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At a recent talk, Michael Bierut cited the 1968 vocational book
Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art—which he discovered in
the Parma High School library in his Ohio hometown—as a major
influence on his future career. The author, S. Neil Fujita, was the
art director for CBS Records and designer of such iconic graphics
as the Godfather logo and book jacket for In Cold
Blood. For decades his name was synonymous with a kind of
eclectic modernism—not Swiss or Bauhaus, but jazz-inspired with an
American flair. No wonder his work would tickle the fancy of anyone
considering graphic design as an art with many facets. Born in 1921
in Waimea, Hawaii, Fujita remains active, though no longer as an
art director in the record or publishing industries, nor as a
communication design instructor at Parsons, where he taught in the
early 1960s and '70s. He is currently writing and illustrating the
book Botanical Mischief, an ongoing personal project. And
in April 2008, Ruder Finn Press will publish his autobiography,
Mouth of Reddish Water: A Japanese American
Story. Recently, this visually eloquent designer agreed to
speak about his past and present, and the state of design as he
Heller: Neil, I've long admired your work. You've had an
extensive career, and much of it was involved with the record
industry. To start, how did you become a graphic
Fujita's forthcoming autobiography on Ruder Finn Press.
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 City. 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: It's a good thing that you did. After Alex Steinweiss
established the “idea” of album cover art, you certainly took the
“art” to the next level. Did you go into Columbia with an aesthetic
goal or plan on how to make this genre modern?
Duke Ellington cover.
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.
Heller: Just to clarify, Alex Steinweiss was indeed
designing record albums starting in 1939...
Fujita: When I got to Columbia, Alex was at
RCA, I believe. We met for lunch several times and would speak. The
relationship was a friendly one, but I don't think we talked a lot
about design. There were a lot of changes going on in the business
and we were both searching for our own answers. I would travel
across the country speaking to record sellers. I would ask them how
they sold records because I felt that we needed a new approach. In
those days, clerks would spend a lot more time actually selling
records to customers. We thought about how we could use images or
pictures in a more creative way. We thought about what the picture
was saying about the music and how we could use that to sell the
record. And abstract art was getting popular so we used a lot more
abstraction in the designs—with jazz records especially but also
with classical when there was a way for it to fit, like with the
more modern composers.
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.
A few of Fujita's iconic jazz album covers for Dick Hyman, Dave
Brubeck and Jimmy Rushing.
Heller: Your work is decidedly modern, so who were your
influences? Did you look to the generation before (i.e., 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: I recently saw a large amount of work by Jim
Flora, and currently I'm working on a biography of Alvin
Lustig—both contemporaries—and I noticed there seems to be a link
between your paintings and theirs: abstract, glyph-like images,
very improvisational. Do you feel you conformed to a moment in
design, or were you trying to blaze your own trails?
Fujita: I didn't intend to blaze any trails but
the things that were in the air influenced me. Before I did Dave
Brubeck's [Time Out, featuring] “Take Five,” somebody said
that the group was returning from a tour of Asia. I had recently
returned from the service with armed forces intelligence in the
Western Pacific and I had been through East Asia, the Philippines
and Calcutta, so I borrowed some colors and shapes that seemed to
go with the mood.
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 designer's
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
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 to
Threepenny Opera album cover with painting by Ben
Heller: What were the covers that are to this day most
important to you? And why?
Fujita: I liked the cover for the
Threepenny Opera that had a painting by Ben Shahn; I also
liked the cover for Jimmy Rushing's record that had a painting of
Rushing by Tom Allen on the cover; I'm also really proud of the
Time Out cover.
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
In Cold Blood book cover.
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
[art director] 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 hat pin
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 loved that.
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
[Federal Aviation Administration], Norton Simon, Bristol-Myers,
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.
Book cover for The Godfather.
Heller: Didn't you design the logo for The
Fujita: Yes, I did the logo—I [originally]
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 in Times Square with my design on it. I
actually got them to stop work on it until we were able to come to
Heller: How do you feel about the evolution of design
practice since when you started and today?
Fujita: My father was a 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. The first thing
I saw when I returned to Parsons after having taught there for 11
years was the students' computers on their desks. The students
weren't there, just their computers!
Heller: What about design did you enjoy the most? And
hate the most?
Fujita: It started back with the work I did at
Ayer for the Container Corporation of America. It was there that I
really began to get a sense of what was possible with art and
design: communicating the corporation's identity and message into
something visual. I really enjoyed that.
What did I hate? There wasn't anything about actual designing
that I hated.
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