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From California
to Victoria: Les
Mason’s Early Years









Born in Fowler, California in 1924,
Les Mason
dabbled in an eclectic array of professions before turning to graphic design, including working as a seaman, and running motels, bars, and a drugstore. At 27, he decided to study painting and interior design at the
Chouinard Art Institute
in Los Angeles in the mid 1950s. Alumni of this notable art school include Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, all of whom studied around the same time as Mason. One of Mason’s lecturers was Hans Hofmann, a key figure in abstract expressionism. During Mason’s time as a student and recent graduate, the California Modern Art movement was flourishing. Artists congregated in Los Angeles, embracing an experimental and eclectic approach to making work. The
California Cool School,
a group of artists centered around the now infamous 
Ferus Gallery,
gained mythical status for their love of surfing, partying, women, and progressive art. The influence of such artists, along with other Modern Art heavyweights like Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius, architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, and Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, is prevalent across Les Mason’s methods and works.



Following his fine art training, Les worked in advertising and was a member of the small design agency West Coast Designers, while continuing to paint after hours and attend lectures by influential designers such as Saul Bass. In American graphic design, heavyweights like Bass in Los Angeles, and Paul Rand and Herb Lubalin in New York were making waves with their sophisticated designs that pushed the boundaries of type and form, with strong influences rooted in Bauhaus philosophy. In particular, Bauhaus principles for applying
colour,
type
and
shape
as a unified form had a strong impact on American graphic design, as Les recalled:

When I left Los Angeles in 1961 we were starting to see some pretty good American designers happening, but they had come from Europe and had been grounded in the Bauhaus philosophy… The effects of the Bauhaus were very strong on design in the United States and in Europe, knowing how to break the rules.








Following a brief period of design work in Los Angeles, Mason left California in 1961 and relocated to Melbourne, taking with him his strong understanding and appreciation for Bauhaus and Swiss design philosophy. He accepted a position as art director at the advertising agency USP Benson, where his work, including his award winning designs for Shell, utilised an experimental approach to typography and integration of colour and form, not commonly seen in advertising in Australia. Other work created at USP Benson such as advertising for
Canon Electric
shows playful integration of typgraphy and illustration, a feature that became prominent throughout much of Les’ career.



After a brief stint at USP Benson, Mason ventured out on his own, and in 1962, set up his own independent studio, Les Mason Graphic Design. From here, Mason’s work flourished and the design studio quickly garnered an impressive roster of clients. Some of the earliest work from this period of Mason’s career includes a 1963 invitation for the
Art Director’s Club of Melbourne
in which striking use of colour, contrast and integration of whimsical typography, image and pattern feature prominently. His sophisticated knowledge of design’s merging of form, type and colour to communicate messages only strengthens as his career progresses, seen in groundbreaking work for
Epicurean
and
the Salvation Army
explored in detail in other parts of this virtual showing.


Images:
1.   Les Mason, Photographer: Csaba Banki, c. 1960s 
2.   Chouinard Art Institute, 741 S, Grand View, Los Angeles, c. 1930
3.   Members of the California Cool School, c. 1960s 
4.   Hal Glicksman, Poster for exhibition at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1964
5.   Les Mason, Brochure advertising State Bankcard, c. 1974
6.   Les Mason, Poster for JobMate, date unknown
7.   Les Mason, Brochure for State Bank Savings, c. 1974
8.   Les Mason, Advertisement for Cannon Electric, c. 1961
9.   Les Mason, Invitation for the Art Director's Club of Melbourne, c. 1963
10. Les Mason, Epicurean No. 44, August–September 1973
11. Les Mason, advertisement for the Salvation Army, c. 1976