I got a call yesterday from a good but distant friend Tania Konishi, who I’d just been talking about the night before with my wife, Susan.
There’s a saying somewhere about phone calls and bad news. But Tania caught me by surprise when told me that Keith Bright had passed away.
In 1988 advertising and design in Los Angeles were fueled by powder, liquid lunches, and type houses and printers ruled the world, Keith Bright was an island.
Keith was a giant in every sense. Over 6 feet, he towered over many, in height and width. Silk shirts unbuttoned down, gold chain, Italian loafers, black BMW 7 Series.
His design firm Bright & Associates, located in a 4 story brick firehouse near beach in Santa Monica, was on fire.
Keith was at the top. National Car Rental, The Yellow Pages, Ryder Trucks, Miller Beer, Holland Cruise Lines, and a new start-up, Nissan.
As imposing as he was, he carried himself with a carefree surfer vibe, as if he just happened to wander into a design studio as the boss of it all.
B & A was my first real job. I was fresh out of Art Center, commuting from Pasadena in a sweatbox beater, hoping around between LA studios like Vigon Seireeni and Tom Nikosey.
My best friend, Dave Chapple, invited me to interview at Bright. I was a little nervous to be hooked into a desk job. But I met Keith and he was so easy going. He called the next day and told me “Forget about Vigon, come on over to the beach.”
It was that simple. Then suddenly that electric. I got dumped into the chaotic world of a hot LA design studio. Partners, Clients, Senior Designers, Junior Designers, Account Managers, Production Department, New Guys, Hot Girls, Part Timers, Climbers, Lifers, and the King of it all, Keith.
In 1988 televisions were in tubes, phones had buttons and chords, fax machines were bleeding edge, and the music CD had just been invented.
Advertising and design was an intense hierarchy, Photographs were taken by photographers. Copy was written by copywriters. Type was set by typesetters. Printing was printed by printers, on Heidelberg presses the length of a football field.
Logos were sketched in pencil, then drawn with pen and ink onto Duralene (plastic paper) with India ink, metal straight edges, French curves and X-Acto knives.
Deals were done over lunch, or dinner, usually at the bar, with raging parties and raging hangover consequences. There was Hal’s on Abbot Kinney, West Beach Cafe in Venice, Rebecca’s at night with margaritas that made you forget your name.
Design work was done by teams of people. Senior Designers were taking a piss, and Junior designers like me, were getting pissed on. But Keith wasn’t that way.
Keith passed through the different floors, looking over shoulders, looking over designs, always talking, always engaging, commanding the scene, but also looking after us.
To me, Keith was like a Dad and the Design King rolled into one classy giant.
Every time I walked into his office or ran into him on the fire escape stairs, I was greeted with a warm smile and casual “Hey Babe.”
Ladies of the office called him a big teddy bear.
Keith was passionate about design. He cared about every moment of a project, and really like to be involved. He loved to see designs come alive, and loved giving direction, and seeing designers take the initiative and run with it.
Keith trusted people, and he gave everyone at B & A the opportunity to grow and better themselves. He could be a hardass at times, on deadline, or after a bad client meeting, but for the most part he was happiest in design.
In 1988 computers were rare. I was one of the first designers to ever attempt to work on a computer at B & A . Dave Chapple was the first.
All the senior designers would come up to me and tell me to stop wasting time on that infernal machine, But Keith encouraged me, and I think that's the sign of the true great leader he was. He let people try things out, and he was always looking forward never back. He saw that computers were the future in design.
Over the next two years, Keith rose to the highest heights, B & A grew from 25 people to 75 people. He had a rockstar studio designed in the old Eames studio at 901 Abbot Kinney, by a rockstar architect Frank Israel, and he lunched every day with his best friend Jay Chiat.
Oh and the parties, and the celebrations, it was this much about people as it was the design. Many of those times are a blur now, but they were good times, noisy, loud and happy.
In the next year it all came crashing down, there were many dark days in office when Bright & Associates shrunk from 75 people back down to 25, and I was one of the lucky ones.
Keith never lost his sense of humor or sense of self, he was just Keith. And he was always eager, and excited and pursuing the next opportunity.
Through all of this, many of us noticed that Keith’s personal life and companionship was suffering a bit, and at times he did seem lonely. For me, I could always see a certain sadness in his eyes. And many of us longed to please him and make him happy.
Bright & Associates was an exciting time for me, and Keith is what made the studio exciting. As a young punk out of Art Center, Keith gave me my first big Projects. I was starstruck working on clients like Miller Beer, Air China, Pinkerton. Keith let me design logos for companies, packaging for nationwide companies. it was thrilling to see my work get launched.
That excitement is what led me to New York City and eventually to jobs and projects with the NFL. Later, the feeling special that I alone had redesigned Radio Shack rather than the dozens of Designers at Landor (even though RadioS hack would fail the next year.)
Keith instilled confidence and pride in designers, that their design was something special. it was one of the most important things for me back then. Only later today with the design everywhere we turn our eyes, do I realize that it's not really that important. There are so many other things in life way more important.
And maybe that was part of the sadness I had for Keith in my later time at Bright, and my reasons for leaving. I had found love, with Susan, who would become my wife.
Anyway, that was then, Los Angeles in the 1988. Deborah Sussman, Scott Medick, Tommy Steele, Jay Chiat, Lee Clow, Frank Gehry, Herb Ritts, Randy Newman.
And Keith Bright.
Eventually, once I learned the computer and saw that I alone can make a logo and identity, and it didn't take 12 people, sending out for type, II left Bright, and started working by myself at my kitchen table. That was 1991, and I have been doing Verlander Design ever since.
Keith understood completely the day I walked into his office at 901.we was nothing but warm and welcoming and wished me luck. A few months later, I made Keith a B coffee table for Bright, it was one of my first pieces of furniture.
Of course these same design and art adventures are happening for all of you designers right, now or have happened in the past to, it's no different, but working for Keith Bright was my time, when everything was fresh, new, exciting, and not jaded.
And that's when somebody like Keith Bright can really be appreciated, Someone who welcomes you with a smile, gives you chances to stand up and succeed, or fail, or just learn, mostly the time to grow.
I never reached the heights of success the Keith did, or even aspire to it, after seeing the fall the studio had.
I think his singular devotion to design in a way was a wake up call to me, that I wanted something more, I wanted life outside of design. To that end I've always been a lone designer, and have never wanted a studio.
It’s easy now with the Internet, I work with clients around the world, some that I never see other than the push of a button and a file popping up somewhere in Seoul or Frankfurt.
I guess my point is that I wish for every designer to meet and be empowered by a designer like Keith. I always give time to design students that I crosse paths with to, inspire the same love for design hat Keith gave to me.
Thank you Keith.