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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