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S Neil Fujita, best known for his covers for CBS Records, which
introduced abstract art to jazz packaging, and his book jackets for
In Cold Blood and The Godfather, died on Saturday,
October 23*. He was 89.
S. Neil Fujita, c. 1960s (photo: Conway Studios Corp.; courtesy
His other lasting designs include the Today Show logo,
the Shubert Theaters logo and the graphic typeface for Billboard
Magazine. Schooled in painting, Fujita began his career as a
graphic designer in Philadelphia at N. W. Ayer, then moved to New
York and became the head of the art department for Columbia
Records. At Columbia he designed album covers with commissioned
artwork by Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol and Roy DeCarava. His bold
typography was modernist in tone, yet not dogmatically linked to
the Swiss or another current school. His own abstract paintings
covered Dave Brubeck's Time Out and Charles Mingus's
Following a three year stint at Columbia, he launched his own
design firm, Ruder, Finn and Fujita, with clients that included the
FAA, Norton Simon, General Mills and General Foods. In 1968 he
wrote Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art (Richards Rosen
Press), a fount of professional intelligence for an emerging field.
It is a slice of lost graphic design history if only for the fact
that he introduced graphic design to high school students, in part
through the voices of women and African-American designers who were
not usually heard in those days.
Sadamitsu Neil Fujita was born on May 16, 1921 in Kauai, Hawaii.
He grew up on a sugar plantation in Waimea, where his father worked
as a blacksmith. He moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 and studied
at Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). Fujita's studies were
interrupted by World War II, during which he was forced into an
internment camp in Wyoming. Like other interned Japanese Americans,
he volunteered for service in the all-Nisei
442nd Regimental Combat Team, serving in Italy and France. He
also served with G-2 intelligence as a translator in the
In the mid-1990s he returned to painting, creating portraits of
the people around Southold, Long Island, where he lived until his
death. This project eventually became "Seeing Is Feeling: American
Faces in the North Fork," which was exhibited at the Floyd Memorial
Library in Greenport in 1999. A solo show of recent paintings was
held in late 2009 at the Sirens' Song gallery in Greenport. During
his last years he also completed a memoir,
Mouth of Reddish Water (Ruder Finn Press).
In 2007 I
interviewed Fujita for AIGA's Voice journal, to put his
voice on the design historical record. By way of commemoration,
here are excerpts from that original interview.
Heller: Neil, I've long admired your work. You've had a long
career, and much of it was involved with the record industry. To
start, how did you become a graphic designer?
Fujita: I went to an art school in Los Angeles,
Chouinard. I had studied painting, design, illustration, color
theory, all the phases of art, but I concentrated on drawing and
painting—the basics. While I was still in school I got married,
then after I graduated my wife and I moved to New York. I wanted to
look for a job in graphic art because I knew that I had to make a
living and that painting wasn't going to do it. After spending a
couple of months in New York I met Bill Golden, the art director of
CBS. He looked at my portfolio and he asked me, "Neil, what do you
want to do? " I said that I didn't know yet but that I was looking
for a job at N. W. Ayer because one of my teachers had put a word
in to Charles Coiner. I went down to Philadelphia and Coiner looked
at my portfolio and offered me a job but it wasn't because of my
commercial work, it was because of my paintings! I worked at Ayer
for around three years, and while I was there I got a gold medal
from the Art Directors Club for designing an ad for the Container
Corporation of America. That must have gotten people talking
because shortly after I left Ayer I got a call from Bill Golden who
says he is recommending me to run the art department at Columbia
Records. He said that I would be starting from the ground up by
building an internal graphic design staff. He also said, "Neil, if
do this you'll be taking work and income away from the two studios
that have been working with us for many years, so you're going to
meet up with a lot of crap. First of all, you're Japanese and
you're going to be called all sorts of names, from nip to
jap and everything else. Do you still want to do it?"
Heller: After Alex Steinweiss established the "idea" of album
cover art, you certainly took it to the next level of "art." Did
you go into Columbia with an aesthetic goal or plan on how to make
this genre modern?
Fujita: When I got to Columbia there was the beginning of
some idea of album cover art but it was still just type and maybe a
photo of the artist and some shapes arranged in an interesting way.
That was the first concept of album cover art. Actually the first
examples of album art that I can remember were on children's
records, because they might have included a painting or something
else to illustrate the idea. But I think that I was the first to
use painters, photographers and illustrators to do artwork on album
covers. As for the second part of the question, no, in fact I
didn't go right into designing jackets. In fact when I got to
Columbia I actually spent the first couple of months visiting the
record factory in Connecticut because I wanted to learn how records
were made, the whole process.
Album covers by S. Neil Fujita for the Dave Brubeck Quartet
(left) and Jimmy Rushing, both for Columbia Records.
Heller:Many of your covers were done for jazz albums.
Was there a difference in your approach from jazz to other forms of
Fujita: Jazz called for abstraction, a certain kind of
stylization, using modern painters. Classical was different, we
might have used more photography for those records. I would hire a
photographer like Dan Weiner and send him to a Glenn Gould
recording session because it was in the sessions that you could
really catch the raw spirit of the performance. I'd look at the
contact sheet, and if I saw one that really clicked with what I
knew about the musician or conductor I'd say, "That's it!" Leonard
Bernstein was going to do a jazz recording and I told him, since
we're doing a jazz album, don't be afraid to dress casually, even
in a T-shirt". His reply was, "I'm not afraid of anything!" It
wasn't modern painting but it was a modern approach.
Heller: Your work is decidedly modern, so who were your
influences? Did you look to the generation before (e.g., Rand), or
were the "monumental" modernist painters your guide?
Fujita: When I was going to art school I liked the work
of Paul Rand, but also Tomayo, Klee, Picasso, Braque.
Heller:You left Columbia in 1957. Why? Steinweiss
once told me that he just couldn't keep up with the changes in the
industry. Did you feel rock and roll changed the ground rules of
Fujita: I left in '57 because I wanted to be something
other than just a record designer, and that's what I told Goddard
Lieberson. I said that if I could sing or play the piano or any
instrument I might consider staying but I couldn't do any of those
things, so I left to go on my own. The New York designers' clique
at the time spread the rumor that I had been canned, but that
wasn't true. After leaving I had my own studio with a partner who
came with me from Columbia. I was on my own for less than a year
when I got a call from Lieberson, wanting me to return. The guy who
replaced me wasn't working out so I went back to Columbia for
another couple of years but I told them that it would just be
temporary. This time the New York designers' clique took a
different approach: They spread the rumor that I was responsible
for canning the guy that replaced me, which again wasn't true. The
simple fact is that I just didn't want to be known as someone that
designed record covers. I wanted to do other things, like learn how
Heller:You also did your fair share of book covers
and jackets. What was it like when you did them? Did you have to
navigate through a lot of marketing interference, or did you have a
Fujita: I didn't have marketing people making suggestions
but I did do a lot of reading. And there may have been more direct
contact with the authors than there is today (but I'm not sure
about that). I liked working with authors because it's usually the
author that sells the book. That's why I always wanted to have the
author's name as big as the title. I did Updike's Pigeon
Feathers for Random House and I got a call from Bob
Scudellari—Updike had sent him a note that said, "Why don't you get
that Japanese designer and try him out again?" I did three or four
covers for him after that. I showed Truman Capote my ideas for
In Cold Blood. I thought of a red hatpin that I stuck into
the title of the book to suggest death or something like that, but
he didn't like the color. "It can't be red, because it wasn't a new
death, it didn't just happen," so I changed the color to purple and
added a black border to suggest something more funereal. Capote
S. Neil Fujita's book covers for The Godfather and In Cold
Heller:Once you started your own studio, did your
Fujita: I wanted to learn more about words—I wanted to learn
how to write, so I went to Columbia University at night to study
English literature and writing. After I left Columbia Records, I
had my own studio across from MoMA. I had a couple of big corporate
clients, but I was also doing a lot of work for book publishers.
One day I got a call from David Finn of Ruder and Finn. He was
interested in the concept of merging graphic design with public
relations, and Joyce Morrow of AIGA had recommended me. The idea
was to form my own company that would be a subsidiary of Ruder and
Finn. That was when I started Ruder, Finn and Fujita. One of the
first assignments that I found myself involved in was working with
a group of designers in Israel to conceptualize, package and
distribute Israeli products for export. This was the kind of total
synthesis of commerce, communication and design that I was really
interested in learning about and developing. I did this kind of
work for clients like the FAA, Norton Simon, Bristol-Meyers,
General Mills, General Foods, a lot of annual reports. I did this
for about 10 years before changing the company to Fujita Design. I
kept the same office but I had my own clients.
Heller:Didn't you design the logo for the
Fujita: Yes, I did the logo—I designed the book jacket
for Putnam in 1969. By taking the G and extending it to the
D, I created a house for god. The way the word was designed
was part of the logo and so was the type design. So when Paramount
Pictures does a film version or Random House, which bought out the
book from Putnam, does another Godfather book, I still get a
design credit. In fact before the first Godfather film
opened in New York I saw a huge billboard going up on Times Square
with my design on it. I actually got them to stop work on it until
we were able to come to an agreement.
Heller: How do you feel about the evolution of design
practice since you started and today?
Fujita: My father was blacksmith. He had his anvil and
hammer. One morning he went to his shop and someone had replaced
his anvil and hammer with a welder's torch. I am fortunate to have
worked in that period before the computer when we had to search for
solutions with our own hands. When I did Updike's covers the
computer as a graphic art tool was not even in existence. I didn't
just design the type for those book jackets; I drew it with my
quill pen, using India inks and dyes. It's tough for designers
today that have to use the computer.
*This article was
amended on October 27 to reflect the correct date of Mr. Fujita's
death: it was October 23, not 24.
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