Printing the Identity of Los Angeles
Text by Chad Kouri with comments by Glenn Hinman, Julia Luke, James Black, Anthony Burrill and Cody Hudson. Photographs by Andreas E.G. Larsson
Chad Kouri, artist
The first time I set foot in Los Angeles, my body flooded with anxious curiosity. The neon yellow, red hot and pink-yellow-blue gradient signage, smacked with a heavy hit of fat-black lettering echoed through the entire city, made my mouth fall open and eyes glass over like some mindless zombie with a printmaking fetish. How is it that the yard sale signs, mariachi band posters and film set directional signage have all adapted this same basic aesthetic? While they may not all be authentic, they all reference the same source: Colby Poster Printing Company.
Colby has had a huge part in developing the aesthetic in Los Angeles and the outlying areas for well over 60 years. For the past few decades, this three-union, family-run letterpress, screen printing, and computer graphics shop existed mainly on the production of campaign signs and other political propaganda, but their history is much richer and more interesting than that. Printing posters for the likes of Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, Martin Luther King Jr., and even “Planet of the Apes,” Colby has not only persuaded the visual aesthetic of the city, but has largely informed the public about what we now know to be historic moments in music, film and politics. More recently, Colby has struggled to keep their doors open, supported mostly by cultural institutions like the Hammer Museum and artists including Mark Bradford and Craig R. Stecyk III, all fighting the good fight to keep the tradition of the shop and the original, classic LA aesthetic alive.
Researching the shop, we learned that, at the beginning of 2013, Colby Poster Printing Company will be up for sale, in the hopes that someone interested in keeping the shop running will step in and keep the doors open. However, with rising property values in a prime location just off of the 110, it’s hard to say if the shop’s history will outweigh the potential for a new business in the same space. Here at MAS Context and The Post Family, we hope that, by informing our reader base, we can help the shop find a like-minded someone who will keep the doors open and the space filled with neon paper, wood type, and the smell of ink for another 60 years.
In the next few pages, travel with us on a letterpress print run, tour the Colby facilities, and hear the inside stories from some of the amazing people who’ve worked with Colby:
Glenn Hinman, president of Colby Poster Printing Co.
Julia Luke, senior designer at the Hammer Museum
James Black, architect
Anthony Burrill, artist
Cody Hudson, artist
Glenn Hinman, president of Colby Poster Printing Co.
My grandfather was a supervisor who could actually run letterpress. In the early and mid 40s he was running a shop and he was well known. I know that because in the 70s and 80s, a lot of these printers who were still alive, would let me know, “I knew your grandfather, he was the best.” In the 40s he worked for a guy right down on Venice Blvd and one day they got busted for trying to make money. It turned out it was not him or the crew. But back then, you were a high profile person if you bought cotton and linen paper with the red and blue fibers because that’s the type of stock you used to make money. So in other words, if you bought certain stock in those days a red light would go off. They were keeping an eye on it and said, “That paper is for stocks and bonds, why does this little shop want it?” As he was getting busted and taken away, my grandfather did everything to save the shop, and keep the guys going, but it was over at that point. My grandfather and my grandmother sold the stock they had in Standard Oil but still had the list of client. So they set up a place right around the corner, about 200 yards from here that ended up burning down. He then bought this place that turned out to be a heck of investment. You wonder what was this place in 1946, maybe $10,000? Now its’ something between $1.2 and $1.5 million. So that’s how my grandfather started. Then my dad came on board and we were born into it. I started working here in 1976, Lee started in 1984 and Larry, my youngest brother, came six or eight years after Lee.
We used to do bus sign and billboards for movies like Planet of the Apes, 2001 Space Odyssey, The Death Pool with Clint Eastwood, House of Wax 3D when they had the very first 3D. I always remember that last one because that guy stuck it to us and it was down there so I had to look at it. In the 80s we used to do things for U2, White Snake, Motley Hatchet, Bruce Springsteen… hundreds and hundreds of them. My grandfather did work for the Beach Boys when they were kids, Steve Wonder and even bands from the 50s.
Now it’s getting tougher and tougher, also with out-of-state competitors and non-unions who can go much cheaper. Unions have been a great thing to us and we have all worked well together, but right now we can’t confirm with three unions that we can an employ them and and do our due diligences for two years. This was our best chance for a good year and it was just ok. Next year is an odd year and odd years are much tougher, there are very few elections. The even years are the big ones and every four you have the super elections. But this year we didn’t see the big numbers.
But this can be a thriving business. What I am really hoping for is the interest of the big unions. It’s not only a fantastic investment of a property, as it’s a third of a mile from all the freeways, but also there are three unions already here. So there is the foundation of a great business, but we are just burnt out.
Julia Luke, Senior Designer Hammer Museum
At the beginning of this year I began brainstorming with members of the Hammer Museum’s senior staff about the brand and identity for the Museum’s first biennial exhibition, Made in L.A., 2012. As a native of Los Angeles, I felt an exceptional amount of pressure to try to represent my city and its artists in a fresh, exciting, honest, and universally approachable way. The Hammer’s aim was to draw a larger audience to the museum with this identity and perhaps bring in more first-time visitors than ever before.
The question I asked myself was, “How to represent L.A. visually?” Los Angeles means different things to different people. On the surface and from afar, it means Hollywood and traffic, bleached hair and palm trees. As soon as I started thinking about freeways and traffic, I forced myself to stop. I did not want to celebrate one of our city’s greatest flaws. I did not want to contribute to that stereotype, but then I wondered what is it that we see in our cars? What signage do we have in L.A. that is distinctly different from other cities? Neon. Liquor store light boxes. Insanely-beautiful-split fountain rainbow-gradient-posters with the most fascinating sincere legible black type—COLBY POSTERS. Then the identity for Made in LA, 2012 made itself. Duchamp meets Claes Oldenburg. Colby posters blown up to an epic size much larger than life, banners running in succession down Hollywood Boulevard … there was no end to where this would go.
Colby Posters. They signify church bazaars and school carnivals, locksmiths and boxing matches, Cumbia clubs, tree trimming services and, of course, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. For me, Colby Posters were the ultimate graphic design “ready-mades” and I think Marcel Duchamp would agree.
“A work of art that transcends a form but that is also intelligible, an object that strikes down an idea while allowing it to spring up stronger,” Jerry Saltz wrote in The Village Voice in 2006.
I knew we were going to produce a large marketing campaign for this show. This campaign would feature large-scale building signage, street pole banners throughout the city, various national and international print, and web advertisements, too. With Colby posters, everything was there, they were recognizable, colorful-eyecatching-beautiful and, above all, honest.
Colby has inspired and collaborated with many local artists from Allen Ruppersberg to Eve Fowler, and this just added to how appropriate the imagery would be for an art exhibition. The senior management team at the Hammer was in full agreement and we went forward and collaborated with Colby to create the brand and identity of Made in L.A. I went to the shop and typeset the poster with the folks at Colby and this poster then informed the entire identity.
The process, from concept to completion, will remain a high point for me. Not only in my career as a graphic artist, but in my daily life in the city I adore, Los Angeles.
James Black, architect
The design team for “Unfinished Business,” the 25th-anniversary retrospective exhibition of the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, was tasked with the project of translating selections of discourse about design and urbanism – in large part, a bunch of words – into a gallery show with visual impact. I hit upon the idea of using Colby Posters when, walking down the street, I caught a timely glimpse of one of their advertising signs tacked to a telephone pole. Colby’s ubiquitous letterpress advertising prints in Day-Glo colors have an iconic, underdesigned look that screams Los Angeles. The concept seemed obvious and inevitable – as an easy means of setting the visual style for the exhibition, we would have Colby Poster, in their characteristic style, set selected “sound bite” quotations from the Forum’s archive.
Our curatorial team supplied the quotations for the posters, and we opted for letterpress rather than screenprinting in order to ensure that we would get that distinctive Colby look. We deliberately gave Colby’s typesetters license over the design, and Colby’s Glenn Hinman understood what we were after. The ten quotation posters, each printed in small runs on stock of four different day-glo colors, are striking on their own and have a visual coherence when put together. Designed to celebrate the LA Forum’s archive, these posters are now a part of it. The posters also opened up unconventional methods for promoting the show, as we sent a crack team of black hoodie-clad architects, armed with staple-guns and stepladders, to hang our snippets of discourse directly in the city streets.
Anthony Burrill, artist
I came across Colby Poster Printing’s eye-popping work while trawling through the internet. I kept seeing amazing prints produced using a fantastic combination of bold woodblock type and zingy fluorescent color merges. I tracked down Colby’s website, which also has a unique quality, and finally spoke to Glenn, the amazing proprietor. I loved Colby’s output so much that I curated a show in London at KK OUTLET. The work enjoyed a great reception and everybody was amazed by the joyous west coast color palette, the free and easy use of language and bold layouts. I have a great interest in all things vernacular and enjoy the quirky charms of small, independently run print shops. In a time of increased homogeneity, these unique places should be valued, preserved and celebrated.
Cody Hudson, artist
Colby has such an iconic style and interesting history including a long history of working with artists. This recent piece I did with them was for a show in Los Angeles where they are based, so it made perfect sense to work with them to tie into the long-standing LA history they have. I feel when you are getting something printed at Colby you are not just getting something printed but getting a little piece of history as well.
Glenn Hinman is the president of Colby Poster Printing Co., a family-owned business based in Los Angeles operated since 1946. They specialize in political and commercial posters and signage.
Andreas E.G. Larsson is a Swedish photographer based in Los Angeles. Influenced by the trademark simplicity of Scandinavian design, Larsson’s photographs are clean and uncluttered. His portfolio includes interiors,portraits, editorial features and advertising campaigns, and his images have appeared in world-renowned publications.
www.andreasphoto.com | @AndreasLphoto
Chad Kouri is a Chicago-based artist. With equal interests in conceptual art, ethnography, typography, design, jazz and the gray areas between these fields, his body of work is a collection of various ongoing projects, thoughts and experiments tied together by a strong sense of composition, concise documentation and an overall vibe of optimism.
www.chadkouri.com | www.thepostfamily.com | @postfamily | @chadkouri
Julia Luke is Senior Designer at the Hammer Museum overseeing design and production of all museum collateral from quarterly magazines and invitations to environmental and exhibition signage. Before joining the Hammer, she worked as a designer at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles. Her work was recognized in Print’s 2006 Regional Design Annual and in 2009 for the Francisco Mantecón International Advertising Poster Competition, Vigo, Spain.
www.julialuke.com | www.hammer.ucla.edu | @hammer_museum
James Black is a Los Angeles-based architect. Along with Garrett Belmont, in 2003 he launched Architecture Burger to publish original design and research work, with particular focus on the intersections between design culture and popular culture.
Anthony Burrill is a designer whose persuasive, up-beat illustration and design has been commissioned by cultural, social and commercial clients around the world from New York, to London to Tokyo. Burrill works across a range of media, including posters, moving image and three-dimensional work. He combines an instinctive handling of color and composition with a witty approach to words.
www.anthonyburrill.com | @anthonyburrill
Cody Hudson is a Chicago based artist, also known for his graphic design contributions under the name Struggle Inc. His graphic work and paintings have been exhibited throughout the US, Europe and Japan. He has produced logos, album covers, and clothing for clients such as Nike, Converse, Stussy, The Cool Kids, and A-TRAK.
www.struggleinc.com | @Struggle_Inc