Saul Bass Gives Ma Bell a Complete Makeover, 1969

By the late sixties, the American Bell Telephone Company, colloquially known across America as “Ma Bell,” needed some spiffing up. Perhaps a vast, long-established telephone service monopoly doesn’t spring to mind as the ideal design client, but Saul Bass, the artist behind the title sequences for films like The Man with the Golden ArmSpartacus, and Psycho, thought differently. If you recognize Bass’ name, you probably know he created the Bell logo used by the company from 1969 to its Justice Department-mandated divestiture in 1984. But the work cut out for Bass and his associates went well beyond figuring out how best to streamline and modernize an old-timey bell-in-a-circle graphic. As you can see above, they had to produce an entire half-hour film pitching their ideas for the corporation’s complete aesthetic redesign. They didn’t just make a new logo; they practically created a new world, encompassing signs, booths, vehicles, equipment, publications, uniforms, and executive cufflinks.

Bass presented all this to Bell in 1969, the year after Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 offered a vision of a near-future similarly unified by consistent, modern design. It marked the last era when you could propose such a top-down aesthetic program and not appear totalitarian — and, considering the earth-toned stylistic excesses the seventies would shortly bring, it was the last era when you would have wanted to. Viewers of certain generations will remember vividly the real-life versions of Bass’ proposed phone book, van, and hardhat designs. Other proposals seem slightly outlandish and, from the perspective of 2012, more than a little retro. Observe, for instance, the unrealized uniform designs for women working at Bell’s service centers: “More flattering than anything offered by the airlines [ … ] Ma Bell has gone Mod!” But the stock of retro-futurism has reached an all-time high in recent years, and Bass’ design work, as goofy as certain pieces of it may now seem, has retained a striking quality over the decades. He certainly impressed the right people at Bell: after the breakup, the new AT&T hired him to make them a logo of their own.

Related content:

Saul Bass’ Oscar-Winning Animated Short Ponders Why Man Creates

A Brief Visual Introduction to Saul Bass’ Celebrated Title Designs

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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  • steroids says:

    I’ve no doubt that his design work on the company’s re-branding led to it become as big as it is today.

  • alissa clough says:

    I can remember my mother allowing me to put his matchbook covers in my scrapbook (I was seven) if i wouldn’t start any fires with them. I guess I had pretty good taste, for a kid!

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