Fellow Awards 2013 Interview: Michael Manwaring
Interviewed by David Meckel

I met Michael Manwaring thirty years ago when I was working and teaching in southern California. A colleague of mine, who was well aware of the best design going on related to making buildings memorable places, had invited Michael down to show our office his work. I especially remember him showing the beautiful porcelain enamel signage he had designed for the Oakland Coliseum complex. These bright, crisp, diagonally stripped panels read like building jewelry on that bold concrete tour de force piece of architecture. Little did I know at the time that I would end up later collaborating on projects with Michael, teaching at the same college with him and becoming a dear friend. Michael closed The Office of Michael Manwaring in 2006 and moved to Portland where he has established his art and design studio practice.

DM: Growing up in Palo Alto with a father that had such a strong regard for a traditional university education, how did you end up finding your way to art school?

MM: Well, I can remember constantly drawing things at home starting around the first grade. As I progressed up through school and got interested in hot rods, I started striping cars and dealing with the craft of painting. I didn’t really know much about design and had never even heard the term graphic design, but I loved to draw and paint. I thought I should go to the San Francisco Art Institute instead of a traditional college or university. My family wasn’t keen on this plan, so I ended up driving a delivery truck in Palo Alto for a year until my dad caved in and said he would pay for my SFAI tuition.

DM: So SFAI had both design and art during those years?

MM: Yes. Design included a blend of fine art courses as well, but there was an area called Advertising Design within which the design classes were contained. I liked the fine arts classes a lot, but struggled with the idea of advertising design and didn’t do very well in those classes initially. I survived the first semester, but then as the second semester began, an unusual set of events unfolded. We were told that our regular teacher was ill and would be out the rest of the term, but that a replacement was coming that very day. It turned out to be Jim Robertson who headed up the well-known firm Robertson Montgomery, although none of us knew who he was. We had pinned all our work to that point up on the wall and he walked in, lit a cigarette and just silently stared at each piece one by one. The first words he said to us were, “What a pile of crap.”

DM: Wow, nice opening line. What did you do?

MM: Normally I’m not one to show my anger, but that really upset me, so I got in an argument with him. I said that I thought design was crap and what was serious was painting, not design. He told me that he had studied painting at UC Berkeley under David Park and he knew way more about art than I did. He also said that I didn’t know anything about design. He asked me if I knew a certain designer’s work. I said “No.” The he asked about another one. I again said “No.”

DM: Who were the designers he named?

MM: I was so flustered, I couldn’t remember their names, but I knew the first one had three words and sounded European. So the next day while I was the library working on other stuff I went in the stacks to look at the design books. There on the shelf was a book on Josef Muller-Brockmann. I took it back to my table and it flopped open to a black and white concert poster for Beethoven that was unlike anything else I had ever seen in my life. It looked like it was from Mars. It was so free and beautiful. It was as good or better than any painting I had ever seen at SFAI.

DM: I wonder how many of your contemporaries might tell a similar story?

MM: There are probably a large number, but I can tell you about one specifically. In 1991 I was at an AIGA conference in Chicago and Michael Bierut came up to me and asked if I wanted to meet Josef Muller-Brockmann who was also at the conference. When I told Michael that his Beethoven poster was the reason I became a graphic designer, Michael said, “For me it was his Der Film poster.”

DM: Back to SFAI for a moment. We’re you doing any freelance work while you were still in school?

I started doing some film posters for the Surf Theater out on Irving and 48th. These were 20 by 30 hand drawn and hand lettered originals that I produced weekly on Friday afternoons, then took over to the theater that evening at 6:30 where they were pinned up one week in advance of the next film. It instilled great discipline and confidence that I could sit down and start at the top of a poster board and have a finished work a few hours later. If you repeat that enough times it really takes away the fear of facing a blank sheet of paper. I tried to convey this when I started teaching students. If you just make something, anything – start at the top and work down – then you have something that you can talk with someone about.

DM: Tell us about your transition from SFAI to practice, especially how you ended up working for the guy who was such a tough nut – your teacher, Jim Robertson?

MM: Jim was made head of the design department at SFAI and began to hire some great faculty. He hired Fletcher Benton, Jacques Overhoff, Jay Baldwin and Gordon Ashby. I started working for Gordon while I was still in school. When I finished my third year, I felt I was ready to do real work, so I met with Jim to let him know my intentions. He tried to talk me into staying for my last year, but when he realized I was going to leave school, he immediately offered me a job.

I worked there for 3 1/2 years. An average week was 70 – 80 hours. And there were a few 100-hour weeks. I usually ate dinner at Vanesi’s at 10:30 pm then went back to work after that. Of course back then there was no overtime, no health plan, no benefits of any kind, except for the $400 monthly starting wage. I was given enormous responsibility and was working on fantastic projects, but after 3 1/2 years I realized I was not going to make it as a human being if I stayed there.

DM: So what was your plan when you left?

MM: I tried to get in to talk with Nicolas Sidjakov, but had no luck with that. I had noticed a very nice office on Battery that had beautiful arched windows and was some sort of design office, so I went there and talked to an industrial designer who had rented a few desks within the architecture office on that floor, and he hired me to do some projects for him. He ended up closing his office shortly thereafter and the architecture firm offered me to continue using those desks for $50 a month. I called Jerry Reis and told him I had a studio space. We started Reis and Manwaring that year, in 1968.

DM: How did you know Jerry?

MM: We had been classmates at SFAI and collaborated on a Surf Theater poster. We worked well together and eventually became best friends. That friendship continues to this day.

DM: What did you and Jerry do as Reis and Manwaring?

MM: Neither of us was in a position to bring work from our previous jobs, so we started out with nothing. We both had pregnant wives and no clients. But we were excited by the possibilities. We landed a logo for a TV station by accident after two weeks and we were off and running. We would work on anything regardless of whether it had a design fee or not. We put our firm name on everything we did, and we began to get noticed. Most of our jobs were low paying but very high visibility, which helped us as the firm matured. It was a more forgiving time, so I’m not sure this approach would work today, but for us it was great. We got two mentions in Herb Caen’s column, became the darlings of the Junior League and other socially prominent groups, and went on from that work to do the SFMOMA Bookstore on Van Ness and work for the prominent chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein.

DM: How did you divide up the work?

MM: We didn’t. Jerry and I did everything together. We liked all the same things and hated all the same things. This became a problem when we would have an especially difficult client, because neither of us would want to go to the meetings. We’d both rather stay in the studio drawing and designing.

DM: Reis and Manwaring had a great body of work. After 8 years, you decided to go out on your own. Can you tell us about this transition?

MM: There was nothing wrong with Reis and Manwaring, I just started to wonder who I was individually and what I would do on my own. I also had started to develop a friendship with Michael Vanderbyl who was a big promoter of Reis and Manwaring, placing our work in a publication and an exhibition that he organized. Michael was teaching at CCAC with his mentor Wolfgang Lederer and I thought I would enjoy doing some teaching as well. I wrote Wolfgang a letter not expecting to hear back and got a response a week later. I started teach at CCAC in 1976, the same year I formed the Office of Michael Manwaring.

DM: Reis and Manwaring was located in Mill Valley. Where did you set up your new office?

MM: At 1045 Sansome Street. Michael Vanderbyl was right across the street at 1000 Sansome and the whole neighborhood was packed with the services a design firm needed at that time and terrific restaurants as well.

DM: Restaurants?

MM: Yes, a number of us started having lunch together five days a week. We eventually settled on Café Lido on Broadway once that opened. It became our regular spot.

DM: So who else besides you and Michael Vanderbyl was part of this lunch tradition?

MM: Before we settled into Café Lido, there were various people who joined us – people that Michael Vanderbyl knew from the neighborhood. Eventually it narrowed down to graphic designers, and then to me, Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Cronan, architect Clyde Winters and one invited guest. Before walking to lunch we would sometimes gather at one of our offices. Getting to visit each other’s offices and see what everyone was working on was invigorating and inspiring. After lunch, which always included wine, you just wanted to do better work! I have told this story to New York designers and they could never believe that our offices were so open with each other.

DM: I was down on Third Street near India Basin last week and saw those incredible big concrete letters you designed for the India Basin industrial Park. They still look great – not a spot of graffiti on them after 35 years.

MM: Yes, and that was supposed to be a temporary sign originally planned for a 2 – 3 year life span. I was working with the landscape architect and produced an idea to be made out of plywood using a super graphics approach. I showed this idea in the presentation, but had a second idea that I didn’t unveil until the meeting was almost over. I had sketched out very large – 8 feet tall, 3 feet deep – dimensional letters lifted up by a small hill so that they were always visible even when vehicles were parked in front of them. I left that second drawing with them and apparently it struck a cord, because they called me the next week wanting to do the big letters. Helvetica of course.

DM: The other project along the bay front that I enjoy seeing regularly is your Embarcadero Promenade History Pylons. What gave you the idea for those black and white porcelain enamel pylons?

MM: Our office was on the top floor of 1005 Sansome Street and we had a beautiful view looking east at the bay. I was inspired by the graphics of ship funnels. They had beautiful forms with bold stripes in black and white as well as primary and secondary colors. The first scheme in this direction was elegant, but I became concerned that the pylons might look like art pieces. My goal before starting was that whatever the solution, it would be classical in the sense that it couldn’t be pinned down in time. The black and white stripes suggested mileposts or navigational markers. The side with the graphics always faces the water so that you never see color as you travel along the Embarcadero, which makes them stronger against the horizon. There was concern at the beginning of the project about anything that would block the bay view. I didn’t think wall plaques, anything that looked “Park Service”, or a traditional interpretive solution would be right. So a tall skinny steel tube was my solution.

DM: You also did quite a bit of public realm work in San Jose. As far as I know, it is all still there helping people identify and navigate key parts of that downtown area. There’s the Arena, History Walk, Children’s Discovery Museum, and Opera San Jose. Can you describe these multi-year projects?

MM: The History Walk was the first of these. Basically, they were thinking about bronze plaques on pedestals. I was traveling a lot at the time and I began looking at civic and historical plaques in whatever city I was in. I came to the conclusion that plaques are everywhere – so many that you seldom notice them. I remembered the old El Camino Real bell signs from my youth and this led me to the idea of freestanding history markers. I also decided to make them more decorative and humanist in order to separate them from the street signage and furnishings. The San Jose Arena came to me after they fired another design firm. The downtown renaissance was in high gear and the redevelopment agency was totally committed to quality design. The arena was without a sponsor name and consisted of a big empty stainless steel box. My job was to create some kind of identity that would give it some character but wouldn’t interfere with securing a naming rights sponsor. I used stripes again as a way of organizing all the exterior and interior signage and graphics. There are large freestanding M’s and W’s for the restrooms, big 3-D arrows for the elevators and sports figure silhouettes that helped mediate between the scale of the human body and the inhuman scale of the architecture – like decoration used to do before modern architects stripped it all off. Finally, The Childrens Discovery Museum and Opera San Jose were developed as freestanding signs designed to keep the tenants from putting signs on Ricardo Legoretta’s building.

DM: Let’s return to your teaching. Can you tell us about some of your favorite assignments over the years?

MM: I always really liked teaching the second level studio in graphic design. Students have already been introduced to the basics, but they haven’t yet framed what graphic design is or could be. It allowed me to do more philosophical things with them. For many of today’s students drawing isn’t the main visualization skill as it has been for me. Yet they are very creative and just need investigation methods where drawing isn’t necessarily central to their process. So one assignment that worked well was having them produce an allegorical poster using photography, props, actors and prose as the main tools. It allowed them to very quickly produce something we could talk about. We could look, see and verbalize our thoughts about the meaning of their work in a way that allowed them to have fun and get things done quickly and beautifully.

DM: I seem to remember a few other assignments. Was there one about a monument and another about an ugly color?

MM: Yes there was one where I had them design a monument to their hometown. Initially the students from small towns would feel at a disadvantage, but it was often the small town design solutions that had the most powerful meaning. The other assignment I liked was where I asked them to pick out some things they thought were ugly – colors, typefaces, patterns – and then I asked them make something beautiful out of them. This is an exercise in showing the power of context and association.

DM: In closing can you share your thoughts about receiving this AIGA Fellows honor?

MM: I think it is a terrific thing. I’m very happy to have been selected and feel lucky to have practiced and taught in such a supportive community. But I have to say that from the very beginning, starting at SFAI when Dixie and I were already married, she has always cleared the path for me. She fostered ways for me to be creative without worrying about money. She could always be counted on for honest, clear-minded opinions about the work. I know for certain that none of this could have been realized without her.


David Meckel is an architect and educator at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He can be reached at dmeckel[at]cca.edu.