Vermont: A love Story
JIMMY iENNER, Jr.
Not long after I moved to Vermont, I began to realize what being in Vermont meant.
Not just cows and quiet, syrup and lots of trees, but an embrace of community. And accessibility. I could ask a neighbor for a jump start on my snow-covered car. I could call the Governor and ask for advice. I had a cocoon of help and support and kindness.
As we considered this series - about people who thrive, grow, and succeed in Vermont - we knew the stories are not just about business or money, but a love story. The interweaving of a person with an idea, a mission, and how Vermont plays such a vital role in the process.
Years ago, new to Vermont, I noticed a sign, “Laughing Bear Associates.” Intrigued, I climbed the slanted, narrow wooden steps in downtown Montpelier, and met one of the most creative and kind people I have ever known: A graphic designer and extraordinary creative problem solver, Mason Singer.
—Margot Zalkind Mayor
Made in Vermont. We think quality, simplicity, flannel shirts, cows, maple syrup, good people. Salt of the earth, down to home, of the land. Whether it is the food, the ice cream, snowshoes, clothing, or even rowing machines, the words Made in Vermont give us trust: it will be good and honest.
Mason Singer visually portrays what Vermont is and was. Never cute or rustic or “local-looking,” but always embodying Vermont and its charm and strength. Few graphic designers have captured an entity better than Mason. He has been creating communication for businesses and organizations for more than 40 years. His work has been an intrinsic part of the fabric of Vermont, his fingerprint everywhere in the state and beyond.
Mason has a visual voice of “what Vermont is,” in his work. When you see a piece he has designed, you just know that this organization was IN Vermont or OF Vermont. It’s like he is the poet laureate for the state, only visually. Vermont’s “Designer Laureate.”
Mason came here for college and never left. There was a vibrancy of community in the Montpelier area. Mason formed a studio, which quickly became a hub, a drop-in place, almost a salon. Gertrude Stein had the salon of artists and writers of her time, she was a catalyst, so was
Laughing Bear studio.
Of Laughing Bear, he reminisces, “The idea was that this would be an umbrella organization, not just a design studio. I wanted to help others, create a place for people to work together, to learn, support each other and grow. This fit well with the Vermont ethos and involved collaborating deeply with talented local artists, photographers, and writers. A changing cast of characters worked here over the years and a fair number went on to their own careers in graphic design.”
When Mason and I shared a studio, I never knew how many to expect when I climbed the stairs. Illustrators and their children, chefs and musicians, photographers, clients in suits and ties, and dogs! It was exhilarating.
The quirky and wonderful studio name, Laughing Bear Associates, came from a small metal typesetting piece of a sweet bear Mason had found early on, and it just sort of got used on design pieces, and used some more, and then, he had to register a company name. “Just call it ‘Laughing Bear.’ Why not? People remember it.” So he became Laughing Bear Associates.
Of those early days he says, “Many organizations were just starting, fledgling groups—the Humanities Council, Nature Conservancy, the Arts Council, they were just getting going. In my design work, it was a case of trying to build an identity for each of them.”
“We worked with small businesses, like Horn of the Moon Café, Bear Pond Books, Buch Spieler Records, many others. It was very much a community of people trying to do what they loved, what they felt was really useful and helpful within their community.”
Horn of the Moon Café
His early work for Horn of the Moon Café in Montpelier embodies his style: The restaurant became a fixture and indeed part of the identity of Montpelier. This was particularly true for a certain demographic, which might be approximately described as young people intent upon an
alternative lifestyle that emphasized healthy and locally-produced foods, a commitment to the environment, a dedication to rural roots that were actually new to many of them, and the dogged pursuit of informality.
Mason captured it all in the logo. “It was of an era,” he reflects. “Sort of funky, but not amateurish. With an intentionally hand-crafted feel to it.”
The Horn of the Moon logo became iconic.
To create it, Mason stacked the words atop each other and sketched them with a magic marker upon a white paper napkin, which allowed the ink to thicken the letters and bleed away from them. He tidied them up to ensure they were legible, and voila! — the culinary ethos that Horn of the Moon brought to Montpelier had an apt visual representation.
He reflected, “I didn’t want just a typeface or calligraphy, because Horn was a very funky place. It needed a kind of image that really represented that kind of playfulness.”
Mason said, “I always want to create something that truly shows the character of Vermont. I try to stay true to a sense of what Vermont is, not imitating urban areas, not trying to look like other design. I want to reflect values I believe in, of hard work. Much of my graphic design involved trying to fuse the ethic and texture and integrity — and even hardheadedness — of Vermont with freshly arrived energy and invention.”
His work embodies that which he holds dear about Vermont.
It’s hard to believe now, but graphic design was basically an unknown field in our state in the early ‘70s when he started, and was yet to emerge here as its own distinct craft.
He grew up with design. His father worked for a local newspaper in Rhode Island. Later his parents had a weekly newspaper. They sold that, and then his mother had a typesetting shop, working with ad agencies and designers. Mason worked with them as a child, proofreading, helping after school, and interning at local design studios. He was interested in progressive education, and that led him to Goddard.
“I eventually did design work for Goddard College -- posters, yearbooks, calendars. I was also teaching basics of design. I tried to bring an essence of Vermont into all my work: paper choice (glossy or a rough-hewn sheet), perhaps a woodcut instead of a photograph? Everything came into consideration. I’ve had people, Goddard students, years and years later, come up to me and say, ‘You know, the reason I came here was because of that catalog that you did. You really nailed it.’”
Lila and Theron
It’s hard to not peer in every corner and drawer and shelf in the studio, where current projects intermingle with samples from the printer and posters from the 80s and 90s.
Laid out on a classic old drawing table, I saw multiple variations of cover designs for Lila and Theron, a book by Vermont author Bill Schubart. Each would have been superb for the book. There were pages and pages of exquisite covers: trees, barns, houses, all different, all interpreting the story Bill beautifully created.
“Mason has worked with me on many books,” Schubart said. “He understands Vermont as a ‘state of being.’ Being a Vermont writer, almost all, not all, but almost all my books reflect some aspect of Vermont culture or the fact that I’ve lived here for 75 years. The creative process of deciding on one cover is a delicate process. I revere Mason. He is pious and funny. Ferociously intelligent, self-deprecating, no vanity. He’s a consummate designer. I would trust him with anything.”
Mason designed the logo (among other things) for the nationally-known Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont. The store is a jewel, with rambling rooms tumbling one into another, old staircases, used and new books, impressive author events, and a personality that is truly unique.
“A logo can be the most difficult piece for a designer,” Mason explains. “Clients want the logo to tell absolutely everything about the business: We sell books and dishes, and used and new books. And candles and kid’s books, and oh yes, we’re in Vermont.”
“When I worked with Barbara and Ed Morrow (the then-owners of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont) they each had very distinct ideas, they were not mutually compatible. So it was a matter of trying to thread the needle between what each of them wanted. To narrow what they wanted, I showed them posters I had designed. I said, ‘Tell me bluntly, what you like and what you don’t.’ When we got through looking at the posters, I reflected to them, ‘Everything you disliked is what you told me you wanted.’ They responded, ‘Oh, no, that’s true.’ We worked together for months. They had different ideas about what the bookstore should be, how it should grow and all of that came out in discussion. Finally, we settled on the little guy, and it was based on an English countryside look. And ended up being more about conveying adventure and not just books.”
Over the years, Laughing Bear brought another plus to the state: As more and more work came to him from out of state, he brought work to Vermont printers. Printers here in Vermont were excellent (and often less expensive than big city printers), and Mason could easily oversee the printing process (which he always does), so everyone benefitted.
“It has been a coming together of two things best described as ‘In this place, at that time,’ that made my own work possible. The singular importance of Vermont is undeniable. But it also was the energy and curiosity of us newcomers. It was a time of reinvention. Being here at that time was very formative. I know I couldn’t have done this work anywhere else. I didn’t ever want to. There was a real entrepreneurial spirit here, in the good sense of enrichment.”