Monthly Archives: February 2013

Millard Sheets and the Home Savings Shield

Millard Sheets, Home Savings shield, in Home Savings calendar by George Underwood; courtesy of George Underwood
Millard Sheets, Home Savings shield, in Home Savings calendar by George Underwood; courtesy of George Underwood

Businesses need brand logos. And so, though the art and architecture of Home Savings were their own sort of branding–prominent corners, eye-catching art, local themes–in 1955 Home Savings needed a brand logo, and Millard Sheets designed this shield. Some of its earliest renditions were in the traditional Home Savings form — mosaic.

Sheets, Home Savings shield as mosaic, 1978 calendar, courtesy George Underwood
Sheets, Home Savings shield as mosaic, 1978 calendar, courtesy George Underwood

Like many successful logos, the Home Savings shield seems simple, through a number of careful design choices. Here words are scaled according to their relative importance–the concept of “HOME” as well as its use as a nickname for the savings and loan makes it an obvious choice for being largest. Next comes “Savings” — you can see below, in other versions, that its prominence was kept, while “loan” began shrinking.

The calendar caption, saying that the shield was “comparatively ‘new'”, reflects the Home Savings gospel that the business went back to 1889–an idea Sheets incorporated into the shield itself. But Howard Ahmanson bought Home Savings in 1947, and all transformations date from there. (See more in Eric Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home.)

Home Savings locations also had the griffin, designed by Albert Stewart via a Sheets connection, which was the symbol of the larger Ahmanson holding company, and today is the symbol of the Ahmanson Foundation. It passed a key test for modern logos — good at all sizes — that recently got the UC system logo in trouble. But nothing about it said banking exactly, despite the reference to the winged lion of St. Mark, symbol of Venice, a longtime global trading hub.

The shield is obviously a symbol of protection, and the background–which at first seems to be an abstract design, like on a tapestry — shows small trees, reinforcing the idea of growth, seed capital, and the power of long-term investment.

But then there is the problem of how to make the shield stand out in two dimensions. In my conversations with George Underwood, who oversaw the inside publishing and advertising efforts that brought us the calendars, advertisements, stationery, and more, he spoke of the agony of figuring out how to make the shield look good.

We can see two of those solutions here: the laying down shield (a photograph of a three-dimensional shield at a dramatic angle) was often used in print and television ads; it positions the viewer as looking up at the shield, as we might from the sidewalk to the side of a building. And it always helps a brand to feel folks are looking up to it!

Sheets and George Underwood, Home Savings shield in 2 dimensions, 1970 calendar, courtesy George Underwood
Sheets and George Underwood, Home Savings shield in 2 dimensions, 1970 calendar, courtesy George Underwood

Then there are the subtle but important design changes in the shield above, in the midst of the rainbow of color. To emphasize the depth and weight of the shield even in a two-dimensional rendering, the top line is bowed out, as in the photograph, and the placement of the letters are also distorted across what would be the bulge at the center of the shield, strengthening the illusion of three dimensions.

How Chase re-purposed a Home Savings shield, as seen in 2012 in Garden Grove
How Chase re-purposed a Home Savings shield, as seen in 2012 in Garden Grove

Such an important symbol as the Home Savings shield eventually made its way into interior-illumination signage, sometimes on buildings but mostly on standalone signs. The plastic version was crafted by Tony Sheets, and some still exist; at right is a case of how Chase has reused on such existing sign, in Garden Grove. (I haven’t seen examples of how Washington Mutual used the street signs in this way, but they must have done so at least in this location.)

Though the Chase symbol seems incongruous here, the survival of the shield, even as transformed, is something to celebrate. Architect and historian Alan Hess just showed me a Mobil red pegasus that Sheets and his network of sculptors had created for a station at Harbor and Katella in Anaheim though it is long gone. Right now, fellow roadside-architecture preservationists are hard at work trying to save the Unocal 76 balls from being replaced with signs that merely show a picture of them.

When a company disappears or modernizes, preserving items with its logo in public places can be difficult. But, from the Queens Pepsi-Cola sign to the Hollywoodland real-estate origins of that iconic sign, it is possible — and worth doing!

Richard Haines, Ravenna Mosaic Company, and Another Downtown Los Angeles Mosaic

Richard Haines, "Recognition of All Foreign Lands," Los Angeles, 1963
Richard Haines, “Recognition of All Foreign Lands,” Los Angeles, 1963

As a quick follow-up to my recent posts about the Sheets Studio’s relationship with the Ravenna Mosaic Company and the questions of religious symbols in artwork for public patrons, I present these mosaics, designed by Richard Haines for the federal building at 300 N. Los Angeles Street in 1963.

Among other reasons for interest, this demonstrates the staying power of Ravenna Mosaic Company as the fabricator of choice. The use of mosaic with marble columns and the change of color planes divided by diagonal lines are very reminiscent of Sheets’s work—though I find this artwork flatter, in all senses of the word, than the Sheets Studio work. (Haines’s work at UCLA, on Schoenberg Hall and the Physics Building, seems more lively and fun.)

UPDATE: Just after posting,  I have learned via John Waide and the Ravenna Mosaic archives at St. Louis University, that Sheets, Haines, and a mosaic designer listed only as DeRosen (likely Jan Henryk de Rosen) had all bid for the UCLA Music Hall job in 1954, but that Haines eventually received it.

Richard Haines, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of
Richard Haines, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA. Photo courtesy of

Beyond the design and the fabrication, the universalized themes of “Celebration of our Homeland” and “Recognition of all Foreign Lands” also contributes to that rather blah feel—perhaps a demonstration of the way, in the early 1960s, a government commission could be more limiting than work with a financial institution, despite the risk-averse and “conservative” nature of each. (For comparison, these mosaics appeared at that time at the downtown Home Savings branch—and Sheets’s tile mosaics for City Hall East are vibrant visions of a universalized theme. More on them one of these weeks.)

Richard Haines, "Celebration of Our Homeland," Los Angeles, 1963
Richard Haines, “Celebration of Our Homeland,” Los Angeles, 1963

The mosaic depicts many symbols of justice and harmony, showing two hemispheres, flowering trees, small images of animals and industry—and then collections of white-robed people, carrying gifts and tools. Though perhaps no more than one is holding an overtly religious symbol, the sense of a procession and of communal action in white robes is as evocative of a choir and a baptism as much as the Parthenon frieze or the art and architecture of the United Nations. But perhaps evocative is the key word–no explicit religious symbols, and hence no controversy?

Back next week to Sheets and Home Savings.

Millard Sheets and the Los Angeles County Seal

Millard Sheets, Los Angeles County Seal used 1957-2004.
Millard Sheets, Los Angeles County Seal used 1957-2004.

Art in public always has an edge of controversy — what gets included, and what gets left out? What gets preserved and cherished, and what gets removed, destroyed, or painted over? Add to that public sponsorship of iconic art, meant to represent a political body like the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and something is sure to burst.

Millard Sheets never shied away from public art, nor from including figures, icons, or religious symbols that he felt were appropriate to the cause. In 1953, Sheets struck a bargain with L.A. Supervisor John Anson Ford to take over the Los Angeles County Art Institute, better known as the Otis College of Art and Design.

Given Sheets’s role and his ties to the Board, perhaps it is not surprising that Kenneth Hahn, another county supervisor, chose Sheets to turn his vision into the new Los Angeles County Seal in 1957. The design represented Los Angeles with a mix of environmental, economic, and historical icons: sun, mountains, and the sea; Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees; an engineer’s triangle and caliper; a tuna for the fishing industry; oil derricks; and the “champion cow Paulette”; the San Salvador, Cabrillo‘s ship; and the Hollywood Bowl, with two stars (for motion picture and television) overhead–and a cross also there, in the sky.

Los Angeles County Seal, as revised in 2004.
Los Angeles County Seal, as revised in 2004.

In 2004, the seal received three changes: a Native American woman holding a basket replaced Pomona; the oil derricks were dropped and replaced by the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel; and the Hollywood Bowl shifted up–and lost its cross. Together, the three changes tell an interesting story about the changing self-perception of Los Angeles industry and history — but the removal of the cross (done in response with other controversies about Christian symbols on public lands, public buildings, and in official icons) angered some residents, who have, so far, lost their court cases about the change.

What would Millard Sheets have thought? In 1955, under the headline “Art Must Serve Two Masters,” Sheets wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “A good designer has always had to deal with real clients whether king, bishop, or a commercial agency, satisfy their needs and never compromise his

own aesthetic judgment,” and he praised the Board of Supervisors for giving LACAI the ability to train those artists and designers. My sense is that he would have understood that a county seal is a very political item–and so, as times changed, the decision to represent the county differently might come along, no matter what an artist had created.

Thanks to Eric John Abrahamson’s new book, Building Home: Howard F. Ahmanson and the Politics of the American Dream, out now from UC Press, for the reference to that Los Angeles Times piece. Attend a launch event for the book, and/or get your copy today!

Home Savings on the California Landscape

California Home Savings locations on the landscape, Home Savings calendar, 1978. Courtesy of George Underwood.
California Home Savings locations on the landscape, Home Savings calendar, 1978. Courtesy of George Underwood.

As the semester revs up, longer and shorter posts will be alternating here, on somewhat of a regular schedule. Today, a short one, as a postscript to recent posts on the use of maps by Home Savings to connect to customers in Illinois, Missouri, New York, and other new states with branches in the 1980s.

Here Home Savings is put on the map of California, its home state — but in a very different format. This is from a calendar, rather than a road map, and that probably helps — the size of the state and the number of branches might overwhelm the other format (though I hear one exists).

While the eastern maps emphasize the convenience along the roads, here Home Savings is represented on a natural-resources map of California–emphasizing, in an even more dramatic way, the history and rootedness Home Savings strove for.

Here it seems the savings and loans are literally as old as the hills, and as permanent on the California landscape as the Sierras, the Mojave desert, and the Central Valley. (And how great it would be if those blue regional dividing lines were rivers instead!)

More in the weeks ahead about that Home Savings shield in the bottom left corner.