobson asserts, "but that's what the deal is right now. I'd like to do more live action. I'd like to do a children's book and design billboards."
Ultimately, Jacobson would like to instill advertising with the political statements that Kalman so insouciantly effected, challenging clients with the kind of ideas that often got M & Co. fired. "I think in a way you do want to try to get fired," Jacobson muses. "I think it's really important because if you're a 'yes' studio, the client's not getting its money's worth."