Fujita, 89; Designs Defined 20th Century

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By JORDAN IKEDA

Rafu Staff Writer

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Sadamitsu Neil Fujita, a graphic designer who used aspects of abstract expressionist painting and photography to create some of the most memorable album and book covers of the 20th century, died at age 89 on Saturday, Oct. 23 in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island. The cause of death was complications of a stroke.

“He had superb taste and was one of the early art directors in the field who distinguished himself by having a rigorous design objective,” designer Milton Glaser who worked with Fujita told

S. Neil Fujita

the New York Times. “It was a kind of synthesis of Bauhaus principles and Japanese sensibility.”

Fujita was born on May 16, 1921 in Kauai, Hawaii, to Japanese immigrants. His father worked as a blacksmith on a sugar plantation. After graduating high school, Fujita moved to Los Angeles and attended Chouinard Art Institute (now known as Cal Arts) where he studied painting, design, illustration, color theory and phases of art.

While at Chouinard he married Aiko Tamaki, a fellow student. She died in 2006. He is survived by sons, Kenji of Staatsburg, N.Y., and David and Martin, both of Southold; brother, Hisao, of Hemet, Calif.; and six grandchildren.

His studies were cut short in 1942 when he and his family were relocated to Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. In 1943, he enlisted in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated unit of World War II, and saw combat in Italy and France before taking up work as a translator in the Pacific theater.

After the war, Fujita began his career as a graphic designer and got a job with N.W. Ayer in Philadelphia based not on his commercial portfolio, but because of his paintings.

“He was trained as a painter,” Neil’s eldest son Kenji, who followed in his father’s footsteps as an artist, told the Rafu Shimpo. “He was very, very good at translating the things that he had learned in art school into graphic images.”

Three years into his stay with N.W. Ayer, Fujita earned a gold medal from the Art Directors Club for designing an ad for the Container Corporation of America. This led to a phone call from

Bill Golden of Columbia Records who recommended Fujita to run the art department.

Fujita took the job at Columbia and designed album covers that combined his own influences of Paul Rand, Rufino Tomayo, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee and Georges Braque, with artwork by artists like Ben Shahn, Andy Warhol and Roy DeCarava, blended together with bold typography. His own paintings were featured on albums such as Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” and Charles Mingus’ “Mingus Ah Um.”

“[Fujita] would come in and we would listen to a piece of music and then he would say, ‘Does this photo, this picture have the same quality of music?’” said Ernie Sokolov who worked with Fujita at Columbia Records and who remained friends with him for over half a century. “He tried very carefully to relate art and music and it showed on the covers he did. It was a unique way of treating music. It’s almost visual poetry. He was really the first to do that.”

“It was an exciting time,” said Sheila Smith who worked as Fujita’s secretary when he was with Columbia. “I remember the first time Johnny Mathis came into our office. Tony Bennett. And of course Miles Davis.”

His most recognizable works include the book covers for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the album cover of “Round About Midnight” photographed by Marvin Koner that depicted the ever cool Miles Davis enveloped in red light contrasted by a starkly black background.

Other designs of Fujita’s that are still visible today include the Today Show logo, the Shubert Theaters logo and the graphic typeface for Billboard Magazine.  Fujita left Columbia briefly, returned for a few years, and left for good in 1960 to launch his own design firm, Ruder, Finn and Fujita. His clients included the FAA, Norton Simon, General Mills and General Foods.

Publishers figured prominently among Fujita’s clients. He did the cover for John Updike’s 1962 short-story collection “Pigeon Feathers” and was the mastermind behind the long hatpin with the burgundy bulb that looks like a drop of swollen blood on Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Fujita was an accomplished writer himself. In 2005, he published his autobiography, “Mouth of Reddish Water” that details his friends and experiences, loves, joys and disappointments and contains numerous family photos and images of Fujita’s designs and paintings.

But it was his book “Aim for a Job in Graphic Design/Art” that he wrote in 1968, that has come to find historical significance. “Aim” remains a relevant piece of literature not only for its intelligent commentary on what was then an emerging field, but more importantly for its perspective and forward-thinking vision of introducing the voices of women and African American designers who had been previously excluded from relevance.

“In terms of him as a man, what he stood for, I’m very proud of the commitment he made to diversity,” said Kenji. “When he worked at Ruder and Fin, he was really proud of the fact that his office was composed of people from all over the world. He really promoted diversity in his company.”

“One of his greatest strengths,” continued Kenji, “was that he was able to persevere and succeed in any environment.”

Fujita taught at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. In the mid-1990s he moved to Southold, Long Island where he lived until his death, painting and exhibiting his work locally.

This project eventually became “Seeing Is Feeling: American Faces in the North Fork,” which was exhibited at the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport in 1999. A solo show of recent paintings was held in late 2009 at the Sirens’ Song gallery in Greenport.

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