Vol 1. Issue 2

John Van Hamersveld


Interview by Brendan O’Malley. Photographs by Mike Selsky

  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld
  • John Van Hamersveld

The storied career of John Van Hamersveld is encapsulated in his new book, “Fifty Years of Graphic Design” (COOLHOUS Studio). It features illustrations, graphic design work and his photography. Within the book are amusing anecdotes that range from his dealings with music executives when designing album covers, to getting stoned with Jefferson Airplane. All accompanied by his graphic works, helping to bring the collection fully to life.

In the early 1960s, while attending Art Center College of Design by night, he began his professional career as art director of Surfer magazine. It was in that role that he met Bruce Brown. By the mid-1960s, Van Hamersveld’s iconic poster for Brown’s classic surf film The Endless Summer was making the rounds and a name for John in the process.

Surf historian and author Matt Warshaw writes in his book, “Surf Movie Tonight!: Surf Movie Poster Art, 1957-2004” that “the John Van Hamersveld designed Endless Summer movie poster is the most recognizable piece of pop art this side of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can.”

Almost overnight Van Hamersveld went from student artist to a sought-after name and pointed his talents in a natural direction: creating striking concert posters for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and more. In the late 60s, John was hired as an art director for Capitol Records and in the brief time he worked there he designed dozens of famous album covers, including the Rolling Stones “Exile on Main Street,” The Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour,” The Grateful Dead “Skeletons from the Closet,” Blondie “Eat to the Beat” and “This is What You Want” by Public Image Ltd., to name a few.

Referring to Van Hamersveld‘s minimalist drawing style, contemporary poster and street artist Shepard Fairey explains, “Not only is a perfect image difficult to imagine any other way than it is, it’s impossible to forget. The term ‘instant classic’ is used far too loosely, but it does truly apply to a perfect image…when I think of Jimi Hendrix, it is John Van Hamersveld’s Hendrix Pinnacle concert poster that comes to mind. Before discovering the Hendrix Pinnacle concert poster I had never thought consciously about what constituted, or how to make, a perfect image. John’s iconic image gave me an epiphany that sharpened my focus as an artist. The Hendrix poster fits all of the aforementioned criteria. It’s an illustration with the perfect balance of designed restraint and idiosyncratic, organic style. The image also, though highly stylized, conveys the essence of Jimi Hendrix.”

Chronicle caught up with John at his Palos Verdes hilltop home located close to his childhood stomping grounds of Lunada Bay. Having returned from a recent showing, the house is full of art spanning the years of his extensive career. John, dressed in black from head to toe, sporting bold, thick-rimmed oval eyewear and a stylish felt hat almost seems to be an animated rendering from his own iconic drawing style.

So you have a new book out?

Yes, well there’s the autobiography (“My Art, My Life”) which came out in 2010 and then there is my new one “50 Years Of Graphic Design.”

I picked it up at Hennessy and Engalls – it’s a great book. I was not aware of the work you did with Jimmy Z or that you essentially brought the idea of day-glow neon to Gotcha – do you plead guilty for the day-glow neon of the early eighties?

Yeah, guilty. I’m so sorry, so sorry. The French loved it. When I left CALARTS, I was a teacher there in the early 80’s I realized that designers were no longer held
in high regard. So I decided that I would become a “design consultant.” Which meant I would go to these corporations, meet with them and influence the people at the top where there are no subordinates. That way I was just dealing with the person that had control over the whole process and we would try to figure out what worked. I brought the art and design concept and gave them conversation about it. Then they would go down and influence their departments.

At that time I was doing a second publishing of the Endless Summer movie poster. So the dayglow came to mind. I said maybe you should put these colors into your fabrics and just see what happens. It took off like crazy. Their company went from 115 million to 175 million dollars in 2 quarters.

So there you have it, design consultant.

Last time I was at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York I saw your Endless Summer poster featured as a part of their Design Collection, can you tell how it came about?

I was just starting out in my career. I was 22 and going to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena at night and had been working with Surfer Magazine as an art director for a year and a half. We started production on the poster in late 1963.

The photo was taken at Salt Creek in Dana Point. It featured the filmmaker Bruce Brown in front with a board on his head and surfers Mike Hynson, and Robert August in the background. I turned the film into a single tone line resolution which I made a big positive of and moved it over the colors which were cut paper. I did a showing at CALARTS and sold it to Bruce Brown.

Had you seen the Endless Summer before you did the poster – did anyone have any idea the movie was going to blow up the way it did?

No I had not seen the full movie – before the soundtrack was put in it was a lecture film with the Wurlitzer organ and the microphone taping the sound track as Bruce did the live narrative – like they’d been doing with surf films for the last 10 years within that era.

So the movie ran in New York and it got rave reviews. Then it was opened up to a wider audience and it became a smash hit. But the poster itself became
a separate product. The poster went out to all the colleges, bookstores and art stores where it sold

steadily for three years. It also ended up selling in the head shops. It was very popular because the colors work well under a black light. It was a black light poster sold in a dark room. So, both the movie and the poster were absolute hits.

Speaking of absolute hits, at the time you were working on the album jacket artwork for “Exile on Main Street” did you have any idea how huge that album would become?

I was with Mick Jagger and he and I collaborated on it. We didn’t know… no one really knew. The album was called “Exile” at first. One day when we were in Hollywood working on it and the famous filmmaker and photographer Robert Frank comes into the living room out of the blue. I knew his work and thought it was very hip. I said to Mick, let’s use him for the album. So Mick and Robert arranged this meeting on Main Street in downtown (Los Angeles). He took pictures of them there – and the photos appear on the back of the album which was then renamed “Exile on Main Street”.

As a kid I was fascinated with the “Exile on Main Street” album jacket art. Could you tell me a little more about how it came to be?

So (picking up his book) here is the cover of “Exile on Main Street.” And there is the crazy guy with 3 eggs in his mouth. He was a sideshow freak. It was a photograph that Robert Frank had taken in the 50s when he was traveling across the US doing the photo book called “The Americans”. The photos used on the albums front cover were ones that did not make his book. Frank had taken a photo of this collage that was on the wall of a tattoo parlor. The photos that didn’t make the book were from the 1930s and the artist that made the collage was a tattoo shop owner in the Midwest. Frank took a picture of the tattoo shop collage.

We were trying to design something beatnik, not the typical Hollywood shiny photos, glamorous look of album art at the time. Jagger had given us the ok to go in this scruffier direction.

Of course Robert Frank was the official beatnik you know, a friend of Kerouac’s who lived in the Bowery with Ginsberg and Willem de Kooning. So Mick, Robert and I collaborated and these collages were created with Robert’s artifact photos. Then we took it further by putting tape on it and making it more organic. Normally something like this would not make it through the record company executives but this was seen as an art piece and it went to print.

And you did album jacket art for the Beatles “Magical Mystery Tour” as well?

I worked as the art director for the vice-president of Capital Records, Brown Meggs. He hired me as his personal art director. I worked on his jobs, his projects. He had signed the Beatles to the label in 1963. In 1967 I was called in, it was early June, Brian Epstein had just committed suicide. So the Beatles no longer had management at that point – they usually provided the art. We only had a photograph for the LP of the Magical Mystery Tour. So I had to take that home and I redo it and re-present it to Capital. Brown liked it and we didn’t have to go any further, it went out and was printed and I had the American cover of Magical Mystery Tour.

The Jimi Hendrix Pinnacle concert poster is considered one of the finest examples of a rock concert posters ever made and has been praised by some of today’s most prominent graphic/pop artists – can you give us a little background?

Well the drawing was done in ’67 and the poster was done in ‘68. I know Shepard Fairy feels that this is my graphical tour de force and that it has had a big influence on his work.

I started drawing from the image in my mind as a classical portrait. Like the bust you see of Beethoven or Mozart but the ascot was not inspired by them as much as it was by Eric Clapton and Cream, who Hendrix admired for their music and fashion. The wired hair, styled in his fashionable coiffure from London also was from Cream. Using a Japanese Pentel art pen I just sat down and drew it freehand. I did not go back and correct it. That’s the drawing. It just kind of popped in one great moment.

My partners had booked Jimi Hendrix and the experience for the Pinnacle event at the Shrine Auditorium. The drawing was incorporated into the existing design of a Shrine Exposition Hall event to promote the now famous February show. The poster was distributed locally and then nationally, and later worldwide.

Do you feel that you helped pave the way for pop artists today, perhaps made them more readily accepted by the general populous?

Well I am a pop artist and had my influence come from what was around me. Now we live in a world with Google, a referential world. No one can discuss anything at length without having a quick reference point in order to understand where you’re coming from. Nowadays you have to have a reference in order get someone’s attention. The media likes you to keep it simple and sum what you do up in a nice sound bite. So what artists do today is similar to what were doing back then; self-promotion through the public space. It could be on the side of a building or a t-shirt. It’s their way of advertising. They are branding themselves as the product. The graffiti art is a form of public space advertising. So Shepherd Fairey has his OBEY clothing line. That’s his retail arm. He generates money from that so he can spend the rest of the time doing his art and continually promoting the brand. But it’s the retail product that carries him.

Is self-promotion a part of the art form?

Well, I was sitting with Andy Warhol’s manager one Thanksgiving and he was saying that Andy was doing these paintings hand over fist, earning way more money than he ever had in the film business. It was because he was making and promoting an art product.

Even though Andy was a contemporary did he influence you?

getting tons of media attention. At the time abstract expressionist as an art form was going away. What Andy did was to take an American (retail) product and turn it into an art product. It completely changes everything. We all see that and realize we have to do something like that. That’s why I created Pinnacle which has its own posters and rock shows and sold tickets.

So there was always business acumen to the creation of your art?

Well, we were all hanging out at the studio with nothing. Standing at an easel hoping you can make
a painting that’s worth something… but it is so competitive. It’s not retail. It’s for your own satisfaction. It’s not the real world. You are still at art school. You open that door and go out into the real world and work for corporations making your pop art as album covers and poster.

Streamlined through all of this was the Endless Summer poster making its way perfectly through the years as a pop art image.

Did you ever imagine that the Endless Summer poster would sail through the decades as the most iconic surf movie poster – or perhaps one of the most iconic movie posters ever?

When I was working on it I didn’t know, I had no idea. It was made to sell a product, the movie. At some point it separates from this product and starts being sold as a product unto itself. So it was sold with movie posters at trade shows and then it takes off because it becomes not just a nostalgia attached to a movie, it became pop art. It found its own world.

In a way it was emblematic of Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans.

Yeah exactly, or like Ed Ruscha’s Standard Gas Station. It was just one of those icons of its time that gives a narrative to what was going on around it.

So you grew up in Southern California in Palos Verdes?

Yes, I grew up in PV – Lunada Bay. Within the surf community it has a reputation for hostile locals but that didn’t really happen till the 90s – long after my days as a surfer. You know when you don’t surf you become out of touch with all that.

Can you give us some of your biographical background as an artist?

Well, I am a multi-disciplined artist who draws, is a photographer and combines this with graphic design. I went to California Institute of the Arts (CALARTS) and was an abstract expressionist painter and started to take photography and film classes. These classes made the new world of artistic expression that Warhol was opening up. I had met Andy on numerous occasions and with him it wasn’t just painting or graphics it was a whole world as a visual image that you could edit your way through.

Fine artists sometimes have a difficult time understanding that I draw but really I’m a painter in a digital realm. My drawings are manipulated digitally – that’s the canvas nowadays.

Among the many hats you’ve worn over the years you also managed to give back to the art community by being a teacher?

I taught at CALARTS for seven years. It was like being a TV star in that you had to entertain twenty students for four hours. As a teacher you have to put yourself out there – field questions and be present to the lesson at hand. It was nerve wracking. I used to sweat buckets under my jacket. I would be exhausted at the end of the week. Art is a lot more difficult to talk about than produce.

So you are saying that teaching students whom were no doubt in awe of you was more nerve wracking than designing jacket art for some of the greatest albums ever made (“Exile On Main Street” and “Magical Mystery Tour”) by two of the greatest bands in the history?

I was prepared for that from art school. You always had the pressure of an unfinished project with a deadline. You got used to doing whatever was necessary. You know, working all night to get the project on the board by 9 am. In art school if you missed three project deadlines in a year you got kicked out. You had to have discipline. It was kind of like the Army in that you had to be organized and self-sufficient. You got used to the pressure and working under pressure so it became what was familiar.

Also, musicians have always held great respect for artists. These bands started in art school – the Beatles and the Stones came out of art school. Along with that I had the surfer artist thing going for me. That meant I was hip. At that time in life I was hip and people wanted to get involved with what I was doing. So I was good and lucky at the right time.

After fifty years you are still going strong. Any insight on how to prepare for creative projects with deadlines?

Well you can go to Buddha, which helps me at least. Years of psychotherapy. I do breathing techniques that focus my thoughts on what’s in front of me. I have learned over the years that being comfortable with being uncomfortable is a necessity. Enjoy the process. If you get hung up on what is not being created it makes the journey a lot longer and usually not as fruitful.

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