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Wednesday, May 31, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Theater series views famous graphic designers

Special to The Seattle Times

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"By Design," series about graphic design. Little Theatre, 608 19th Ave. E., at Mercer, Seattle, tonight through June 18. Information: 206-675-2055.

To the general populace, the name "Saul Bass" probably evokes the character that Kramer mistook for Salman Rushdie in an episode of "Seinfeld."

But inside Hollywood, Saul Bass is known as one of the greatest title designers in film history. It's this latter Saul Bass who is part of a three-week celebration of design in cinema, "By Design," that begins tonight at the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill.

The series starts off with the short films of husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames. Charles, born in 1907, plunged into almost every aspect of design. An advocate of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, he set up his own architecture office in 1930 and later became head of the design department at Carnbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.

He married Ray Kaiser in 1941, and during the 1940s the two became famous for their molded plywood furniture and innovative architecture. In the 1950s, they turned their attention from photography to filmmaking and created over 80 short films.

Perhaps the most famous of these, "Powers of Ten" (1968), takes us from a picnic on the shores of Lake Michigan and zooms exponentially, until, at 10 meters to the 24th power, we are at the edge of the universe, where, as the narrator says, "This emptiness is normal." The Eameses then zoom us back not only to the Lake Michigan picnic but within the body of one of the picnicgoers, revealing the universes within ourselves.

Tonight's 8 o'clock program, introduced by Susan Lally, is a design workshop that focuses on the late Charles Eames. The Eameses' films will then play by themselves, tomorrow through Sunday nights. At 8 p.m. June 7, local designers such as Greg Pecknold, Will Hyde and Terry Wakayama step forth with their own video graphic work.

More to the liking of film historians may be "Anatomy of Saul Bass" (June 8-11), which includes "Bass of Titles" (1975), and the more recent "Titles by Elaine and Saul Bass" (1999), as well as Bass' Academy Award-winning short, "Why Man Creates" (1968).

A graphic designer who worked for AT&T, Minolta and General Foods, Bass, beginning in 1954, brought zip and panache to the otherwise staid field of title design. Such directors as Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese returned to him again and again, and each time he created something artistic and new, such as the spirographics in the title sequence of "Vertigo," the jazzy body outlines of "Anatomy of a Murder," the coked-out titles speeding ahead of themselves in "GoodFellas."

Bass was also the title designer and visual consultant for "West Side Story," which, interestingly enough, inspired a Gap television commercial directed by Mike Mills, whose work highlights the third week of the series. Mills' commercials include several for Nike, and he's designed scarves and "fashion-related graphics" for Esprit and The Gap, but he's perhaps best known for his music-related work: designing album covers for such bands as Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, promo items for Beck, and directing a dozen rock videos, including Moby's "Run On" and Everything But the Girl's "Temperamental."

"eating, sleeping, waiting and praying" (1999) is Mills' short documentary on the humor and boredom of concert touring - in this case, with the French band, Air - and it will be shown along with several Mills-directed Air videos, June 14-15.

The series winds down June 16-18 with several more Mills' short films, including "Deformer," about skateboarder Ed Templeton, and "The Architecture of Reassurance," a dreamy little picture about a young girl's need to see harmony in the typically dysfunctional families of a Southern California suburb.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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