In the wake of World War II, a renaissance of design flourished nationwide. In the east, Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, Alexander Libeman and Ivan Chermayeff, among others, were the design leaders. In Southern California, Saul Bass, Jerome Gould, Louis Danziger, Ken Parkhurst and others formed the core of a new graphics movement.
There was a close community of design. It also included architects, photographers -- even creative printers. They all had high regard for one another and would refer each other to clients. I mention all of this because I have no memory of what first brought me to James B. Lansing Sound, Inc. Probably it was one of those referrals by someone in the design family.
In the fifties, the company was located in a small two-story building on Fletcher Drive in Glendale. Somehow I got an assignment there and that was the beginning of a long and rewarding collaboration. My impression of JBL was of a company that was superior in all ways to others in high fidelity sound. Lansing's utilization of the edge-wound copper voice coils gave the products great efficiency and therefore great advantage over the competition. The D130 loudspeaker was the workhorse that Lansing rode to fame. It was a 15" speaker with a neat aluminum dome in the center that radiated the higher frequencies. This was the basic design of a family of types and sizes.
At the time, graphics at James B. Lansing Sound was unremarkable. Company identification was weak. The exclamation point logo that Jerome Gould designed was admirable, but the 'Signature Sound" lettering was weak and feminine. Subsequently, when the company became JBL, those letters were placed inside the circle of the exclamation point. But this too, was weak. The problem persisted until Arnold Wolf redesigned the logo. (More about that later.) My work at Lansing was basic stuff--catalog sheets, announcements, labels, what have you. I applied the extant logo as strongly as possible, sometimes in a pattern of three or four exclamation points. Gradually, graphics began to improve, especially in typography. At that time, Helvetica was not yet widely used, but designers who wanted a clean look could use a version of it available in monotype. Alas, only the expensive typographers had it, and this sometimes resulted in concerns about costs. You had to fight for better typography in those days.
The company's real growth began after Bill Thomas gained operating control. Bill Thomas was a wonderful and creative man, who took Lansing's terrific start and built on it. The company, well established now as JBL, moved to larger quarters on Casitas Avenue. (The cabinetry operation was at a separate facility.)
At Lansing and JBL, I worked with George Augspurger and King Baker. With both men I enjoyed the greatest of empathy, and the three of us produced some nice work. George was the technical man and King was the copywriter. George was a quiet fellow with a wry sense of humor. He could identify and skewer a phony idea at fifty paces. I would have a drink with King once in a while. I wasn't much of a drinker, but he found I liked a gin and Schweppes. Thereafter he addressed me as "Commander."
The edge-wound voice coil was followed by other innovations. I was especially impressed with the new two-way systems - horns and bass speakers separated by a cross-over network. Indeed, I admired the 175DLH so much, I designed a set of chrome legs for mine and placed in on top of my bass reflex cabinet like an art object.
All of the components were beautifully crafted, and they lent themselves beautifully to photography. The speakers had heavy magnets and articulated frames. There was much attention to detail -- from the textures of the metal to the little spring-loaded buttons on the back that made wire attachments easy. New tweeters came out in machined aluminum shapes. All of it had a solid look and feel. This appealed to the male contingent, whom I believed purchased almost all stereo equipment (though women might be consulted). I tried to echo that strength in graphics.
The products were not all that I admired. The company itself, first under Lansing, and then under Bill Thomas and later, Arnold Wolf, was special. Everyone in the JBL family, from management to engineering to cabinetry, gave it their best efforts. That dedication rubbed off on those from the outside too -- writers, designers, photographers, etc. It all helped build the JBL reputation.
At Casitas, the company continued to grow, and the graphics grew with it. I now was doing catalog work and photographic art direction. The special assignments also continued. A number of techniques were used -- embossing, fold-outs, die-cuts, etc. I recall a particular JBL Christmas card that was die-cut into a white 8-armed star, with a grommet in the center. Another star was hidden behind it. When you rotated the second star, eight colors were revealed. This created a stir, and led to a lot of other similar graphic adventures.
George Augspurger and Baker reported to Ray Pepe, a brilliant marketing man. Ray was cordial, but a mysterious figure. I didn't have a clue as to what he was about. Perhaps our personalities were just too different to connect.
I recall during Ray's tenure, the "Super Catalog" was conceived. The Super Catalog was a notebook-sized catalog, not to be given to consumers, but for dealers to use at their showrooms. It would have beautiful full-page photographs and would contain actual samples of the various JBL woods, finishes and fabrics. Everyone was enthused about this project. I remember doing preliminary work on it, trying to organize it into a practical format. But Ray eventually had to pull the plug on it--due to expense, I suppose. This was a great letdown.
In designing the regular JBL consumer catalog, I was able to do photographic art direction with Chuck Rice, and later with Dale Healy. Rice was a young but talented hole-in-the-wall photographer. Years later, he went on to build a huge company, Color House, that specialized in large-scale prints and transparencies for displays and movie production. He now lives in a multi-million-dollar contemporary house designed by Jerry Lomax.
Dale Healy was one of LA's hottest photographers. He operated out of Jason Hailey's studio on San Vicente, designed by Craig Ellwood. The studio had a large outdoor shooting area shaded by a white fabric scrim. The scrim was on wires and was adjustable for changes in sun. Working with this natural light, Healy produced beautiful soft-contrast product photographs for JBL.
It was John Monsos who suggested Dale. Monsos had the JBL advertising account at the time, and operated out of offices on La Cienega. At first, John seemed aloof to me, but as I grew to know him, I developed much liking and respect for him. Later on, he was kind enough to assign me some photographic supervision work for a series of advertisements. The ads placed JBL speaker cabinets in context with great art, music and sculpture pieces. I recall one sculptor who was outraged because we cropped out part of his work. John had to smooth his feathers.
In 1960, my friend and associate Bill West and I formed our own ad agency, West Associates, first on Third Street and then on La Cienega. We were very busy building this company, and at the same time I was involved in the completion of my steel frame house. Unfortunately, my attention strayed somewhat from JBL.
Augspurger and Baker left the company. George formed his own company in the commercial sound field and was very successful. King Baker, who had chafed under Ray Pepe, resigned, and bought an apple farm in Tennessee. King and his wife, Rachel Maddux, a respected novelist, were much happier in the rural lifestyle.
I do not recall the occasion of my first meeting with Arnold Wolf, but it set off a long and close collaboration. I had been aware of him as the designer of JBL's products and cabinetry, most notably the Paragon, JBL's top-of-the-line stereo speaker system. The Paragon was a large and impressive design, both in form and performance. It was assembled from three sections, two large front-loaded horn systems joined in the center by a curved reflective panel -- all in beautiful walnut finish. I wonder if today, with all our digital technology, anything could deliver as sweet a sound as the Paragon did with analog source material.
My personal favorite of Arnold's designs, though, was the L88. It appealed to me because of the graphic way it suggested its function. To me that was the essence of JBL -- all of its products, from components to complete systems, beautifully expressed what they were and did.
In the final years at Casitas, JBL became a a subsidiary of Jervis Corporation, later Harman International, headed by Sidney Harman. I found Sidney Harman to be a strong leader, affable, direct in stating what he expected. If you didn't deliver, you heard about it. But despite his lofty position, he never talked down to me. He treated me as someone whose services were appreciated.
Sid asked me to design the Harman International annual report. It turned out to be the first of a series. The budgets for the reports were ample, and I was able to bring in talented photographers, such as Roger Marshutz, Joe Maddocks and Jack Koehler. The third of the reports featured a cover illustration of the proposed new JBL headquarters in the San Fernando Valley, designed by David Martin. The cover drawing was by Carlos Diniz, the best architectural illustrator in the business.
Arnold Wolf, then president of JBL, had earlier redesigned the JBL logo, integrating Jerry Gould's basic symbol with new lettering and placing them in a solid box. The new logo bristled with strength and memorability. People who might have trouble recalling a Bose or even a Sony logo, could spot a JBL logo right off.
Now Arnold called me in to help apply that logo to everything from stationery to forms to packaging. In the stationery design the logo was more subtly expressed, with the rectangle in blind embossing and the letters in red. We were able to solve an ancillary problem as well -- the lack of good printing quality that, for whatever reason, had long persisted in that category. We brought in Leland Scott Company, one of the best small-format printers in the city. The combination of good design and superior printing quality were very effective and everyone was pleased.
At this time JBL cartons were a mess, with rampant rubber-stamping, weak identification and no common theme. Arnold asked me to redesign the complete line. For reasons of cost, the company was not ready for white corrugated board. Even with that limitation, the new designs -- a combination of the new logo in solid red and bold Microgramma lettering -- produced a strong look, especially if the cartons were stacked on a dealer's floor (as back then they often were).
After the move to the new headquarters, Arnold and I continued to work together on company communications for both JBL and Harman International. Ultimately, we produced the JBL Graphic Standards book, which defined the various ways the logo should or shouldn't be used in print. Through these years, there were also many special assignments, including the JBL original art prints and holiday cards that allowed highly artistic expression.
It may be worth mentioning that all of this work preceded the era of computer-aided graphics. Everything was prepared as art, and stripped on film for plating and printing. It was a more sensitive and craftsman-like style of design than the chaotic "computerized" graphics we see everywhere today.
During my career, I have worked for many fine companies -- from Northrop Architectural Systems to Vivitar and Olympus to Cetec Corporation. Because of the its high standards of excellence, JBL always will be first in my affections.
© 2000 Roger Kennedy