John Van Hamersveld with artwork from his 2017 installation Signs of Life. Image courtesy of the artist.

alumni, visual-arts
Writer: Solvej Schou
February 15, 2017

Man of a Thousand (Johnny) Faces:
John Van Hamersveld on his 50-year Career

Inside his hillside home in Rancho Palos Verdes, with huge glass windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where he surfed as a teenager, Advertising alumnus John Van Hamersveld smiles when waxing poetic on his more than 50-year career.

Van Hamersveld, wearing his trademark fedora and round glasses, has created some of the most iconic pop images in history. His early work ranges from 1967’s psychedelic Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album cover and 1972’s Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. album cover to 1968’s Pinnacle concert poster of Jimi Hendrix with electric guitar-inspired lightning bolt hair. His poster for Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing film The Endless Summer—the black silhouettes of Brown and two other surfers set against solid-toned Day-Glo pink, orange and yellow—is classic.

“The poster became a symbol of a culture, of youth. Surfers are beatniks,” said 75-year-old Van Hamersveld, who created the poster while both a student at ArtCenter and art director for Surfer magazine. He channeled modernist techniques from classes with instructors George Harris and Bernyce Polifka.

Diagnosed dyslexic as a child, Van Hamersveld first poured himself into drawing in his artist mother’s studio, which became his bedroom studio, at age 13. He soaked up industrial design discipline from his father, an aeronautical engineer. Years of studying psychology and the unconscious have also informed his vibrant work.

“Color is like a sound. It’s emotional. I use very loud colors, different than the corporate space, where it’s all grays, somber, subtle, restrained,” he said. “With all that color, everyone takes notice.”

Take notice is right.

His popular 1970 cartoon poster Johnny Face—a grinning face with wild eyes that a radio station later splashed across 224 billboards in Los Angeles and Orange County—represents “the end of the ‘60s era,” Van Hamersveld said. An enormous mural of a javelin-throwing man for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles highlighted his ‘80s forays into corporate graphic design, teaching and large-scale art. Learning from graphic designer and friend Saul Bass in the ‘90s, he shifted his career and designed the restaurant chain Fatburger’s diamond-and-circle logo and sign.

Returning to his rock roots more than 20 years since drawing his last concert posters and record covers, Van Hamersveld created the swirling 2005 reunion poster for Cream. He launched the business Post-Future with his wife Alida Post, selling prints of his past posters, and also reworking them.

His more recent public art works include his 2009 Fremont Street Experience LED installation and exhibit in Las Vegas, his 2015 Hermosa Beach mural paying homage to surfing (printed digitally on vinyl), and an eclectically colorful Signs of Life multi-site art installation in downtown L.A. that debuted Feb. 10. A documentary on him is also in the works.

For Hamersveld, the analog past, the present and digital future are intertwined.

“My work is now embedded in the web,” said Van Hamersveld. “With Google, all of my material—between writing and pictures and stories—can be accessed very simply from any place, any device, in the world.”

John Van Hamersveld, in his own words, on his work
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