Still Hip to be Blair: The Enduring Designs of Disney Artist, Mary Blair

Mary Blair, Alice in Wonderland

by Jenny Ashley. Conversations with Bob Staake, John Canemaker, Judy Stead, Jill McDonald, Amy Schimler-Safford, and Todd James Pierce.

Bold. Confident. Visionary. These three words spring to the surface when contemplating mid-century conceptual artist and illustrator, Mary Blair.
As the first woman to be hired to work in Walt Disney Studios’ male-dominated Animation Department in the 1940s, Blair maneuvered through the obstacles of what some still consider the “Disney boys’ club of design” with admirable poise and strength. Today, Blair’s enduring influence, at Disney and in many areas of design, is undeniable. With so many of contemporary designers and illustrators embracing her distinctive color palette and graphic, naïve style, it’s relevant to question where Mary Blair found her own inspiration and why her work continues to be so appealing to fans and artists—more than fifty years after much of it was created.

In 1940, when Mary Blair was recruited to work as a color stylist for Disney Studios after working for two of Hollywood’s most respected animation studios, Ub Iwerks and Harman Ising, she had already established a reputation as a talented illustrator with a brilliant take on color design. But many of Blair’s traditionally minded colleagues at Disney Studios were unimpressed, finding her modern, psychologically attuned concept art for Disney classics like Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Alice in Wonderland “too flat” for the screen. Fortunately, Blair’s modern style captured the attention of Walt Disney, who came to depend on Blair for creative advice and eventually promoted her to artistic director. Much like the heroine in a Disney movie, Mary Blair soon overcame her critics’ objections and became a dominant force at Disney Studios, elevating the company’s animated productions to a level of pure art that continues to inspire people today.

Bob Staake, author and illustrator of The Red Lemon (a clever, graphically designed book The New York Times named one of the ten best illustrated children’s books of 2006), cites Mary Blair among his many artistic influences. Staake explained that fans of his retro-inspired illustrations “get the sense from looking at my work that I ‘know’ Mary,” and he does his best to point them in her direction. In his popular Look! A Book!, a look-and-find series with interesting cutouts that help readers find hidden gems, Staake pays homage to the classic, rosy-cheeked “Mary Blair child”—innocent, oval-faced children with toddler-sized bodies that Blair made popular, most notably in her designs for the “It’s a Small World” attraction still found at Disney Parks worldwide.

For this 2011 project, Staake gave his Blair-inspired drawings a twenty-first century twist by having characters sport Mohawks and backward-facing baseball caps. Although reinterpreted for a contemporary audience, the illustrations in Look! A Book! reflect Mary Blair’s influence on Staake’s work and should inspire others to embrace aspects of her timeless style—just as the book’s creator intended.

Judy Stead, a professor who teaches a visual design class on fairytales at Winthrop, a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, supports the notion that the light-hearted, heavily stylized illustrative style used by artists like Mary Blair continues to influence a new generation of artists and designers. “There are many mid-century modern–influenced illustration styles now, and those I see credited most often are Mary Blair, and Alice and Martin Provensen” (the married team who created notable classics like The Animal Fair and The Color Kittens).

Professor Stead, like so many Blair fans, gives some of the credit for Blair’s enduring design influence to the fact that her unique color palette (often a blend of bold, vibrant colors and subdued, muddy tones) lent itself to storytelling. “She was able to use color to create mood. Her use of tertiary color and layering techniques yielded surfaces which were rich, both visually and emotionally,” Stead explained. “Blair’s simplified, stylized sinuous forms were the essence of modernism.”

Like Bob Staake, designer Jill McDonald, who creates bright and cheery collage-style textiles, wall art, and educational children’s products, also uses Mary Blair’s work as a jumping-off point for some of her work. “She and I both have that same magic and off-beat quirkiness. We’re definitely kindred spirits,” McDonald said. The designer also values Blair’s playfulness, a trait she thinks the art world sometimes lacks. “I consider myself a successful artist if I can make someone smile. And the same goes for Mary Blair; she wasn’t afraid to have fun. Just by looking at her designs, you can tell she was a warm, open, and playful person who wasn’t afraid to be herself—and that’s the best thing any artist can do.”

“Mary Blair’s sense of diversity was also very modern for her time,” said McDonald, whose geography puzzles and posters echo the cultural awareness and cheerful tone of Blair’s designs for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, for which “It’s a Small World” was initially created. However, Blair’s interest in diversity as a theme began more than twenty years prior, in 1941, when she traveled to South America with other Disney artists on a ten-week, government-sponsored goodwill trip. During the little-known excursion, which is explored thoroughly in the 2010 documentary film, El Grupo, Mary Blair fell in love with the vivacious colors, people, and music of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. Her time there not only broadened her palette but also modernized Blair’s worldview and love of other cultures, which eventually made her the perfect artist to design “It’s a Small World” two decades later.

Blair’s blend of whimsical, culturally inclusive characters and the distinctive color story used in the attraction’s design managed to touch the public on an emotional level. Even today, when one thinks of Disneyland or Disney World, the “It’s a Small World” ride comes to mind. And although it is very much a product of the mid-twentieth-century notion of what a theme park ride should entail (a slow trip in a boat with no plunging drops or frightening special effects), most first-time visitors to the Magic Kingdom still queue up to take a ride—if only to enjoy the enduring beauty of Mary Blair’s vision of a peaceful, harmonious world full of bright colors and happy, singing children.

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The naïve, graphical design style Blair used when developing projects like “It’s a Small World” was well-suited for the mix of earthy and pastille shades she discovered during her trip to South America. In addition to Blair, other graphic designers of the 1940s, like Saul Bass and Charley Harper, as well as textile designer Alexander Girard, became interested in using similar folk art–inspired techniques—reduced strokes, collage, and folkloristic elements—in their own designs. Art historians often categorize their resulting work, with its informal, childlike appeal, as being part of the naïve movement.

Infused with a positive, post-war optimism that Americans found attractive, the naïve movement also inspired the designs for practical, minimalistic objects created for the modern home, like Charles and Ray Eames’ molded plastic chairs and Eva Zeisel’s curvy kitchen pottery. For a time after World War II, it seemed that everyone—designers and public alike—craved a less-is-more aesthetic. And today, that aesthetic appears to be experiencing a renaissance.

Amy Schimler-Safford, another children’s illustrator who considers herself a fan of Mary Blair, agrees that there is a current resurgence of the naïve style first embraced during the mid-twentieth century. “That look from the 50s and 60s is really hot right now—it’s all about shape and color. It’s a little bit primitive and geometric.” Schimler-Safford, who creates a positive, natural landscape in her collage-inspired picture books and surface designs, admires Blair’s work in particular, because “she was able to minimize in a way that was very progressive for her time.”

Design experts and educators continue to debate how much of Blair’s signature style was shaped by artists within her proximity, as well as how much she influenced their work. Todd Oldham, who creates fun and funky mid-century inspired furniture, interiors, fabrics, and even a do-it-yourself craft line for Target called Kid Made Modern, gives Blair a great deal of credit. In 2011, Oldham produced a lavish monograph on one of Mary Blair’s most successful contemporaries, Alexander Girard. Oldham clearly places Girard in the context of Blair, introducing him as “the Mary Blair of textiles…both known for their folk sensibilities.”

And Todd Oldham isn’t the only one drawing parallels between Blair and Girard. In Professor Judy Stead’s fairytale course at Winthrop, she’s “very interested in getting students to make connections between the artists who learned from one another.” Stead recalled, “I had a Girard postcard on my studio wall—those painted wooden toys—and as I was preparing my Blair class, I noticed the absolute same form and color. It was a little eureka moment!”

Although it’s not exactly clear how much face-to-face contact Mary Blair and Alexander Girard had during their careers, they were certainly creating, working, and socializing only “one degree away” from each other in the 1950s and 1960s. What is obvious is that several of their designs seem like jumping-off points for one another. For example, Girard’s “Retrospective” design, created for the Herman Miller group (of which the Eames were also a part), looks nearly identical to some of Blair’s buildings in The Little Golden Book of Verses and her façade design for “It’s a Small World.” In addition, Girard’s naïve fabric design “Eden” may have inspired a strikingly similar tropical collage by Blair that graces the foyer of Roy E. Disney’s former home. Finally, Girard’s design for his famous wooden dolls was done in 1963, right around the time that Blair was working on her international representations of children for the 1964 World’s Fair.

Todd James Pierce, a researcher who has conducted countless interviews with Disney’s early animators, suggests that there may have been brief opportunities for Girard and Blair to meet professionally through certain projects, like one for Hallmark founder J.C. Hall in the late 1960s, on which Girard worked and Walt Disney was consulted. “Walt was a close friend of Hall’s,” Pierce explained. “So there could have even been a personal connection between Girard and Blair.” Ultimately, Pierce believes “a very similar type of design might have come from a common source. My gut sense: Design work in the 1950s was far more collaborative than [it is] today, especially for the studios. And so influence was probably less of an issue then [during that period] than how we see it now.”

Professor Stead supports this theory. “I think Mary Blair and her contemporaries in illustration, animation, and design were all looking at each other, learning, and making this cohesive design movement. That’s how everything new evolves, and revolves, coming around again with contemporary illustrators and animators.”

All it takes is a casual glance around any hip art gallery, home design boutique, fabric store, or the children’s section in any library or bookstore to notice Mary Blair’s enduring mark on design and illustration. With a click of a button, a post, or a “pin,” more people are encountering the buzz about this esteemed artist and designer, whether it’s to cheer on the new collection of her previously out-of-print Golden Books, to snap up Mary Blair–inspired art or textiles on sites like eBay and Etsy, or to post photos of Blair retrospectives held at museums around the world.

Author John Canemaker, whose 2003 landmark book, The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, will be re-issued in 2014, complete with color corrections and new illustrations, sums up Blair’s continuing influence and popularity. “In the decade since the book was first published, Mary Blair’s reputation has continued to grow with an international public. A much wider audience now considers her one of Walt Disney’s most recognizable, beloved, and original artists—a prolific painter, brilliant designer and colorist, who found expression in a remarkable variety of mediums, including film production designs; fine-art watercolors; prints; illustrations and advertisements; and large-scale, three-dimensional theme park attractions. Her creativity continues to fascinate young and old alike.”

Although some of Mary Blair’s most arresting concept art never made it to the screen (or in the process of being adapted to film, it lost certain key elements of her sharp, magical style), she is finally receiving the attention and admiration she deserves, especially in the last decade. Thanks to books like A Mary Blair Treasury of Golden Books and The Art and Flair of Mary Blair, as well as retrospectives dedicated to Blair, like The Walt Disney Family Museum’s exhibition, Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair, now open in San Francisco, more people will be exposed to the unforgettable work of one of the twentieth century’s most prolific and enduringly influential designers.

More about Mary Blair

To learn more about Mary Blair and see a large collection of her work, visit this website.

To discover Bob Staake’s whimsical books, visit his website.

To learn more about Judy Stead’s illustrations and her design courses, visit her website.

To be cheered up by Jill McDonald’s or Amy Schimler-Safford’s art, visit their websites.

If you’re interested in ordering the updated, enhanced version of The Art & Flair of Mary Blair by John Canemaker, look here.

To find out more about Todd Pierce’s animation research, read his Disney history blog at this website.

For details about the exhibit, Magic, Color, Flair: The World of Mary Blair, now open at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, go here.

Listen the GS Editions Radio episode at Simple Rediscovery. Click here to listen and “Rediscover the Art and Flair of Mary Blair.”

 

About the author

Jenny Ashley is a regular contributor to the Post. She has a Master’s in English and a Minor in Studio Art.

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