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Feature

S. Neil Fujita

By the Cover

Photo: Tim Hill, License: N/A

Tim Hill


Many people can name at least one or two of the painters, musicians, and architects who helped introduce modernism to America during the mid-20th century. Few can name any of the graphic designers who popularized it, made it familiar and approachable and as much a part of the average household as a toaster or vacuum cleaner. S. Neil Fujita can claim more credit on the latter score than most thanks to a string of iconic designs.

Fujita’s parents immigrated from Japan to Hawaii before their son Sadamitsu was born in 1926. Bearing the Americanized first name “Neil,” reportedly foisted on him at boarding school, he eventually moved to California to study art, but at the outbreak of World War II found himself packed off to a Japanese-American internment camp in Wyoming. Despite this indignity, Fujita joined the U.S. Army, seeing combat in a largely Japanese unit in Europe.

After the war he finished his studies in painting and drawing and met and married his wife, Aiko. Looking to support his budding family, he launched a career as a graphic designer. His bold, modernistic work at the Philadelphia ad agency N.W. Ayer and Son caught the eye of Columbia Records in New York. In 1954, he was hired to continue the work of legendary designer Alex Steinweiss and head up the design of a still relatively new way to sell music: the 12-inch long-playing record with a picture sleeve.

“We thought about what the picture was saying about the music and how we could use that to sell the record,” Fujita said in a 2007 interview with the American Institute of Graphic Arts. “And abstract art was getting popular so we used a lot more abstraction in the designs.” Dave Brubeck’s composition “Take Five” introduced “modern jazz” to millions, and Fujita introduced “Take Five” to many of those millions with his cover for Brubeck’s 1959 album Time Out, which featured his own colorful geometric abstraction. So did Charles Mingus’ 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um. Even the covers that didn’t feature Fujita’s own art bore his stamp, from the fragmented color blocks of the Jazz Messengers’ self-titled 1956 Columbia LP to the saturated reds of a blurred photograph of a wearing-sunglasses-at-night Miles Davis on the cover of the trumpeter’s 1957 ’Round About Midnight. Fujita’s job was to make this music of that moment look hip and alluring. His work succeeds at that to this day.

Tired of album covers, Fujita branched out and went into book design, where he came up with at least two other omnipresent classics: the original cover for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, with its Midwestern tan background, slightly sinister serif font, and pricking pin the color of drying blood; and the looming puppeteer’s hand and stark white-on-black type treatment for Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, a design that then wound up on the movie posters and in any number of homages/ripoffs since, as much identified with the films and the Mafia in general as Nino Rota’s theme or “an offer he can’t refuse.” While none of his subsequent designs proved quite as iconic, Fujita continued to design and teach design for decades. He died Oct. 23.

People Who Died 2010
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