John Van Hamersveld's work in progress. Photo PaintThisDesert.
Designer John van Hamersveld stood in front of his home that sits at an angle against the hills of Rancho Palos Verdes. With Sunday morning coolness he donned all black, topped off with a dapper hat. He wore his usual thick-framed glasses, custom made and named after him: The Hammer. They have the same boldness as the black lines seen in his illustrations. The black, the hat and the bold glasses are his costume, he says.
John, or JVH as he is known, is the artist and designer with whom you’re likely already familiar. He’s created work since the 1960s and inspired many of today’s contemporary street artists. Walk in the house you see an archive of work that mark design history, and the books on the shelves and architecture of his home are a clue to his influences. He digs the modernists.
Born in 1941, the child of the Sixties is a surfer-turned-Chouinard Art Institute student and best known for early landmark design that responded to cultural influences using modernist line and form. “Hard-edges...” says JVH softly, referring to the lines in the illustrations that were framed and sitting in his living room, that doubles as a studio. The prints were ready to picked up for “The Mural Show Loma” at Keller Art Gallery on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University. It's an exhibition that is a cross history of his new and old works, and being curated to be read and “posed in a different way,” says JVH. It is also a way to show how a designer from the traditional printing era is elegantly basking in a digital world.
Screen grab from a video featuring "Signs of Life" ( 2010) created by John Van Hamersveld for the Viva Vision at Las Vegas Fremont Street I YouTube
Whole JVH was commissioned a mural for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, in many ways his return to public art was kicked off in 2009 and 2010. with "Signs of Life,” the Viva Vision Light Show for the Fremont Experience in downtown Las Vegas. It featured JVH’s signs and symbolism as a moving collage of image and color backed up with a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack. The JVH public art portfolio grew from there and included the Hermosa Beach Mural Project (2015), Downtown Los Angeles 7th & Fig installation (2017), and The Vans Mural (2018) at their corporate facility. Even in static form the images are still a movement of layers in psychedelic colors that overlap and collide. These recent murals are evidence that he is still a bad boy of revamped Bauhaus with this public art that looks like it was created after he was partying with artist Ellsworth Kelly, designer Saul Bass, and theorist Marshall McLuhan in a hotel room, and tossed a television out the window as a rejected symbolism of media as message.
While JVH has adjusted to many changes throughout his career, he notes that foundation began when studying under the mid-century New York school of artists who fled to the Coast. He also saw how design was aimed for consumers to attract “Service Style Dollars” that purchased lifestyle. Then it all changed again, and he kept up. “I wanted to go over the success of two decades over art and design, plus media,” he says of the upcoming show. It is as simple as revisiting his drawing ability and design vernacular that is applied and supported with digital technology.
“I wanted the exhibit to go beyond his legacy of beach culture and 'The Endless Summer,'" says exhibition curator David Carlson. “It is valuable for students studying art and design to connect with the process of an artist.”
The style that serves his public art made a debut as a poster: “The Endless Summer.” The graphic is still his calling card. It was designed in 1964 as key art for friend Bruce Brown, a surf culture documentarian. You know the image with the film’s two surfing subjects, Mike Hynson and Robert August, as shot by JVH at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point. He took his photo and revisited it, the images were then screen-printed and titles hand lettered. Now in any exhibition or story on JVH, this poster with shadowed surfers on day-glo colors is always featured. It has been referred to as the California version of pop-art, or a cinematic throwback, but that is really the subtext. The artist gave us an image of a surfer’s crucible in waiting for a right wave.
After the poster for “The Endless Summer” was introduced it become part of surfing lore. JVH then went on to work at Capitol Records to design album covers, including the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” and The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” His is also known for the now-classic Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane Pinnacle Rock Concert posters, a look that was anti-establishment by way of corporate budgets. Jimi Hendrix was given an iconic look that was a reference to the idea that he was already recognized as an experimental rock God, a classical musician of his era. In turn, for New West Symphony, JVH turned Ludwig Van Beethoven into a long-haired rock star, a classical musician become whose locks became bolts of electricity.
For five decades John van Hamersveld has been using his mastery of hard lines for an organic connection to image and message, spiked with Surfer-Hippie cultural politics. He guided design to brand pop-culture identity to an international audience, all with a California attitude that stands at the front door greeting those who want to share the vibe.
"The Endless Summer" documentary and poster reached its 50th anniversary in 2014. The film had a limited release in 1964 before being released worldwide in 1966. Courtesy John van Hamersveld
JHV's 2005 poster for Cream. Courtesy John van Hamersveld.
John Van Hamersveld "Water Tank Mural" (2018) El Segundo, California. Courtesy the artist.
JVH influence on Shepard Fairey's early thinking about design as art began with this poster promoting Jimi Hendrix. “I think that image immediately made an impression on me...the significance of it a perfect icon really sunk in," Fairey said in a conversation with JVH. "There is no more (visual) information than necessary."
JVH influence is counted in decades. Las Vegas-based street artist YKMF paid homage to JVH in a recent reappropriation of "The Endless Summer." Courtesy of the artist.
John van Hamersveld at home, in the summer of 2018. Photo PaintThisDesert
ABOVE: Luis Varela Rico