To some people in the industry, Les Mason is remembered as 'the wild man' of design. The big American who liked to work hard and play hard.
But to anyone who knows anything about the business of graphic design in Australia, Les Mason is considered the father of it all; a man who has fought and worked hard to bring graphic design to the level it is today.
Before Les came to Australia, printers and agencies made the design decisions; they selected the type, the colours and paper to be used. To a large degree, today's designers and art directors have Les Mason to thank for the fact that this has now changed.
The reputation and respect he has earned in over 30 years in business in Australia is a result of his unceasing quest for artistic perfection. This is demonstrated in even the smallest details of his designs: the hours spent moving a piece of type around, pushing it this way and that, trying to find a new way of looking at things, a new shape or a new space with colour, line and form, never settling for the first idea he came up with and sometime pending a full day on a double page spread.
He has won a string of awards (internationally and within Australia) and his work has been featured in numerous annuals and publications. Several of his print pieces were selected in America in 1970 by an international panel as outstanding example of typographical design of the 20th century.
Since 1979 he has been a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI), as well as being a member of the New York Type Directors' Club, and a contributing editor of Design Journal, Korea.
Californian by birth, he worked as a seaman and ran motels, bars and a drugstore before opting for art at the age of 27. He studied at the Chouinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles, lectured by such luminaries as Hans Hofmann
(the leading figure of abstract expressionism in America). His early career was spent retouching, lettering and doing catalogue work, mastering the art of pastel rendering (the practice in those days). This solid grounding in technical skills gave him a good start in the business. That, and his desire to take risks and break new ground earned him his name.
He came to Australia in 1961, having established a growing reputation and winning awards for his work in Los Angeles with a small, energetic group called West Coast Designers. It was a toss up between New York and Australia at a time when he was becoming disenchanted with a lot of the projects he was working on (glossy brochures showing the latest war devices for big companies).
He spotted an ad in a local newspaper from USP Benson, a Melbourne agency looking for an art director. He met the late Colin Urewn from the agency in San Francisco, liked him, and decided to take the job for a year. No one there had even heard of Melbourne. They thought he was nuts to go.
UPS Benson was hectic and chaotic. Les remembers working far into the night seven days a week with 30 or 40 jobs on his desk. The staff were untrained.
Enthusiastic, yes, but not used to working the way Americans worked; if he was given a deadline, he had the jobs out before the deadline-that's the way you got business in Los Angeles.
His first big campaign which made people sit up and take notice was a series
of institutional advertisements for Shell Australia. He used unusual photography, with photographers fresh from school and employing industrial photographers to shoot people (under his direction). For the first time, he also used 18 point type for headlines for full page ads. The campaign won him awards and recognition overnight in Australia and it took out the Shell International Award for advertising from its offices around the world.
It was tough, though. Every step along the way was a battle with the production people within the agency. Typographers were unheard of. Production people set the type, ordered the typefaces and type sizes, ordered the half tone blocks and did the mock up. As anyone can imagine today, it was a nightmare. Sometimes seven or eight typefaces were used in one ad. No proofs were ever given to the art director for checking; the first he saw of it was when it appeared in the newspaper.
Les stood his ground and demanded not only a typographer, but that the production be the art director's responsibility. After 12 months he opened his own shop in Queens Road and went after business.
His fresh solutions for the few adventurous clients in the beginning led to major public companies coming to him for a new approach and the solutions are legendary: Durban's toothpaste television commercials portrayed toothpaste as the prerequisite for a good sex life; the clean, white pack for Sno Soap Powder stood out amid the typical clutter of standard brand laundry detergent soap packaging; and the informative, classically designed book on corporate identity and symbols designed for Australian Pulp and Paper
But perhaps his biggest break came when the late Mr Alan Holdsworth walked into his office and asked him to do the designing for Epicurean, a new food magazine for The Wine and Food Society of Australia. Les points out that it is rare for a designer to feel he is contributing to society, but Mr Holdsworth allowed him to do that. Not only a client, but a friend, together they produced work that was to make Les Mason an international name.
There was no money to be made from The Epicurean and the deadlines were tight, fitting in with the busy schedule of his design studio. Various other technical and financial constraints threatened to frustrate his efforts, but undaunted, he developed a level of design previously unseen in any Australian magazine.
In the mid 60s, he decided to find out how his work stood up outside Australia,
tentatively mailing off some transparencies of his work to Walter Herdeg of Graphis magazine. They were accepted, as was everything he ever sent.
Of Herdeg, Les comments: 'He was a wonderful man ... He did so much for graphic design around the world. And unlike today, he took the work at face value; you didn't have to be a promoter to get your work noticed.' (Graphis did a cover and feature article on the work of Les Mason in 1975.)
In the mid 70s, he was instrumental in forming a graphic designers' group to enhance graphic design and promote a better understanding of its benefits among clients. It didn't last. But the camaraderie and periodical get-togethers to talk design did, with Garry Emery, Brian Sadgrove, Barrie Tucker, John Nash and Robert Rosetsky being among the originals.
Prior to this period, Arthur Leydin, Frank Eidlitz and Lyn Waite all worked to similar goals: 'We are all pushing to make Melbourne a name in world design', said Les. Les used to think that corporate design and symbols were the designer's dream job. He would spend days, weeks and months developing a solution, arriving at four or five out of a possible 30 that he would present. Over the years his thinking has changed. Rather than spend hours at the drawing board, he now advocates spending more time with the company-getting a better understanding of how it works and what the management think-before sitting down to design. On reflection, he adds, 'A little more love and a little less
When he began making inroads into the design of packaging, Australia was almost exclusively exporting raw materials and semi-finished products, while importing packages made up overseas. But as the Australian economy gradually restructured itself, a closer study of marketing developed, with Australian manufacturers quickly realising the necessity of good product and package design (a shift fostered by active Government support for the Australian export industry). In many ways, the naivety of the country and many of its companies at the time was a benefit. The shape and appearance of the package wasn't subject to rigorous concepts of a research-based marketing policy. When Les was called in, he didn't have to worry about the market because the product was already established. All he had to do was clean up the look, giving the designer perhaps more freedom than is allowed today.
His small studio in South Melbourne, a terrace house that in the late sixties was a departure from the typical office block suite of rooms, became a gathering place for many in the industry. Legendary nights are remembered where
discussion revolved around design and adventurous clients.
Les was considered to be two people. A quiet, almost shy man when working on a design problem and a flamboyant, wild man when the problem was solved.
Testimony to his popularity among his colleagues was the opening night sellout
of paintings done for Epicurean at Realities Gallery in 1974, when fellow designers and artists bought almost all the pieces. He is represented in the Art
Gallery of Western Australia by a sculpture bought at this exhibition.
Today, Les Mason spends most of his non-designing time in the field of fine art, print-making and doing work on paper. He has a large studio with his own press at the back of his house overlooking flood plains and the Helena River in Western Australia. He can feel far away from it all, yet remain within reach of the designer friend he meets once a month for lunch. He travel and reads extensively and he know the history and work of artists making names in fine art as well as of fellow graphic designers around the world.
If you had to say one thing about Les Mason, it would have to be that he - to be acknowledged for hi big heart when it comes to design; for his contribution and generosity to the love that has been his life.
No one has given more or enjoyed it more.