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From my interview archive: Los Angeles graphic designer and dingbat appreciator Clive Piercy (RIP)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I started Notebook on Cities and Culture in large part as a way of understanding one city in particular: Los Angeles, to which I’d just moved a few months earlier. It went along with the practices I’d already undertaken, which included wandering around every day with a camera in hand, reading everything I could in the Los Angeles history stacks down on the bottom floor of the Central Library, and making frequent reference to Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Though forty years old at that point, Banham’s book could still point me toward some of the elements of the city that revealed its distinctive nature, Exhibit A being the dingbat.

“Normally a two-storey walk-up apartment-block developed back over the full depth of the site, built of wood and stuccoed over,” the dingbat, made of the same “materials that Rudolph Schindler and others used to build the first modern architecture in Los Angeles,” displays “simple rectangular forms and flush smooth surfaces” at the back. But out front it makes “a commercial pitch and a statement about the culture of individualism,” using a range of styles so novel and questionable Banham has to invent names on the spot: “from Tacoburger Aztec to Wavy-Line Moderne, from Cod Cape Cod to Unsupported Jaoul Vaults, from Gourmet Mansardic to Polynesian Gabled and even — in extremity — Modern Architecture.”

I read aloud Banham’s brief but astute analysis of the dingbat, “the true symptom of Los Angeles’ urban id, trying to cope with the unprecedented appearance of residential densities too high to be subsumed within the illusions of homestead living,” to open my interview with Clive Piercy, the man who wrote the book on them. Or rather, he shot the book on them: a prominent graphic designer by day, he created Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed as a work of visual art, a way of letting others see dingbats as he saw them, more than anything else. When the book came to my attention, it was already approaching the tenth anniversary of its publication: a marvelously effective excuse (or “peg,” as they say in the news industry) to invite him on the show.

My research revealed to me that, like Banham, Piercy came to Los Angeles from England, placing him in the grand tradition of Englishmen — Christopher Isherwood, David Hockney, Richard Rayner — who, each in his own way, take to the city as if born for it. He even settled in Santa Monica (his surname, he told me, was pronounced like “the Santa Monica Pier, see?“) , which at times still feels to me like an English colony, and at his design firm’s offices there, in whose pocket garden we recorded our conversation while an assistant served us tea, I felt I was in the presence, perhaps for the first time, of someone truly living their Los Angeles dream, although that dream could, by his own admission, have its nightmarish aspects.

Though it sounded as if Piercy reveled in his large, brightly colored automobiles (such as the Nash Metropolitan, which he mentioned owning in both England and America), he also had to endure a commute to Pasadena to teach at Art Center — a drive that would’ve seemed trivial in the Los Angeles of 1982 in which he arrived, where one would think nothing of “driving thirty miles to dinner.” I asked him quite a lot about that era, since I’d also found out that he created two of the images I’ve long kept in my mind as representative of it: the cover of Read My Lips, the solo album by Fee Waybill from The Tubes, and poster for Michael Mann’s Manhunter. (The latter prompted him to tell a story, before we started recording, about the time he made Mann a set of business cards. The director wanted them in the same shade of blue as his Ferrari, but he insisted that a reference photograph wouldn’t do, demanding instead that Piercy work in the presence of the car itself.)

“It was so exciting to be here in the eighties,” he said, recalling his proficiency with the “pastel colors and ripped paper” aesthetic so popular then, his early “dream job” reworking the look of Santa Monica’s Shangri-La Hotel, and the time he designed a daily newspaper supplement on the 1984 Olympics, perhaps the purest expression of the glorious 1980s Los Angeles aesthetic — which, of course, would end up as a garish, out-of-scale, pseudo-postmodernism used on every cheap street-corner mini-mall. As much as he might have been living out his own Los Angeles dream, Piercy seemed to regard the Los Angeles dream in general as long soured, since at least the days of the O.J. Simpson trial.

The old, optimistic model of Los Angeles — now represented in part by those “sad characters” the dingbats, named for the meaningless, modernity-evoking symbols mounted on their exterior walls, usually alongside names like “Sea Breeze” or “The Capri” — had ceased to function so well, but a new one hadn’t fully replaced it. It still hasn’t, although when Piercy said to me that “in five years’ time you’ll be able to come out here on the train,” he actually wasn’t optimistic enough, or not optimistic about the right things; the Expo Line’s service out to Santa Monica started two years earlier than that. But to a degree, even the most forward-thinking people who come to Los Angeles remain, psychologically, in the Los Angeles they found upon arrival, continuing to perceive the city in accordance with the bygone virtues and flaws to which they first adapted.

I could have talked with Piercy for a long, long time, much more for the hour and change we actually had on that sunny Santa Monica day back in 2013. But I’ve kept thinking back to our conversation ever since, meaning to revisit it; the news of his death yesterday, which I heard from the many tributes his former students posted to Facebook, gave me a reason to do so. I’ve often wished I could see Los Angeles as one of its expatriate Englishmen do, especially if they came in one of the eras that fascinate me, and Piercy’s 1980s-inflected view of Los Angeles will continue to influence my own. He even made sure I’d have the proper reference material, giving me a pristine copy of Pretty Vacant to replace the dilapidated one I’d brought with me. He’d scribbled on its front page before handing it to me, and only later did I have a look at what I thought would be an autograph but turned out to be a drawing, in neon green ink, of a dingbat.